A MENTAL FOIBLE

It’s an album that looks both forward and backwards yet is entirely of its time.

Infused with a spirit of exploration, it manages to sound uncertain and confused.

A new player is feeling his way while the ghost of a departed leader haunts every groove.

Flashback…

Pink Floyd manager Peter Jenner was convinced Syd Barrett was the core, the creative heart of the band. But by late 1967 even he could see Barrett was struggling, not just with playing music, but with life as we know it. Where was the follow-up to their successful debut album going to come from?  And just as importantly, how could the live shows be improved? Trippy and meandering was one thing, totally shambolic another.

They’d go on stage and they wouldn’t know what songs he’d play. And you just didn’t know where he was going to go with a song… He might just play the same song for forty minutes—and the same note all the way through it. They’d have to keep waffling away while he’d play the same note, boing… boing… boing… boing… for ages and ages. As it became obvious that he was deeply disturbed, we had to accept that we couldn’t reasonably expect the others to go on working with him as before. [Schaffner, p.103]

The story goes that Nick Mason secretly gave the heads up to David Gilmour after another chaotic gig. “Would you be interested…”

Pink Floyd 5 piece

The 5 piece line-up [Photographer unknown. Please advise if you have info]

Jenner, meanwhile, was insistent Barrett still had much to offer. A kind of Brian Wilson/Beach Boys scenario was proposed where Syd stayed home and wrote songs while the band played live. And it was indeed while en route to a gig at Southampton University in late January 1968 that the three founding members and new addition David Gilmour decided to simply not pick Syd up.

“Somebody said, ‘Shall we collect Syd?’” remembered Gilmour. “And somebody, probably Roger, said, ‘No, let’s not bother.’” [Blake, p.112]

Despite being casually left out, Syd continued to spasmodically turn up to gigs, sometimes to the discomfort of David Gilmour. The guitarist was clear in his own mind that Syd was not right in his. As he told NME in 1974,

It wasn’t just the drugs—we’d both done acid before the Floyd thing—it’s just a mental foible which grew out of all proportion… We all felt he should have gone to see a psychiatrist, though someone in fact played an interview he did to R.D. Laing, and Laing claimed he was incurable. [Schaffner, p. 105]

Another story has it that an appointment was actually booked with the famous psychiatrist but that when the taxi arrived to take Syd, he simply refused.

With EMI getting impatient for another record and the ‘new’ quartet clear that they would carry on without their founder, an announcement was made to the press on 6th April 1968 that Barrett and Pink Floyd had parted company.

Pink Floyd - Saucerful of Secrets LP

Yet Syd does have a presence on the album that would eventually be named A Saucerful of Secrets. Unreliable memories have him playing guitar on several songs; what is clear is that the band ceded the last word to their crazy diamond on the LP’s final track, “Jugband Blues”.

Given the back story, it was (and remains) a haunting close.

It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here

And I’m much obliged to you for making it clear

That I’m not here.

And I never knew the moon could be so big

And I never knew the moon could be so blue

And I’m grateful that you threw away my old shoes

And brought me here instead dressed in red

And I’m wondering who could be writing this song.

I don’t care if the sun don’t shine

And I don’t care if nothing is mine

And I don’t care if I’m nervous with you

I’ll do my loving in the winter.

 

And the sea isn’t green

And I love the queen

And what exactly is a dream

And what exactly is a joke

IMG_5340

Back at the beginning of side one, A Saucerful of Secrets opens with Roger Waters “Let there be more light”. A spacey, churning instrumental beginning morphs into a psychedelic sixties sound that certainly captures the essence of the band at the time; ethereal, somewhat ominous, teetering on the edge of formlessness.

“Remember a day” is a Richard Wright song that he does not remember with kindness. “I cringe at some of my songs” he said of this one. But that’s a little harsh. Anyone who is a fan of the rather wonderful psychedelic Stones album of the previous year (“Dandelion”, in particular) will enjoy “Remember a day”.

But if Floyd fans single out A Saucerful of Secrets for anything, it’s the long, exploratory songs “Set the controls for the heart of the sun” and the title track. The first of these was played regularly and lengthily in concert, while the latter was assembled in the studio—an important development for a band who would become more and more studio-orientated in the next decade. I still find the chord progression of the final section quite moving.

Elsewhere, Waters obsession with war and the military finds its first expression in the ghastly “Corporal Clegg” with its ridiculous kazoo break and knees-up finale while Wright’s other contribution, “See Saw” is forgettable. Apparently its working title was “The most boring song I’ve ever heard bar two” [Schaffner, p.126].

