He was Pink Floyd’s astral voyager who went too far, the star-child of psychedelia who never returned from his journey to inner space.
Nearly 30 years after his brief creative shining, the cult of Syd Barrett continues to fascinate new generations. Cliff Jones investigates the truth behind the myth of the original Crazy Diamond.
In a private ward at the Adenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge, where a Barrett Room is named in honour of his late father, the respected pathologist, Syd Barrett lies resting. He is now almost totally blind, following complications arising from diabetes. The prognosis isn’t good if he does not routinely take the prescribed insulin, and Barrett seems either incapable or unwilling to do so by himself. Since the death of his mother Winifred in 1991, Syd has often lapsed into diabetic coma, apparently unconcerned about his helth. However, he is watched over by a tight network of understanding relatives and neighbours.
When he’s healthy, Syd lives a peaceful, comfortable life in one of a secluded row of semi-detached houses on the outskirts of Cambridge. His earnigns from his recordings are substantial and he wants for very little, though he chooses a modest existence. Nevertheless, he is still in an emotionally precatious state; talk of his illustrious past can trigger bouts of depression, sometimes stretching to weeks. For this reason, none of his former colleagues in Pink Floyd have direct contact with him anymore.
Barrett’s mental illness has provided the rock world with some of its most enduring anecdotes. What should be remembered, though, is that behind these acts of inspired eccentricity lay a creative but profoundly confused mind and an unhappy individual. Though Syd’s moment was only briefly bright, his wild worldview continues to delight listeners and his life still influences the work of Pink Floyd. The word “genius” is often attached to his memory as fans wax fondly about his child-like, trippy songs that came to define British psychedelia. Former friends have been known to refer to him as “almost too talanted”. But was he a visionary or simply a regular middle-class kid with a fixation on his idyllic childhood who blew his mind for eternity on too much high-grade acid?
Classcial music enthusiast Dr Arthur Max Barrett and his wife Winifred were raising a family of keen musicians. Roger Keith Barrett, the youngest of three sons and the fourth of their five children, was born at Glisson Road, Cambridge on January 6, 1946 and grew up in a house on Hills Road, Cherry Hinton. He soon became a valuable contributor to the family’s spontaneous musical evenings, playing piano duets with his younger sister Rosemary.
Roger was a bright, funny and popular child who, apart from music, excelled at art and was seldom happier at school than when he was messing with brushes and paints. At the age of 11 he turned his hand to the ukelele, a gift from his father, and, following the skiffle boom, like many kids present at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, was soon begging his parents for a proper guitar. As his elder siblings left home Roger had the run of the place, and the house in Hills Road became a natural meeting place for schoolkids interested in rock and blues music. Clive Welham and John Gordon joined Roger in an ad hoc combo they called The Hollerin’ Blues. Welham also introduced Roger to a proficient 14-year-old guitarist named David Gilmour.
In 1961, 15-year-old Roger acquired his first electric guitar, found a steady girlfriend and began frequenting the local Riverside Jazz Club. The regulars noticed the handsome schoolboy who often sat by himself in a corner of the venue. Discovering his name was Barrett, they took to calling him Sid after ancient local drummer Sid Barrett. School friends heard about the nickname and adopted it too. When he became a semi-pro musician, playing with Geoff Mott And The Mottoes, a dance combo which gigged at Cambridge parties, he took the spelling “Syd” to distinguish himself from his namesake.
Roger’s happy young life hit its first black spot the same year when his father fell seriously ill. Suddenly, the Barrett family’s world was turned on its head. Inoperable cancer was diagnosed and Max Barrett died suddenly on December 11. Syd had religiously kept a diary ever since his eleventh birthday. He left the entry for this day blank.
By 1963, inspired by The Beatles, Syd was writing his own lyrics, storing them in a ring-binder marked “Roger’s songs”. His early attempts often amounted to little more than snatched ideas, single verses with a simple melody over a few guitar chords, but he gradually developed a strong style: catchy tunes and humorous rhymes inspired by his love of Edward Lear, English folk balladry and the storytelling tradition of the American Delta bluesmen. But it was some time before he felt confident enough to play these songs in public. A student band called Those Without he formed while on an art foundation course at Cambridge Technical College were another standard teen combo concentrating on R&B staples.
On November 26, 1963, Syd was forced to miss a long-anticipated Beatles gig at the Regal Cinema, Cambridge to attend an interview at London’s Camberwell Art School. Winning a place he began studying there the following summer and immediately hooked up with Cambridge friend Roger Waters, now a student at Regent Street Polytechnic. Roger had started a group calling itself variously Sigma 6, The T-Set, The Meggadeaths and The Abdabs. He asked Syd to join the line-up, complementing Waters on bass, fellow architectural student Nick Mason on drums and Cambridge jazz guitarist Bob Klose. After a spell as Leonard’s Lodgers, they added pianist Rick Wright and blues singer Chris Dennis with a view to emulating The Rolling Stones. Syd suggested they rename themselves The Pink Floyd after two Georgia bluesmen, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. Their first gig, almost entirely comprising old blues and R&B tunes, was late in 1965.
