“The Gnome” is one of the handful of Barrett tracks that, on first spin, sounds as if it could be a rare throwaway ditty designed to fill up contractual space on an album. A chorus-free, jaunty parable about elves set to arguably the only simple riff anywhere on the otherwise progressive Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. If you’re going to dismiss Syd Barrett as an impish jingle writer, a tea-and-biscuits with Mum hack, then this song may not do much to dispel those notions. At least not on first listen.
To be exceedingly fair to the haters, all the aspects that may cause an individual to dislike the artistry of Syd Barrett are ready and apparent on “The Gnome”. Elves? Check. Serious eunuch manchild energy? Double check. Pronounced Cambridge upper-middle class accent? Oh you know it (“grass” is more like “grosssss” on this one). Seemingly insignificant rhyming-for-the-sake-of-rhyming lyrical patterns? Full abundance, my dude. Simplistic melody straight out of a ’30s wind-up music box? Well, the music box makers’ estates should get those lawyers up. In short, “The Gnome” is a track that best defines what people who don’t know much about Syd Barrett assume Syd Barrett to be like. If you already aren’t feeling the vibe, then this one isn’t going to do anything to persuade you.
But it’s more than all that.
If you’re going to draw a similarity between this track and one from The Floyd’s neighbors at Abbey Road Studios, it would be George Harrison’s Manson-slaughter-inspiring “Piggies” from The White Album. Now, is “Piggies” the best track on that epochal double album? Far from it. But is it a lovely little melody that takes nothing away from the record and packs some subversive elements that unfold over time? Fo’ sho’. Unlike “The Scarecrow”, which to my ears does border on throwaway status, there’s much more going on with this one than originally meets the mind’s eye.
The first, and most important, misconception about this song is that it was somehow inspired by Lord Of The Rings. I know, I know, whenever elves are involved the mind is bound to go in that direction, but keep in mind that elves were a major aspect of the world’s mythology hundreds, thousands, of years before that series was conceived. There is absolutely nothing indicating that this song was in any Zeppelin-style way connected to those New Zealand valley dwellers, so unless some evidence is unearthed in the next deep-dive Barrett bio, we can finally, mercifully, put this theory to eternal rest. The truth is that these lyrics, in the strange hip hop foreshadowing in which Syd was known to dabble, were freestyled right off the top of the dome. This is confirmed in Mike Watkinson’s excellent Barrett source Crazy Diamond: Syd Barrett & the Dawn of Pink Floyd. They had the melody, were ready to record but didn’t have the words, and with red light fever burning his brain Syd asked to roll the tape and spat out the tale of an elf named Grimble Gromble in the time it took to lay the song down on tape. If the song may sound slight when compared with some of the more epic and reaching Syd-era Floyd highlights, when viewed in this context this seeming space filler becomes a different beast entirely.
For a tale spun right off the tip of the consciousness, “The Gnome” packs some weighty, well-structures observations within its simplistic framework.
And little gnomes stay in their homes
Drinking their wine
Where Sir George’s little piggies seemed to represent entire family trees of ruling class evil, even potentially advocating violence toward them, Syd was certainly never concerned with revolutionary politics and only knew his own comfortable and nurturing middle class upbringing. The little gnomes of leafy Cambridge. Staying inside to pursue their eccentric, solitary pursuits. Concerned with maintaining sleeping schedules and dietary conformity. Enjoying the occasional behind-closed-doors nighttime vice. These are the gnomes Syd is invoking here in a passive, clinical tone that does nothing but observe and report. He doesn’t want you to take forks to them like George, nor is he dissing them or putting down their lifestyle or even claiming he isn’t one of them himself. Syd is simply telling it like it is, like he’s seen, like he’s tried to escape but knows he will one day be one of them as part of a natural cycle there’s no use in trying to break.
Speaking of that escape attempt, at this point in time Syd had indeed escaped the gnomes of Cambridge and was firmly ensconced in the bright bohemia of prime Swinging London. And he was a bona fide pop star to boot. And yet this was not anywhere near as important as his other escape, the real one that could separate him even from the much softer restraints of this new world, namely psychedelics and marijuana.
He had a big adventure
Amidst the grass, fresh air at last
Biding his time
Fresh air at last for our Syd. Trippy nights and hippy girls in the Big Smoke. And yet with that “biding his time” line, incredibly sad when juxtaposed with the freedom of the lines surrounding it, we have the great cycle closing in. Syd would one day be right back with those sedentary isolationist gnomes of Cambridge Town. Even if he himself didn’t quite know that yet, the reality was at least creeping into his subconscious.
But in the meantime it’s all fun and games:
Look at the sky, look at the river
Isn’t it good?
Look at the sky, look at the river
Isn’t it good?
Winding, finding places to go
Hiding well within the folds of burgeoning psychosis and its inherent confusion, LSD-drenched non-linear thought patterns, and straight-up fantasy of Barrett’s best-known works, there was until the bitter end a strain of life-affirming “live and let live” whimsy that can best be detected in couplets such as this. Pure observation. Skies and rivers. Are those not amazing entities? How can any world containing these colorful entities not be, at base, exceedingly good? Live in a place. Do anything. Find your places to go and make your own way there. It’s refreshing to know that Syd Barrett was still experiencing these flights of free whimsy well into his Floyd pop star era, at a time when by all accounts things were beginning to unravel for our hero.
It isn’t only the lyrics that are deceptively complex about this outwardly simple song sketch. That wind-up music box we were discussing earlier packs some interesting surprises as long as you’re willing to listen hard, including a Roger Water’s baseline that toys with noise rock distortion and a Rick Wright organ riff that veers close to the insanity of earlier Piper track “Flaming“. Nick Mason is as his gentle caveman best here, resisting the urge to pound out those beats, falling back in the cut to serve the song like a front lines grunt taking one for his sergeant. And all it takes is a listen to what the Floyd could do with this track live to see what a deceptively complex little charger “The Gnome” could be under the right circumstances.
Although it may be far from my fave Barrett composition, and not even in my top 5 Piper tracks, this Grimble Gromble-led child’s tale nonetheless serves as a fine elvian example of just how many layers upon layers our dear Sydney could pack into even the simplest framework.