“Arnold Layne” by Pink Floyd, Released March 10th, 1967
It makes the most crystalline type of sense that the very first recorded Syd Barrett song to reach the world from his stately, angelic brain concerned a Cambridge cross dresser stealing knickers from washing lines in the dead of night.
It makes even more sense that Syd’s feelings toward this wayward character are equal parts compassionate (“Oh Arnold Layne, it’s not the same”), mocking (“Arnold Layne has a straaaaaanngeeee hobby”) middle-class snobbish (“A nasty sort of person”) self-identifying (The “they” of “they gave him time” indicates Syd was firmly on Arnold’s side of weirdness any day over a society that locks up the strange), and giddy with the mad poetic possibilities presented by such a character (“Distorted view, see through baby blue”). In other words, the first single from The Floyd was the perfect distillation of every song Syd would ever pen, and we will be examining and rating them all in this series.
It also makes sense that Arnold Layne was a real person infamous in Syd’s Cambridge childhood for stealing the clothes of female lodgers from washing lines (“collecting clothes, moonshine washing line, they suit him fine”) After all this academic, upper-middle-class, and infamously eccentric hood full of frail professors on bicycles proved an endless inspiration for Barrett even though he had long since fled it for the urban delights of late-60s swinging London Town. Many of Syd’s best songs were adultified takes on childhood themes and memories, and in keeping it real by focusing on beautiful, strange Cambridge, instead of trying to make it sound like the Mississippi Delta like his fellow emerging Brit songwriters of the time, he lit upon that rarest of all things: a fully original voice.
Finally, it makes the craziest type of sense Syd somehow managed to make a song about a cross dressing knickers snatcher into a top 20 pop hit at a time when songs far less subversive in their subject matter, songs about banana peels and and planes soaring eight miles high, were promptly banned from the airwaves. And how did he manage to accomplish this deft feat of censorship dodging? Well, first there is the economy of language he utilizes over the two verses and chorus, made up of only 76 words total. You see, Syd was one of the rare ones, the outriders of the time, who never bought into the whole verbal onslaught Dylan style where each verse was utilized to get in as many words as humanly possible, as if the songwriter were being paid by the syllable. This was even evident in Syd The Teenager who penned the unreleased dis track “Bob Dylan Blues” (we’ll get to this one) at a time when even the young Marc Bolan was donning hobo caps and fur lined jean jackets. Kitchen sink verbal claptrap was just never Syd’s thing, a stance that points to yet another important distinction separating him from his peers.
You see, Syd was first and foremost a painter. An artist. He never put in the time obsessively learning blues licks in his teenage bedroom. For Syd, the whole music thing was more of a laugh than anything, a temporary folly that proved to be fun right up until the point where the pressures of super stardom clamped down, when he gave it all up and went back to painting for the rest of his life. If you’ve ever checked out Syd’s real works, his hundreds of paintings, you would know that he valued an economy of brush strokes and the utilization of empty space in order to relay images and ideas, and he brought this technique wholesale to his songwriting. Where someone like Donovan would have sang, “Old Arnold Layne, ran down the lanes, stealing women’s clothes, swirly blues and pantyhose, and before the mirror he would pose” on into infinity, Syd nails the whole story in just one short verse:
Arnold Layne had a strange hobby
Moonshine washing line
They suit him fine
On the wall hung a tall mirror
Distorted view, see through baby blue
He done it
And where the Bobby D of the time would have shown old Arnold empathy through verses like, “Well they threw old Arnold Layne in jail, and all the man did was try on a pink veil, he was different from you so you put him in a cell, the clotheslines of Cambridge must be cut down to avail”, Syd slashes through the nonsense with nothing more than a clever bit of onomatopoeia and a fine dose of the arch tweeness that would become his calling card:
Now he’s caught – a nasty sort of person
They gave him time
Doors bang, chain gang
He hates it
And just what is Syd getting at with this chorus?
Oh, Arnold Layne
It’s not the same, takes two to know
Two to know, two to know
Two to know
Why can’t you see?
It takes two to know what exactly? And steeling clothes from washing lines isn’t the same as what? It’s all up in the air when it comes to Syd Barrett, but in the most innocent and non heavy handed way possible. He isn’t professing to know anything, even though he so clearly does. And when the song ends on the line, “Arnold Layne, don’t do it again” you get the sense that Syd is having a little wink-wink with the in-tune listener. OF COURSE our hero is going to do it again! Dear Arnold just won’t be able to help himself, and this is a GOOD THING. It’s a championing of the strange, the kinky common man, the old and the creepy, the eccentric shut-ins with their strange hobbies that make up the tapestry of Syd’s Ol’ Weird Cambridge, and it’s all rendered with lyrics so spartanly clever they ducked under the censor’s roving radar and rode the song right onto Top of The Pops.
Of course it helps that this is a perfectly constructed pop song complete with a verse/chorus/verse/chorus/solo/chorus/end setup, and with just enough tripped out lysergic goodness sprinkled in around the edges to have The Floyd’s freak scene card fully stamped. An extra shoutout is in order here for Rick Wright, the quiet Floyd keyboard man, who provides those pristine McCartney harmonies on the “Laaaayyynnneeee” of the chorus that really kick this can far into the realm of the smash pop hit.
With “Arnold Layne” this fine arts man moonlighting as a musician manages to have a laugh at the expense of the listening public, the aural equivalent of smuggling a Klimt into the tourist museum disguised as a Vermeer. It’s one of the strangest songs to ever hit the UK Top 20, and what makes it brilliant is that it doesn’t seem so strange even on repeated listens. It takes a deeper examination to realize just how weird and unsettling the track is, and the critical dissection of pop songs just isn’t a thing that was done in early 1967. Instead, the strangeness of “Arnold Layne” hit those in the know on a visceral level, an “ah ha!” moment when everything clicked, and it was within this eureka realm that Syd Barrett the songwriter set up basecamp to blow minds to charred cinders over the next four technicolor years.