Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour is returning this year with On an Island, his third solo album and a brief but highly anticipated European and North American tour supporting it. While no set list is known regarding the shows, the mix of solo work with Pink Floyd classics is a given. Perhaps one of these will be “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”, a signature tune the group wrote in honor of original songwriter and singer Syd Barrett for its 1975 Wish You Were Here masterpiece. As has become legend, the group entered the studio one day to finish work on the song only to see a bald, bloated man ready to work with them. A few minutes later all realized it was in fact Barrett.
Since that time, Barrett, who just turned 60 in January, has lived a reclusive life, avoiding the press and music scene and thus making his iconic status grow further. And as a result, the demand for Barrett-related info heightens. The latest is this roughly 70-minute DVD that doesn’t break a lot of new ground but is done well enough to keep most of the diehard fans appeased. As with most of these releases, there is neither new interviews with any of Pink Floyd’s inner circle nor, fortunately, any footage of bizarre asinine attempts of knocking on Barrett’s door to see if he’ll talk. What you do have are some well-respected British music journalists giving their take on some of Barrett’s earlier work, and it is generally quite good.
The gist of the DVD, which aims at exploring Barrett’s short but terribly influential career, is interviews, and very comprehensive and insightful ones with four experts on early Floyd, including Chris Welch, David Parker, Mark Sturdy and the well-known and equally well-respected Nigel Williamson. Another expert, Malcolm Dome, seems to come across equally as a fan rapt with adulation as a journalist explaining the madness and genius of Barrett. Early footage of Pink Floyd includes Nick Mason, Richard Wright, Roger Waters and Barrett jamming in the studio as well as trying to be funny or amusing in the vein of the Beatles, playing imaginary cricket with an electric guitar and dismembering a mannequin. One surprise however is the brief snippet of footage of old bluesman Pink Anderson—the “Pink” in Pink Floyd—performing “Ain’t Nobody Home But Me”.
The interviews primarily concentrate around some of the early songs Barrett wrote, beginning with “Arnold Layne”. The song, which involves a man stealing ladies’ “knickers” from clotheslines, is broken down by each interviewee with Williamson giving valuable insights into both the track and its background. But there is no background in terms of Barrett’s childhood or interviews with those who knew him, which would perhaps flesh out some of the small holes the DVD is guilty of. What is shown is Pink Floyd with a relatively calm and stable Barrett jamming out at London’s UFO Club around the time of “Interstellar Overdrive”. An early BBC interview also shows Barrett sitting with Waters and answering a question that seems derived more from a generational gap than anything else. The interviewer asks, “Why has it all got to be so terribly loud?” Both Waters and Barrett look at each other sheepishly as if to say “Get a load of this guy!” before replying.
What seems to be a flaw in the DVD is how much time is devoted to basically a handful of his works, whether it is the childlike but unnerving “Bike” from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn to his later solo material such as “Octopus”. While it is quite strong, perhaps the DVD could have fleshed out more songs like this for an even fuller analysis. And when they could use clips of studio tapes rolling while songs are played, as they do a bit, they also use silly video montages to accompany the songs, with “Bike” featuring, you guessed it, a red bicycle and “Dominoes” featuring (Wow! Right again!) dominoes. “Terrapin” meanwhile, with its laid back nature a la Pink Floyd’s “San Tropez”, is also highlighted. But unlike a recent DVD showing Barrett’s first acid trip, which was ridiculed, and perhaps rightly so, as pure sensationalism, this DVD concentrates on the music, right up to the 1988 release of “Opel” on a compilation of material from his two solo albums: Madcap Laughs and Barrett. One highlight that looks more into these sessions is some new interview footage with Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper, who was part of Barrett backing group for the solo studio work.
This DVD wraps up almost too quickly, with roughly 40 seconds telling you what happened to Barrett following his downfall. It all seems a tad too terse, with hardly any mention of the Wish You Were Here episode. Extras are few, but a four-minute interview with Gary Lucas may result in new material being released. In 1972 Barrett made an impromptu performance in Cambridge with the Last Minute Put Together Boogie Band, a performance Lucas recorded and is in talks about releasing. Regardless though, Barrett’s genius for creating music that still resonates today is without question. And unlike several “unauthorized” DVDs, like the at times ridiculous Stones five-DVD Just for the Record release, Under Review is a great review of Barrett’s work, not the other poppycock that Syd Barrett’s First Trip is so guilty of.