Then we are back to “Jugband blues” again, closing out an album that is transitional yet interesting. As to what is a dream and what, exactly, is a joke, in the end each listener must decide.

Pink Floyd 1968

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

REFERENCES

Schaffner, Nicholas (1991) Saucerful Of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Story. Sidgwick & Jackson, London.

Blake, Mark (2007) Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd. Aurum Press, London.

49 comments

  1. Nice concise read as to what became of Syd, who of course haunted the band’s work until Roger fired Rick. Wish he were here

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers Doug. They were never an harmonious outfit, were they?

      Like

  2. Oh, so glad to see it here! One of their best albums – charming and adventurous. Cover artwork is one of my favourites of all time – it reflects the music and the moment in history perfectly.
    Arterrorist

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True! The cover is one of my favourites from the sixties too. 😊

      Like

  3. It’s hard to picture a kazoo break in a song being anything but ridiculous!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is an instrument essentially lacking in gravitas, isn’t it Geoff?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have an electronic score of Michael Jackson’s Beat It which features a kazoo. There are 15 bars of kazoo in a total of 146 and the notes are so low that no human kazoo player could ever voice them. I can’t decide if this mean the kazoo can have gravitas or just that Beat It is superficial fluff.

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    2. *coughs* I, eh, once threw a double kazoo solo in a song *coughs*

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Ha! Twin kazoos? Goodness. Did you use wah-wah or other effects, or was it pure duelling kazoos?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. No effects, no… I’m a kazoo purist. Just straight ahead kazooing. I may even have a recording of it somewhere!!

          Liked by 3 people

        2. Hope to come across this in a post sometime…. 🙂

          Liked by 2 people

        3. Well, you never know! I have some 20 year old gig footage in my possession!

          Liked by 2 people

        4. It’s time to bring it to the masses. 🙂

          Liked by 2 people

        5. Haha! We’ll see… it’s pretty, eh, scrappy.

          Liked by 2 people

      2. I’ve heard of guitarmonies, but kazoo-monies may become the next big thing!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I honestly don’t know why all bands aren’t into kazoomonies, Geoff.

          Liked by 2 people

        2. Aren’t into them…yet, perhaps you were a trail blazer/early adopter of an eventual phenomenon!

          Liked by 1 person

  4. This was my introduction to Pink Floyd. I still remember the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hope the memories evoked are pleasant, Neil.

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  5. “A Saucerful Of Secrets” was the album that gave direction for Pink Floyd over the next few years. Epos instead of short story, long camera pan instead fast cut.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To these ears it certainly shows them reaching for new directions – away from Syd’s skewed 60s psychedelia towards something different. Still a way to go, of course.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I haven’t heard this one. But I have a strange relationship with Pink Floyd and I kinda feel uneasy about the way Syd was ousted and I guess maybe I just don’t dig them as much as folks say I should and that frustrates me. I go through spells of listening to them and thinking “this is amazing” and then, just days, weeks and months later I just don’t know what I enjoyed about them. I love the guitar and the musicianship, but sometimes, to recycle a line I’ve used a few times, I admire it more than enjoy it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And that ambivalence seems quite appropriate to this second, transitional effort. Some day I’ll write about Meddle and try to excite you J (even if briefly).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I do like to be briefly excited. I’m afraid my circuitry can’t handle any kind of long term excitement.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Syd was one of those tragic stories of classic rock. It does make me feel uncomfortable how the band treated him and kind of used him as inspiration for songs. It feels like he basically died in the 70s because he wasn’t the same when he left the music scene. One of the most heartbreaking things I read about Syd was when he showed up to Abbey Road studios in 1975 looking… not like himself and then all those stories about his behaviour at his home in Cambridge. In a way, I understand why he never spoke about his time in Pink Floyd.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Certainly one of the sadder casualties of the combination of incipient mental illness and mind-altering substances. Like you, I always found the story of a bloated and unrecognisable Syd showing up at the studio while ‘Wish you were here’ was being recorded most poignant.
      Thanks for dropping by, Angie.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Nicely done, Bruce…as always. I like this album a lot, but not quite as much as the debut or much of what came after it. Sometimes it’s nice to hear them going through growing pains, though, which is why I still revisit it frequently.

    Also, I’ve always loved that photo of the 5-piece lineup with Syd in the background. It’s haunting and somewhat creepy.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Cheers Rich. Growing pains is a apt phrase, for sure.

      It’s an amazing and prescient photograph, isn’t it? Wish I could discover who took it, but if the research skills of JDB were baffled (below), I suspect the info is just not out there.

