On July 7, 2006 the rock world got the answer to a long asked question, is Syd Barrett alive? Unfortunately, the answer to the question is now, no. The enigmatic and reclusive member of the band Pink Floyd retreated into obscurity after 3 years with the group. Born Roger Keith Barret in 1946 he gave Floyd their name after the previous line-ups without Barrett had a revolving change of names (Sigma 6, The Megga Deaths, The Screaming Abdabs, and The Abdabs). The band settled on the name Tea Set and that is when Barrett joined as vocalist and gutiarist. Tea Set played on a bill with a band having the same name. Syd improvised the bands name from two blues artists, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. The rest is rock history.
Barrett was the writer and creative force of the bands first LP, Pipers at the Gates of Dawn. The album was a garage and psych-rock epic. See Emily Play reached number six on the english charts and was a moniker of the early lost sound of Barret-tinged Pink Floyd. Laced with odd and fantastical lyrics Pipers has a permanent place in the catalog of the most historic and influential rock albums of all time.
Only two other Barrett Floyd albums were released after Pipers, Saucerful of Secrets and the soundtrack to the movie More. Saucer was a mix of noise, loops, feedback and oscillations. More was released as a movie and album in 1969, shortly after Syd's departure. A movie about heroin addiction, destructive excess and the stimulation struggle spiraling into the abyss of sordid relationships, it is considered by most to be patchy at best. The driving force of the movie are the Pink Floyd songs.
Syd Barrett's legend is standard knowledge to most rock and Floyd enthusiasts. The band was heavily influenced by their experiments with psychedelic drugs and drug culture. Barrett's experimentations combined poorly with his now blossoming and pre-existing mental illness, most likely schizophrenia. The combination of drug hallucinations and mental incapacity collided into a breakdown for Barrett and he was self-exiled to a life of reclusive obscurity in his hometown of Cambridge, England. His death answered the question if he was alive or dead. Most who cared to know knew he was alive. A couple of solo albums, a band formed with Twink as the drummer and requests from Paul McCartney, Pete Townsend, Brain Eno, Jimmy Page and The Damned to collaborate with them, never came to be.
After Syd Barrett drifted away from the band guitarist David Glimour joined. Ummagumma, Cambridge slang for copulating, was the first album released with the post-Barrett line up. The members that endured throughout all their fame. Originally a two LP collection of live, new and retooled versions of old material, he first LP was a live album with performances of music from Pipers at the Gates of Dawn and Saucerful of Secrets. The second LP was a studio album that was originally to be a project of solo releases. Each member contributing half an LP for each to experiment on. Band frustrations coupled with a arising disdain for the music business caused that project to be reworked. The final release was a lot of very experimental material reworked from those sessions.
The graphics are re-used from the original album with the rudimentary cover photography creating a Magritte like mirror image hanging on the wall. The band reflecting and repeating infinitely. The players switch positions altering each repeated image as it becomes a portal to the Floydian surreal mind set. Why does the Gigi sountrack album appear? The second image is of the bands equipment laid carefully in the center of a rural airport runway. All their instruments, two roadies, a typical English black transport van assemble to create an arrow pointing out of the flat, green landscape.
The Ummagumma cover art was done by Hipgnosis. This was the design group that would create memorable images throughout Pink Floyd's career. The liner notes are in booklet form and are spare with just the lyrics, of which there are few, track lists and credits. Each booklet has photographs throughout. I am not convinced that these images are all from the same era as this album. One photograph of Nick Mason foretells the coming of Charles Manson. Some photographs are just hokey.
When this album first came into my life I was both amazed by it and scared by it. I got the album in a trade from a friend I was in sixth, maybe seventh grade. I was unable to listen to whole portions of it. The studio album was just so weird it was hard to even comprehend. The live album was my favorite but I had to skip over Careful With That Axe, Eugene. Even though I knew that scream was coming it still got to me. It got to me in the same way as when I bought The Doors album, Waiting for the Sun. I was 10 and I loved the song Hello, I Love You. The second side of that album was the same weird experimentation. It scared the crap out of me. Add to Ummagumma and The Doors the interludes, cover art and practically the entire second side of David Bowie's Diamond Dogs and you have the three albums that scared the crap out of me as a a child. Despite, I continued to listen because there was some great stuff in between those scary moments.
The live CD starts with an elongated version of Astronomy Domine. The live reproduction is great for its time and available technology. The remastering is crystal clear. You hear the subtle beginnings of electronic bleeps like morse code from outer space. The guitar sound is garage and raw. The drumming is rythmic and ritualistic as it pounds and echoes. When the vocals begin it is in a droning delivery of chanting monks and dead pan astronauts floating in outer space. You are taking off for a voyage. Each stage of the song is like a stage of a rocket and finally settling in the slow and floating weightlessness of zero gravity.
Careful With That Axe, Eugene comes in smoothly with a jazzy water drip drum tap on the rim of the drum as the cynbals tap nervously. Church like organ creates a bluesy gait. Then comes is the build up. It is the soundtrack to the slow approach of someone killing approaching a victim, someone familiar, some one who knows Eugene. In the english tradition of politeness the titled warning comes, Careful With That Axe, Eugene. The song leaps into a banging madness. A soundtrack for an axe bludgeoning and the still release when the deed is done and all demonic energy has been expelled and the perpetrator and victim lay lifeless.
