Neil Condron

11:03 18th July 2006

Syd Barrett

On Wednesday 12 July 2006, considerable media coverage was given to the passing of a man whose star had burned all too briefly and – much to his own cost – all too brightly.  He died quietly on 7 July 2006, not in a moment of rock ’n’ 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 rock’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 – both alternative and mainstream – it’s the influence of Syd, and not that of the bandmates who abandoned the star who’d become a liability to them, that thrives relentlessly on.  Here, Gigwise says goodbye to one of the 20th century’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 ‘n’ roll.  On the one hand, Pink Floyd’s gigs at places such as London’s fashionable psychedelic hang-out UFO established Barrett and his band as genuine improvisational pioneers – 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 Floyd’s first singles ‘Arnold Layne’ (a song that Cream’s Jack Bruce describes as “the first truly English song about English life”) and ‘See Emily Play’ 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. R’n’B and its themes of love and sex for lyrical inspiration. 

Syd BarrettBy the time their ‘Piper At The Gates of Dawn’ surfaced in 1967, Pink Floyd were, under the leadership of Barrett, light years ahead of the competition.  ‘Astronomy Domine’ and ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ are the kind of space-rock that wouldn’t be seen again until the likes of Hawkwind or even Spacemen 3, while ‘The Gnome’ and ‘Chapter 24’ pre-empt Marc Bolan’s whimsy and George Harrison’s inspiration from the East respectively.  Bizarre instruments found in their landlord’s loft lend the album an exotic quality, tempered all the time by Barrett’s unmistakeable Cambridge lilt and childlike lyrics (‘The Bike’ in particular may be remembered by many as his greatest song, with lyrics such as “You’re the kind of girl who fits in with my world/I’ll give you anything everything if you want things”, encapsulating the essence of Syd).

There are also certain people to whom the character of Syd Barrett will have a slightly morbid appeal.  They’re the people who enjoy the music of Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence, Roky Ericson, Peter Green, Arthur Lee – the so-called ‘acid casualties’ 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 Barrett’s last) Pink Floyd album ‘Saucerful Of Secrets’, ‘Jugband Blues’, 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 (“And I’m wondering who/Could be writing this song”, asks Barrett in an especially uncomfortable moment). 

Likewise, his two cult solo records, ‘The Madcap Laughs’ and ‘Barrett’, document a man unable to work with other musicians, unable to finish his own songs (or even to start them, as the cruelly edited ‘If It’s In You’ shows).  The fact that much of the music on those two albums is as charming as anything he recorded with Pink Floyd (the rampant ‘Octopus’, the haunting ‘Dark Globe’, the skeletal adaptation of a James Joyce poem ‘Golden Hair’ and the wonderfully mellow ‘Gigolo Aunt’ are magical highlights), is shamefully often overlooked by critics more concerned by the legend of Barrett’s drug-induced psychosis.

Syd Barrett

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 Barrett’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 ‘See Emily Play’ on his ‘Pin-Ups’ album (Bowie has said that after Barrett’s departure “for me, there was no more Pink Floyd”).  Kevin Ayers’ ‘Oh Wot A Dream’ is a tribute to Syd, while The Television Personalities paid their own less subtle homage with the track ‘I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives’ – 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 Lee’s backing band) have literally wore Barrett’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 – while on the one hand Johnny Rotten could be seen wearing iconoclastic slogans such as the famous “I Hate Pink Floyd” on his t-shirts, Malcolm McLaren was reportedly trying to arrange for the derided rockers’ missing founder to produce the punks’ 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 ‘90s brought the music of Syd Barrett again back into the public eye, with the chorus of Blur’s breakthrough hit ‘There’s No Other Way’ borrowing heavily from that of ‘See Emily Play’.  The scouse psychedelic scene just after the turn of the millennium also looked to the likes of Barrett for inspiration, with The Coral’s ‘Goodbye’ 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 ’n’ pans racket of The Mystery Jets (Blaine Harrison cited ‘Piper… ’ 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 who’ve looked to Barrett as a guide in their quest for their own musical identity, it’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 ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ and the echoes of Syd in the character of Pink in their film ‘The Wall’, it is said by Barrett’s biographer Tim Willis that Syd had suggested to Roger Waters that the band should bring in two backing singers and a saxophonist – the sound that is the hallmark of their most successful album ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’.  Similarly, the track ‘Rats’ on ‘Barrett’ rolls into the same organ-driven blues that would become the signature sound of his former employers.  Even recently, Waters dedicated ‘Wish You Were Here’ to Syd at Live 8 while David Gilmour and Rick Wright ran through ‘Arnold Layne’ on ‘Later With Jools Holland’.  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 Barrett’s talent: “Artists simply do feel and see things in a different way to other peole.  In a way it’s a blessing, but it can also be a terrible curse”.  In musical terms, Barrett was taken from us by this “curse” 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 Syd’s legions of fans in hoping that Syd died a man who had attained a level of happiness in life.  “Wouldn’t you miss me?” he once sang.  Syd, you needn’t ask.

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