For the extended summer vacation that year, Syd went on a busking holiday in the South of France with David Gilmour who had been teaching him Stones riffs and bottleneck slide techniques during college lunch hours. Dave had just formed his own R&B band, Jokers Wild. Though the pair managed to get arrested for lewd behaviour in a St Tropez nightclub, Syd returned from the trip refreshed and full of ideas, a budding guitarist carrying a notebook crammed with potential lyrics.
Meanwhile, other Cambridge friends, Ian ‘Imo’ Moore, Dave Gale, Storm Thorgerson and Nigel Gordon, had been experimenting with a phial of pure liquid LSD-25. Gordon had married and moved to London to become a filmmaker and made a connection with Michael Hollingshead, the Englishman who’d turned Timothy Leary on to the yet-to-be-criminalised hallucinogenic. “Hollingshead was passionate. Once he arrived everyone was spiked,” recalls journalist Miles. “He turned Leary on and he wanted to turn the rest of the world on too.”
Moore and Gordon were anxious to initiate Syd into the ways of the new wonder drug. Moore set up a psychedelic garden party at Gale’s home while his parents were away on holiday. The friends laced sugarcubes with generous doses of liquid LSD, and, having absorbed the drug through their skin, were tripping by the time Syd arrived. Barrett took his cube with little idea of what to expect and spent the next 12 hours, according to Storm Thorgerson, “lost in space”. Syd seized an orange and a plum from the household fruit bowl and carried them everywhere during his trip. In his altered state the fruits came to represent the planets Jupiter and Venus. Syd imagined himself suspended in place between the two planets for hours until someone ate his plum (Venus) and his universe collapsed.”We were all seeking higher elevation and wanted everyone to experience this incredible drug,” says Gordon. “Syd was very self-obsessed and uptight in many ways so we thought it was a good idea. In retrospect I don’t think he was equipped to deal with the experience because he was unstable to begin with. Syd was a very simple person who was having very profound experiences that he found it hard to deal with.”
Syd came down from his trip convinced that he had encountered the full majesty of the universe and began to search for a way to express what he’d seen in his music. He often carried with him a small Times Astronomical Atlas, which included speculation from noted astronomers on the likely surface conditions of each of the planets in the solar system. Syd combined this information with allusions to astronaut Dan Dare, Pilot Of The Future (a popular strip from boys’ comic The Eagle) into a string of lyrics which would, a year later, become Astronomy Domine.
Barrett and his friends would spend subsequent weekends smoking dope and experimenting with LSD. According to Storm Thorgerson, who would go on to design many of Pink Floyd’s album covers, Syd was “always experimenting, a very open sort of mind, empirical to an almost dangerous degree. But whether he was any more enlightened as a result is anyone’s guess.”
Shortly afterwards, 20-year-old student Peter Whitehead moved into the Cambridge house of family friends, the Mitchells. Barrett was seeing the Mitchell’s daughter Juliet, who’d persuaded her parents to let Syd and his friends practise their music in the basement during the holiday. “It sounded awful to me,” recalls Whitehead, “…like listening to bad Schoenberg.”
In the summer of 1966, Peter Whitehead moved to London to become a filmmaker and share a flat with Anthony Stern, another old friend from Cambridge, and soon fell in with the loose-knit group of Cantabrigian émigrés to London which included The Pink Floyd, who’d started to appear at regular ‘happenings’ held on a Sunday afternoon at the Marquee club.
For Whitehead, the main draw to their shows wasn’t the cacophonous music of The Pink Floyd but Syd’s latest girlfriend, Jenny Spires. Unbeknownst to Syd, Peter and Jenny had a short but “tempestuous” fling, after which, in an attempt to appease a guilty conscience, Spires persuaded a sceptical (and jealous) Whitehead to help fund a studio session for Syd’s peculiar group with a view to including their music in the film he was making. Taking its name from an Allen Ginsberg poem, the feature length Tonite Let’s All Make Love In London sought to capture the essence of what Time magazine had dubbed “Swinging London”, an essence distilled from Mini Coopers, micro skirts, and Union Jack lunacy.
At about this time, Miles, then on the staff of underground newpaper International Times (IT), played Peter Jenner (who with Andrew King managed The Pink Floyd as Blackhill Enterprises) a copy of the debut album by West Coast psychedelic folk-rockers Love. Jenner was so impressed with what he’d heard that when he next time met Syd he attempted to explain how the album sounded.”I was trying to tell him about one song I couldn’t remember the title of, so I just hummed the main riff. Syd picked up his guitar and followed what I was
humming, chord-wise. I’m not the world’s greatest singer; in fact I’ve got a terrible sense of pitch. He played back a riff on his guitar, said, ‘It goes like this?’ And of course it was quite different because my humming was so bad! The chord pattern he worked out he went on to use as his main riff for Interstellar Overdrive.” The song Jenner was attempting to hum was Love’s version of the Burt Bacharach and Hal Davies song My Little Red Book. Others, notably Roger Waters, also detected a hint of Ron Grainer’s theme to Steptoe And Son in Syd’s new riff.
