Syd Barrett, the swinging 60

Pink Floyd’s guiding genius walked away as stardom beckoned. On his 60th birthday, John Robb analyses his iconic status and speaks to those who remember him best – Published: 07 January 2006

Syd Barrett The Swinging 60

One of the key figures of the Sixties – and the original acid casualty – was 60 years old yesterday. How he celebrated, no one can be too sure, for Syd Barrett has been seen by virtually no one except his mother for many of those years.

With the handful of songs he wrote while fronting Pink Floyd in 1966 and 1967, Barrett 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. It has been 35 years since his last interview and more than 30 years since he released an album, but the legend continues to grow, though the man himself disappeared into a reclusive life in Cambridge.

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. I just want to say, “Happy birthday, Syd”.

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.

Jeff Dexter, deejay at London’s legendary psychedelic club, UFO

In the summer of ’66, I went to one of these Sunday spontaneous underground things at the Marquee. I didn’t get Pink Floyd at that time. I was into more straight rock ‘n’ roll. The International Times party at the Roundhouse [15 October 1966] was a key event. I was more enamoured by the event than by any particular band, but I did speak to Syd. I was intrigued by all the birds round him. At the time, everyone was spaced out, and Syd was no different.

At UFO, they were on every other week with their light show. It wasn’t like watching an average rock band – there were people lying on the floor, people dancing round or just waving their arms about.

John Leckie, record producer

I saw Pink Floyd at All Saints Church Hall in Powys Terrace [30 September 1966]. They were fantastic. The hall was minute – it was a nursery school with little chairs. Everyone sat on the chairs, and now and then people would get up and idiot-dance. And musically it was great – Syd’s guitar was really loud, with lots of improvisation.

In 1974, they’d released his solo albums, Barrett and The Madcap Laughs, as a double album in America and they had done well. So EMI wanted him in the studio. Pete Jenner said: “Syd’s going to come in, he’s not in very good shape, and we’re just going to see what we can get.” So Syd came in with new guitars. He had six Stratocasters – his flat must have looked like a music shop. He still looked like Syd – long hair, bit unkempt but still looking good. He seemed bit vacant, a bit shell-shocked. Still, every day he would turn up with a different girl. But there were no lyrics, nothing at all. I’m not sure if he even had any songs.

Every day if he walked out of the studio and turned left he would come back again, and if he turned right he would disappear. On the last day he left and turned right, and that was the last we ever saw of him.

Mick Rock, photographer

I was studying modern languages at Cambridge. It was New Year’s Eve 1966, and I had mutual friends saying: “You’ve got to come and see Syd with his band.” I went along and yes, indeed, it was one of those unprecedented things! Completely out of stage left! There was nothing else quite like them. I wonder if it had something to do with the chemicals… After, there was a party at Syd’s mother’s house, where I first met Syd. He had a very attractive girlfriend. I thought “Wow! he has got everything!”

Syd was very friendly. I always remember him laughing a lot – if you look at pictures I took later in 1971, in the garden in Cambridge, there was a lot of laughing in them as well. We had a good rapport. The chemicals help initially with creative people but then the hindrance sets in. The impression I got when I interviewed him in 1971 was that he didn’t want to be a pop star anymore.

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.

John Robb’s “Punk Rock: The Oral History”, will be published shortly by Ebury.