Syd Barrett remembered by the people who worked with him

Syd Barrett,
Pink Floyd’s guiding genius walked away as stardom beckoned. John Robb analyses his iconic status and speaks to those who remember him best

Syd Barrett- a celebration of his genius

Syd Barrett- a celebration of his genius, photo:Mick Rock

One of the key figures of the Sixties – and the original acid casualty who with the handful of songs he wrote while fronting Pink Floyd in 1966 and 1967, was at the forefront of British psychedelia. He changed the way pop music was listened to and played, fusing childlike, whimsical songs with wild freak-outs, forging a vibrant whole that set the template for the late 60s and beyond.

His unique style – off-the-wall slide guitar shoved through an echo unit – took the guitar away from plain riffing. It was like listening to the colour of sound even before Jimi Hendrix arrived in London. The post-Barrett Floyd operated in his shadow, while a host of contemporary musicians are still in awe of his plaintive and original songs.

Barrett had it all – he was innovative, artistic and surrounded by beautiful women. But he imploded months after the band’s breakthrough, a victim of the hectic touring, the pressure to come up with new songs and his drug experimentation that put intolerable pressure on an already fragile psyche. In autumn 1967 he started behaving oddly on TV shows in America, and at gigs would stand onstage stock still and not playing a note.

In early 1968, the band drafted in Dave Gilmour to cover. The plan was for Barrett to be a Brian Wilson figure, writing the songs but not playing live. But after five weeks, in the face of increasingly erratic and unreliable behaviour, they decided, reluctantly, to on without him.

Barrett returned to the studio to cut two solo albums of sad, lilting off-the-wall songs, fragments of genius that have become precursors to modern day lo-fi indie rock – highly personal music poured on to tape. But he was now starting to withdraw from the world, and for the next few years he lived in virtual seclusion in his London flat, then, at the end of the 1970 went back to the family home in Cambridge.

Syd Barrett could have been one of the pantheon of rock legends, alongside Bob Dylan, John Lennon or the Rolling Stones. Instead he bailed out early, leaving those who knew him still touched by his genius four decades later.

Dave Gilmour, Pink Floyd guitarist

He was a truly magnetic personality. When he was very young, he was a figure in his home town. People would look at him in the street and say, “There’s Syd Barrett,” and he would be only 14 years old.

In my opinion, [his breakdown] would have happened anyway. It was a deep-rooted thing. But I’ll say the psychedelic experience might well have acted as a catalyst. Still, I just don’t think he could deal with the vision of success and all the things that went with it.

[On working with Barrett later]: Roger [Waters, Pink Floyd’s bassist] and I sat down with him after listening to all his songs and said: “Syd, play this one. Syd, play that one.” We sat him on a chair with a couple of mics in front of him and got him to sing. The potential of some of those songs… they could have really been fantastic. But trying to find a technique of working with Syd was so difficult. You had to pre-record tracks without him, working from one version of the song he had done, and then sit Syd down afterwards and try to get him to play and sing along. Or you could get him to do a performance of it on his own and then try to dub everything else on top. The concept of him performing with another bunch of musicians was clearly impossible because he’d change the song every time. He’d never do a song the same twice, I think quite deliberately.

Pete Jenner, Pink Floyd co-manager 1966-68

My first contact with Pink Floyd was at the Marquee in June 1966. I had this label and we were looking for a band that could sell records. I was not really into pop, but I did like the way the band improvised. I remember walking round the stage at the Marquee because the stage stuck out, trying to work out where the noise came from.

All the stuff on Floyd’s first album he wrote in autumn, 1966. In fact, nearly all the songs he ever wrote were in that six months, and a lot of the songs cropped up on his solo albums.

The autumn after the first US tour, there were problems. He’d been wobbling out all sorts of weird shit, and from there on in it was a real struggle keeping it together – keeping him together. We were all saying: “We need more songs” – everyone was putting pressure on him. In the end, it became obvious that it couldn’t go on working, and that’s when Dave Gilmour came in as the fifth man. Did Syd know what was happening? I don’t know… I think in a way he had removed himself from the band.

Andrew King, Pink Floyd co-manager 1966-68

Syd told me it took him weeks to perfect the lyrics for “Arnold Layne” [Pink Floyd’s debut single]. There was a lot of intellectual effort involved. I miss him every day off my life, really. He had everything. He was a songwriter, painter, actor, charmer. I don’t want to talk about him in the past.

Duggie Fields, musician And Barrett’s former flatmate

I went to their early gigs. They also used to rehearse in the flat – I remember it was the twists in their music more than the blues they played that made them interesting. Syd was certainly the major creator in the band – he was the one everyone would look to at gigs. Then he obviously became dysfunctional, but the person I saw was not dysfunctional by a long shot. I looked at their touring schedule a few years ago and was shocked by it – such a crazy schedule. Throw in a bit of drug abuse, and it would be enough to freak anyone out.

Eventually, he withdrew more and more. There would be curtains permanently on the windows, no fresh air… it seems like in retrospect he was withdrawing, though it didn’t seem like that at the time. I have very fond memories of Syd.

Daevid Allen, guitarist, The Soft Machine

I first saw them at the IT festival. I was obviously influenced by what he was doing, sliding things up and down the neck of guitar. He was pretty – I met him at [the club] UFO and he would stare right at you. His naive, childlike songs were for people who wanted to reject the old ways – the generation which hadn’t grown up with the war. It was a glorification of the innocence of childhood. In the end, Syd ran out of freshness. It got boring, it wasn’t fun any more, so he stopped.

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13 comments on “Syd Barrett remembered by the people who worked with him”

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  1. People should also get Days in the Life, a Tale of the English Underground 1954-71, bu Jonathon Green. lots of scary Syd stuff in there. poor Syd.

  2. look syd was the most creative electric guitarist of all time jimi loved his playing he said he had a great attack on the guitar to be exact ……syd barrett invented the glisendo way of playing the electric guitar davied allen of soft machine told me that !!!!! srv is no jimi hendrix and syd the most underrated guitarist ever !!!! the dead heads were scared of syd .. cause he was so much better than jerry garcia same solo in every song ……i like fripp and zappa also on the top of my list ….. glenn leslie

  3. Quran (4:104) – “And be not weak hearted in pursuit of the enemy; if you suffer pain, then surely they (too) suffer pain as you suffer pain…”

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