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Syd Barrett - 1946-2006

  by Jon Rogers

published: 21 / 7 / 2006

Syd Barrett - 1946-2006


Jon Roger looks back on the life of former Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett who died on the 7th July and whose impact remains seminal over 30 years after he abandoned making music

“It's awfully considerate of you to think of me here And I'm much obliged to you for making it clear That I'm not here.” Jugband Blues Roger Keith Barrett, son of Dr Arthur Barrett a Cambridge pathologist and his wife Winifred, and a co-founder of Pink Floyd, died on the 7th July due to what his family said were complications relating to diabetes. According to Barrett’s brother Alan, the guitarist and singer “died peacefully at home” and added that there would be a private family funeral. Although Barrett, who gained the nickname Syd, was last musically active over 30 years ago and whose output effectively amounted to two solo albums that were largely ignored when released, Pink Floyd’s debut 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn' and a handful of singles, his legacy and influence has had a lasting and profound impact. His creative star shone brilliantly but all too briefly as mental health problems took their toll, a situation exasperated by his heavy consumption of drugs. Born in Cambridge on 6 January 1946 Barrett discovered rock ‘n’ roll in the late 1950's whilst attending Cambridge High School and gained his first acoustic guitar aged 12. It was around this time that he earnt the nickname “Syd” at a local jazz club after a drummer of the same name. In the early 60's he joined his first group – Geoff Mott and the Mottoes - mostly playing covers of Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed songs. Its line-up included future Pink Floyd member Roger Waters. Barrett joined another local group, Those Without, before moving to London to attend Camberwell Art College in 1964 on a fine art course. Whilst there he joined up with Waters, who was now studying architecture at London's Regent Street Polytechnic, this time in a band with drummer Nick Mason and keyboardist Rick Wright. The group tried out various names, such as Spectrum Five, the Screaming Abdabs, the Megadeaths and the Tea Set, but finally decided on the Pink Floyd Sound. Barrett coined the name in tribute to two of his blues heroes: Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. Legend has it though that he would later tell a tale of having the name transmitted to him by aliens whilst he was sitting on Glastonbury Tor. At first Pink Floyd was an American R & B covers band playing the likes of 'Louie Louie' in the usual round of pubs and clubs but the group’s sound started to expand as a result of Barrett’s – and the rest of the group’s – experimentation with drugs, especially LSD. "The Floyd's music arose out of playing together; we didn't set out to do anything new," Barrett told a reporter for 'Beat International' in 1970. "We worked up 'See Emily Play' and so on quite naturally from the Rolling Stones numbers we used to play." Along with this interest in narcotics, a hippie subculture of “flower children” was beginning to take root, growing out of the post-beat area and listening to the latest, “psychedelic” sounds. Now just going under the name of Pink Floyd, Barrett and co. effectively became the house band of swinging London as a staple attraction at underground clubs such as the UFO Club on Tottenham Court Road, run by the band’s future producer Joe Boyd, and Middle Earth. They were effectively the darlings of the UK's psychedelic scene with their crazed performances and primitive light show becoming a focal point for the burgeoning scene. Polydor initially offered the band a contract but that was turned down in favour of signing with EMI. Apparently the label didn’t know that much about them and, according to one tale, when executives first met their latest addition to the roster one asked which one was Pink. Before signing with EMI the band had teamed up with Boyd to record what would become the band’s first single, the psychedelic 'Arnold Layne'. Written by Barrett the song concerning transvestism was based on a real character that stole underwear from the washing line of Waters’ mother who took in lodgers from the local women's college. Despite the prevailing norms of the time the song narrowly missed being banned by the BBC and made it into the Top 20 of the charts. EMI executives dumped Boyd as the band’s producer – despite Barrett’s protests – and bought in the in-house Norman Smith. 'See Emily Play' with 'Scarecrow' on the B-side was even more popular when it was released in May 1967, reaching number six and earning them the honour of miming to the song on the BBC’s 'Top of the Pops'. Although the true identity of Emily was never revealed it’s been speculated that Barrett was thinking of Emily Tacita Young, the daughter of the second Baron Kennet who was dubbed “the psychedelic schoolgirl” at the UFO Club. The song had an impact on the young David Bowie who would later cover the song for his 'Pin Ups' album. Blur would largely take the blueprint of the song for their single 'There’s No Other Way'. Both 'Arnold Layne' and 'See Emily Play' were early psychedelic masterpieces and worthy alone of wonderful examples of Barrett’s unique writing ability. Pink Floyd’s debut album 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn' followed in August 1967, its name coming from a chapter in 'The Wind in the Willows'. Released during the high tide of Britain’s “Summer of Love” it reached number six in the album charts and is perhaps Barrett's most complete and rewarding statement. Interestingly enough, whilst the band were in Abbey Road recording the album, the Beatles were down the hall putting together 'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'. On 21 March the members of Pink Floyd met up with the Fab Four in Studio 2 as the finishing touches were being done to 'Lovely Rita'. Apparently Paul