Whereas generation after generation finds the soothing melodies and entrancing textures of Dark Side of the Moon to be just the right psychedelic recipe, Syd Barrett’s thornier, more chaotic approach has always been destined to remain on the fringes. Like many a disaffected teenager, I found a great deal of solace in the all-encompassing glow of Pink Floyd’s seminal work. So when I followed my brother’s advice and purchased The Piper At the Gates of Dawn as the next step in my Pink Floyd education, I was mystified by the loony sounds and near constant melodic diversions popping up just about every time the band seemed to be getting into a groove. This was the same band that put out the populist psychedelia masterpiece Dark Side of the Moon?
This all predates iPods and iTunes and terabyte external hard drives, so when I had an album that I didn’t quite care for, I pressed on and kept listening. And I’m glad I did, because The Piper At the Gates of Dawn, from it’s rumbling, sci-fi liftoff (“Astronomy Domine”) to the closing conceit of the band playing around in a “room of musical tunes”, is now my favorite Pink Floyd album. The bizarre alchemy Floyd achieved, that of twisted progressive rock combined with Lewis Carroll-esque whimsy, is almost entirely attributable to the inimitable genius of then-frontman Syd Barrett. Unfortunately, Barrett’s infamous psychological issues and reclusive lifestyle left his discography disappointingly scarce. His erratic nature gave the members of Pink Floyd little choice but to kick him out of the group, leaving behind Piper as the sole full-length remnant of his time in the band. Aside from some stray outtakes, Barrett’s solo output is limited to two hastily recorded albums from 1970 (The Madcap Laughs and Barrett).
Basically, if you wanted to hear everything Syd Barrett ever recorded, you could do so in one afternoon, and you could do it legally for less than fifty dollars. So why are EMI and Harvest records releasing An Introduction to Syd Barrett? Other Barrett compilations with nearly identical tracklists exist, and this one is no more or less vital than any of the others. Whatever score I choose to apply to An Introduction to Syd Barrett could just as easily be applied to Crazy Diamond (1994) or Wouldn’t You Miss Me? The Best of Syd Barrett (2001). But it would be stupid to pretend to be surprised by the idea of a record label capitalizing on an icon’s cultish popularity. So let’s just grit our teeth and judge this album on the merits of the music contained within.
Should you require an introduction to Syd Barrett, you could do a lot worse than An Introduction to Syd Barrett. Any devoted fan wouldn’t complain about the songs included here, which are the usual suspects. “Apples and Oranges,” “Bike” and “Effervescing Elephant” are present to showcase Barrett’s incomparable playful side. “Terrapin” and “Dark Globe” capture his spookier, more self-aware moments. The brunt of his recording career occurred between the years 1967 and 1970, so there’s no particularly compelling progression to chart. Perhaps it would have been a little more artful to mix the songs up, rather than arranging them sequentially, which means we get a Piper section, followed by a Madcap Laughs section, followed by a Barrett section. Admittedly, I feel myself straining against recommending just purchasing those albums individually, but I understand the desire to start in the shallow end, even if the deep end ain’t so deep. Hell, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy listening and re-listening to this compilation. Maybe that’s all that matters.