“The Lyrics of Syd Barrett” (published by Omnibus Press)
Caught on the crossfire of childhood and stardom
Those are some of the stories and/or legends. Floyd drummer Nick Mason said of the Mandrax tale that it hadn’t happened because “Syd would never waste good mandies”. Still, while Barrett was musically active, mainly between 1965 and 1970, the Pink Floyd guitarist, vocalist and songwriter recorded four singles, their debut album “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” (1967), portions of their second album “A Saucerful of Secrets” (1968) and a few unreleased songs.
He began a brief solo career in 1969 with his only single “Octopus” and followed with the awkward albums “The Madcap Laughs” and “Barrett”, both released in 1970 and containing whimsical oddities such as “Effervescing Elephant”, “Gigolo Aunt” and “Baby Lemonade”. There was a belatedly released album of outtakes, “Opel” in 1988 as the legend grew, and that was basically it for Roger Keith “Syd” Barrett, born on January 6, 1946, in Cambridge, England.
In 1968, Barrett was ousted from the Floyd amid speculation of mental illness and his excessive use of psychedelic drugs. Driving from London to a gig at Southampton University on January 26 that year, the group simply decided not to pick up their unreliable leader. Besides, David Gilmour had already been recruited as a fifth member to cover for the erratic Syd. Floyd had made their debut as a five-piece at the University of Aston in Birmingham only that month, on January 12.
Keyboard player Rick Wright said that before Barrett’s sacking he, Wright, wouldn’t tell the out-of-it Syd that he was off to play a concert, rather that he was popping out for cigarettes. He would go and play the gig and then return, with Syd not having noticed his hours-long absence and asking if he had got the ciggies.
Architecture students Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Richard Wright and art student Syd Barrett had performed under various group names since 1962, and began touring as “The Pink Floyd Sound” in 1965. Barrett gave them the name from two blues musicians whose records he had in his collection, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.
They turned professional on 1 February 1967 when they signed with EMI, with an advance fee of £5000. Their first single, a song about a kleptomaniac transvestite titled “Arnold Layne“, was written and sung by Barrett and released on 11 March to mild controversy, as Radio London refused to air it.
Psychedelic rock had emerged in 1966 as the soundtrack of the wider cultural exploration of the hippie movement. It was largely inspired by hallucinogens, or so-called “mind-expanding” drugs such as marijuana and LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide; “acid”), and reflected drug-induced states through the use of feedback, electronics, intense volume a swirling light show.
Pink Floyd were a leading light of the British “underground” scene, which centred on venues such as London’s UFO club and Middle Earth, and such events as the 14-Hour Technicolour Dream, a happening in Alexandra Palace that drew counterculture celebrities including John Lennon and Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol, and was a precursor to festivals such as Glastonbury.
Early Pink Floyd co-manager Peter Jenner parted company with the group after their relationship with Barrett deteriorated and they ousted him, as Jenner believed Barrett to be the principal songwriter and the main creative force in the band, and so chose to continue to manage Barrett’s career.
Jenner provides a nice foreword to “The Lyrics of Syd Barrett”, a collection of 52 songs he wrote and now brought together for the very first time. Jenner writes: “Syd, like most great writers, was a collector, whether borrowing James Joyce’s ‘Golden Hair’ for a song, or a Love track for ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, or from Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear. Syd wrote songs about clothes, fetishism, astronomy, space travel and Eastern mysticism.”
Then follows a lengthy essay by Rob Chapman, author of the 2010 biography “Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head”. Chapman does full service to his subject, offering an academic and detailed but most readable analysis of the characteristics of Barrett’s writing. This essay shows how Barrett borrowed from many sources, sometimes re-ordering them, choosing words that attracted his attention, building on them and introducing his own influences, insights and inspiration.
Chapman acknowledges the “well-aired truism that pop lyrics rarely work as well in print as they do when wedded to the beat”. Nonetheless, here we find, in alphabetical rather than chronological order, the earliest studio recordings with Barrett’s “Lucy Leave”, “Double O Bo” and “Butterfly” recorded as The Tea Set somewhere around the end of 1964. These and three other songs are the earliest Pink Floyd recordings available commercially, not released until 2015 on “1965: Their First Recordings” , a six-song EP by Pink Floyd.
Similarly, “Scream Thy Last Scream” and “Vegetable Man” by the Floyd went unreleased until November 2016 when the band put out a 33-disc box set called “The Early Years 1965-1972”. Bass player Roger Waters said the two songs were too near the bone to release at the time, and Jenner describes them and “Jugband Blues” (the only Barrett composition and vocal on “A Saucerful of Secrets”) as gut-wrenching self-analyses.
And there was considerable excitement in rock circles in 2001 when “Bob Dylan Blues” surfaced. This was a song written by Barrett in 1965 and recorded during sessions for “Barrett” in 1970. It was thought lost until 2001 when David Gilmour found it in a tape collection at home. The song was then unveiled on “The Best of Syd Barrett: Wouldn’t You Miss Me?”.
Barrett’s lyrics showed humour, word play, collages and picked-up bits and pieces, to which he added his own talent. Perhaps they aren’t up to the surrealism of “Desolation Row” or “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” but they are the equal of most contemporary rock writing.
Early on, Barrett was a joyful young man. Life grew dark for him. Drugs perhaps induced schizophrenia. He painted in seclusion in Cambridge, rejecting the world of music and only disturbed occasionally when accosted by a zealous fan or reporter. He died aged 60 in 2006 and remains remembered. Expect to see the words “acid casualty” whenever his name comes up.