Syd Barrett – “What colour is sound”
Brian Hogg, January 1993
Questions of such a philosophical nature are not generally part of a pop marketing campaign, but it was 1967 and it concerned Pink Floyd, “the leading group of Britain’s Underground”, as they were dubbed by contemporary pundits. The single in question was ‘Arnold Layne’ and the psychedelic association – Pink Floyd had a light show – inspired a competition whereby listeners to EMI’s new release slot on Radio Luxembourg were asked to guess which hue the song reputedly suggested.
It’s worth recalling that although ‘Arnold Layne’ brought the group a national audience, several admirers from within their founding enclave muttered disquiet about it’s unashamedly commercial form. Elsewhere voices were raised about it’s transvestite subject, and not for the last time would it’s composer, Syd Barrett, be the subject of fervent debate.
Born in Cambridge on January 6 1946, Roger Keith Barrett was given his “Syd” sobriquet while attending the city’s High School, where his friends included Roger Waters and Dave Gilmour. The latter subsequently joined Barrett on a busking tour of France and although the pair also worked as a folk-based duo, their muse was peppered by songs from the Rolling Stones. Syd also championed the Beatles in a circle usually sympathetic to jazz. Designer Storm Thorgerson, speaking to journalist Nick Kent, recalls Barrett’s obsessions as “music, painting, and religion. He was a great artist, but he just stopped. He was starting to shut himself off slowly then.”
Syd did however take up a place at London’s Camberwell School of Art, but continued playing in various part time aggregations, including The Hollering Blues and Greg Mott and the Mottoes. Waters was meanwhile studying architecture at Regent Street Polytechnic, where he formed Sigma 6 with fellow undergraduates Nick Mason (drums) and Rick Wright (keyboards). Having added bassist Clive Metcalfe, the same act evolved into a variety of permutations – The T-Set, The (Screaming) Abdabs – each of which survived on a diet of de rigeur R&B. Metcalfe then left the line-up; Waters switched from guitar to bass, but while Juliette Gale (who later married Wright) was briefly a member, Bob Close took over the lead spot of a group which underwent a radical change when Roger invited Barrett to join. The latter’s blend of mysticism, pop and hallucinogenics was at odds with Close’s traditional outlook and the Abdabs imploded towards the end of 1965. Almost imm ediately Barrett, Waters, Wright and Mason reconvened as The Pink Floyd Sound, a name Syd had coined from an album by Georgia blues musicians Pink Anderson, and Floyd Council.
Within weeks the new line-up had repaired to the Thompsan Private Record Company, a tiny studio sited in the basement of a house in Hemel Hampstead. Here they recorded two songs; an original hinged to the ‘Gloria’ riff entitled‘Lucy Leave’ and a version of Slim Harpo’s ‘I’m a King Bee’. Rudimentary they may have been, but both tracks indicate a defined sense of purpose, particularly the former which, although pop R&B, shows a playful imagination.
However, it was late in the following year before the quartet, bereft of their ‘Sound’ suffix, began attracting notoriety as part of a counter-culture milieu centered on the Free London School at All Saint’s Church Hall. This self-help organization attracted proto-hippies, working class activists, and Black Power acolytes, including Michael X, and was instrumental in providing a focus for the emergent underground, inspiring two of its adherents, (Barry) Miles and John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins, to fo und Britain’s first alternative publication, ‘International Times’. The paper was launched on October 15 at a party at the Roundhouse; it was here The Pink Floyd made it’s major debut.
A subsequent review in ‘IT’, termed the quartet a “psychedelic pop group” and described their “scary feed back sounds and slide projections (which) produced outer space/prehistoric textures on the skin”. Other accounts noted that the power blew out during ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, which suggested that by this stag e the Floyd were blending original songs to a set once-renowned for freaked-out readings of ‘Louie, Louie’ and ‘Road Runner’. Early Barrett originals including the whimsical ‘Effervescing Elephant’, written at age 16, and ‘Golden Hair’, a poem from James Joyce’s ‘Chamber Music’ which he’d set to music. Armed with such disparate inspiration, the Floyd returned to Thompsan’s on October 31 where they recorded what became the soundtrack to the film ‘San Francisco’.
