On Wednesday 12 July 2006, considerable media coverage was given to the passing of a man whose star had burned all too briefly and â€“ much to his own cost â€“ all too brightly. He died quietly on 7 July 2006, not in a moment of rock â€™nâ€™ roll excess but due to complications with the diabetes from which he suffered. The life and times of one Syd Barrett, born Roger Keith Barrett in Cambridge on 6 January 1946, are now part of rockâ€™s apocrypha and yet, his mainstream profile, as driving force behind the early years of Pink Floyd, as a solo artist and as the fragile recluse who lived with his mother until his death, may never be greater than a moon orbiting the super-planetary mass of the success the band he created achieved without him.
And yet, as we look at many of bands that have followed in subsequent decades â€“ both alternative and mainstream â€“ itâ€™s the influence of Syd, and not that of the bandmates who abandoned the star whoâ€™d become a liability to them, that thrives relentlessly on. Here, Gigwise says goodbye to one of the 20th centuryâ€™s greatest visionaries, and examines a legacy that shows no signs of abating.
The music of Syd Barrett holds a special place in the pantheon of British rock â€˜nâ€™ roll. On the one hand, Pink Floydâ€™s gigs at places such as Londonâ€™s fashionable psychedelic hang-out UFO established Barrett and his band as genuine improvisational pioneers â€“ a kind of English Velvet Underground but way, way more far out, drawing the likes of Paul McCartney and Pete Townshend in regularly. But even more than that, Pink Floydâ€™s first singles â€˜Arnold Layneâ€™ (a song that Creamâ€™s Jack Bruce describes as â€œthe first truly English song about English lifeâ€) and â€˜See Emily Playâ€™ marked out Barrett as a writer much like Ray Davies of The Kinks - articulate in the eccentricities of English life at a time when most British combos were still looking to U.S. Râ€™nâ€™B and its themes of love and sex for lyrical inspiration.
By the time their â€˜Piper At The Gates of Dawnâ€™ surfaced in 1967, Pink Floyd were, under the leadership of Barrett, light years ahead of the competition. â€˜Astronomy Domineâ€™ and â€˜Interstellar Overdriveâ€™ are the kind of space-rock that wouldnâ€™t be seen again until the likes of Hawkwind or even Spacemen 3, while â€˜The Gnomeâ€™ and â€˜Chapter 24â€™ pre-empt Marc Bolanâ€™s whimsy and George Harrisonâ€™s inspiration from the East respectively. Bizarre instruments found in their landlordâ€™s loft lend the album an exotic quality, tempered all the time by Barrettâ€™s unmistakeable Cambridge lilt and childlike lyrics (â€˜The Bikeâ€™ in particular may be remembered by many as his greatest song, with lyrics such as â€œYouâ€™re the kind of girl who fits in with my world/Iâ€™ll give you anything everything if you want thingsâ€, encapsulating the essence of Syd).
There are also certain people to whom the character of Syd Barrett will have a slightly morbid appeal. Theyâ€™re the people who enjoy the music of Alexander â€˜Skipâ€™ Spence, Roky Ericson, Peter Green, Arthur Lee â€“ the so-called â€˜acid casualtiesâ€™ whose records offer as much a psychological insight into paranoia or madness as they do into an erratic talent. To the voyeur, Barrett does allow the veil to drop enough times to satisfy the curiosity. His only song on the second (and Barrettâ€™s last) Pink Floyd album â€˜Saucerful Of Secretsâ€™, â€˜Jugband Bluesâ€™, contains lyrics that can be listened to either as the confusion of a schizophrenic mind or, as is perhaps more likely given his wry humour, the raising of a hurt eyebrow at his gradual marginalising within the band (â€œAnd Iâ€™m wondering who/Could be writing this songâ€, asks Barrett in an especially uncomfortable moment).
Likewise, his two cult solo records, â€˜The Madcap Laughsâ€™ and â€˜Barrettâ€™, document a man unable to work with other musicians, unable to finish his own songs (or even to start them, as the cruelly edited â€˜If Itâ€™s In Youâ€™ shows). The fact that much of the music on those two albums is as charming as anything he recorded with Pink Floyd (the rampant â€˜Octopusâ€™, the haunting â€˜Dark Globeâ€™, the skeletal adaptation of a James Joyce poem â€˜Golden Hairâ€™ and the wonderfully mellow â€˜Gigolo Auntâ€™ are magical highlights), is shamefully often overlooked by critics more concerned by the legend of Barrettâ€™s drug-induced psychosis.
