Syd Barrett: An Appreciation

Syd Barrett

Syd Barrett

Pink Floyd founding member Syd Barrett has died aged 60. It feels strange that he has finally died, because it’s as if the world had already been mourning him these past 34 years. His myth would be understandable were his simple death the reason he stopped making music in 1972. But the fact he was alive all this time made his legend all the more mysterious. What does he do? What does he think? Can he be stirred from his reclusive life?

But now the mystery has been brought to an end with his demise. He can join the legion of rock stars in the sky, where he was always destined, rather than sit in a tiny house in Cambridge. The uncertainty ends here. There was never a rock and roll story like it. But his madness is merely part of his legacy.

Like most teenagers, I went through a phase of being deeply attracted to the earnest meditations and prog-rock symphonies of Pink Floyd. They were clever and made music you had to think about, listen to, understand. They were ‘serious artists’. My obsession took in the early Syd period but it never fully gripped me because it seemed just the childish outpourings of this chap’s acid-fried mind. His stuff wasn’t dealing with the tragedy of getting old, our lust for money, or politics. I wanted weighty themes in my pop music.

But there comes a point in every young man’s life where he realises that, in fact, Syd was where it was at all along. Once you leave the adolescent brooding and let go of the rule that any song shorter than fifteen minutes is plastic drivel, you find yourself rejecting the massive pretentiousness of post-Syd Pink Floyd. In fact his songs address the essence of life more than Time, Money or that obese monster of an album, The Wall. The song Bike ponders all the simple childhood dilemmas of sharing, repairing and playing. Not to mention love.

Piper at the Gates of Dawn is full of Barrett’s unbeleaguered, innocent nursery rhymes – a pastoral world of gnomes, cats and outer space. Even the crazy space-rock-out of Interstellar Overdrive has a special childish glee to that one riff that is played over and over again. Post-Syd Floyd’s success came with album after album of pompous gloom rock, leaving behind the enriching immediacy their debut album promised.

He couldn’t play you know. Just watch the video of Pink Floyd Live in London 1966, where he messes around with a guitar-slide like he hasn’t seen one before and prods and hits his instrument in his quest to discover new and insane noises to put down on record.

His playing hadn’t improved by the time he was kicked out of the Floyd and was making his two solo records, Barrett and The Madcap Laughs. Here, his replacement in the band was enlisted to produce and play bass, and too his credit, David Gilmour orchestrated two collections of wonderful rag-and-bone music that surely wouldn’t have been achieve had arch-bore Roger Waters been at the helm.

These records deserve as much eulogizing as anything by that other sombre Hamlet of the English middle classes, Nick Drake. Like Drake, he was barely in a state to communicate whilst in the studio, in Barrett’s case thanks to the effects of the huge amount of LSD he consumed throughout his young adulthood. Apparently, no two performances of any one song sounded the same, so strung out was he. But the opening jangly notes of Baby Lemonade, the opening track of Barrett, prove his eccentric genius was undiminished after his ejection from his band. In fact, free of the need to commercially configure his music, he was even better. But the sense of somnolence amongst all the scatty genius is positively tangible. Somehow he contrived to make two albums that will be arresting to young men forever, whilst sounding like he has been roused from his sleep in the morning and has no intention of staying awake.

Gigolo Aunt, Dominoes, Wolfpack, Terrapin and Golden Hair (a James Joyce poem set to music) are just some of the wonderful moments in his brief solo career. These albums bombed, however, and he escaped to his mother in Cambridge. A tentative move into the local music scene followed with nearby musicians, but an atrocious review of one gig sent him scurrying back to his bedroom, where he stayed.

Barrett was infinitely more than an idiosyncratic and ‘quintessentially English’ writer of lovely songs. He was the centrepiece of psychedelia on this side of the Atlantic – more underground than Sergeant Pepper and less of an annoying twat than Donovan. His clothes said it all, but then there were his looks. Admittedly, most people would look pre-Raphaelite when standing next to the equine features of Waters, but the angelic fragility of Syd’s countenance, his tousled hair and mad, staring eyes (not down to his creative obsession, more to do with mind-twisting chemicals) placed him firmly in the tradition of odd, troubled young artists.

And we all know they usually die young. Drake did. But Barrett’s story has always had those extra legs because we always knew he was out there somewhere. A bizarre story. Worth a film. But until then, we’d all do well to ignore the squabbling between Gilmour and Waters and the horrific corporate monster Syd’s humble little band became, and take a second or two to smile at the rough majesty of Syd Barrett’s songs, which will remain as long as there is music and moonlight and love and romance.

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Syd Barrett: An Appreciation