“Syd’s influences were the Stones, Beatles, Byrds and Love,” the group’s first manager, Pete Jenner, told Nick Kent, adding at Barrett wore out his copy of the last-named group’s debut album. “I was trying to tell him about this Arthur Lee song I couldn’t remember the title of, so I just hummed the main riff. Syd picked up his guitar, followed what I was humming, and went on to use the chord pattern he worked out for ‘Interstellar Overdrive’.”
‘Interstellar Overdrive’, with it’s extended free-form passage, was the piece which established Pink Floyd’s experimental reputation and it was one of the tracks the group attempted during their first recording session at Chelsea’s Sound Technique s. By December 1966 the group had become, with The Soft Machine, one of the acts appearing at the UFO Club in Tottenham Court Road, Founded by Hoppy Hopkins in partnership with Joe Boyd. This pivotal venue brought the new religion to the West End and although it’s tenure was short, a mythical status was quickly established. Boyd, already proved as a record producer, struck up a relationship with the group which, in January 1967, repaired to the aforementioned studio. Two versions of ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ were undertaken; one truncated, another long, and it was also here that the quartet completed Barrett’s quirky ‘Arnold Layne’. Although this latter master was placed with EMI’s Columbia outlet, the compa ny rejected ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, both readings of which subsequently appeared on the soundtrack to “Tonight Let’s All Make Love in London”. When this set was exhumed in 1990, it was bolstered by another improvised piece, dubbed ‘Nick’s Boogie’, which may indeed date from the ‘Thompson’s’ era. The Floyd also cut an early version of ‘Astronomy Domine’ at this time, but whether it was the product of these or subsequent sessions is unclear.
‘Arnold Layne’ was meanwhile coupled to another original from the first Sound Techniques’ visit, ‘Let’s Roll Another One’, later given the less contentious title, ‘Candy and a Currant Bun’. The pairing formed the Floyd’s debut the following March and the resultant top 30 hit confirmed the group as a na tional attraction.
Staff producer Norman Smith took over from Boyd for subsequent releases and having largely completed work on a debut album, the group cut it’s second single: ‘See Emily Play’. The song was initially entitled ‘Games For May’ in honour of the event the Floyd had undertaken at the South Bank Queen Elizabeth Hall. “(They) intend this concert to be a musical and visual exploration – not only for themselves but for the audience too,” proclaimed the attendant press release and the show did mark a watershed in their career. When ‘See Emily Play’ reached the UK Top 5, the quartet where perceived in a commercial way which in turn brought new pressure upon Barrett, then unquestionably, the group’s leader.
The Floyd’s debut album, “Piper At The Gates Of Dawn“, followed in August. Of it’s eleven tracks, Syd composed eight – collaborating on two others – and the result was one of the finest sets of it’s era. If English psychedelia dosed it’s narcotisation with Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, then the combination of experiment and childhood fantasy was never stronger here as whimsy, nostalgia and dynamite riffs cross-polinated it’s enchanting tapestry.
By the end of 1967 the Floyd had not only traversed Britain’s cinemas and ballrooms on a package with The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Move and Amen Corner, they had also undertaken a fractured US tour. The sojourn was little short of disastrous, particularly when the group was pressed into appearing on television shows hosted by Dick Clark and Pat Boone. Barrett refused to mime on the former – “Syd wasn’t into moving his lips that day” – while the latter’s vacuous repartee was greeted by stony silence. The tail-end of the visit was wisely cancelled.
A projected third single, ‘Scream Thy Last Scream‘, was replaced by ‘Apples And Oranges‘, although any notion that the latter boasted his potential was obscurred by it’s oblique chord sequence and lack of palpable melody. ‘Scream‘ has meanwhile joined ‘Vegetable Man‘, another product of this tortuous period, as the great ‘lost’ Barrett creations. The masters for both still bear the declaration “not to be used for LP”, ie: the group’s projected second album.
