Rock 'N Roll Case Study: Syd Barrett
By Sean Koepenick
For those of you who have no idea who Syd Barrett is, this essay should help to enlighten you, and hopefully peak your interest in his music. Another note to Syd die-hard fans, this essay does not attempt to tell the whole Syd story, but merely to provide a “snap-shot” of Syd’s life to the uninitiated. There are obviously more detailed articles and books out there. However I feel that many writers have either only looked at one aspect of Syd’s story-(i.e. “the madcap singer” or “the washed-up acid causality” or did not present a true cohesive narrative on all the facts available. My goal is too hopefully right this wrong and also present an objective portrait into Syd’s influence on music, from the 1960’s up until the present day. It is a wild ride, with twists and turns that are not always pretty. But it should show that for the brief moment that Syd’s star shined, all music lovers are lucky to still be able to enjoy the fractured genius of Syd’s songwriting, especially “late at night” as Syd once stated in song. This essay is merely an attempt to bring new fans into the fold.
Syd Barrett was the original lead singer and guitarist for Pink Floyd. He co-founded the band along with bassist Roger Waters in late 1965. But by April 1968, Syd was no longer a member of the band, with David Gilmour (actually one of Syd’s childhood friends) called in as a replacement. Although two solo albums followed, Syd then quickly vanished from the musical spotlight. What happened to this mis-understood pop artist?
Most casual Pink Floyd fans are not even aware of this portion of the band’s history, with the band re-grouping and going on to produce classic rock staples like “Dark Side Of The Moon” and of course, “The Wall”. Only if a Floyd fan were aware of the background of “Wish You Were Here” would he/she even have an inkling of the rise and eventual fade-out of one of rock music’s sad tragedies.
Now, I know some of you may be saying, why should I even care about Syd Barrett? Even the diehard Floyd fan may state-“I don’t even like any Pink Floyd songs that Syd wrote. ‘Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’?- Never heard it. Well, my dear readers, here is where the joy of discovery will truly reward the adventurous music lover, who is sick of some of the crap being passed off as music today.
What make Syd’s story truly unique is that the band that he formed, and named (Pink Floyd) first under Roger Waters, then later under Dave Gilmour went on to sell over 140 million albums worldwide. Syd during these years lived a mostly solitary life, away from the spotlight. He usually shunned contact with any aspect of his “previous life”. Syd in effect became one of England’s forgotten stars. The only American comparison could be drawn to Roky Erickson, another singer/guitarist who fell victim to the “too much too soon” trap and later also had to “rest” in a mental institution to recover. But where Roky’s band (The 13th Floor Elevators) quickly disintegrated under the strain, Pink Floyd soared to far greater heights. Here, then, is an overview of the musical contributions of Syd Barrett, the original leader of Pink Floyd.
Roger Keith Barrett was born on January 6, 1946 in Cambridge, England, the fourth of five children. In addition to enjoying music, he also gravitated towards art (specifically painting) at an early age. At age 11, after briefly trying the ukulele, he begged his parents to buy him a guitar. Roger’s first group was called The Hollerin’ Blues. One of the members named Clive Welham introduced Roger to Dave Gilmour at age 14.
In 1961, Roger had his first electric guitar and began playing in a group Geoff Mott And The Mottos. His friends began calling him Sid, after a local drummer named Sid Barrett. Roger changed the spelling and the nickname stuck. This same year, while only 15, his father Dr Arthur Max Barrett died of cancer. It was a serious blow to Syd, and close friends later stated that this one of the factors affecting his mental well-being, not just all the acid trips he would later indulge in during the Floyd’s early days.
But Syd carried on, honing his songwriting abilities by carrying a notebook called “Roger’s Songs” everywhere he went. He had also formed another blues/R&B based band called Those Without. But a turning point came in November 1963. Syd had been accepted at London’s Camberwell Art School. He ran into an old Cambridge friend- Roger Waters. Roger asked Syd to join his band, which among other names had gone by The T-Set and The Abdabs. The line-up was eventually whittled down to include Nick Mason on drums and Richard Wright on keyboards. Syd mentioned that two of his favorite bluesmen (both from Georgia) were Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. Pink Floyd officially took off on their new journey with a gig in 1965.
