“Lucifer Sam” by Pink Floyd, Released August 4th, 1967
We’re only six tracks into the Madcap series and already I’m tripping over one of my Top 5 Syd Barrett bangers, not to mention one of the very best songs of the classic rock era. This slinky, mischievous marvel finds our dear Syd right in his prime pocket, spinning bible-black, child-like fantasies into three minute radio-bound singles that ooze from the airwaves both supremely fun and ultimately disturbing. This is Mr. Barrett at the zenith of his powers, before things got too strange and the film switched from a DayGlo zany comedy to an ultra-realist tragedy, and it pays ample dividends to savor every moment.
First there’s that riff. Dear fucking god what a riff. Swaggering and fearless like a feral cat, taking its grand old time, every note stretched to its sinister max like psychedelic putty. For a man who couldn’t play guitar, Syd Barrett sure could play guitar. This is outsider art at its most accomplished, a voided-out punk seed amidst all the Stratocaster wankery going on at the time. No wonder everyone from The Black Crows to The Flaming Lips to MGMT (who owe their entire career to Syd’s “Lucifer”) have spun covers of this thing, and no wonder all of them stuck very close to the original’s basic template. You know they just wanted to bash away at that riff for as long as they could get away with. The “Syd Barrett On Lead Guitar” angle is nearly always overlooked even in the most worshipful of career retrospectives, but take a listen to that guitar line that snakes through this song like a detective series intro run off to hell and you will see the light when it comes to Barrett the most unlikely of guitar gods.
This is also Syd at the absolute pinnacle of his ultra-singular lyrical power. Who other than Syd Barrett could gaze upon a London street feline and come up with:
That cat’s something I can’t explain
Dylan would have given his left sideburn to come off so clipped, so honest, so concise, so strange.
But what is really going on here with this glistening little track? Unlike many Barrett lyrical displays, where the deeper you dig the further away you seem to get from the core meaning, this one can at least be placed in some sort of cultural context.
1967/68 was a time when even the most mainstream artists were openly embracing the occult, from Sir Mick’s tiresome, “Dude, I totally just read Master and Margarita for the first time” posturing on “Sympathy For The Devil” to that black magic wo-man pre-shill Carlos was all hung up on. But there was only one dark dabbler on the fringes of this cultural snapshot who could boil human duality (and in turn The Devil) down to just three carefully curated lines.
Lucifer Sam, Siam cat
Always sitting by your side
Always by your side
How many entire songs did it take Sabbath to make this same point? 90? 150? 10,002? You can almost feel Syd sneering at such clunky, heavy-handed musings here. The Devil, just like a faithful house cat, always sits by your side. You can ignore Him. You can consult Him. You can work with Him or attempt to reject Him. But He’s always there. Your faithful Lucifer Sam purring at your side. Plus, we have the added bonus of some vintage Barrett wordplay with that Sam/Siam juxtaposition sprinkled in for good measure.
You’re the left side
He’s the right side
Yea, go ahead and try to escape your Lucifer. He’s PART OF YOU. There are more than 20 long-running black metal acts who have spent decades-long careers and multiple albums trying to make a point that Syd just bodied in three lines.
Lucifer go to sea
Be a hip cat
Be a ship’s cat
It cannot be proven that Syd Barrett and Skip Spence, the two lyrical madcaps of the era, ever met or even if they knew of one another’s music, but there’s definitely a lot of cross talk blips on the radar scanners to get all conspiratorial about. This is one of those blips. On “Grey/Afro” Mr. Spence commanded listeners to “Live in a place, do anything” which appears to be a direct echo of Syd’s plea from two years earlier for his Lucifer (all of us) to just do our thing, mannnnn, somewhere, anywhere. For it was never the widescreen social freedom of the times that these two were seeking. It was an individual anarchy whittled down to a moment, a place, a gesture…a fully portable freedom that could be folded up into a pocket, a mind, and utilized even when locked into the most oppressive of scenes.
We also have here the first of a fruitful string of instances where Barrett openly poked fun at the terminology espoused within his own subculture, culminating in such later awesomeness as the “feel good rocker woman” from “No Good Trying”.
Like all things Madcap, there have been many tiny conspiracies hatched in “Lucifer”‘s wake. One of the most prevalent is that the notoriously romantically jealous Syd was addressing an affair his girlfriend of the time, Jenny Spires, was involved in. While this may or may not have held a kernel of truth, Jenny’s lovely presence definitely graced this track as the “Jennifer Gentle” of the second verse. It would seem far more on brand for Syd Barrett, however, to assume he simply jotted this song down in honor of Sam, the Siamese he did own at the time the song was written, accidentally conjuring the entirety of the good/evil human dilemma in the process.
Jenny “Gentle” Spires
Lucifer Sam, Siam Cat
It was always hard to tell if Syd actually enjoyed his own songs. He often spoke disparagingly of his work with Pink Floyd and also of his solo albums, hinting that they only scratched the surface of what he truly wanted to uncover. But we know for a fact that he did like his “Lucifer Sam” creation. Or at least it stuck with him. For it was “Lucifer” Himself who was trotted out as the very last song Syd Barrett would ever perform at the Cambridge Corn Exchange in 1972.
It was a joke. It was an important message. It was a warning and a riddle. It was a sigh from the void and a velvety smokescreen. It was the deconstruction of a perfect rock song. It was the riff to end all riffs. It was the birth of multiple subcultures and the hatching point of dozens of bands. It was a Swingin’ London dandy suit worn by Behemoth himself. It was a world within a world within a world.
And it’s easily one of my favorite tracks ever.