Shine on you crazy diamond
Nick Kent – The Guardian UK – July 12, 2006
Syd Barrett, the most famous recluse in rock, is dead. It would be easy to mourn the founder of Pink Floyd as a casualty of drugs and mental illness, says Nick Kent – but his songs will inspire musicians for generations
Syd Barrett’s musical career lasted barely seven years – from 1965 to early ’72 – and the past 32 years saw him resolutely refusing to record new music or venture near a concert stage. But Barrett, who died of cancer last Friday at the age of 60, will go down in history as one of the most uniquely inspired creative talents to have sprung up from the pop revolution that gripped Britain in the late 20th century. More specifically, he was the golden boy of the mind-melting late-60s psychedelic era, its brightest star and ultimately its most tragic victim.
Like many other questing spirits who came to age in the mid-60s, he was inspired by taking LSD to create truly daring, other-wordly music – first for the original incarnation of Pink Floyd, then as a solo singer/songwriter – but the drug ended up fatally fracturing his psyche and turning him into a solitary recluse unable to function within the music industry and society in general. The story of his personal meltdown has been told and retold as a cautionary tale for indiscriminate druggies to the point where Barrett’s status as rock’s most illustrious casualty often threatens to outweigh his actual creative contributions to the form. This is not as it should be.
Barrett started making music in his early teens, not long after the death of his father, an esteemed doctor. He became a regular fixture at Cambridge folk clubs but was generally more attracted by music involving electric instruments. He played in several amateurish blues bands around Cambridge until he won a scholarship to a prestigious London art school in 1964. The following year Barrett started playing with a former Cambridge schoolfriend, Roger Waters, who was studying architecture at London’s Regent Street polytechnic, and two of Waters’ fellow students, Richard Wright and Nick Mason. Although he was the youngest member of the group, Barrett quickly became its leader and key driving force. He wrote the songs. He sang them, too – as well as playing guitar. He even came up with the name: Pink Floyd, taken from a blues album he owned involving two obscure musicians known as Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.
Live, Barrett’s Floyd quickly earned a reputation as London’s most radical musical experience. The four-piece invented a new way for a rock band to express themselves, with eccentric pop songs suddenly melting into long, spaced-out improvisations that would directly open the door first to the UK psychedelia movement and later to the oft-derided form we now call prog-rock. Barrett’s guitar-playing was singular enough, always opting for spine-tingling “eerie noise” over virtuoso string-bending, but he was most gifted as a songwriter.
This became abundantly clear when the group released their first single at the outset of 1967. Arnold Layne was a Barrett composition that was both light-heartedly mischievous and creepingly sinister, evoking a figure from his Cambridge past, a disturbed individual who often stole women’s underclothing from local washing lines. David Bowie – then a struggling singer/songwriter – was just one among many who found Barrett’s groundbreaking blending of “light” and “dark” subject matter in popular song lyrics deeply liberating for his own personal muse. Last May, Bowie took the stage with David Gilmour, Barrett’s Floyd replacement, to perform Arnold Layne as a homage to Syd -and also a personal thank-you for the considerable influence Barrett’s music has had on him.
Barrett continued his masterful marriage of light and dark emotions on the group’s next single, See Emily Play, and also alchemised the whimsical new bohemian spirit of the summer of love into an entire album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. But the dark aspects of his art soon eclipsed the light and euphoric side of his vision. In the late summer of ’67 he wrote several disturbing new songs, one of which, Jugband Blues, appeared to be a stark autobiographical cry for help from a man desperately struggling with schizophrenia. The rest of the Floyd refused to release the other compositions and stood on horrified as they watched their guiding light turn int a catatonic human train-wreck. In early 1968, they booted him out of his own group.
This should have been a wake-up call for Barrett, but instead he sank even further into a world of drug-induced dislocation. Yet he continued to write songs that more and more sounded like open psychic sores, as this illuminated but desperately isolated soul struggled to make sense of his condition. He made two albums from this material – The Madcap Laughs (1970) and Barrett (1971) – with considerable assistance in the studio from his ex-Floyd cohorts Waters, Wright and Gilmour. But neither record sold many copies when released and Barrett returned to his mother’s house in Cambridge to live like a hermit. He briefly played concerts with a local band called Stars in early 1972 but a negative review of one show caused him to jettison any further musical ambitions and become a full-time social recluse.
Yet his ghost has continued to exert an ever-more potent fascination over rock musicians of all generations. That Pink Floyd themselves were haunted by the tortured spectre is confirmed by Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall, their three most momentous post-Syd recordings. David Bowie re-channelled Barrett’s dislocated, quintessential English style of vocal projection into songs such as The Bewlay Brothers. In early 1976, just before John Lydon joined the Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren tried (unsuccessfully) to convince the band to perform a couple of Syd’s songs in their repertoire. The Damned, meanwhile, attempted – in vain – to get Barrett to produce their second album. Then came the new-wave bands such as the Soft Boys who feverishly appropriated the Madcap’s surreal take on the modern pop-song aesthetic. He became a spiritual pied piper of 80s indie rock and by the 90s his madly spellbinding music was being referenced by everyone from Blur to the Brian Jonestown Massacre. In the new millennium, one needs to look no further than the recorded works of the Libertines and Babyshambles to hear that Syd’s crazy diamond music is still bewitching and informing the creative choices of rock’s latest generation of bohemian spirits.
A private funeral is apparently being planned that will pointedly exclude all Barrett’s past musical compadres. No matter. All of us who were ever deeply touched by his unique gifts and his tragic life story should bow our heads and offer up a minute’s silence to this remarkable individual for the way he enriched our lives. And pray that he is finally fully at peace.