Q Magazine January 2004.
(Transcript thanks to Natalie Lyons)
The Chemical Brother
He was a pin-up on London’s underground club scene. But when Syd Barrett zonked out live on US TV, neither Pink Floyd or their acid-frazzled singer would be quite the same again.
It’s 5 November 1967; the English night sky is ablaze, as it is every year, a carnival of crackling lights and burning anti-heroes. Several thousand miles away, in a television studio in Los Angeles, the newly crowned “Light Kings Of England” are preparing to put a rocket up Middle America. From the psychedelic cellars of underground London, they are The Pink Floyd, an esoteric “light and sound” experience and the embodiment of flower power’s remarkable efflorescence that summer.
But on this day, Syd Barrett, the group’s guitarist, songwriter and brightest star, refused to ignite. “He knew perfectly well what was going on,” reckoned bassist Roger Waters, who saved face by miming the vocal at a moments notice. “He was just being crazy.” Then the show’s host Pat Boone asked Barrett some questions. Nothing, just a deadened gaze.
The following day, the group were being filmed for Dick Clark’s influential American Bandstand show. Out of sync, out of sorts and free falling into pop mythology, Barrett was at it again. But was this “being crazy” or something more disturbing? Fixing the camera with a penetrating stare, this shock-haired, lampstand-thin refusenik epitomised the confrontational side of the counter-culture. But that stare – which friends recall with as much dread as they remember the bounce in his step with affection – is jarred by Barrett’s intermittent blinking, reminiscent of those unsuspecting victims of the camera’s gaze in Michael Powell’s voyeuristic masterpiece, Peeping Tom. It is a tic of the haunted, suggesting imminent emotional collapse. Syd Barrett was clocking the camera, but he was staring into the abyss.
The year of 1967 was when pop made its great escape. The Beatles had grown up, and so had their audience. Sgt Pepper raised the possibility of pop as an art form. While hallucinogenic drugs proved that reality was only a state of mind. Being crazy was de rigueur in ’67 hippy heaven. “It was fashionable for everyone to sit around with staring eyes… like everyone was demented and totally out of their minds,” noted Daevid Allen, then of The Pink Floyd’s peers, The Soft Machine.
“The oblivion factor was very tempting,” admits in-crowder and Barrett intimate Jenny Fabian. “It’s a sensual, decedent thing, and you’re very tempted by a bit of that when you’re young,” And LSD, the drug of choice for the era’s pleasure seekers, served up an exceptionally seductive oblivion. “It was a drug you didn’t want to come down from, because once you’d been to the land of beyond, reality was not a nice place to come back to.”
Most of that generation’s tripped-out hedonists eventually dropped back into the real world. Roger Keith “Syd” Barrett has too, in a reclusive kind of way. But there’s little doubt that the Cambridge-born art student, a natural aesthete, cheerful and poet-prince handsome, was altered forever by the psychedelic experience. On Jugband Blues, one of his final Pink Floyd recordings, Barrett is a ghostly presence. Gone are the upbeat, wide-eyed wonderment and witty wordplay. Instead, he delivers a solemn, valedictory lyric directed towards the band, the world, and, it seems, to himself. “I’m wondering who could be writing this song,” he muses, his voice flat with resignation.
“The pain that comes from that song is so raw,” explained David Gilmour to this writer in 2000. Barrett’s musical foil in Cambridge during the early ‘60s, Gilmour eventually replaced his friend in Pink Floyd and co-produced Barrett’s two post-Floyd albums and he has played a key role in Barrett’s life. Gilmour insists that “Syd’s story is a sad story romanticised by people who don’t know anything about it”. But try telling that to David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Jimmy Page, various Sex Pistols, Michael Stipe and Graham Coxon; all of whom have been touched by Barrett’s inspirational genius.
Dubbed “The mystery man of the group – a gypsy at heart… totally artistic” by Disc & Music Echo in July 1967, Barrett trod the high road in search of total sensory experience. That’s why, for over 35 years, his has remained one of rock’s archetypal tales. Rich in juxtaposition – international fame / provincial obscurity, genius / madness, psychedelic drugs / psychotic palliatives, youth / maturity and, most powerful of all, that tricky life / art conundrum – it’s a wonder neither Johnny Depp nor Leonardo DiCaprio have optioned the story.
In his heyday, Barrett existed in a kind of poetic reverie. His brief career charts the course of 1967 perfectly. “The Pink Floyd were playing the perfect music for what was happening,” insists film-maker Peter Whitehead, who also knew Barrett back in Cambridge. “People were going to their gigs stoned out of their minds on acid, and that changes your perception of time.” Audiences got lost in music. Performers, too…
Barrett’s reputation largely rests on the dozen or so pop-sized songs he wrote and sang for The Pink Floyd. As idiosyncratic as those dreamlike vignettes are, this distorts history, undermining the abandon of the band’s stupefying live shows. One critic even suggested that the Floyd’s two hit singles were a ruse that their real intent was to “make the night hideous with a thunderous, incomprehensible, screaming sonic torture”. Roger Waters was well aware of the effect of the largely improvised live sets, admitting to The Times late in 1966 that the band’s music “may give you the screaming horrors or throw you into screaming ecstasy”. But he was in little doubt of its purpose: “Definitely a complete realisation of the aims of psychedelia.”
Syd, himself, took psychedelia very seriously. Always keen to feed his head, he began to trip regularly from summer 1965. One early LSD experience, where he closely examines his pulsating hands and covers his eye sockets with mushrooms, was filmed and subsequently issued on video. A Dylan obsessive, he’s still short-haired and dressed in black. Little more than a year later, he’d blossomed into a flamboyantly attired peacock, a painter/poet poised to enter psychedelia’s promised land.
“He was just incredibly beautiful to look at and represented something that we girls wanted to save,” says Jenny Fabian, who first saw The Pink Floyd late in 1966 at the self-styled London Free School in Notting Hill. “You could see straight away he had the doomed look about him.” Such was Barrett’s effect on women that other scene-makers, such as Tiles DJ Jeff Dexter, openly admit to “following where Syd went in the hope of picking up one of his cast-offs”. But doomed, dashing looks were only half the story. “A lot of things he said were poetic, and he spoke in a poetic way,” adds Fabian. “In retrospect, I now see him as a symbol not of hopes but of dreams, a world we thought we could escape into. He represented fairyland, and not growing up. You could probably get quite Freudian about it.”
Indeed. Of the many women in Barrett’s life, none was more important than his mother Winifred who was keenly supportive of her son’s early artistic endeavours – reading, writing, painting and music, initially on piano. “His imagination, Cambridge and his home life – I’m sure all those things were major ingredients,” says Gilmour. The death of his father – a pathologist with a passion for painting – when Barrett was 12 added another, more unsettling influence. Outwardly sociable, Roger began to fill the house with a steady stream of friends, who’d join him on his £12 Hofner acoustic and bash out skiffle and rock’n’roll hits. Actively independent, ‘Syd The Beat’ took country walks and strolled around the Botanical Gardens, performing everything from Shadows covers to R&B in a succession of local bands, while showering his sweetheart Libby Gausden with letters. “Don’t think I’m one of those people who say I’ll be rich and famous one day,” he declared in one. Syd The Beat had set his sights way beyond that.
The lure of pop accelerated late in 1962 when Barrett heard The Beatles’ Love Me DO, but the effect was nothing compared to his Dylan mania the following year. “Dylan inspired others to explore new avenues,” says Gilmour, “but he was so good at it that he intimidated people.” But not Barrett, who Gilmour remembers being “the bright light of the Cambridge scene. Syd had a natural poetic gift for words; he’d effortlessly knock out stuff.” When the pair busked in the south of France, Gilmour remembers his mate writing “things like, I’ve got the aches in Aix-en-Provence, and, Stayed too long in Toulon. Constant badinage.”
Summer 1965 and the balmy St Tropez air was thick with Beatles covers. But the reconciliation of the fellow Cambridge art students was brief. Gilmour was enjoying local success with Jokers Wild, and Barrett was about t begin his second year at Camberwell Art College in South London. More importantly, he returned to rejoin the group he’d been playing with intermittently since the previous winter. Known variously as The Pink Floyd Blues Band, The Tea Set and The Pink Floyd, the name they’d settle on late in 1965, they’d played a few college dates and beat contests, though there was little to distinguish them from most other R&B-inclined hopefuls.
Three things changed all that. Syd started writing songs. The cover versions got longer. And, as The Pink Floyd began to augment their performances with films, slides and, in time, a full-blown liquid light show – a first for the UK, although the norm in San Francisco for months, pioneered by acid-rock groups such as The Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead. When David Bowie caught one of The Pink Floyd’s early performances, at the Marquee Club’s Sunday afternoon ‘Spontaneous Underground’ happenings in the spring of 1966, he was struck by the frontman with “his white face and his black eyeliner… this strange presence singing in front of a band that was using light shows”. The starched critics at the back weren’t so impressed: “substandard beat music… highly pretentious nonsense,” sniffed one.
By the autumn, the nonsense was being taken very seriously. With the support of two well-connected managers, Andrew King and Peter Jenner, The Pink Floyd now had the heady rush of a psychedelic movement gathering momentum around them. They began to draw an inquisitive crowd to a church hall in Notting Hill, new site of the London Free School. Playing there weekly throughout October and November, their reputation as Britain’s premier psychedelic group spread quickly throughout alternative London and beyond. “I saw them there at All Saints Hall on my very first acid trip,” remembers Jenny Fabian. “So drugs and The Pink Floyd hit me simultaneously.”
With and audience eager for heightened sensation, The Pink Floyd’s light and sound experiments grew wilder. “It all comes straight out of our heads,” Barrett explained, “and it’s not too hard to understand… Most people understand that what we play isn’t just a noise.” Ace Kefford from The Move, who supported The Pink Floyd at the Roundhouse around this time, remembers it differently. “Some people thought their music was absolute shite,” he says, “but when you’re tripping and you see Syd onstage with his head bowed, and all the ink blots and shadows, it made sense.”
To Arthur Brown, a regular performer at UFO, the underground hangout that winter, it all seemed like the forward march of progress. “They were drawing on Karlheinz Stockhausen, Walter Carlos and electronics, as well as the latest technological advances. Throw in LSD, the work of late-‘50s jazz pioneers, the notion of an unconscious mind which was only just being accepted, and youthful optimism, and it felt like we were going to change everything.”
Barrett had spent much of 1966 experimenting with acid, perfecting his guitar technique by running his Zippo lighter up and down the fretboard then manipulating the sound with an echo unit, and filling his loose-leaf notebook with lyrics. Constantly evolving jams had been the group’s calling card, but by the start of 1967, The Pink Floyd had a repertoire of Barrett originals ready to be refined in the studio. “It’s pop, but very free and full of improvisation,” said Waters, seeking to reconcile the irreconcilable. It was split that divided audiences and, more seriously, Barrett himself.
Syd eased the passage of the band’s transition from the jasmine-scented world of the underground to the Top Of The Pops studio. Every inch the modish pop star in his striped trousers, silk scarf and psychedelic shirt, he was a peculiarly English equivalent of The Doors’ Jim Morrison, a pop pin-up whose faraway eyes suggested he didn’t belong at all. The hits told a similar story. March 1967’s Arnold Layne and the enchanting See Emily Play, a Number 6 hit in the summer, were both neat and hook-laden, yet full of surreptitious experimentation that belied their obvious charm. Arnold Layne was “just a beginning”, Syd told his sister Rosemary. But by the summer, he complained that if John Lennon didn’t’ have to promote his records on Top Of The Pops, then neither would he.
Pop innovator or avant-garde pioneer? Barrett was probably too busy (The Pink Floyd played around 200 gigs in 1967), or too stoned to work that one out. Lost in the band’s live performances by night, roaming from one hippy hash-den to the next in the daytime, his inexorable flight from normality was virtually complete.
But where had it got him? Stories of week-long LSD binges, being locked in cupboards for his own safety and imprisoning his girlfriend for days carry a whiff of exaggeration – but not much. “The music would have held together and been successful if Syd had not simply gone on a 24-hour trip every day,” insists Peter Whitehead. “And that’s what finally blew it.”
By the time the remarkable debut album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, gave a further twist to Pink Floyd’s orientation, Barrett was in trouble. The album was, said Paul McCartney, “a knockout”; the 21-year-old man who’d written 10 of its 11 songs, the incredible energy and imagination of each, still impressive four decades on, was out of it. The “strange charisma” noted by early Floyd member Bob Klose had now become full-blown catatonia. The first person Pete Townshend had ever seen “totally gone” onstage, the brother who “had disappeared”, the partner suffering from “chronic schizophrenia”, the band member who, said Roger Waters, was “completely off his head”, psychedelia’s perfect prodigy was fast fading.
On 28 July, Barrett walked out on a Radio 1 recording session. Later that evening, he barely bothered to sing or touch his guitar at UFO. Dashing off an apology to the BBC, citing the singer’s “nervous breakdown”, Peter Jenner cancelled the group’s August engagements and packed Syd off to Spain to recuperate. But it wasn’t only Barrett’s psychedelic summer that was spinning out of control. Two Rolling Stones members had been jailed on drugs charges, UFO and the pirate radio stations were shut down by the authorities, and the underground was becoming a magnet for opportunists.
While meandering pieces such as Interstellar Overdrive and Pow R Toc H mirrored the acid experience, Barrett’s final songs for The Pink Floyd reflect the era’s messy fragmentation. The stuttering Scream Thy Last Scream was sung by drummer Nick Mason, with Syd reduced to a bizarre “She’ll be scrubbing bubbles on all fours” cameo.
Vegetable Man was stranger still, a slice of blank generation philosophy 10 years too early. Quizzed about his future for Go magazine, Barrett had been non-committal. “It’s better not having a set goal,” he replied. “You’d be very narrow-minded if you did. All I know is that I’m beginning to think less now. It’s getting better.” Stop completely, warned his inquisitor, and you’ll become a vegetable. “Yeah!” said Barrett.
“Vegetable Man was a description of himself,” Peter Jenner later told Barrett chronicler David Parker. “That was when we realised we had a serious problem”. The song was Warholian in its lyrics. “It’s what you see… it’s what I am”, Barrett wrote philosophically. The verses had a wittily self-depreciating side, too (In my paisley shirt / I look a jerk… my haircut looks so bad”). But such ideas were amusing only as long as you disregard its subtext: “I’ve been looking all over the place for a place for me,” he sang dispiritedly, “but it ain’t anywhere.” He meant it.
After that autumn’s traumatic American sojourn, and the desperate attempts to record a follow-up single to Emily (they eventually settled on Apples And Oranges, a masterclass in acid-pop brinkmanship) The Pink Floyd joined Jimi Hendrix and The Move for the last great British package tour. Ace Kefford, himself going through and acid-induced breakdown that would soon force him out of The Move, remembers that “Syd’s head had gone completely by then. He’d sit in a corner playing with a steam engine that puffed out real smoke. I tried to talk to him about the engine, but he seemed scared stiff. You can always tell by the eyes. Full of fear, man. Paranoia. That’s what acid does to you when you’re feeling vulnerable. You’re scared of everybody, scared of everything.”
Sometimes Syd wouldn’t go onstage, so the band would press-gang The Nice’s Davey O’List into action. By the end of the year, they’d called in David Gilmour. “We did five gigs, I think, as a five-piece,” he remembers. “My brief was to sing the songs and play the rhythm parts, and let Syd play what he wanted. It was a terrifying time.” By mid-January 1968, The Pink Floyd were back to a four-piece – with Syd now at home ostensibly in some vague Brian Wilson songwriting role. It didn’t work out. In April, it was announced that Barrett was no longer part of the group.
“Singing is a gas,” he claimed a few years later, “but so is doing nothing”. With Gilmour’s help, Barrett released two extraordinarily stark solo albums. He played a small handful of chaotic live performances and, more recently, has scrawled his surname 320 times for a limited-edition photo-book. But for over 30 years, he’s largely remained oblivious to the cult – in part fostered by the Floyd, who dubbed him the “Crazy Diamond” on 1975’s Wish You Were Here album – that’s grown up around him, preferring his own company and a paintbrush. He still has an acoustic guitar, though no one’s sure if he plays it.
If anything, the myth that’s grown up around Syd Barrett has tended to magnify his greatness. In a rock world stuffed with dilettantes and charlatans, he did that rare thing and embraced creativity as a way of life. And that is how myths are made. “Syd was the archetypal doomed poet who burned too bright and overdid the sacrament,” says Jenny Fabian now. And The Pink Floyd? “Nice songs, but never the same after he left.”
The Top 40 Albums, 1954-1969
Number 10: Pink Floyd – The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn
EMI Columbia, 1967
The defining album of British psychedelia.
A surprisingly cohesive blend of acid-pop and space-themed, avant-garde epics, Pink Floyd’s debut was largely the product of Syd Barrett’s drug-frazzled imagination. Though parts of it are nursery rhyme sweet, and the title comes from a chapter in Barrett’s favourite book, The Wind In The Willows, the record packs an eerie undertow. Its appeal has barely waned, with Julian Cope, The Cure’s Robert Smith and Spaceman 3/Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce queuing up to pay their respects.