The ‘Apples’ sessions also yielded ‘Jugband Blues‘ and ‘Remember A Day‘, both of which did surface on “Saucerful Of Secrets“. Barrett’s input during this period remains a matter of conjecture but his presence on these particular tracks – the first of which he wrote – is unequivocal. Other selections, including ‘See Saw‘ and ‘Corporal Clegg‘ owe a debt to his unique vision, and indeed several other selections were commenced prior to his department in April 1968. That said, he does not appear on ‘It Would Be So Nice‘, the group’s fourth single, recorded the previous month, and thus the notion of a straightforward break is misleading. Barrett’s one-time collaborator Dave Gilmour, had been drafted into the line-up in February 1968 and for a brief time a 5-piece Floyd existed. Rumour and gossip suggested that Syd would take on a Brian Wilson role, writing and recording material while the band appeared in public, but in the end he was ousted completely
“I suppose it was really just a matter of being a little offhand about things,” was how Syd recalled the split to ‘Melody Maker‘. However the notion that the Floyd’s one-time pivot was now bereft of inspiration is rather ingenuous. ‘Difficult’ he may have become, but within a month of his axing, Barrett was back in Abbey Road.
With his manager, Pete Jenner, as producer, Syd began his solo career on May 13 with two new compositions, ‘Silas Lang‘ and ‘Late Night‘. The former title now seems to have been a misnomer – Barrett apparently never reffered it as such – and the piece is better-known as ‘Swan Lee‘. Four compositions were attempted the following day: ‘Lanky (part 1)‘, ‘Lanky (part 2)‘, the Joycian ‘Golden Hair‘ and ‘Rhamadan‘.
Only one take was made of the first-named track which was subsequently placed on “Opel“, 1988’s collection of out-takes and rarities. A sketch-book instrumental, ‘Lanky‘ features some rivetting, angular guitarwork and suggested that the composer was still enamoured with improvisation. It’s successor – some seven minutes of percussive sounds – proved less interesting, while ‘Rhamadan‘ continued in a similar, but lengthier, vein and to less effect. However the first, fragile version of ‘Golden Hair‘ was enchanting, and closed “Opel” in suitably elegiac fashion.
Barrett and Jenner returned to Abbey Road the following month, Overdubs where added to both ‘Swan Lee‘ and ‘Late Night‘, and on 20th Jult the pair began work on ‘Clowns And Jugglers‘, the first take of which is featured here. The mesmerising piece features yet more punitive guitar work and indicates Syd was already planning wherein further instrumentals parts would slot. However this was the final track recording during this period and, for reasons never fully explained, Barrett did not recommence work until April the following year.
By 1969 the balance between Syd and his former group changed immeasurably. The Floyd, regarded as regal denizens of progressive rock, were embroiled in completing ‘solo’ studio capsules for the landmark “Ummagumma” when Barrett approached EMI about further recordings. The company had already launched a Harvest, a safe-haven for all things non-establishment, which was at that point administered by Malcolm Jones. Jones received Syd’s offer with enthusiasm but, wary of a conflict of interest, decided against using either Jenner or Norman Smith as pruducers as both was still committed to Floyd. Thus Malcolm took charge of the sessions, almost by default, but the results were highly impressive.
Barrett re-entered Abbey Road on April 10th 1969 and having tinkered with the Jenner recording of ‘Swan Lee‘, the singer attempted another version of ‘Clowns and Jugglers‘. However both he and Jones agreed that, rather than revamp old material, the pair should return the following day with a view to cutting Syd’s more recent compositions.