Often stretching for over half an hour and always sonically disorientating, Interstellar Overdrive became an aural replica of an LSD trip’s dislocation and confusion, and it lit the way for the total abandonment of conventional musical structures that began in earnest in 1966. There was very little precedent for this sound in Britain, apart from maybe The Who. When the Floyd began playing Interstellar Overdrive in April 1966, The Beatles’ psychedelic B-side Rain had yet to be released and Revolver was still four months away. During the Floyd’s residencies at the Marquee and the UFO clubs, Interstellar Overdrive became the cornerstone of the show. A wildly unpredictable, chemically-inspired
instrumental of indeterminate length required a considerable leap of faith for a pop audience weaned on blues or Merseybeat, but it soon became a curious anthem for the emerging underground scene.
Syd’s explorations into free jazz and druggy pop were much less contrived than those of other would-be psychedelicists of the time. “They would take musical innovation further out than it had ever been before,” recalls Miles, “dancing along crumbling precipices, saved sometimes only by the confidence beamed at them from the audience sitting at their feet.”
One experience that proved highly influential on Barrett in this period was hearing Handel’s Messiah performed at the Albert Hall while he was tripping. Peter Wynne Wilson, who shared a flat in Earlham Street with Barrett, confirms the impact of tht evening as “quite the most extraordinary thing I’d ever encountered.” Coupling this with his fascination for John Coltrane’s free-form masterwork, Om , Syd attempted to recreate the complex beauty of The Messiah on drugs, using electric guitars howling into feedback.
Syd gave the guitar an entirely new sound featuring brash swathes of noice, heavy on the delays. It could be seen as the aural equivalent of his expressionist painting; spontaneous, colourful, primal. “It was all very much part of Syd’s approach not to separate things into categories,” recalls Andrew King. “He saw art and music as complimentary and he was always trying to get his music to sound like his art and vice versa.” And, indeed, his playing could be as detailed as the still life studies he also painted – for example, the insects on the cover of Barrett .
Syd had seen a Binson Echorec being used in May 1966, when he’d been invited to watch experimental electronic band AMM recording their debut album with Joe Boyd. AMM’s guitarist was Keith Rowe, who favoured an unsentimental approach to his instrument that made use of effects, treatments and the use of assorted household implements. One of his favourite effects was achieved by running a plastic ruler up and down his guitar strings for an unusual grating sound. (Apart from Interstellar Overdrive, Syd used this trick on the middle section of Arnold
Layne while the guitar was routed through the Binson.) Seeing AMM liberated Syd. He began to use his guitar more as an effect generator than a mere device for playing chords and solos.
On January 11, 1967, Barrett, Waters, Wright and Mason entered Sound Techniques studio in Chelsea with engineer John Woods and producer Joe Boyd. In two short sessions across successive days The Pink Floyd cut four songs, Interstellar Overdrive (a version lasting 16 minutes and 46 seconds taht was the closest they ever came to capturing their frenetic stage sound on tape) and Nick’s Boogie – another freewheeling jam – followed by two of Barrett’s eccentric pop tunes, Arnold Layne and Let’s Roll Another One (later to become Candy And A Currant Bun).
No other song in the Floyd’s early canon better illustrates the duality at the heart of the group than Interstellar Overdrive. On the one hand, Barrett the unfettered art student who would constantly exclaim that there were “no rules”; on the other, Roger Waters the cautious structuralist and architecture student. Waters reined in Syd’s free-jazz tendencies. “Given the chance, Syd would have jammed the same chord sequence all night,” notes King. “Roger gave the track dynamic boundaries within which Syd could run free.”
Nearly all the songs Pink Floyd recorded with Syd Barrett were written over the six month period before they turned professional in January 1967. Peter Wynnne Wilson remembers this as Syd’s creative peak. “Those were halcyon days. He’d sit around [the flat in Earlham Street] with copious amounts of hash and grass and write these incredible songs. There’s no doubt they were crafted very carefully and deliberately.”
“Anything that fell within his orbit would end up recycled into something else,” says Peter Jenner. “It would get written down or tucked away in his folder of lyrics and then reappear in a song a week later.” One particular influence was a book of French symbolist poetry. As Andrew King points ous, “Many of [Syd’s] songs actually had the slightly dislocated metre of poetry in translation.”Arnold Layne’s wry lyric is reminiscent of Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales – another childhood favourite of Syd’s – but it has more prosiac roots. Roger Waters’ mother noticed that washing, particularly underwear belonging to her female lodgers, kept vanishing from her line during the night. The Cambridge Knicker Snatcher became the cause of much local gossip and Roger would keep Syd abreast of events as more laundry disappeared from his garden. Amused, Syd began work on a song about the story. It took him three weeks to perfect during frequent train journeys between London and Cambridge and became a long, rambling feature of The Pink Floyd’s set, complete with a full ‘freak out’ section. But when a potential record deal was mooted and singles were discussed, it seemed the most suitable candidate for condensation into a three-minute hit.
In early interviews, Syd would state that The Pink Floyd were pop stars first and musicians second. When pressed, he made no attempt to hide their desire for money, cars, girls and a lavish lifestyle. In 1967, pop stardom was no disgrace. But the Floyd’s attitude to the music industry was one of studied disdain. Which was just what London’s underground crowd expected. However, Syd knew the Floyd
had to deal with the beast if they were to be of interest to more than just a trendy clique and, encouraged by Jenner and King, agreed to make compromises with their music.