The band continued to play around London at clubs like The Marquee and UFO. Two factors brought them to the attention of Peter Jenner and Andrew King, who would both eventually sign on as managers of the group. The first was an intricate light show that went on at every gig. This was something which had never really been seen in England before. The only other band at the time doing something similar may have been The Velvet Underground-under Andy Warhol’s direction. The second factor was the decision to do strictly originals, and drop any R&B standards from the set.
The duality of Syd’s influence on the band was being reflected on the two sides of the band’s music at this stage. The one side featured long free-form instrumentals like “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Astronomy Domine” which were highlights of the light show freak-outs at UFO. The second side was the pop side, which the band’s managers hoped to exploit for commercial success. Syd was pushed to the forefront and told to “come up with a hit song”. This pressure would later be cited as one of the reasons for Syd’s eventual meltdown.
Along with the new music, the use of acid began to rear it’s ugly head within the band. LSD was now becoming the drug of choice over pot among the “Swingin’ London Set” and Syd was an active participant. (One of Syd’s friends actually filmed Syd’s first trip-it is widely available on the web as “Syd’s First Trip”. In light of what happened later, this seems kind of sick and sad. But the curious may want to seek it out.) Many friends and hangers-on would constantly drop by his flat and everything-even The cat food was spiked with acid! So many scenes would occur and this type of behavior in many ways began to overwhelm Syd’s personality and some would say-a bit too harshly-his sanity.
On March 10, 1967, Pink Floyd’s first single “Arnold Layne” was released by EMI and became a UK Top 20 hit. It did cause some controversy and was banned by Radio London for being “too smutty”. The song seems tame by today’s standards however. It’s basically a humorous song about a cross-dresser who would steal women’s clothes off a clothesline and eventually gets caught.
“Arnold Layne had a strange hobbyDave Gilmour would later reference this song and “See Emily Play” and say that Syd “could have beat Ray Davies (of The Kinks) at his own game-had he stayed on he would have been second only to Dylan”. The second single “See Emily Play” was released on June 16, 1967 and was also a UK smash. This song was based on a 16 year old school girl who frequented Floyd shows but was made fun of by the older crowd (“Emily tries but misunderstands.”). Suddenly Pink Floyd was a pop sensation, even appearing on “Top Of The Pops”. Syd became the focal point of the group, and he was struggling to keep everything under control. Acid was obviously not helping the situation.
The “Summer Of Love” was in full force in England and while The Beatles were recording “Sgt Pepper” down the hall at EMI, Pink Floyd was recording ‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn”. (They did meet by the way, with Paul McCartney being particularly interested in the group’s sound.) Produced by Norman Smith, the album veered from long jams on a few tracks to whimsical pop tunes on the others. Syd’s contribution to the album’s success was immeasurable. He wrote all the songs except one and created a sonic landscape of guitar effects using wah-wah, distortion and other strange methods (such as playing with a ruler) to create effects. The combination worked extremely well and this release is seen as a classic today.
“Matilda Mother” talks about an ancient king, “Flaming” discusses unicorns and “The Gnome” is you guessed it-about a gnome! True psychedelic whimsy at it’s finest. But probably the best song on “Piper” is “Bike”. While showing off Syd’s song writing capabilities, it also shows him already fraying at the edges.
“I’ve got a bike-you can ride it if you likeThe end of the song portrays the singer slowly slipping into madness, with clocks and chimes going off haphazardly. (Pink Floyd would later rehash Syd’s idea on the song “Time”). “Piper” is one of Syd’s finest moments, and I think it is his best in a band setting.