The best of Ummagumma is, Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun. It starts slowly with a building gong rush. Bag pipe via the cosmos organ playing mixes with the kettle drum and slithers like a snake and builds to a dervish hora of madness. Guitar crashes in and the sound is a cacophony of insanity. Abruptly the song is back to the calm separation of inner-space. It is not the journal of any science fiction. It is another exploration into madness. Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun. This ship is not coming back. It is floating away. Crash and burn.
Last of the live songs is Saucerful of Secrets. Continuing in the same vein as the previous tracks it begins with a free jazz bass oriented structure. The sound again becomes amassed with building crescendos, a drum solo and it is another psycho swirl that breaks down into a highly listenable song of praise. In the last few minutes you can hear the foundation being laid for future sounds of their most well known albums, Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here.
The studio album is a complete art piece. There is not one thing to grab on that resembles a pop foothold. This is a land of loops, musical mastery, found sounds, synthesizers and improvisation. Starting from the first surging gong gushes that flow into a classical tinged piano solo ttransporting you from a monastery to a concert hall. Drums ease in and give a free Cageian feel and the tone and mood are pure art explorations of Sysyphus in four parts.
After the horror movie soundtrack ending to Sysyphus we enter the bucolic Grantchester Meadows. The poetic lyrics and guitar playing show a heavy influence of Syd Barrett. You are transported to a mythical England where animals and birds dwell with gnomes. It is a trippy meadow but the vocals are foreboding. Electronic bird sounds blend beautifully with actual birds, birds fly off water whilst serenaded by medieval-era acoustic guitar. A truly fantastic piece with that signature Floyd paranoia as it ends with a fly disrupting the serenity and then being swatted to its demise.
Next we leave the loveliness of the meadow to the arcane woods of another mystical place. Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving With a Pict. This was the song that really frightened me. It was squirrelly little animals at a seance, squeaking and banging like mad natives. All the sounds are created with synthesizers and analog tape loops and backward masking. After the animals have worked themselves up into a frantic state, a speech in non-scottish but Brogue-ish cast is presented. It is silly to think how afraid I was when I heard it as a child. It was a different time. An innocent time.
The Narrow Way is a three part piece that starts with gorgeous acoustic guitar, odd electronic keyboard and guitar inserts that disturb. Abruptly the song turns to a heavier sound. A sound that would later be coined dirge metal. The recording effect makes it sound like the amps have paper cups for cones. But this is the last we hear of true order. From this point on the CD is drum soloing, atmosphere and improvisational electronics.
Some say that Roger Waters tried to be Syd Barrett and imitated him till he found his proper ground. I think that it can be seen in this work. As the band floated away from that era the similarities dissipated. When listening to these CD glimpses of bass, drums or guitar notably foretell the material that would eventually be the Pink Floyd empire. The talent that fueled that empire cannot be undermined.
Nothing here is groundbreaking experimentation. Pink Floyd was not the first to strum piano strings, bang on keyboards, fiddle with the proper techniques of analog recording or use field sounds. They aren't the last to use these techniques. Pink Floyd did it with competency and through the experimentation are laced gems of musical talent and an ear for art over noise.
On Ummagumma you are always on edge. Even when you are calm there is something off. The breathy delivery of Water's vocals. The sinister organ that elevates garage rock to pontifical heights. What true knack did Pink Floyd have? They could create music that went right to the resource of dopamine in a listeners brain. Wether the sounds made you feel like you in a hallucination or you really were, their sound was the soundtrack for being on drugs. Their own drug use and experimentation may have aided in the mood transference via headphones and altered states.
The groundwork for all the famous sounds and studio tricks were laid in these early experimentations. Ummagumma was produced by the band and was their foundation for the immaculate production techniques that became the earmark of later Floyd classics. Their use of found sounds and early sampling techniques, the use of experimental interludes all found on Ummagumma endured throughout their years. As the band aged it was less experimentation with musical moments and more musical with memorable interludes enhancing as song transitions.
Ummagumma is the infancy of this band. It was an innocent time for them and popular music. The fact that this recording was a major seller in its time, shows that for all the weirdness there was something about their sound that struck a chord for audiences. These art pieces are still highly influential. With the technology available at the time this music is very advanced. All of their appreciated artistic expression opened doors for other bands to use the mounting drug culture and new found openness to do their own psychedelic soundscapes.
With the passing of Syd Barrett listeners are again asking themselves what would have happened if Syd stayed with the band? The question will never have an answer. The instability of the band, their drug use, mounting pressure from record labels, international acclaim that put Pink Floyd in the pop arena with The Stones, The Beatles, The Kinks, The Doors, The Who and Led Zeppelin caused the band break into a fragmented shell of itself. Roger Waters now tours as a solo artist with the remaining band members touring the name Pink Floyd. Now Syd is gone and as you listen ask yourself if this music foreshadows the place that Pink Floyd would occupy in rocks heritage?
---James F. Kraus, September 8, 2006