2010-10-16

Gravy Train To Cambridge

Storm Thorgerson cover.
Cover: Storm Thorgerson.

A couple of months ago a new Syd Barrett compilation was announced and EMI (Harvest) was proud to proclaim that Syd Barrett had joined the league of Jimi Hendrix or Marc Bolan, meaning that the man has got more compilation albums written on his name than genuine albums.

Let's make a quick sum, shall we? Barrett, who was the founder of the mythical band Pink Floyd, was overtly present on their first album The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. On the second album A Saucerful Of Secrets he had already taken a sabbatical, and although present on 3 tracks (out of 7) he only takes the vocal lead (and writing credits) on the testamentary coda Jugband Blues.

There are at least 7 Pink Floyd compilations that have Barrett's (sometimes unreleased) work on it and the last one Echoes (2001) turned Syd Barrett into an overnight millionaire. The fortieth anniversary edition of Piper (2007) has (in the deluxe edition) an extra CD containing some alternative versions and the Pink Floyd's early singles as well.

Barrett's solo output in the early seventies is limited to two albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, and that is all there is, give or take 5 or 6 compilations. The count depends whether one catalogues the Opel (1988) record as a compilation of alternative takes and unreleased material or as a real 'third' solo album.

The most recent compilation 'An Introduction To Syd Barrett' boasts that this is the first time in history that Barrett's Pink Floyd and solo tracks have been compiled on one disk. This is true, but… so what?

On the other hand a quick glance at the list of unreleased material shows that there are about a dozen Pink Floyd studio tracks from their Syd Barrett era, but alas this compilation still doesn't contain any of them.

So what could possibly be the added value of this album, one might ask?

Storm Damage

Not its cover, that doesn't show Syd Barrett at all but that has been created, as usual, by Storm Thorgerson. Thorgerson, and more particularly his Hipgnosis studio, made some landmark record sleeves in the Seventies and Eighties, but he seems not able nowadays to sell his creations to influential bands, unless you call the freaky weirdoes of The Mars Volta influential of course. Thorgerson's contemporaneous work flirts a bit too much with cheap kitsch and luckily there is still Pink Floyd Ltd that keeps him away from the unemployment office. I'm quite fond of Thorgerson's work and I do like the cover although most Syd Barrett fans I frequent compare it with visual diarrhoea so I leave it to you to make up your own mind.

Tracks Revisited

As a Barrett anorak I am not interested in the regular songs on this compilation - as a matter of fact I didn't even listen to those - but I jumped immediately on top of the so-called enhanced tunes. The compilation boasts that 4 tracks have been remixed and one track has been 'upgraded' with additional bass from David Gilmour who also supervised the mixes. (The following review has been largely influenced by Blade's comments on the NPF forum and MOB's comments on the A Fleeting Glimpse forum.)

Dominoes: the new mix has been so subtly done that there is hardly any difference. The vocals are more emphasized and the backwards guitar sounds a trifle clearer. Some corrections may have been done, because on the original versions several (drum) parts were out of 'synch'. These errors have miraculously disappeared on the 2010 mix.

Octopus: this track is 7 seconds longer, due to the fact that a 'false' start has been added at the beginning. The "isn't it good to be lost in the woods" vocals have been clarified and brought to the fore and it could even be that its first part has been taken from an alternative take (also a few drumbeats have been added that weren't there on the 1970 version). Overall the muddled sound of vocals and guitars have been cleaned.

She Took a Long Cool Look: this track has always been called She Took A Long Cold Look in the past, but the title has now been changed. This is one of so called 'live' bits from Barrett's first album. These included false starts, bad guitar playing, unstable singing and Barrett generally loosing it… David Gilmour said he included these demos in 1970 to reveal Barrett in all his fragility, but later regretted his choice…

The 2010 version snips some of the unnecessary background sounds (Barrett turning some papers) and the guitar breakdown in the middle of the song is replaced by some strumming from another take. And - as with all of these remixes - Barrett's voice sounds more crisp than before and with less disturbing echo.

Matilda Mother (Pink Floyd): the 40 years anniversary edition of Piper already had this alternative take but in a much shorter version. This one takes 50 seconds longer and has benefited from a real mix. Probably the 2010 version is a sound-collage of several outtakes.

Here I Go: this little dance hall tune has always been my favourite Barrett track. For over 40 years I have wondered how this song really ended and now the ditty lasts 5 seconds longer. Gilmour has done a fine job by adding extra bass and after my second listen I already felt that this was the way it should always have been. (There is also a tiny rhythm correction - compared with the original version - at 01:46.)

Personally I find it a bad judgment from Gilmour & Co to keep the fade out but the closing chord I had been waiting for can still be heard. And I know it's starting to sound repetitive, but Barrett's vocals have been upgraded as well and sound crispier than ever. You don't need to buy the album to listen to this track as a promo video has been put on the web as well: Here I Go (official video).

The few remixes on this compilation are subtle, have been done with great care and love for the original material so that my initial anoraky opinion of 'don't touch the originals' has now been switched over to 'why didn't they simply enhance all tracks'?

But the real revelation of the album can't be found on plastic. The CD contains a key to download the mythical Rhamadan track from the official Syd Barrett website and this is what the next chapter is all about.

R(h)amadan

I won't get into the old story, legend or myth, of Rhamadan as it is all old news by now. The Holy Church of Iggy the Inuit wrote a bit about it in Anoraks and Pontiacs and Rob Chapman in A Very Irregular Head describes it as a 'conga-heavy jam session lasting eighteen minutes and of little merit', although it is highly doubtful that the biographer could get hold of the piece.