MacCartney was particularly taken with the band. Alongside such cosmic-inspired songs like 'Astronomy Domine' and the album’s centrepiece 'Interstellar Overdrive' (inspired, supposedly, by Love's version of 'My Little Red Book') there were also strong influences of Barrett’s interest in the surrealism of Lewis Carroll and the nonsense verse of Edward Lear in songs such as 'Take up Thy Stethoscope and Walk' and 'The Gnome'. Mixing up all these elements – and from a very English perspective - was the album’s tour de force, the closing 'Bike': “I've got a bike, you can ride it if you like it It's got a basket, a bell that rings and things to make it look good I'd give it to you if I could, but I borrowed it.” The album pioneered free-form improvisation in rock music drawing on free jazz exponents such as Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane's 'Om'. A less noticeable influence on the album was Handel's 'Messiah'. Barrett had attend a recital of the piece at the Royal Albert Hall with his flatmate Peter Wynne Wilson which Wilson described to Mojo as "quite the most extraordinary thing I'd ever encountered". But cracks were beginning to appear. Barrett´s behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic. The situation worsened by his almost daily consumption of drugs, especially LSD. Barrett wouldn´t turn up for gigs and when he did he was often so out of it he would merely stand there almost in a catatonic state playing just one note all night. The situation worsened during the band's first tour of the USA in October. Often Barrett would stare vacantly into the audience oblivious to the band around him. Invited on to 'Dick Clark's Bandstand' Barrett made no attempt to mime to 'See Emily Play' ; interviewed on the 'Pat Boone Show' the band appeared but Barrett refused to answer any of the questions. Before going on stage at the Cheetah Club in Santa Monica Barrett, unhappy with his Vidal Sasson haircut, he emptied a tin of Brylcreem on his head. He then produced a bottle of Mandrax and crushed them into the mess on his head. The band took the stage and under the hot lights the Brylcreem started to melt until he started to resemble "a gutted candle". The fans at the front screamed as it appeared that Barrett's face was rapidly decomposing. Barrett was still on a creative high and it was around then that he penned 'Vegetable Man' and 'Scream Thy Last Scream' - neither of which have officially been released. He also worked on another song called 'Have You Got It Yet?' Barrett would chant the song title over and over to a complex pattern of chord changes that Waters and Wright would have difficulty in following. Once they got the hang of it, Barrett would simply change the chords and the learning process would start all over again. Although Barrett was the band´s main songwriter the other members decided that he had to go. A compromise was initially decided upon where guitarist Dave Gilmour was brought in so that Barrett could focus solely on songwriting. Barrett´s mental state wasn´t even up to that and halfway through the recording of the second album, 'Saucerful of Secrets', Barrett was ousted from Pink Floyd for good in April 1968. Although he would, later, turn up to gigs with his guitar expecting to play, he would never perform with the band again. Earlier this year Gilmour said, in reference to Barrett's drug intake: "I'll say the psychedelic experience might well have acted as a catalyst. Still, I just don't think he could deal with the vision of success and all the things that went with it." Despite Barrett only having a minimal input on 'Saucerful of Secrets' his influence is strongly felt on the album. On the finale of 'Jugband Blues' Barrett´s harrowing lyric seems to detail his own mental collapse. The bridge of the song was played by the brass section of the Salvation Army Band. Barrett simply instructed the musicians to play whatever they wanted. After a spell in a Cambridge psychiatric hospital Barrett returned to the studio to record what would be his debut solo album 'The Madcap Laughs'. In stark contrast to the grand arrangements of Pink Floyd, Barrett´s solo album was stark and minimal, almost as if the songs were still at the "work in progress" stage waiting to polished. 'The Madcap Laughs' still manages to captivate with its simplicity. According to Barrett he wanted to "retain the 'Emily' sort of things that were there and on maybe two tracks of the first album." 'No Good Trying', 'Dark Globe' and the opening 'Terrapin' portray Barrett´s anguish and still sound harrowing. There were still flashes of sheer beauty too. 'Golden Hair' was a James Joyce poem that Barrett set to music and gave it an ethereal, other-worldly atmosphere. Even with the help of Gilmour and Waters the album took around 15 months to complete. On a creative roll Barrett almost immediately returned to the studio once the album had been released in early 1970, picking Gilmour to produce what would become 'Barrett'. While Barrett's second album contains some flashes of brilliance - 'Gigolo Aunt', 'Rats' and 'Dominoes' - it couldn't quite manage the brilliance of 'The Madcap Laughs'. The closing 'Effervescing Elephant', although drawing inspiration from the likes of Ogden Nash and Hilaire Belloc, just sounded stupid and dumb. Neither of his solo albums sold that well. "It [Barrett's music] puts people off their guard," Barrett told 'Beat International'. "I think that people miss the fact that it's obviously a gentler thing [than Pink Floyd's music] because it's clever and it's into that more than content. The message might be a bit lost because people find it hard to grasp." In the same interview Barrett expressed his own contradictory position about the artistic worth of pop music. Although Barrett, at the time, was "still in love with being a pop star" he admitted: "I don't really know if pop is an art form. I should think as much as sitting down is." Barrett even returned to the stage whilst making 'Barrett' playing at London's Olympia but the