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The Lyrics Of Syd Barrett - book review Print E-mail
Written by Dr Kevin De Ornellas   
Wednesday, 30 June 2021

The Lyrics of Syd Barrett - new bookPublished by Omnibus Books in February in Europe, and May in North America, is The Lyrics of Syd Barrett. Featuring 52 songs and a foreword by Pink Floyd's first manager, Peter Jenner, and an introduction by Rob Chapman (author of Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head), this beautifully illustrated and official 96-page book compiles Syd's extraordinary lyrics together for the very first time. David Gilmour has been a key person behind this book, working his way through Syd lyrics checking them for accuracy before the book went to the printers.

A good friend of Brain Damage is Dr Kevin De Ornellas, a Lecturer in English Literature at Ulster University, and he has taken a detailed look at this new book...

In an era of gargantuan coffee-table books, bloated CD and DVD box sets and cumbersome multi-disc vinyl re-releases, it is it refreshing to enjoy a relatively simple and affordable artefact: a small, easily handled book. This book, an apparently official provision of what is claimed to be Syd Barrett's complete lyrics, is beautifully designed by Lora Findlay. It comes in a tactile, attractive cloth cover: on the front, a well-known Michael Ochs portrait of Syd Barrett is encased within an elaborate psychedelic border that is tasteful because it is all done with only two colours – white and a sort of mauve-lilac colour. The endpapers are particularly lovely – they feature repeated, wallpaper-like reproductions of Syd Barrett's renowned Tortoise. Half of the tortoises have the head facing upwards – the other half are rotated 180 degrees. There are 168 tortoises in total. It is both a bit whacky and a bit poignant – and very much in the spirit of Barrett’s later music. A fuller, page-high reproduction of Barrett’s original, subtly-coloured 1963 Tortoise work is provided inside (page 18).

The book is petite and thin but the high-quality cloth, the firm binding and the crisp texture of the pages makes the book feel sturdy: it is a keeper that will weather well. The lyrics are all laid out in a clear, readable font on either one or two self-contained pages and there are many splendid illustrations and photographs: if I counted correctly there are 18 monochrome images and 8 colour ones. Every one is reproduced perfectly: most feature posed or in-performance photographs of Syd Barrett with or without Pink Floyd; some reproduce Barrett's art works. It might have been better to have more of Barrett's art and less of Rick Wright's cigarette and less of Roger Waters' understated scowl. But the text of the book is what matters – here, there is much promise but the odd problem too.

The "Foreword" is by Peter Jenner. It is a touching but slightly odd piece. Jenner makes some fairly ridiculous claims about Barrett's influence, asserting that "Without the Floyd there may never have been hip-hop, concept albums, electronica or computer/synthesiser-driven pop/dance music" (p. 7). Pink Floyd’s perennial unhipness notwithstanding, many of those things were happening long before Syd Barrett’s first forays into Abbey Road. Jenner is on firmer ground when he writes about Barrett’s passion for all sorts of art and pop music and, more personally, about how certain London streets and buildings remind him of the time spent with Barrett – five decades can pass quickly. There is, then, an "Introduction" by Rob Chapman. Chapman wrote the most literate and most detailed study of Barrett's career and songwriting to date – 2010's Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head. This "Introduction" is essentially a very truncated version of that book – but it is not quite as good. Certainly, the wide range of Barrett's influences and the deceptive organisation of his seemingly disorganised verse are both accounted for very well – readers of the 2010 book will be aware already of Chapman's masterful explanation of Barrett's use of assonance, ellipsis, elision, jump cut and truncation etc. and of his useful outlining of Barrett's catholic range of inspirational source material – Belloc, Carroll, Longfellow, Nashe and Shakespeare etc. Chapman sensitively notes Barrett's still-refreshing lack of self-aggrandising machismo in his lyrics and, a trifle more sadly, his sense of the hollowness of persona – a trait that Chapman rightly sees in songs as diverse as "Bob Dylan Blues" and "Vegetable Man". But Chapman gets a few things wrong: The Early Years 1965-1972 box set was not released in 2011 (p. 11) and it is odd that a writer of Chapman's ability would assert that anything is "utterly unique" (p. 16). Those things could be easily fixed for future editions of this book.

