Another perspective on rock history pt.1 Syd Barrett/Pink Floyd
My first experiences of Cambridge quartet Pink Floyd were, as I have already mentioned in a previous article on here, Umma Gumma and Atom Heart Mother from what can only be described as the band’s most experimental period. And from there I went on to discover their monumental classics such as Dark Side of the Moon, Meddle and The Wall and for a very long time their debut as well as the original frontman/singer/songwriter Syd Barrett remained a myth shrouded in a mist of lilac fairytale psychedelia.
When Opel, the collection of outtakes and alternative versions from Syd’s two solo albums, was released in 1988 I dove head first into it and following that I bought both of his solo albums and at the same time I bought The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. These three albums quickly blended into a single whimsical yet somehow disturbing unit revolving around Syd Barrett. This is most likely the reason why I still have problems viewing The Piper at the Gates of Dawn as a Pink Floyd album.
Pink Floyd for me is a spaced out rock band that kept experimenting with new technology as well as more and more elaborate musical ideas, pushing the limits of what you could do on stage and on record throughout their career, a career that from my perspective begins with the release of A Saucerful of Secrets and ends with the The Final Cut.
And even though at the time Saucerful was recorded and released Syd was still officially a member of the band he contributes very little to it, the final song Jugband Blues which sounds and feels very much like a goodbye and was probably written as such or maybe more in the same spirit as Mick Jones wrote Should I Stay or Should I Go. Jugband Blues is Barrett’s resignation even though it has always been said that the band fired him. And they probably did but Jugband Blues is Syd’s way of saying: “Eff that you can’t fire me. I Quit!!!”
The song is also, along with the unreleased Vegetable Man which was planned to appear as the b-side of Pink Floyd’s fourth single, the missing link between the songs on Piper and Syd’s first solo album, The Madcap Laughs. A title which I can only view as being an ironic wink at the rumours surrounding his departure from Pink Floyd. The title of Syd’s first solo album suggests Syd laughing his arse off at the confusion surrounding his disappearance. But before wandering off into “the unknown” Barrett managed one final act of defiance as it had now been decided that he was not to perform or record with the band, just write for them. His final contribution was a song called Have You Got It Yet which he kept adding to, subtracting from and changing around just to make it impossible to learn. This was the final straw, much as I think Syd had planned it. When Roger Waters realised what was going on he put down his bass and left the studio. Later he has called the incident “a real act of mad genius”. He never attempted to play with Syd ever again. The song – of course – was never recorded neither by pink floyd, nor by Syd himself. It had already served it’s purpose as one last big “Eff You” to his fellow bandmates and childhood friends.
Syd also contributed some slide guitar to Remember a Day, Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun and the lengthy instrumental title track from Pink Floyds second album but in reality Syd’s childhood friend David Gilmour had already replaced him as guitarplayer and together he and co-founder Roger Waters had taken over most of the song writing.
In almost every way this does make for a wholly different band. One that might indeed have been impossible with Syd still in the band.
All this said, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is of course still a Pink Floyd album. It is just a very different Pink Floyd album. And that said, this article will probably still focus more on Syd Barrett than on Pink Floyd.
Having already heard the live version of Astonomy Domine from Umma Gumma, with Gilmour on guitar instead of Syd it didn’t really come as that much of a surprise for me. Yes it was shorter and perhaps a bit less spaced out but I thought nothing of it as that is not unusual when it comes to the difference between live and studio recordings. What did catch my ear though was that difference in originality when it came to the performance. Gilmour is without question a technically much more accomplished guitarplayer than Syd could ever hope to be but Syd was so much more original in the way he phrased his riffs and licks. Gilmour tries hard but just cannot catch that irregular charm of Syd’s original guitar.
The real surprise comes with the second track. Lucifer Sam is a fast guitar driven rock song, with a riff that sounds like the theme from a 60’s secret agent show with lyrics about an inexplicable cat called Lucifer Sam that always sits by your side and about a witch named Jennifer Gentle. Musically it doesn’t really have much in common with the Pink Floyd I knew and had grown to love. But that mattered very little in the context of why I had bought this album. I loved every second of the weird imagery that exploded like an acid Kaleidoscope in my ears.