The first new song completed was ‘Opel‘. Nine takes were attempted, the last of which was unquestionably the finest. It remains unfathomable why this mesmerising performance should have been left unreleased; it’s exhumation was deserved and the track rightly formed the focal point of that aforementioned collection. The singer then completed several versions of ‘Love You‘; the first fast, the third slower, the fourth forming the basis for that appearing on “The Madcap Laughs“. As performances, there was little to choose between the different renditions and the final choice reflected mood – “best to decide later” states the cryptic note attached to the box.
This was followed by three takes of ‘It’s No Good Trying‘ (five inclusive false starts). The final rendition was deemed the strongest and saved for future overdubs, but we’ve also included an ‘acoustic’ version. At 6 minutes 40, it’s longer than the finished piece and the emptier arrangement showcases Syd’s complex chord and metre changes. It’s unsurprising that two blues musicians should have inspired the Pink Floyd name; the group’s creator shows the same disdain for standard form as John Lee Hooker or Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Syd then used a cigarette lighter to overdub a slide guitar sequence on ‘Late Night‘, before completing the piece with a first-time vocal. Equally perfect were the voice and guitar-lines on a new song, ‘Terrapin‘, contributions retained on the eventual master. Barrett then turned to ‘Golden Hair‘, which still required embelishment. Take 5 featured a prominent harmony line, later abandoned, but that intriguing version is contained herein.
It had proved a productive day’s work. Jones arranged to meet Syd the following Thursday (April 17th) at which point the singer introduced two musical acquintances, bassist ‘Willie’ Wilson and drummer Jerry Shirley. The former had been a member of Joker’s Wild with Dave Gilmour; the latter was concurrently in Humble Pie, and having warmed up with rudimentary rehearsals, the trio recorded five takes of ‘No Man’s Land‘. The same number of attempts ensued of ‘Here I Go‘ and in both cases the final reading was deemed best. Barring sundry overdubs on ‘No Man’s Land‘, these were the versions mixed down for “Madcap Laughs“.
The following week Syd attempted to exhume the lengthy ‘Rhamadan‘, declaring his wish to add a motorbike sound he’d recorded on a cassette while on the pillion. The results were largely useless, but a 30 second loop of start-up, revving, gear-changes and motion was culled from Abbey Road’s tape library. However, Barrett then decided to drop the project.
On May 3rd the singer and producer began overdubs on ‘Love You’, ‘No Good Trying’ and ‘Clowns and Jugglers’. The Soft Machine – Mike Ratledge (keyboards), Hugh Hopper (bass) and Robert Wyatt (drums) – added avant-gard backing to three songs which, despite Syd’s erratic tempo, boast a wonderful sense of mischief. Yet whereas the first two performances appeared on “Madcap Laughs”, that of ‘Clowns and Jugglers’ was shelved until the release of“Opel”. On the 4th, Barrett added backwards guitar to ‘No Good Trying’ and lead to ‘Terrapin’ and ‘No Man’s Land’. It was at this point that Dave Gilmour entered the frame.
“Dave had been taking a casual interest during most of the later sessions,” Malcom Jones explained in his booklet ‘The Making of “Madcap Laughs”‘. “It was only a short step to suggesting that he and Roger Waters should produce some tracks as well.”
Barrett had remained on friendly terms with his erstwhile collaborator – their respective flats were close to one another – and Syd have even appeared backstage at a Pink Floyd gig in Croydon. The remaining sessions were completed in a three day sprint – June 13th and 14th and July 26th – partly because of Gilmour and Waters’ commitments to the mixing of “Ummagumma” and a tour of Holland. On the first day Barrett began a new version of ‘Clowns and Jugglers’, now retitled ‘Octopus’. Eleven takes, including false starts, were required to complete a master, the last of which was used on “Madcap Laughs”. Despite its breakdown, and the singer’s indecision over the ideal key, take 2 is also enchanting and is issued here for the first time. Eleven attempts were also required for ‘Golden Hair’; the final rendition appeared on the album while the sixth was exhumed for “Opel”. Two new songs, ‘Long Gone’ and ‘Wouldn’t you Miss Me’ (aka‘Dark Globe’) were also recorded at the session. The latter required only two takes but although the same number of‘Long Gone’ were attempted, neither was deemed suitable and the issued version was completed the following month.