whole project was doomed and after playing just four songs at breakneck speed he simply put down his guitar saying "Thank you and goodnight" and walked off, not to return. Soon afterwards he left his London flat in Earls Court and walked all the way to his mother's house in Cambridge where he made the basement his home. He would live there for the rest of his life. In 1971 he told 'Beat International' that "It's a nice place to live really - under the ground." Barrett put another band together in 1972 called Stars with former Pink Fairies' member Twink and ex-Delivery bassist Jack Monck. The trio made their debut at the Cambridge Corn Exchange supporting the MC5 but the gig was a disaster largely because they were under-rehearsed. The band started off with a slow version of 'Octopus' which was enough for half of the audience to walk out. Those that stayed witnessed Barrett seemingly stop playing whenever he felt like it or simply scratch his nose mid song. Inevitably Stars was short lived as he failed to turn up for gigs. Recordings of the band are said to exist, but as yet none have surfaced. Another attempt to resurrect Barrett's musical career was made in 1974 when he entered a recording studio but it was clear to all present that Barrett wasn't really interested and the project was quickly abandoned. Barrett's musical talent that had shone so intently for a brief period had been snuffed out. An attempt was made to make a third album after his former manager Peter Jenner contacted him. The project never really got off the ground as Barrett bit the engineer's hand and throughout the session all he wanted to record was an endless and tuneless guitar instrumental. Barrett spent the rest of his life living like a recluse in Cambridge, shunning any attention from fans or queries from the media. The royalties from the sales of Pink Floyd's albums ensured that he didn't have to work and could concentrate on his painting. Barrett still held sway over Pink Floyd and in 1975 they went into Abbey Road studios to record 'Wish You Were Here' with an entire half of the record comprising of a song called 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' in honour of their friend. During the recording of the song Barrett had somehow got in and was simply listening. Initially none of the band recognised him at all as Barrett had shaved his head and eyebrows and gained a lot of weight. Some accounts of this meeting have Barrett jumping up and down whilst holding a toothbrush to his teeth. Over the years a whole legend grew up about Barrett mixing up fact and fiction. Some stories, especially in the early stages of his mental disintegration when his drug consumption was at its height, have to be taken with a large pinch of salt. Tales, such the supposed time he locked his then girlfriend Lindsay Corner up in his room for three days, feeding her biscuits that he pushed under the door, have later been disputed. There have even been tales that his flatmates would even spike his tea with LSD. Even the reliability of some eye-witnesses have been doubted with them admitting that they were just as high on LSD as Barrett was. His musical ability has been kept alive over the years thanks to compilations such as 'Opel' in 1988 which contained unreleased solo material. 'Opel' and Barrett's two studio albums were put in a plush box set five years later and in 2001 a "best of" compilation was issued, containing the much bootlegged 'Bob Dylan Blues'. There have been a few attempts at a biography over the years, the best of which is Mike Watkinson and Pete Anderson's 'Crazy Diamond' originally published in 1991. Barrett simply ignored all the attention - reverting back to saying his name was Roger rather than Syd. He even turned down an offer of $500,000 from Atlantic in 1992 to record "three or four songs" at his convenience. Barrett found the BBC's Omnibus documentary on him "a bit noisy" but apparently enjoyed listening to 'See Emily Play' once again. He also reportedly had little interest in Pink Floyd's compilation 'Echoes' upon which a fifth of the material was written by Barrett. "If he hadn't had his complete nervous breakdown, he could easily have been one of the greatest songwriters today," said Pink Floyd's Rick Wright in 1988. A sentiment no doubt agreed upon by many of the musicians who have acknowledged Barrett's influence. David Bowie sang 'See Emily Play' for his covers album 'Pin Ups' while the Jesus and Mary Chain swamped Barrett's early Pink Floyd song 'Vegetable Man' in shrieking feedback for the B-side of their debut single 'Upside Down'. Robyn Hitchcock also had a bash at the song with his band the Soft Boys as well as 'Gigolo Aunt'. Also having a go at Barrett's songs have been REM, the Flaming Lips, Smashing Pumpkins and Placebo - to name a few. While the Sex Pistols proclaimed "I hate Pink Floyd" and the whole hippie idealism, manager Malcolm McLaren tried (but failed) to add a couple of Barrett's songs to the band's repertoire. The Damned also had a soft spot for Barrett and tried, unsuccessfully, to get him to produce their second album. Kevin Ayres dedicated 'Oh! Wot a Dream', from his 1973 album 'Bananamour' to Barrett. For much of the 1980's and 90's Barrett became something of a musical pied piper for many indie hopefuls. When Alan McGee founded Creation Records in 1983 he wanted to merge the legacies of "Joy Division and Syd Barrett". Even now Pete Doherty, with his bands The Libertines and Babyshambles, has picked up on Barrett's groundbreaking work. Perhaps most famous of all was the Television Personalities' 1981 single 'I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives'. Barrett's status as cult genius has never gone out of fashion. For far too brief a period Barrett shone like the sun before it all crashed down around him. No doubt his impact will still be felt years from now. In his musical prime Barrett was the golden boy of the psychedelic era and also its most tragic victim.

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