By honing Arnold Layne into a pop single, Syd inadvertently shunned the blues-based pop that had awakened his interest in rock music and created an arch, literate, acid-stately home style (songs about British social morés with a matching sence of the absurd, sung in what MM writer Roy Hollingworth described as “a well-spoken whine”) that would be passed down through Bowie, Ferry and Bolan on to modern acts like Blur and Pulp. It would also Trojan horse Syd’s drug-laced vision into the charts, tipping the not to the ‘experienced’. Despite only peaking at Number 21 in the charts, Arnold Layne’s impact on the British pop landscape was profound. Pete Brown, lyric writer from Cream: “There’d never been anything quite like it. Previously, I was completely into blues. Things like White Room wouldn’t have happened without Syd.”
Even though Arnold Layne presents its risqué subject in a humorously moralistic tone, the BBC would’t play it, declaring it “smutty”. “Arnold just happens to dig dressing in women’s clothing,” Syd countered. “A lot of people do, so let’s face up to reality.” Such subject matter wasn’t entirely without precedent. The Kink’s Dedicated Follower Of Fashion of May 1966 had featured a defiantly dandified delivery of the line “he pulls his nylon panties right up tight.” But the Floyd’s sound was much less jaunty and Syd’s vision much more sinister. So, while the song connected with pop’s new sense of lyrical daring, it also sought to make the pop experience slightly unpleasant.
Abbey Road staff engineer Peter Bown was relaxing at home on the evening of March 16, 1967, when the phone rang.”I got a call from the studio manager saying, ‘Peter I want you back here at Studio 3 at 10. You will be doing a new group and it’s underground music. You may find them very difficult to get on with. They don’t communicate much.’ So I get back to the studio and the Floyd were rehearsing Interstellar Overdrive. I opened the door and I nearly shit myself. By Christ, it was loud! I thought, How the fuck are we going to get this on tape? I had certainly never heard anything quite like it and I don’t think I ever did again. It was very exciting.”
Pink Floyd’s first album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn was very much Syd’s baby. He took the record’s title from chapter seven of Kenneth Grahame’s children’s novel The Wind In The Willows, in which Rat and Mole meet Pan; half man, half goat and the god of flocks, woods and fields. They encounter him as a golden, dream-like vision when Rat takes Mole to “the place of my song dream…the Holy place.” Pan is used by Grahame to convey rather profound spiritual concepts about elemental forces and the afterlife to his young readers. This intrigued Syd, who took the episode as the central beam of his writing for the album. And not just that, Syd would often inform friends of how he too had met Pan and been instilled with the spirit of the forest. “He thought Pan had given him insight and understanding into the way nature works,” recalls Andrew King. The songs were full of fairy-tale images. Matilda Mother is a beautiful evocation of being read a bedtime story by mother. When it was first played live, Syd would sing verses lifted straight from Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales. When it came time to record the track, Andrew King approached the Belloc estate but was refused permission to use the poem, so Syd wrote his own version. Like John Lennon, childhood would become a refuge for Syd when the rude intrusions of the aldult world became unbearable. “It was the place where things were simple,” says Jenner. “I think it all became disturbed when Syd’s father died. That was the last time Syd probably felt really happy and so he was always looking back to childhood.”
Another similar evocation on the album was Flaming. One of the most characteristic sensations of an LSD trip is “flaming”, a visual experience where ordinary things like cigarettes or fingers emit sparks like the traces of hand-held fireworks in the dark. Syd mixes the memory of a psychedelic picnic on the banks of the River Cam in the autumn of 1965 with those of childhood games of hide-and-seek with his sister Rosemary.
The Gnome was inspired by Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings. Published in 1954, the book had taken on a second wind during the late ’60s as trip literature. “We were all brought up on books like that Tolkien, Lear, the Gormenghast trilogy, Aubrey Beardsley and Syd was no exception,” says Miles. “They were cult books in which stoned people felt parallels with mysticism. But we were finding mystical signs in flock wallpaper, for God’s sake.”
Another favourite tome of the stoned was the I Ching the 5,000-year-old Chinese Book of Changes, a common source for both Taoist and Confucian philosophy, used as a poetic horoscope of prophecies navigated by the casting of randomly thrown coins or stones. Its use became widespread in the late 1960s. (At one point all business at The Beatles’ Apple label was supposedly governed by decisions made using the I Ching.) The song Chapter 24 was lifted more or less directly from Fu, chapter 24 of the book, concerning change and/or success. Syd owned a copy of the famous Richard Wilhelm translation (first published in 1924) after discovering the book through his love of the esoteric Chinese board game Go, which he would often play long into the night with new girlfriend, model Lyndsey Korner. While searching for some kind of explanation for the psychic upheaval he was experiencing through his growing fame and his LSD revelations, Syd homed in on this chapter believing it represented the constant evolution, death and resurrection in nature. As Wilhelm puts it, “To know this means to know oneself in relation to the cosmic forces.”