After the interventions by Jenner and Chapman we get the real meat of the book: the lyrics to 52 songs. The Barrett canon by any standards is a wonderful, idiosyncratic, endlessly surprising oeuvre. There is no effort to date the lyrics – that is a sensible decision because pinpointing the songs' dates of composition can be very difficult if not impossible. The decision to present them alphabetically is a good one: not least because it ensures that there is no hierarchy – in other words, there is no sense that a B-Side is less important than an A-Side or that an outtake released years later on Opel is less important than a Pink Floyd album track. The lyrics run from "Apples and Oranges" to "Word Song". If you are reading this review you probably know most of the lyrics so I will not analyse them in detail. But the first and last songs are worthy of lengthy comment in themselves. On record, "Apples and Oranges" seems jaunty and fun, upbeat and optimistic (albeit basically tuneless). But on the page, shorn of wonky guitar, quacking effects and screeching feedback it seems more bleak – stand-out phrases include "trips up", "She's on her own" and "afternoon tide" (p. 26). It has been suggested that there is an element of social realism in those lyrics because "She" – whoever "She" is - does prosaic things like go to the butchers and the bakers and gets "everything she wants from the supermarket". It is not social realism at all – in a kitchen-sink, social realist novel or film of the 1960s "She" wouldn't be able to afford "everything she wants". Bourgeois from birth to death, Barrett was never a man of the people – nor did he claim to be. "Word Song" is the last lyric: it is a fabulously provocative lyric in that it demonstrates a pugilistic refusal to concede to any Western notions about artistic narrative or coherence. The words are reproduced accurately except, possibly, in one case – "Ireland" is claimed to be one of the 12-dozen or so seemingly random words expressed (p. 95). I'm not convinced – it sounds like "island" to me. If Barrett does say "Ireland" then it is the only proper noun in the song. It would make no sense for Barrett to mention "Ireland" – but then conventional sense and Barrett are irregular bedfellows.

Attractive and inspiring as this presentation of Barrett's lyrics is, there are quite a few problems and loose ends. There are some omissions – some of which are understandable. Some will be disappointed that the lyrics to "Golden Hair" and "I'm a King Bee" are absent – the words to both songs, of course, were not written by Barrett but they clearly meant a great deal to him and could have been included. It might have been a bit ludicrous to have a page with the phrase "Have you got it yet?" typed out repeatedly – but it might have been fun too. More puzzling is the omission of "Remember Me" – one of several songs recorded by Pink Floyd in a Bob Klose-era session. The other songs from that session that are credited to Barrett on official releases ("Lucy Leave", "Double O Bo" and "Butterfly") are accounted for so where is "Remember Me"? "Matilda Mother" is inadequately represented – the lyrics to the version of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn are perfectly transcribed – but the alternative verses as found on later archive releases are not mentioned let alone reproduced. "Two of a Kind" is presented unproblematically as a Barrett original. It has long been rumoured that those lyrics were actually written by Rick Wright – Wright himself didn't know if that was true or not and we'll probably never know for sure but the compilers of this book clearly are untroubled by this curious problem.

There are only two footnotes in the whole lyric section – that is probably for the best, as it is better to let readers navigate their way through Barrett's eclectic allusions and freeform imagery themselves. A footnote is provided for what I have always known as "Opel". The compilers rename the song "Opal", explaining that the original tape box and subsequent LP spelling of "Opel" was a mistake (p. 77). I’m not sure that the correction was necessary or desirable – after all the word does not appear in the song's lyrics so why tinker with the historical quirk? It makes no material difference. The other footnote is an interesting one – it concerns David Gilmour's assertion that Barrett sings "madcap" three times and "mad cat" three times on "Octopus" (p. 75). Gilmour may be right but that brings me to a perplexing point. It seems that Gilmour spent dozens of hours listening to isolated vocal tracks so that he could determine what Barrett's sometimes mumbled lyrics actually are. An unenviable task indeed. But aside from this footnote and a 'thank you' after the frontispiece Gilmour's work is not mentioned. If Gilmour did as much work on this as has been claimed shouldn't he be credited as an editor and/or a compiler of this book? Or at least of the lyrics section? It concerns me that no particular writer or editor seems to be in charge of the presentation of the lyrics – it is an aptly Floydian absence but it means that nobody seems to be immediately accountable for the errors and omissions and also that nobody is quite getting the credit that they deserve for the good work that has been done here. And although the book clearly needs revisions for subsequent editions good work has been done. There have been too many books about Syd Barrett. Most are inessential. Some are essential: Chapman's aforementioned 2010 study is seminal as is the still-readable 1991 book by Mike Watkinson and Pete Anderson, Crazy Diamond. David Parker's 2001 survey of Barrett's recording career, Random Precision, is dated but is still oddly compelling and the 'official' survey of Barrett’s life and career, 2011's Definitive Visual Companion, is over-reverent but comprehensive and lavish. This book joins those books in the essential category – it is not perfect and it must be revised and improved for future editions but it will do for now.


Our grateful thanks to Kevin for this excellent, considered review. For those who would like to add this to their Floydian bookshelves, you can order it through the following direct links. Ordering through our links also helps with BD's ongoing running costs, and we really appreciate it: Amazon UK, Amazon.com, Amazon Canada, Amazon France, Amazon Germany, Amazon Spain and Amazon Italy.

 
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