The final day’s work proved frantic. Syd attempted a new reading of ‘Wouldn’t You Miss Me’ – that issued on “Opel” – before opting for take 2 from the previous session. Three untried compositions: ‘She Took a Long Cold Look at Me’,‘Feel’ and ‘If Its in You’ were also completed. ‘Feel’ required a single take, ‘If its in You’ broke down four times before the fifth proved ‘best’, while the same number was required for ‘Long Cold Look’. The fourth take, complete with false starts, is included here.
“The Madcap Laughs” was released on Harvest in January 1970, having been preceded the previous month by a single which coupled ‘Octopus’ ) a line from which inspired the album’s title) with ‘Golden Hair’. Reviews for the set were complimentary and on 24th February a confident Barrett undertook a live session for John Peel’s ‘Top Gear’. Of the five songs completed, only one, ‘Terrapin’, came from “Madcap Laughs”. The remainder were all new compositions, including ‘Gigolo Aunt’, ‘Baby Lemonade’ and ‘Two of a Kind’, the last of which Syd would not record on album. The fifth inclusion was ‘Effervescing Elephant’, reprised from Barrett’s nascent repertoire.
Syd returned to Abbey road two days later where, with Dave Gilmour, again as producer, he began work on a projected second album with ‘Baby Lemonade’. Two takes of ‘Maisie’ ensued before Barrett launched into the first 15 tries at‘Gigolo Aunt’. Only three were complete: take 7, take 9 – included here for the first time – and take 15, which appeared on “Barrett”. The session ended with multiple takes of ‘Waving My Arms in the Air’, of which the first was declared ‘best’. A trio comprising Gilmour, Shirley and Pink Floyd’s Richard Wright (organ) accompanied Syd on these recordings, suggesting a sense of urgency prevailed. Where “Madcap” was painstakingly pieced together, this second set would result from periodic bursts of activity.
On February 27th the singer cut four demos – ‘Wolfpack’, ‘Waving my Arms in the Air’, ‘Living Alone’ and ‘Bob Dylan’s Blues’ – all of which appear to have been taken away by Gilmour. The last two titles did not reappear, and although a tape of the reportedly excellent ‘Dylan’s Blues’ circulated briefly, these performances now seem to be lost forever. Work also continued on ‘Gigolo Aunt’ but it was not until April 1st that Barrett returned to Abbey Road.
Rough mixes of work in progress ensued before Syd began a new version of ‘Wolfpack’ on the 3rd. Recording was then suspended until June 5th when Barrett completed three 2-track demos of ‘Rats’, ‘Wined and Dined’, and ‘Birdie Hop’. Each of these performances were eventually reissued on “Opel”, although the same version of ‘Rats’ formed the basis of that on “Barrett”. Two days later Syd recorded a new song, the ebullient ‘Milky Way’, which again made its debut on “Opel”. He also resurrected a composition from Pink Floyd’s early set, ‘She Was a Millionaire’, retitled simply‘Millionaire’. Two illstarred attempts followed, neither of which featured vocals, before the notion was discarded and the day’s work ended with group overdubs on the bilious ‘Rats’.
Another break ensued before recording was recommenced. Five tracks were undertaken on July 14th, including nine new readings of ‘Effervescing Elephant’ – take 2 is preserved alongside the final master, plus numerous overdubs on‘Winded and Dined’. Three attempts at ‘Dominoes’, one of Syd’s most beguiling compositions, were completed and both the false start and the first full take make their debut in this set. The singer’s initial attempt at ‘Love Song’, at this point known simply as ‘Untitled’, is also featured herein. Barrett also put down ‘Dolly Rocker’ and ‘Let’s Split’ during this session but, although subsequently shelved, both songs were placed on “Opel”.