Recording began almost immediately after signing to EMI in March 1967 and continued during an intense touring schedule through June and early July. Though Syd was still lucid and maintained a strong artistic control, he was, by the end of the sessions, becoming more withdrawn and difficult to communicate with. Norman Smith, the EMI staff producer assigned to work with the Floyd, found Syd especially tiresome. Sceptical of the band’s musical ability and inclined to dismiss Barrett’s songs as infantile, the sessions were not an altogether happy affair for Smith. He’d been chief engineer for The Beatles up until Rubber Soul and was anxious to get to grips with a new band who might benefit from the production skills he’d picked up from George Martin.
“When I look back I wonder how we ever managed to get anything done,” Smith told writer Karl Dallas. “It was sheer hell. There are no pleasant memories. I always left with a headache. Syd was undisciplined and would simply never sing the same thing twice. Trying to talk to him was like talking to a brick wall because the face was so expressionless. His lyrics were child-like and he was a child in many ways; up one minute, down the next.”
Faced with the unreceptive Smith, Syd found another line of communication into the control room via Peter Bown. The eccentric Abbey Road engineer, then in his early forties, struck up an unlikely friendship with Barrett, resulting in some of the more unusual sounds on the album. “Bown was as loopy as they come,” remembers King. “He’d sit at the mixing desk painting plastic skin on his fingers because he was worried they’d wear out through overuse.”
“Syd’s guitar was always a problem because he would not keep still and was always fiddling with his sound,” says Bown, who retired in 1991. “He used to go and kick his echo box every now and then, just because he liked the sound it made. We wrecked four very expensive microphones that first night. They got louder and louder until everything was overloading and the mics just gave up the ghost. “With Syd you just never knew what was going to occue. We all knew he was taking drugs fairly heavily but, nevertheless, he was very creative. The fact that he didn’t understand the recording process terribly well meant that he was less rigid about what could and couldn’t be done. No-one really understood Pink Floyd, particularly Norman. Pink Floyd were different and they were meant to be different.”
Smith’s input did help the band create an accessible album. As bootlegs of the rough mixes made by Syd attest, if Barrett had had his way the album would be full of phase-shifting and heavy reverb. One can only speculate how it might have sounded if Joe Boyd had produced it as originally planned.
Meanwhile, in Abbey Road’s Studio 2, The Beatles were recording Sgt Pepper . “I’m sure The Beatles were copying what we were doing just as we were copying what we were hearing down the corridor!” says Peter Jenner of the band’s proximity during that epochal spring. On March 21, The Pink Floyd were taken by Peter Bown to meet The Beatles. “It was during the mix of Lovely Rita and there was a bad atmosphere in Studio 2 that day,” remembers Bown, who had worked on many Beatles sessions. “The Floyd all stood there like dummies, riveted to the floor while McCartney said hello. Syd was very impressed because McCartney said he liked what he’d heard of the band and thought they were doing something unique and creative.”
“Paul was very interested in the band,” agrees Miles. “It felt like he was almost passing on the pop mantle to them. He’d always been convinced there would be a new synthesis of electronic music and studio techniques in rock’n’roll and the Floyd were it.” (It had always been supposed that Lennon was the Floyd fan and that he asked Barrett to play on the rambling What’s The New Mary Jane, but there is no evidence that such a session every occurred. On March 21, Lennon was enjoying his fabled unscheduled LSD trip after getting his supply of pills and tabs confused.)
Piper was well received, though some of the hardened UFO crowd felt its emphasis on whimsy was a betrayal of the Floyd’s free-form intent. But it had a curious, delicate beauty, infused with Syd’s dark spirit that few, not even the band, really understood. “I love listening to it just for Syd’s songs,” says Rick Wright reflectively. “It’s sad because it reminds me of what might have been. Syd could have easily been on of the finest songwriters around today.”
By April 1967, Syd Barrett was a star and had moved from Earlham Street, Soho into a flat in Cromwell Road in the Earl’s Court area of London. It was a place that Nigel Gordon, one of the inhabitants, describes now as “the most iniquitous den in all of London”. Surrounded by proselytising acid converts and their endless supply of drugs, Syd travelled further into inner space. “Put it this way, you never drank anything round there unless you got it yourself from the tap,” says Andrew King. This constant diet of hallucinogenics resulted initially in accelerated creativity but soon prompted the onset of Syd’s permanent removal from normality. “The poor lad didn’t know whether he was awake or dreaming,” says King. “He never had the chance to re-establish reality.”
As John Marsh, the Floyd’s first full-time lighting technician, later put it to writer Jonathon Green, “Syd was a truly beautiful person but he was going further and further down the tubes because nobody-the band, Jenner, King [or] me – had the guts…Nobody wished to be thought uncool and take him away from these circumstances.”
Games for may, was a “happening” held at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on May 12, 1967 and Syd was commissioned to write a theme song for the event. Jenner and King felt certain that the result had ‘hit’ written all over it and suggested Syd rework it for the charts. Needing a new lyrical theme to fill the now redundant chorus line of “Free games for May” Syd looked around him for inspiration and found The Honourable Emily Kennet, a 16-year-old raver that the UFO crowd had nicknamed “the psychedelic schoolgirl” and looked down upon. Syd echoed this in the opening line: “Emily tries but misunderstands.”