As the album developed and the songs paraded through my aural network one by one I must confess that I had my doubts as to the sanity of the person who had written these songs. And as I later found out through excessively reading more or less everything I could get my hands on about Syd Barrett his sanity has certainly been questioned on numerous occasions and surrounded with a fistful of myths and more.
Had he grown up today though he would probably have been diagnosed with several neuropsychiatric disorders such as Asperger’s or ADD but in the late 50’s early 60’s when Roger Keith “Syd” Barrett grew up those with such syndromes were usually just called lazy and annoying fucking kids. Many other similar diagnosis has been suggested over the years: bipolar disorder and even schizophrenia.
In many cases however people with those types of syndromes have proven to be highly creative and many of the people through history that we have elevated to the status of genius such as for instance Albert Einstein or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart have in recent times been diagnosed as probably having some form of neuropsychiatric disorders that were the reason for their creativity and “genius”.
In Syd Barrett’s case the excessive use of hallucinogenic substances fuelled these syndromes into the whimsical, surreal fairy-tale world that became his lyrical signature. It would also in the end be this combination of neurological imbalance and substance use that caused him to burn out and fade away into a mythical legend and the myths surrounding his disappearance from the public scene were many.
One such myth told about how one day he had woken up in his unfurnished London apartment and decided to take a walk, a walk that didn’t end until he had reached a small forest near Cambridge where he had grown up. After a while he had then walked to his mother’s house and moved back in with her and allegedly spent his days watching tv and drinking tea.
But this in itself does not mean he was in any way shape or form insane or crazy. It just means he was a singular, severely misunderstood singer/songwriter who had a short but extremely intense creative period, who burned his candle in both ends through experimenting with ways to understand the reality he felt our of phase with. Today this is called self-medication and the term itself is a sad testament to the failures, inadequacies and even incompetence of psychiatrists all over the world.
Another classic and very tragic story about the instability of Syd Barrett’s psyche takes place during the recording sessions of Pink Floyd’s album Shine On You Crazy Diamond where all four members of the band has at one time or another told the story of how this oddly familiar but unknown heavily overweight bald person had walked into the studio and sat down as if waiting for his turn to record. It had taken them a while to recognize their former frontman who apparantly had completely forgotten that he had been fired from the band 6 years earlier. It is this incident that is said to have been the main inspiration for the finished versions of the title track. It is also said to be the reason they named the album Shine on You Crazy Diamond as a tribute to Syd.
Personally I have my doubts as to the veracity of the story. Instead I think that the inspiration for Shine On You Crazy Diamond was a guilty conscience as it was written, recorded and released around the time when Syd withdrew from the public scene for good.
If anything the true tribute to Syd by Pink Floyd came on the two final tracks (Brain Damage and Eclipse) from Pink Floyd’s epic album Dark Side of the Moon. They seem much more genuine in their tone than Shine On ever have.
In fact. I’m not entirely sure that the lyrics to Shine on were originally about syd but about how experiencing life changes our personalities and our egos. How our childhood dreams crumble as we grow older and also about accidentally becoming a celebrated rock star (as Pink Floyd most certainly were at the time). They were now playing huge arenas and touring almost endlessly which I think is the main reason for the decrease in recorded productivity as there is now atleast two years between the albums where they had previously produced at least one album per year. Pink Floyd became one of the first mega groups and parts of Shine On suggests that they were far from comfortable with this development and eventually this unhappiness was what lead to the disagreements that tore the band apart during the recording of their epic rock opera The Wall when they demoted Rick Wright to a mere studio musician.
The way I see it there aren’t any really obvious references to Syd anywhere in the lyrics. At least none that cannot apply to either of the other members of the band or the band itself.
Brain Damage/Eclipse : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sy8iUI_ayuo
Shine On Your Crazy Diamond : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_uwEFG7pU-8
Jugband Blues : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xIc2EgS9MNg
Av: Nicklas Ekström, Landskrona