Fortunately, the majority of people to be touched by the music of Syd Barrett do not let the sadder parts of his life affect the enjoyment of his songs. The list of musicians to be inspired by Barrettâ€™s single-minded pursuit of the new and shunning of the mainstream is being added to every day. Perhaps the most high profile Barrett disciple is David Bowie, who covered â€˜See Emily Playâ€™ on his â€˜Pin-Upsâ€™ album (Bowie has said that after Barrettâ€™s departure â€œfor me, there was no more Pink Floydâ€). Kevin Ayersâ€™ â€˜Oh Wot A Dreamâ€™ is a tribute to Syd, while The Television Personalities paid their own less subtle homage with the track â€˜I Know Where Syd Barrett Livesâ€™ â€“ a nod to the multitude of disappointed pilgrimages that took place over the years to the Barrett home.
Whereas bands like The Gigolo Aunts and Baby Lemonade (now Arthur Leeâ€™s backing band) have literally wore Barrettâ€™s influence on their (record) sleeves, others have not been so flagrant. Perhaps the oddest instance of Syd worship is that of the Sex Pistols â€“ while on the one hand Johnny Rotten could be seen wearing iconoclastic slogans such as the famous â€œI Hate Pink Floydâ€ on his t-shirts, Malcolm McLaren was reportedly trying to arrange for the derided rockersâ€™ missing founder to produce the punksâ€™ debut album. Furthermore, countless cover versions and tributes from the likes of Siouxsie and The Banshees, Smashing Pumpkins and The Damned have ensured that Syd remains as much a punk and even a goth icon as much as anything else he might be.
The baggie scene of the â€˜90s brought the music of Syd Barrett again back into the public eye, with the chorus of Blurâ€™s breakthrough hit â€˜Thereâ€™s No Other Wayâ€™ borrowing heavily from that of â€˜See Emily Playâ€™. The scouse psychedelic scene just after the turn of the millennium also looked to the likes of Barrett for inspiration, with The Coralâ€™s â€˜Goodbyeâ€™ in particular depth-charging into a very Floydian middle section. And even today, his madcap spirit can be heard laughing in the music of pots â€™nâ€™ pans racket of The Mystery Jets (Blaine Harrison cited â€˜Piperâ€¦ â€™ as one of his greatest influences recently on these pages), the day-glo genre-munching of Klaxons, the gauche punk of Graham Coxon and, on a more mainstream scale, the sillier moments of Super Furry Animals and The Flaming Lips. And, while their respective ills may be quite different, the sad loss of talent that mental illness and drugs precipitated in Barrett may act as a cautionary tale to a certain Mr Doherty.
In the midst of the plethora of bands whoâ€™ve looked to Barrett as a guide in their quest for their own musical identity, itâ€™s easy to overlook his ongoing influence on his old friends, Pink Floyd, in whom his spirit lives on more than most. As well as their personal tribute â€˜Shine On You Crazy Diamondâ€™ and the echoes of Syd in the character of Pink in their film â€˜The Wallâ€™, it is said by Barrettâ€™s biographer Tim Willis that Syd had suggested to Roger Waters that the band should bring in two backing singers and a saxophonist â€“ the sound that is the hallmark of their most successful album â€˜Dark Side Of The Moonâ€™. Similarly, the track â€˜Ratsâ€™ on â€˜Barrettâ€™ rolls into the same organ-driven blues that would become the signature sound of his former employers. Even recently, Waters dedicated â€˜Wish You Were Hereâ€™ to Syd at Live 8 while David Gilmour and Rick Wright ran through â€˜Arnold Layneâ€™ on â€˜Later With Jools Hollandâ€™. In a sense, the continued success of Pink Floyd, though hardly in his image, could be considered the greatest tribute to Barrett of all.
Waters once said of Barrettâ€™s talent: â€œArtists simply do feel and see things in a different way to other peole. In a way itâ€™s a blessing, but it can also be a terrible curseâ€. In musical terms, Barrett was taken from us by this â€œcurseâ€ a long time before he died, and so his death has been received by the musical community more with sadness than shock. A keen gardener and occasional painter at the time of his death, Gigwise joins Sydâ€™s legions of fans in hoping that Syd died a man who had attained a level of happiness in life. â€œWouldnâ€™t you miss me?â€ he once sang. Syd, you neednâ€™t ask.