      Like

  9. Yes, “growing pains” is a good way to put it. Good review of a fascinating but flawed LP. “Remember a Day” is still a favourite of mine from that transitional time.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. More sacrilege on this end: Pink Floyd occupies a black hole in my musical consciousness (other than knowing “Another Brick In The Wall”, which I’m guessing PF purists rank way down on their lists of vital work…or no?) I noodled around a bit, trying to find who did the photo shoot of that short-lived 5 man roster, but struck out. Thought I might solve the mystery when I saw that the V&A Museum in London had had a big exhibit on PF last year, but no such luck…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! Sacrilege welcome in this particular Floyd church, JDB. And though a massive fan, I don’t like The Wall very much at all. (As articulated in an archival VC story here.) (I’m only putting the link in because ‘The Window and the Wall’ was one of my faves, narcissist that I am). For many, it’s a highlight of their career.

      To be honest, I wouldn’t start any further Floyd excursions here. The melodious and melancholic Wish you were here is probably a good place to test the pink waters of you felt inclined.

      Thanks for looking for the photographer J. Even in the internet age, it seems some things remain a mystery. Which I rather like.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Fascinating. Cheers Paul. A very useful dramatic device, no doubt, but stretching the truth a little!

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  11. Good piece Bruce. Floyd was near the top of my listening way back.The whole Syd thing has always been a sad subject (the whole mental illness thing). Back when information (good and bad) wasn’t as easy to come by I just took it in stride that different directions were being taken, plus working with an unstable situation does not make for a great working environment. Through all this I hung in with PF and Syds solo work (which I love). I started to drop off after ‘Animals’. Syd was always in PF’s music as far as CB was concerned.

    Good timing on your piece. I just watch Gilmour’s concert in Pompeii. The Floyd original way back is one of CB’s favorite concert moments.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks CB. Yes, it’s an iconic story of rock, for sure. With you on the ‘original’ Pompeii… just wonderful (including the studio sequences).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There was always this cool mystique around this band for me. They fired my imagination with their music and how they presented it. They were a band with everyone contributing to make them Pink Floyd. That’s how it was for CB anyway.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Likewise. I remember being hurt and disappointed when Richard Wright was dismissed. But of course by that stage it was Roger’s project, sadly.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. I heard about that long after it happened and yeah what a bunch of bullshit. When we (hopefully not Bruce and CB) become so full of ourselves it’s time for a kick in the nuts. A lesson in there somewhere. Later fella.

          Liked by 1 person

  12. Let There Be More Light is a real favourite of mine, along with … Controls, of course.

    I enjoyed this one Bruce. My folks saw a Sydless show on that tour, before he wasn’t picked up in the van.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Have you considered dropping all this record blogging nonsense and doing something worthwhile, like recording your parents memoirs?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Many times! I’d call it ‘Never Saw Hendrix ‘, in order to wind my dad up.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. This is a fantastic write-up, storytelling with empathy and fact and tunes and all the best that goes with it. I haven’t heard this one… YET. I will!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you sir, much appreciated.

      Saucerful is scarcely essential Floyd (unless it was your entry point or has some other personal significance) but it’s an interesting transitional record and captures something of the time (and the band at the time).

      Like

      1. I’ll lose a lot of cred here and say I’m not the world’s hugest PF fan, but I do like some of what I’ve heard. I have several albums here I still haven’t even played (this one’s not one of them). I’ll get to them eventually.

        Liked by 1 person

  14. For a time, my brother was a psychiatric nurse in Cambridge and looked after Syd – or what was left of him. That album, though. Some – to put it kindly – weak points, but a real game (life?) changer for me and many others. Hard to imagine life without ‘Set The Controls…’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If one knew and loved the first album, or even Syd’s darker solo stuff, seeing him up close and suffering must have been quite harrowing. As is all serious mental illness, of course.

      And as you rightly say, ‘Set the controls…’ deserves its place in the Floyd pantheon.

      Thanks for your comment Mr Deadhead.

      Like

  15. Knowing these albums like ”always”… hard to imagine what they would sound like to later generations, to me this stuff is like ” Relic’s ” (pun intended) of a long lost religion. To me this is a very important album just like most (if not all) pre-”wall” floyd albums are. If not for anything else then for all the memories they contains.

    As always a great read here

    Liked by 1 person

  16. […] so much so that it is now well into the second half of 2018 and just one 1968 review has been seen. Yet, as the saying goes, it’s never too late. For your dining pleasure we will present, […]

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