The only person, apart from some EMI alumni, who could listen to the track in its full glory was David Parker, author of Random Precision. In order to get EMI's permission he had to sign a 'scarily draconian declaration', so scarily draconian that he even had to delete a forum post wherein he had simply admitted it had been 'scarily draconian'. The Holy Church of Iggy the Inuit sometimes threatens with the Holy Igquisition but apparently that secret service is peanuts compared to the EMI 'unlimited supply, there is no reason why' storm troops.

David was the only author who could write, in detail, how the piece sounded and as it is so damn accurate I see no point of trying to give my own description.

Peter Bown announces Rhamadan take 1 over some bass and organ noises. He pronounces the title Rarmardarn like a 1950's BBC newsreader. The piece itself begins with the conga drums (probably Steve Took from Tyrannosaurus Rex).
The bass comes in and immediately takes the lead role (whoever the bass player is they are extremely proficient) with some very fast Stanley Clarke style runs and slides in places. The vibes then begin to come in, along with some disjointed organ chording (mostly on one chord). This then continues for a couple of minutes with the bass leading over the conga beat, vibes and organ chords. A piano then enters playing a loose boogie rhythm, and someone starts playing some very staccato mellotron notes as well. Things settle into a groove, and a second drummer joins in, mainly on cymbals. After about 5 minutes Syd's guitar starts to appear, playing muted chords to fill out the sound. The bass falls back slightly, and the piano takes the lead, Syd's guitar feeding back momentarily as he begins to play solo notes. (…)
The piece eventually starts to fizzle out with some mad staccato mellotron, the ever present organ chord and a lot of bass improvisation with a sprinkling of piano notes. Syd plays some open chord plucking and everything gets rather free form with Syd letting his guitar build-up feedback and then fades it out. (…)
Syd starts another riff but it begins to fade until the bass player picks up on it, and everyone begins following along. Another crescendo of feedback builds up as Syd picks out what sounds like the Close Encounters three note theme (!). (…)
Things build up yet again, with everyone in random improvisation, then everyone stops except the organ chord. The bassist begins a strident riff, giving the vibes a chance to solo (with staccato mellotron accompaniment). The bass rockets off into a hyper-drive riff, then everything finally falls to bits, ending with our old friend the organ chord drone, the mad mellotronist and a few bass notes.

We don't really know who are the players on Rhamadan, but Steve Peregrin Took is a name that appears in almost all biographies. Biographer Julian Palacios, however, seems to disagree now:

Talking to my friend GH today, he wrote: 'I don't think that Steve Took is the conga player on these sessions. I knew Steve and discussed Syd with him on a few occasions, he said that Syd had jammed with him round at his flat and that he had recorded it, but there was never any mention of going into a recording studio with Syd. My understanding was that Steve didn't get pally with Syd until after his split from Marc (Bolan). Back in 68 Tyrannosaurus Rex where gigging like crazy and still very much a going concern.' (Taken from Late Night Discussion Forum.)

Rhamadan isn't half as bad as everyone, who had never heard it, claimed it to be. Especially when one remembers that the same biographers and journalists tend to praise AMM, The Soft Machine or The Third Ear band for their revolutionary musical approach. Rhamadan is of course a highly freakadelic experiment, almost free-jazz in its approach, a genre Syd Barrett was not unfamiliar with.

Rhamadan MP3 properties.
Rhamadan MP3 properties.

If you have bought the CD, Rhamadan can be downloaded (legally) from the official Syd Barrett website, but unfortunately only in the MP3 format with a rather cheapish 152kbs bitrate. But its bitrate is not the only amateurish characteristic. While millions of people all over the world have discovered MP3 tags, EMI is of the opinion that this invention is way over their heads. The tags are all empty and reveal that the track is untitled (Track 1), comes from an unknown album, is from an unknown artist and from an unknown year. Not even the Publisher and Copyright data are filled in. My 8-years old godchild can rip MP3 tunes better than EMI does, she at least knows how to attach a (sleeve) picture to the file. (Although I worked this out by myself, Jen D at madcapslaughing beat me by a day by publishing the same findings before me. As I haven't got an irregular head I'll give this bloke the credits.)

While EMI has been nagging us for years that copying is killing music a closer look on the MP3 tags reveals us that the file has been converted with FreeRIP. Here is the biggest music company in the world and it uses a freeware version of a (quite good, I agree) MP3 converter to spread around a track belonging to the founder of their second most commercially successful band, next to The Beatles.

I know of the bad financial situation of the music company but I wasn't aware that EMI was that close to bankrupt that they can't even afford a 29,75 dollar software program anymore.

Conclusion

None really. The best thing is to decide for yourself if the 5 remixes and the 1 download are sufficient to buy the album. As a Barrett anorak myself, I simply had no choice.

Sources: (other than internet links mentioned above)
Chapman, Rob: A Very Irregular Head, Faber and Faber, London, 2010, p. 215.
Parker, David: Random Precision, Cherry Red Books, London, 2001, p. 132-133.


The Introduction album and Rhamadan track are further discussed here:
Introduction at Late Night
Introduction at NPF
Rhamadan at Late Night
Rhamadan at NPF
A review of the 40 years anniversary edition of the Piper at the Gates of Dawn can be found at Fasten Your Anoraks
Sister blog Unfinished Projects has recently published a review of the latest Orb album featuring David Gilmour: Metallic Spheres.