The brilliant madness of Syd Barrett

By Sergio Ariza

Pink Floyd is one of the great bands in history - their huge albums of the 70s form part of the collective subconscious of rock - but it is frequently forgotten that the band’s origins were completely different; although equally brilliant. Led by the madcap genius of Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd were at the avant-guard of psychedelia in the United Kingdom.     

Before recording their debut album, the band had started to make a name for themselves on the London underground scene as one of the earliest British psychedelic line-ups, and were considered as leaders of the movement in England. Their legendary performances in the UFO club, with members of the Beatles in attendance, saw them play long instrumental sections founded on Barrett’s consumption of LSD, and led EMI to sign them up.

March 1967 saw their first single, the irresistible Arnold Lane (a song about a kleptomaniac transvestite) leave two things clear: the first that Barrett’s songs were from a world apart, and the second that he had become an excellent composer of pop songs. The song entered the top 20 in the British charts, while its follow up, the equally brilliant See Emily Play, went to number 6. After these early successes, expectations about the band’s first album were enormous. And practically all the pressure was on the shoulders of the leader, singer, guitarist, and key composer of the band.

The album was recorded at the same time as the singles and the band included on it songs that were recorded live, such as Interstellar Overdrive, on which Barrett’s influential guitar style was evident, with his creativity and originality predominating over his technical ability. It could be said that his head seemed to race much faster than his fingers. Barrett used a 62 Fender Esquire to record almost the whole album; a guitar that was decorated with metallic circles which reflected the psychedelic lights that filled their performances. It's the same one that appears in the blazing pop flares that abound in this album, diamonds that shine together with the mix of infant melodies and surrealistic lyrics; and the psychedelic madness of a mind on the verge of collapse. On tracks as incredible as Astronomy Domine, Lucifer Sam, Matilda Mother, Flaming or The Scarecrow, on which over an instrumental start, that sounds almost medieval, he puts his 62 Esquire as an accompaniment to his voice. Together these elements grow into a waltz-like rhythm until they arrive at a magnificent instrumental coda, at which point you can hear the entrance of his Harmony Sovereign H1260 acoustic (and all in less than 2 minutes).


The last session of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn took place on 21 May, producing as a result the previously mentioned See Emily Play and Bike, that closed the album. It was that day David Gilmour, a close friend of Barrett, called by the studio to say hello to Syd but Syd, despite having invited him, didn’t recognize him. The man that would substitute him said that that was the moment in which he realised that Syd was not the man he was. The members of the band, the managers and the record company continued to ask this particular Adonis for new big singles, but Barrett’s behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic.   


Barrett’s LSD consumption during the recording of the album didn’t help someone who already had schizophrenic tendencies, suffered bipolar disorder and was in some ways autistic. He would never reach the levels of this album again - despite the fact that on his two solo albums there is considerable evidence of his genius - but The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn serves as testimony of the madcap genius of Syd Barrett, besides being the record that put one of the greatest bands in rock on the map. They would take separate roads thereafter until one day in 1975, during the recording of Wish You Were Here (an album over which his ghost hung) a fat, bald, eyebrow-shaven Barrett, with his mind in another place, went to visit his ex-colleagues in the band. They took some time to recognize him and when they did, with Roger Waters first, they couldn’t stop the tears. Perhaps they could hear the lyrics of Dark Globe in their heads - one of the best songs of his ex-leader and colleague - "I tattooed my brain all the way, Won’t you miss me? Wouldn’t you miss me at all?"

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