See Emily Play was indeed a big hit. But brevity of performance and a radio-friendly sound didn’t appeal to the Floyd when they played live. Arnold and Emily were performed only under duress from Jenner and King, who faced flak form disgruntled promoters who’d booked a chart act and got sets of ear-splitting free-form freaking for their trouble. An improvisation called Reaction In G was often cranked out in protest at having to play ‘The Hits’ whenever the Floyd performed outside the capital.
“Emily was the last time Syd was focussed and together, in my view,” says Jenner “The speed of it all was overwhelming. Suddenly from just being Syd he was an unwilling spokesman for a social movement. Combine that with the extraordinary information overload of LSD, world travel and the pop industry, and you’re in for problems. He was a terreibly nice lad but it did his brain in.”
By the time a third single was due, Syd’s swift decline into schizophrenia had begun and no-one could do anything to stop it. Having exhausted the fund of potential singles, Barrett was asked to write new songs with an eye to chart success. Two were duly recorded, Scream Thy Last Scream and Vegetable Man, but when EMI head them, tipped off by Norman Smith that they were little more than lunatic ravings, their release was denied. During these sessions Dave Gilmour, on leave from a tour with Jokers Wild, popped in to the studio to see his old friend recording. Syd failed even to recognise him.
Barrett had one song in reserve. Jugband Blues is a poignant coda to Syd’s tenure as leader of Pink Floyd, the final track on Saucerful Of Secrets , recorded long before work began on the second album in October 1967. When Andrew King heard Syd play it for the first time he was awestruck. An extraordinary hybrid, part jaunty singalong, part melancholic love song, part insane Dadaist freefall, it was, in his view, one of the finest things Syd had ever produced and petitioned for its release as the next single.
It was recorded in two sections at De Lane Lea Studios, the first with the Floyd, the latter just Syd alone with an acoustic guitar. In a moment of sublime clarity he encapsulated the pain of his own deteriorating mental condition in lines like, “I’m most obliged to you for making it clear that I’m not here/And I’m wondering who could be writing this song.” Though each line seems to be a non sequitur, they come together into an impression of Syd’s advancing illness. “Syd knew exactly what was happeing to him but was powerless to stop it. He knew he was going wrong inside,” says Andrew King. The song’s final lines were, “And what exactly is a dream?/And what exactly is a joke?”
The two parts of the song are bridged by a collage which features the Salvation Army Band of North London who recorded their albums at Abbey Road. Syd had asked Norman Smith for a brass section to play through the bridge and wanted them to play spontaneously, without music. Smith felt the bewilded musicians should be properly scored. It was the only time Syd had a vociferous disagreement with Smith, who finally agreed to record two versions, one with his scored section and one with Syd’s instruction to “play whatever you want”. Syd, tired of
arguing, walked out, leaving Smith to finish the track his way. EMI rejected Jugband Blues as too downbeat to be a single.
So Syd went shopping for a single. Barrett was a shopaholic. He enjoyed nothing more than trailing from store to store looking for new clothes, trinkets and records. When staying with Lyndsey, at another LSD madhouse in Richmond, Surrey, he would spend much of his time simply wandering the streets window-shopping and meandering along the banks of the Thames. One day he noticed an attractive young woman doing her shopping and decided to follow her. He trailed her for hours, finally ending up at the duck pond a short bus ride away on Barned Common. Syd’s recollection of this afternoon’s light stalking became Apples And Oranges, a good song spoiled by an aimless and ham-fisted production.
Unlike the previous singles, Apples And Oranges failed to chart. It was Syd’s first taste of failure. “I couldn’t care less,” he told a journalist. “All we can do is make records which we like. If the kids don’t then they won’t buy it. “This flippancy masked a deep fear that his talets might be fading.
His descent was swift. It began almost as soon as Pink Floyd had achieved international notoriety. On a tour of America, Syd had remained almost catatonic. There were memorable TV appearances on The Pat Boone Show, during which he stoically refused to answer any of the anodyne host’s questions, and American Bandstand, where the Floyd were booked to mime to their latest single, Apples And Oranges. Syd, eyes rolling back in his head, didn’t even come close to lip-synching the opening lines. The camera hardly returned to him for the rest of the song.
Syd began talking in strange riddles and was becoming increasingly paranoid. On a package tour with Jimi Hendrix and Amen Corner, Davey O’List from The Nice had to deputise because Syd had vanished before the show or would stand playing one note all night. The crunch came at a gig in Brighton when Syd simply couldn’t be found. Nigel Gordon called Dave Gilmour, then in Cambridge, and told him the Floyd needed a guitarist for that night’s show.
Both band and managers had tried to take Syd to see noted psychiatrist R.D. Laing, an exponent of the idea that madness is in the eye of the beholder. Laing heard a tape of Syd in conversation and pronounced him “incurable”. The band resisted going to see more conventional psychiatrists fearing Syd would be placed in an institution never to emerge again.