Although “Piper” was well received in both the UK and abroad, the pressure was still on Syd to produce the next big single. But when “Apples and Oranges” was released on Nov 17, 1967 it tanked. Syd said he “couldn’t care less” but this was probably not the case. An American tour for Floyd had begun, and Syd was starting to crack under the strain. The band was growing frustrated and some within their circle had started to question if Syd would still be able to function in the group at all. Some TV appearances in the US were so awful that the band agreed that something had to be done. “Dick Clark’s Bandstand” required a mime job and “Syd Wasn’t into moving his lips that day”. “The Pat Boone Show” was even worse. Syd refused to answer any of the host’s questions, just staring into space instead.
Nevertheless, work began on the second album-“A Saucerful Of Secrets”. Syd was simply not up to the task. Only one song written by Barrett made it onto the album-“Jugband Blues”. “Jugband” is very spooky, only because it documents the singer basically having a nervous breakdown in front of you.
It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here.
Two other Barrett tracks-“Vegetable Man” and “Scream Thy Last Scream” were considered “too dark” by Roger Waters and were kept off the album and remain unreleased. “Secrets” was released on June 29, 1968. Syd’s old friend Dave Gilmour was brought in as a fifth member and to back up Syd on gigs that he could not cut it for whatever reasons (mostly drugs like Mandrax). After about 5 weeks as a five-piece, Floyd just stopped picking Syd up on the way to gigs. It was very painful for all the band members, but in many ways it was necessary for the band’s career.
Pink Floyd would then go onto to critical and commercial success without Syd. The shadow of Syd Barrett would continue to haunt them throughout their career, but would also lead to sorrowful inspiration. Dave Gilmour admitted that albums like “Ummagumma” and “Meddle” “lacked focus”. But “Dark Side of The Moon” and “Wish You Were Here” was more cohesive and discussed “Syd” related themes. Two songs-“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” and “Wish You Were Here” were about Syd. In 1975, after not having any contact with the band for 6 years, Syd showed up
unannounced at the studios, a toothbrush in his mouth, ready to play guitar on the album. Rick Wright at first did not even recognize him. Syd looked drastically different. He was bald, overweight, and generally disoriented. When Roger Waters played “Shine On” for Syd, his only comment was “sounds kind of old”. Dave Gilmour manages Syd’s recordings now as Rick noted in a1996 interview-“We don’t see him, because apparently if he’s ever reminded of Pink Floyd and when he was in it, he goes into a depression for weeks on end. His mother asked us years ago to stay away.” The band still wonders if they could have handled anything differently but I believe they did the best they could, trying to put up with Syd’s fragile mindset for as long as possible.
But what road did Syd travel after leaving the band? He first retreated from the whole chaotic London scene, moving back to Cambridge. He lived in his mother’s basement, surrounded by his artwork and his guitars. Floyd’s managers had jumped ship, thinking Floyd could not go on without Syd, and stuck with Syd instead. After about a year’s time he contacted Peter Jenner about recording again. These sessions, first produced by Malcolm Jones, then with Gilmour and Waters taking over, produced Syd’s first solo album-“The Madcap Laughs”.
Although some might say this release is a rambling mess, hampered by false starts, fumbled notes, and off-key vocals, others consider this his finest work. This is a mostly acoustic album, as it had become too difficult for other musicians to keep up with Syd’s irregular timing. Stand-out tracks include “Terrapin”, “Late At Night” and “Dark Globe (Wouldn’t You Miss me)”. Waters considers “Globe” to be Syd’s best song.
“My head kissed the ground“Mapcap” was released on January 3, 1970 with the cover photo taken by Mick Rock, at Syd’s request. Mick also conducted an interview with Syd at his house that came out in 1971. Although Syd was no longer taking acid, he was not quite back to normal. “But you know man, I am totally together- I even think I should be.” Uh-OK. A month after this interview, the self-imposed isolation got to Syd. He put his head through the basement ceiling, requiring a trip to the hospital.
