MUSIC / Albums: The legend that was Syd: Whimsy from Syd Barrett, hard work from Richard Thompson and Jimi Hendrix revisited. Andy Gill reports

Click to follow
Syd Barrett - Crazy Diamond (Harvest SYDBOX 1); Richard Thompson - Watching the Dark (Hannibal HNCD 5303)

BUOYED by the recent success of Ozric Tentacles and the prospect of a summer of fine weather and festivals, the hippy revival shows no signs of abating. In which case, these two triple-disc retrospectives offer an illuminating contrast of the fates and fortunes of Sixties legends.

Syd Barrett was the mercurial talent who named Pink Floyd and brought them their earliest singles successes, before parting company with the other members' taste for lengthier, more 'serious' astral excursions and retreating to Cambridge to become a recluse. Before he completely lost touch, however, he made a couple of solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, collected here with a third album of out-takes and alternative versions, Opel, which came out in 1988.

Taken all together, it's clear that Barrett's was a slim vein which was already well mined-out by the time of his second album, where his penchant for tooth enamel-threatening nursery-rhyme sickliness reached an annoying apogee. Increasingly, his songs seemed to be constructed of random sweetie references (ice cream, lemonade, honey) but where Syd's Olde Englishe whimsy had served as a playful leavening of the Floyd's expansive, cosmic sound, its shades of Lear and Carroll (and A A Milne) were less effective in these starker surroundings. Here, Barrett just seems childish, rather than engagingly innocent.

His fragile world view of an enduring hippy fantasia was perhaps best summed up in the second album's 'I Never Lied to You', with 'There will be wine and drinking in the yard / there won't be anybody very hard'. As with his philosophy, so with his work: Barrett's was a flimsy talent, inflated beyond its due by a small coterie of admirers who will already own these albums, apart from the 19 'bonus' tracks - mostly failed alternative takes, which cruelly expose his vocal shortcomings. But his influence mysteriously endures: there are those - step forward, Robyn Hitchcock - who have wrought a career out of Syd's slim portfolio of ideas.

Richard Thompson, on the other hand, has been a paragon of Protestant work-ethic through the intervening two decades - notwithstanding his conversion to Islam - and fully deserves his semi-legendary status. He's one of England's finest ever guitarists, his guitar lines utterly inimitable be they folk-rock reels or avant-garde improvisation to guest spots such as that on Robert Plant's upcoming album. He's also helped keep English folk traditions alive, with a special gift for animating the darker shadows of working- class experience.

Watching the Dark draws together work from all eras and areas of his career, judiciously updating the previous guitar, vocal box set, and managing to include over 50 per cent previously unreleased tracks, an indication of his prolific work rate. Each of the three discs combines material from three different eras, switching imperceptibly between early solo work such as that from Henry the Human Fly (Warner Brothers' worst-selling LP ever, the booklet boasts), earlier formative work with Fairport Convention (notably a rare alternative version of 'A Sailor's Life'), straight folk music, his recent 'rock' recordings, and the clutch of Seventies albums made in partnership with his former wife, Linda Thompson, on which his reputation substantially rests.

In general, Thompson's work relies for its effect on the tension between the free-flighted, whirligig runs of his guitar-playing and the more mournful, earthbound realities conveyed in his voice. It's rarely easy listening, for all its undoubted beauty, but it's always deeply considered and, in contrast to Syd Barrett, adult in tone. And in the right place, his guitar can be quite devastating: witness the resemblance between his 'Walking on a Wire' and Dylan's 'Going, Going, Gone'.

Beautiful People - If 60's Were 90's (Essential ESS CD 200)

IF YOU think the hippy revival is just a case of time spooling backwards, here's further evidence courtesy of Beautiful People and Alan Douglas, the latter being the label boss who owns the rights to the Jimi Hendrix back catalogue. The commendably forward-thinking Douglas has generously allowed the house / sampling outfit access to Jimi's master-tapes.

It's not the first time he's done this - after the guitarist's death, Douglas had new rhythms pasted on to some unreleased tracks. But only with the advances made in sampling technology has the idea's time really come. Unsurprisingly, Beautiful People don't match Hendrix's imaginative power, but they have developed a nice shuffling house-rhythm feel to the album, dropping familiar phrases into odd juxtapositions within the new beats. A helpful chart shows where the various bits are taken from: the opening 'Comin' to Get You', for instance, uses snatches of the vocal line from 'Foxy Lady' with guitar licks taken from that track, 'I Don't Live Today', 'Peace In Mississippi' and 'Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)'.

The results can be surprisingly mundane at times. It's still demonstrably a pure Hendrix exercise rather than the more widespread mix-and-match project of which the technology is capable, but there are some effective new combinations, like 'Sock It to Me', where the titular expostulation (from 'Wild Thing') sits well aloft the raging-tide guitar from 'Killin' Floor'. And the merciful absence of that 'heavy', rather dated Redding / Mitchell rhythm section allows Jimi's guitar greater space to breathe. It's not exactly a revelation, but it's more relaxed by half.