“We had a deep mistrust of trick cyclists,” says Peter Jenner. “I’d read a little Irving Goffman and I knew what these institutions did to people’s minds. Syd wasn’t in pain or distress; he was just barking mad. So we struggled on, but it was very difficult for everyone.”
Around Christmas 1967, Dave Gilmour was asked to join the band to supplement the line-up and cover for Syd’s erratic behaviour at live shows. Though not a fan of Syd’s music or the Floyd sound, he seemed to fit in and at the beginning of the new year, Gilmour began rehearsing with the band and learning the numbers. For a few months they were a five-piece but no-one really believed the situation was acceptable. There was talk of trying to get Syd to become the Brian Wilson of The Pink Floyd, a writer who would not play live. “I think that idea lasted about five minutes. None of us really thought it could work,” says Andrew King. “I think Syd thought it could work but he was very unhappy.”
A Saucerful Of Secrets was never originally intended to be a full Pink Floyd album but a collection of oddments left over from the band’s beginnings. With Syd incapable of writing and no obvious contender to take his place, the band attempted to record together, but eventually realised that it was impossible to continue with Syd in the band. Waters in particular, though very fond of Syd, had had enough of the insanity and told Syd that he was no longer welcome at the sessions. “Things got very nasty at the studio,” says Andrew King. “It would literally be Syd in one corner and the rest of the band in the other. There had always been conflict between Roger and Syd but it had made the group what it was. Waters was conventionally forcefull and Syd had the power because he was writing the songs, so it worked. But Syd always thought the had a better way of looking at things he felt a revolution of the mind and the heart was flowing through him and that the others were not open to that.” Once Waters and Barrett were at odds, their petty differences became magnified into full-blown disagreements.
“Syd could be very cruel, making fun of how strait-laced they all were. It got very unpleasant, like a very acrimonious divorece. They couldn’t have a conversation with each other because everything they said was loaded with hidden meaning,” King added.
Meanwhile, life at the Cromwell Road flat was making Syd’s behaviour even more bizarre. With acid on the menu every day, things got further out of control. “My wife and I had a lot of cats and we gave one to Syd because he liked them and it seemed to comfort him,” recalls Jenner. “He gave the animal LSD. Can you believe it? He used to be a genuine joy to be around but now he made no sense and the spark that had given the world See Emily Play was gone.” Syd was rescued from the flat and taken in by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell, but it was too late. He was lost for ever.
Through all this, the band were struggling to make a second album. Syd would sit in the reception area at Abbey Road, clutching his guitar, waiting to be invited into the sessions. Eventually he stopped waiting. There were a few strained moments when he took to following the band around the country in his Mini Cooper, scowling at Gilmour in the belief that his friend had become a interloper. As Syd began his sabbatical from reality, Waters assumed control. The songs that dated from Syd’s brief, six month window of creativity had all been used. Since he hadn’t written anything releasable since See Emily Play, the rest of the band became unwilling songwriters. With this came a new sound and new approach to recording. EMI took to marketing the band in a new way too, as the press release to Saucerful indicates: “Unlike Cornelius Cardew or even Stockhausen, whose futuristic dabblings seem erratic and uncoordinated, The Pink Floyd have managed to blend sounds – all sounds – so that they convey deeply-felt convictions with a clarity and directness whose authority is unmistakable.”
Another press communication of April 6, 1968 announced that Syd had left The Pink Floyd. “I suppose it was really just a matter of being a little offhand about things,” Syd told the Melody Maker. Jenner and King didn’t believe the Floyd were viable without him and stopped managing the group.
“To be honest, I think we just wanted out of a very emotionally damaging situation. We were young, it had all been so exciting and now it had all gone so terribly wrong,” says King. “No-one involved with that situation will ever get over the way it happened. I used to say to Syd, ‘Why can’t you write another Emily and we’ll all be rich and happy again?’ But I knew I was only trying to make him feel better. I think we may have pressurised him into a state of paranoia about having to come up with another hit single.”
But they stuck with Syd. Despite all his weird behaviour there was clearly enough confidence at EMI in Barrett’s abilities to sanction a solo deal. Jenner began overseeing solo sessions on May 13 with two songs, Silas Lang and Swan Lee. After a few days work, during which Syd attempted a rambling two-part instrumental, Lanky, and a further session in July to try out the beguiling Clown & Jugglers (later retitled Octopus), it became clear that the project was going to be tough to complete.
Indeed, nothing further was done for almost a year, during which time Syd was often sighted on the scene, behaving like a pop star, often turning up uninvited backstage at Top Of The Pops. “TOTP is all right,” he told Chris Welch, “there are always people around I know [who] are prepared to like me.” Another contemporary writer heard Syd gleefully revealing to anyone who was interested that The Moles – makers of a psychedelic single on Parlophone rumoured to be the work of The Beatles – were in fact Simon Dupree And The Big Sound.
In the spring of 1969, Syd announced that he was ready to record again, this time for Malcolm Jones’s new progressive label, Harvest. Jones elected to produce the record himself. The sessions began with Opel, a long, rambling song absent from the subsequent album, and continued with contributions from Soft Machine and Jerry Shirley of Humble Pie on No Good Trying, Clown & Jugglers and Golden Hair. Little of the music ws usable and Jones accepted Dave Gilmour’s offer of help. By this time, Syd was swallowing large doses of Mandrax. This notorious tranquilliser – possibly prescribed to bring him down from LSD – could cause blackouts and severe disorientation if taken carelessly.