Syd’s second solo album, called “Barrett” was quickly recorded and released on Sept. 14, 1970. Gilmour and Rick Wright produced, some might say over-produced. The backing tracks were much more elaborate than “Mapcaps”, probably due to Wright’s influence. But tracks such as ‘Baby Lemonade” and ‘Dominoes” were still able to cut through the clutter. Syd did play live a few times in 1970, mostly with Gilmour on bass guitar. He also briefly teamed up with a band called Stars featuring a drummer named Twink from The Pink Fairies (don’t ask!). But after a bad review of an opening gig for the MC5, Syd disappeared again.
Syd has spent most of his time since then out of the spotlight. He doesn’t do interviews, and lives alone in a modest house in Cambridge, supporting himself off royalties. After his mother Winifred died in 1991, his condition worsened. He is partially blind now, after complications from diabetes. There is little chance that he will ever record again. It seems that all Syd wants now is to be left alone. Most fans have respected his wishes, but some have not. Gilmour was furious when a band called TV Personalities gave directions to Syd’s house during a show in the early 1990’s. Recent pictures of Syd, snapped on the fly when he did leave his house, show a tired old man-looking like he does not want to be photographed at all!
Demand for Syd’s music has not slowed down over the years. Dave Gilmour (who manages Syd’s recorded output), has chosen to release bits and pieces. But on Oct. 17, 1988, Syd fans were rewarded with “Opel”, which is basically a collection of outtakes from the 1st two solo albums. Previously unreleased songs like the title track and “Dolly Rocker” are pop gems that do not disappoint. “Dolly” has one of Syd’s great lines-“She’s as cute as a squirrel’s nut”! The version of “Dark Globe” here is actually more enjoyable, featuring a less forced vocal than the “Mapcaps” take. But not every track is this engaging. The two versions of “Golden Hair” are meandering and redundant. But overall this is a worthwhile addition to the Syd canon.
April 2001 saw a new collection entitled “Wouldn’t You Miss Me..The Best of” hit the shelves. Consisting mostly of previously released material, it does feature one “new” song called “Bob Dylan Blues”. Written before his Floyd days, this acoustic song paints a picture of a remarkably lucid and playful Syd. Over a precise percussive strumming, it’s in stark contrast to some of the off-kilter tracks that surfaced on “Mapcaps”. If this is the last tune we get from Syd, Gilmour may have saved the best for last.
Got the Bob Dylan Blues
Syd’s influence on other artists continues to be strong to this day. Of course there was the inevitable tribute album in the early 1990’s “Beyond The Wildwood”. It was mainly a collection of lesser known bands covering Barrett songs. But many other artists have covered Syd as well. David Bowie covered “See Emily Play” on his covers album (“Pinups”) in 1978. The Jesus and Mary Chain and Robyn Hitchcock (with The Soft Boys) both tackled the unreleased “Vegetable Man”. Love & Rockets and The Lightning Seeds took a stab at “Lucifer Sam”. The Smashing Pumpkins did a respectable cover of “Terrapin”.
Glimpses of Syd still come through to the real world now and again. Photographer Mick Rock just released a book of photos of Syd entitled “Psychedelic Renegades”. 320 of the prints were actually signed by Syd himself. But if you are ever traveling in England, please respect Syd’s privacy-don’t try to look him up. Last year someone snapped a picture of Syd and tried to ask him what he thought of “Wouldn’t You Miss Me”. His curt response was “I think you had better leave it. I don’t do that anymore.”
Syd fans should be content that for a few brief shining moments, he allowed us to peek into his special world. Whatever the reasons that pushed Syd out of reality’s edges (drugs, peer pressures, psychological problems), all of us are lucky to be able to re-live his creative genius by listening to the music he left us. Shine on you crazy diamond, indeed. We do miss you Syd!
(I would like to acknowledge and thank the author of www.sydbarrett.net, Steven Schneider for providing valuable background information).
Selected Syd discography:
“The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn”-(with Pink Floyd)
Sites about Syd: