Syd Barrett, the crazy, shining diamond

By Sergio Ariza

Of all the rock stories full of myths, legends, and tortured souls, perhaps none is more tragic than that of Syd Barrett, the crazy diamond who created Pink Floyd, and shone a brilliant light for a short time until completely vanishing into the darkness. It’s impossible to separate Barrett from his legend, unlike others, Barrett didn’t die young and leave a beautiful corpse, nor did he have a triumphant come back. Once he left the music world, he lived the most humble life outside the spotlight without ever recording one of those few melodies he left us as precious examples.   

Roger Keith Barrett was born in 1946 in Cambridge. He was predisposed to the arts from a young age, painting, writing and playing the piano. His first guitar, at 14, was a Hofner acoustic, and a year later he got his first electric, a Selmer Futurama he bought for 25 pounds (1961), and not long after he was playing it in his first band, Geoff Mott and The Mottoes. The band scene was happening and after enrolling in the Arts department at Cambridge Technical College he met David Gilmour with whom he played some acoustic gigs. The Beatles and Stones became his guides, and he began to write his first songs. In 1964 he left Cambridge to sign up at the faculty of arts in Camberwell to study painting.

Shortly after arriving in London he joined the band of his childhood friend Roger Waters. They were constantly changing their name until it occurred to Syd to join the first 2 names of the bluesmen Pink Anderson and Floyd Council and call themselves The Pink Floyd Blues Sound, The Pink Floyd Sound, until it was just (The) Pink Floyd. The band at the time comprised Bob Klose as lead guitarist, Waters on bass, Nick Mason on drums, keyboardist Rick Wright and Barrett on rhythm guitar and lead singer. His presence and charisma, as well as being the only one with his own songs, made him the natural leader of the band, something that grew when Klose chose to quit the band, leaving Barrett as the only guitar player in the summer of ‘65. At the time they were just one more R&B band like the many who played the London scene, and Klose was the only one who seemed a professional but Barrett had ideas galore and the band started to change direction at the same time an event that would remain in the band and Barrett’s life forever occurred. On one of the few sunny days that summer Syd dropped LSD for the first time in the backyard of his mate David Gale. In a short time he will move the space trips he was experiencing while on acid to the band’s sound.  His work on guitar was absolutely original and influential, like his way of playing slide with a zippo lighter to get the strangest sounds.

In 1966 Pink Floyd began to earn a reputation for their long ‘jams’ where Barrett would unleash from his legendary ‘62 Fender Esquire unimaginable sounds, and soon would become the main figures of the London ‘underground’, heading the flourishing Brit psychedelic scene, especially thanks to their appearances at the UFO club where leading figures of ‘Swinging London’ would go see them, with Lennon and McCartney at the helm. Barrett’s head was alive with creativity and soon he would compose most of the songs that would appear on their first album, and their first singles and even songs that he would later use on his first solo album. The shining diamond was at his best and, at the start of 1967, the band signed with EMI who offered them unlimited studio time to record their first album.

Their first single came out in 1967, the irresistible Arnold Lane, a song about a kleptomaniacal transvestite which left 2 things quite clear: Barrett’s songs were from another world, and he was becoming an excellent pop composer. It landed among the top 20 on the Brit charts, while the next number, the equally brilliant See Emily Play, reached # 6. After these two hits the excitement around their first album was enormous. All the pressure was on the leader’s shoulders, who was the singer, guitarist and main songwriter of the band.  

The record was recorded at the same time as the singles and on it appear examples of what they did live such as Interstellar Overdrive, where you can see how influential his guitar style was, putting creativity and originality ahead of technical ability. His head seemed to be going faster than his fingers. The guitar he used to record almost all the record’s songs was the ‘62 Fender Esquire, decorated with metallic circles which reflected the psychedelic lights that filled their performances. The same one that appears in the resplendent pop flares that abound on the album, diamonds that shine with a mix of childish melodies and surrealistic lyrics, psychedelic madness from a mind on the edge of collapse. Material as incredible as Astronomy Domine, Lucifer Sam, Matilda Mother, Flaming and The Scarecrow, where over the  instrumental beginning, which seems to come from a minstrel, he starts on his ‘62 Esquire to accompany his voice in a waltz rhythm until the magnificent instrumental coda where you can hear his Harmony Sovereign H1260 acoustic (all in less than 2 minutes).     

The last session was on May 21, resulting in the aforementioned See Emily Play and Bike, which closes the album. That was the day David Gilmour popped into the studio to say hello to Syd, but despite being the one who invited him, he didn’t recognise him. The man who replaced him said that this was the moment he noticed that he wasn’t the same bloke. Band members, managers, and the label kept asking this special Adonis for new hit singles, but Barrett’s behavior was more and more erratic.

This was no surprise as, at the time, Barrett’s LSD consumption shot up alarmingly. Being the messiah of acid has its consequences and his flat at 101 Cromwell Road was full of lunatics and groupies who threw LSD at everything. Barrett lived basically on acid and everyone in the band knew that going to Syd’s house meant it was best not to have a coffee or tea, or even a glass of water, because everything was conveniently laced with acid. His behavior got worse and he would show up at gigs paralysed, with his Esquire hanging off his shoulder, without being able to play anything.

It all came down on their U.S. tour in October, Barrett was completely out of it, and often would take the stage without his guitar, when he did bring it with him, it didn’t get much better since he was happy detuning it before a stunned crowd. His most infamous episode was when he appeared on the famous Pat Boone TV show where they were going to use ‘playback’ on See Emily Play. During the rehearsals everything seemed fine but when they started to shoot Syd didn’t move his lips to everyone’s consternation. In the end they had to cancel the tour and return to London. On November 18, their 3rd single was released, Apples and Oranges, another Barrett song, but this time it flopped on the charts. The song was recorded in October, a month in which they also cut 2 more Barrett songs where it seems clear that he was addressing his mental problems, Vegetable Man and Jugband Blues. In addition, Syd would record his signature slide on Remember a Day. They would be his last sessions with the band and would appear on their 2nd album A Saucerful Of Secrets.

In December 1967 it seemed clear that Syd was not in good health and the solution they sought was to invite one of his best friends into the band, David Gilmour to cover for him in gigs. The Pink Floyd members hoped to find a solution in him similar to what Brian Wilson took with the Beach Boys, Barrett wouldn’t go on tour, but would stay at home composing and preparing material for their records, when he got better the band would be formed by the five of them. And it was important that Gilmour was Barrett’s friend so that he wouldn’t feel threatened...but it did not work, after just a few shows, in January 1968, with the 5 members, someone in the car asked, “Shall we pick up Syd?, and someone answered “Why bother”. Syd Barrett was fired from the band near the end of the month.

Normally this is where the official story ends, Barrett descends into madness and ends up forgotten and apart from it all until he died on July 7, 2006.  However, the diamond still offered some rays of hope. After a year adrift, in 1969, he decided to get back to the studio to record. The band’s manager, Pete Jenner, stayed with him and left the rest of the band. He was the creative force and main composer of the band after all. Between ‘69 and the beginning of ‘70 Barrett would record, in the most adverse conditions, two remarkable records that would house some of the best songs of his career. First The Madcap Laughs and then Barrett. On these recordings his old mates help him out, Roger Waters on the first one, and Rick Wright on the second, as well as his friend and replacement David Gilmour, who besides producing would play the bass, and managed to get the best out of what was left of Barrett. It wasn’t easy, there were moments when Syd was incapable of playing a single chord on his Fender Telecaster Custom, but at times the old magic came back and the diamond shone like it used to in the good old days. Songs like Terrapin, Octopus, Golden Hair, Here I Go, Baby Lemonade, Gigolo Aunt and Dominoes had nothing to envy on any piece from Piper, although they are covered by a much more melancholic mantle. And then there’s Dark Globe, probably the most moving song ever written about the descent into madness. A song which shows that Syd was able to see clearly what was going on, “I tattooed my brain all the way/Won’t you miss me?/Won’t you miss me at all?”.

Surely that is the song that crossed the minds of the rest of Pink Floyd when a fat, bald, shaved eyebrows Barrett with his mind somewhere else, came to visit them just when they were recording the song they dedicated to him, Shine On You Crazy Diamond; one of those occasions when even the most sceptical would talk of something like destiny. They were the biggest band of the planet then, the four knew that none of them would be there if the man with black holes as eyes hadn’t put them there. They didn’t recognise him at first but after listening for a while Syd said “Right, when do I play my guitar on the song?”, they all knew it was him. They wouldn’t see him again but his ghost never left them, nor would anyone who heard his stories of gnomes and scarecrows, with his British diction, the sounds of his guitar, and his unforgettable melodies. Of course we miss you, you crazy genius.