“It soon became apparent we were going to have trouble with this album,” confirms Peter Bown. “Dave Gilmour knew that Syd was beyond help and I think it really hurt him to see that. He said, ‘Whatever happens in here must not get out to anyone.’ So I made sure they were closed sessions. Because if anyone had seen Syd, that would have been it. He used to wander around, couldn’t stay still in the studio; his legs were jittery and nervous all the time. I had to follow him around the studio with a microphone in my hand – wearing a pair of carpet slippers so I didn’t make any noice – just to get a take.
“He was wandering all over the place musically too. His pitch was out and his timing completely shot. They took down everything on tape in those days, so it’s all there [in Abbey Road’s vaults] somewhere, with David trying to keep him calm and relaxed. It was like a teacher trying to help a forlorn child. Very, very sad for everyone.
“Once, Syd stopped in the middle of a take and said he wanted to go to the toilet. There was one on the ground-floor where the classical musicians used to go. I had to smuggle him down there when the studio was empty and I literally had to take him in, undo his trousers and point his p**is at the pan.
“At the end, David and I went through all the tapes looking for what could be the basis of a song, and we did find quite a lot of usable stuff, which was surprising because at the time I thought we had nothing at all.”
Photographer Mick Rock, who had shared a flat in South Kensington with Syd for a while, was pleased to be asked to take pictures for the album’s sleeve. “Syd never asked anything of anyone,” he recalled. “Without exception he simply refused to communicate.” When Rock arrived to take the shots, Syd answered the door dressed in just his underpants, obviously having forgotten about the session. His latest girlfriend, known only as Iggy The Eskimo, was even less prepared. She wandered in entirely naked and remained so throughout the shoot. “They both laughed a lot and it was a magical session,” says Rock. “My experience of Syd was that his legendary withdrawal from daily human intercourse was a matter of choice not necessity.”
When The Madcap Laughs came out in January 1970 Syd was upbeat, promoting it with interviews and a session for John Peel’s Top Gear show. The reviews were good and the album spent a week in the Top 40. Work began immediately on a follow-up with Dave Gilmour producing.
However sticky the sessions for Barrett were, it’s worth nothing that there are still glimpses of a great lyricaist at work on this record. It Is Obvious is particularly touching: “Each of us crying/The velvet curtain of grey marked the blanket where sparrows play/And the trees by the waving corn standed/My legs moved the last empty inches to you.”
But Barrett was issued to a lukewarm reception in November, by which time Syd had decamped to his mother’s place in Cambridge where Rolling Stone interviewed him a year later. Mick Rock’s pictures for the article show him with a trim, Beatlish haircut, prancing barefoot in his back garden. Syd declared himself “totally together”. Within months he was back on a stage at the King’s College Cellar as part of Stars, an impromptu “boogie band” with bass-player Jack Monck (who was married to Syd’s ex-girlfriend Jenny Spires) and former Pink Fairies drummer Twink. A week later they were scheduled to appear at the Cambridge Corn Exchange on February 24, 1972, supporting MC5. MOJO writer Rob Chapman happened to be in town and went to the show:
“Most of the audience had drifted away by the time Stars came on. There were no more than 30 people in the place. It must have been one in the morning and the house lights were up when they shambled on. Syd looked brilliant, purple velvet trousers and snakeskin boots, long unkempt hair, shell-shocked eyes… They played about six or seven songs, Lucifer Sam from Piper, a smattering of numbers from
the solo albums, Octopus and Gigolo Aunt and the inevitable shapeless, bluesy jam, after which Syd said, ‘I don’t know what that one was called.’ There were snatches of brilliance and then it would degenerate into chaos again. He cut his fingers on the guitar at one point and a girl got up on stage to start dancing in that ’70s spirit of everyone joining in and Syd just glared at her and she got off. Jack Monck’s bass amp packed up and they called it a day.
“They didn’t turn up for the gig with Kevin Ayers and Nektar at Essex University the following week.” Stars never appeared again. Syd’s career was over.
Sighting of the crazy diamond since have been rare and bizarre: Syd in a Crombie, flowery dress and plimsolls, his head freshly shaved; Syd in the street in Cambridge in his pyjamas; Syd attending an aborted Abbey Road session in 1974; Syd wandering into a Floyd session as they recorded their tribute to him on Wish You Were Here ; Syd, balding and fat, mistaken for a Krishna freak at Dave Gilmour’s wedding reception; Syd chatting to a French journalist about his laundry.
Down the years bigger stars then Barrett have acknowledged his immense influence upon them, provoking continued interest. But, amid much speculation, no-one has satisfactorily explained whether Syd’s fragile genius would have endured if LSD hadn’t intervened or if it was doomed anyway by the pressure of fame. But Syd himself gave Rolling Stone a clue in 1971. “All I ever wanted to do as a kid [was] play guitar properly and jump around,” he said, adding poignantly, “but too many people got in the way.”
Mojo, september 1996