‘Love Song’ was completed during a period stretching from the 17th to the 21st July. Rudimentary attempts at overdubbing ‘Dolly Rocker’ were entirely wiped before Syd began work on another piece dubbed ‘Untitled’ but later known as ‘Word Song’. Unissued at the time, this enchanting song also made its debut on “Opel”. Five takes of ‘It is Obvious’ were then undertaken, and although the first was chosen for subsequent embellishments, other renditions were equally meritorious and take 2 (with electric guitar), take 3 and take 5 (with acoustic) have been included on this set.
Work on “Barrett” closed with remakes of ‘Maisie’ and ‘Waving my Arms in the Air’, which segued into a new piece, ‘I Never Lied to You’. The album, for which Syd designed the sleeve, was released in November 1970 and if reaction was more muted than that greeting “Madcap Laughs”, this was partly due to timing, rather than content. It was apparent, however, that this second selection, despite its more intimate framework, captured a talent in the process of disintegration. “I think Syd was in good shape when he made “Madcap”,” Pete Jenner opined to Nick Kent. “He was still writing good songs.” By contrast Dave Gilmour recalled in the same NME article that, during the “Barrett”sessions, “It was mostly a case of me saying: ‘Well, what have you got then Syd’ and he’d search around and eventually work something out.”
Notions of singles and perhaps a third album abounded over ensuing months. Barrett did complete a session for Radio 1’s ‘Sounds of the Seventies’, but where on ‘Top Gear’ he chose to unveil new material, here he offered ‘Baby Lemonade’, ‘Dominoes’ and ‘Love Song’. In truth Syd was already slipping into the life of a recluse although in an interview in ‘Rolling Stone’ of Christmas ’71 he declared himself “totally together”. Within weeks this brave assertion was called into question when, during an appearance at Kings College Cellar in Cambridge, blues performer Eddie ‘Guitar’ Burns introduced a “last minute put together boogie band”. Here Barrett joined ex- Delivery bassist Jack Monch and former Pretty Things/Pink Fairies drummer Twink for what was, by all accounts, a loose jam. The trio nonetheless opted to stay together and, dubbed Stars, appeared with Skin Alley and MC5 at Cambridge Corn Exchange. The resultant set was little short of chaotic, Syd failed to surface for the next date and ensuing shows wee cancelled.
Barrett nonetheless remained the subject of interest and speculation about his future activities heightened following the release of David Bowie’s ‘tribute’ album, “Pin Ups”, which included a version of ‘See Emily Play’. Indeed Bowie was one of the many names suggested as the mysterious benefactor funding Syd’s ill-starred return to Abbey Road in summer 1974. Over the years this four-day session has been the subject of debate, and indeed the original notes to“Opel” cast doubt on its existence as, at that point, neither tapes nor paperwork seemed to have survived. They have subsequently surfaced, although the results bear little relation to work gracing “Madcap Laughs” and “Barrett”. Instead Syd spent the time working on ill-focused blues’ licks and chord sequences, only one of which bore a title: ‘If You Go’. The process was abandoned before any vocal tracks were attempted.
Since then interest in Barrett’s activities has remained constant, despite the subject’s abdication. The Pink Floyd track,‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’, was and unequivocal tribute, while a judicious repackaging of the singer’s two albums during the mid-1970s introduced his work to a new audience. “Opel” showed a spectrum much wider than the official releases suggested and taken together Barrett’s canon reveals an intuitive, idiosyncratic talent of dazzling originality. He may never record again and while it’s now difficult to divorce the fragile images from the creator’s personal traumas, there was a time when many of the enclosed songs were viewed simply as beguiling. Approach them now in a similar spirit.
Brian Hogg January 1993
(with thanks to:)
- Nick Kent – “Syd Barrett”, NME, 1974.
- (Barry) Miles – “Games for May”, NME 1976
- Malcolm Jones – “The Making of ‘The Madcap Laughs'”, Private Publication, 1982)