Episode one hundred and fifty-seven of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “See Emily Play”, the birth of the UK underground, and the career of Roger Barrett, known as Syd. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.
No Mixcloud this time, due to the number of Pink Floyd songs.
I referred to two biographies of Barrett in this episode —A Very Irregular Head by Rob Chapman is the one I would recommend, and the one whose narrative I have largely followed. Some of the information has been superseded by newer discoveries, but Chapman is almost unique in people writing about Barrett in that he actually seems to care about the facts and try to get things right rather than make up something more interesting. Crazy Diamond by Mike Watkinson and Pete Anderson is much less reliable, but does have quite a few interview quotes that aren’t duplicated by Chapman.
Barrett only released two solo albums during his career. They’re available as a bundle here. Completists will also want the rarities and outtakes collection Opel.
I talk about “Interstellar Overdrive” as if Barrett wrote it solo. The song is credited to all four members, but it was Barrett who came up with the riff I talk about.
And annoyingly, given the lengths I went to to deal correctly with Barrett’s name, I repeatedly refer to “Dave” Gilmour, when Gilmour prefers David.
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A note before I begin — this episode deals with drug use and mental illness, so anyone who might be upset by those subjects might want to skip this one.
But also, there’s a rather unique problem in how I deal with the name of the main artist in the story today. The man everyone knows as Syd Barrett was born Roger Barrett, used that name with his family for his whole life, and in later years very strongly disliked being called “Syd”, yet everyone other than his family called him that at all times until he left the music industry, and that’s the name that appears on record labels, including his solo albums.
I don’t believe it’s right to refer to people by names they choose not to go by themselves, but the name Barrett went by throughout his brief period in the public eye was different from the one he went by later, and by all accounts he was actually distressed by its use in later years. So what I’m going to do in this episode is refer to him as “Roger Barrett” when a full name is necessary for disambiguation or just “Barrett” otherwise, but I’ll leave any quotes from other people referring to “Syd” as they were originally phrased.
In future episodes on Pink Floyd, I’ll refer to him just as Barrett, but in episodes where I discuss his influence on other artists, I will probably have to use “Syd Barrett” because otherwise people who haven’t listened to this episode won’t know what on Earth I’m talking about.
Anyway, on with the show.
“It’s gone!” sighed the Rat, sinking back in his seat again. “So beautiful and strange and new. Since it was to end so soon, I almost wish I had never heard it. For it has roused a longing in me that is pain, and nothing seems worth while but just to hear that sound once more and go on listening to it for ever. No! There it is again!” he cried, alert once more. Entranced, he was silent for a long space, spellbound.
“Now it passes on and I begin to lose it,” he said presently. “O Mole! the beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us.”
That’s a quote from a chapter titled “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” from the classic children’s book The Wind in the Willows — a book which for most of its length is a fairly straightforward story about anthropomorphic animals having jovial adventures, but which in that one chapter has Rat and Mole suddenly encounter the Great God Pan and have a hallucinatory, transcendental experience caused by his music, one so extreme it’s wiped from their minds, as they simply cannot process it.
The book, and the chapter, was a favourite of Roger Barrett, a young child born in Cambridge in 1946. Barrett came from an intellectual but not especially bookish family. His father, Dr. Arthur Barrett, was a pathologist — there’s a room in Addenbrooke’s Hospital named after him — but he was also an avid watercolour painter, a world-leading authority on fungi, and a member of the Cambridge Philharmonic Society who was apparently an extraordinarily good singer; while his mother Winifred was a stay-at-home mother who was nonetheless very active in the community, organising a local Girl Guide troupe.
They never particularly encouraged their family to read, but young Roger did particularly enjoy the more pastoral end of the children’s literature of the time. As well as the Wind in the Willows he also loved Alice in Wonderland, and the Little Grey Men books — a series of stories about tiny gnomes and their adventures in the countryside.
But his two big passions were music and painting. He got his first ukulele at age eleven, and by the time his father died, just before Roger’s sixteenth birthday, he had graduated to playing a full-sized guitar. At the time his musical tastes were largely the same as those of any other British teenager — he liked Chubby Checker, for example — though he did have a tendency to prefer the quirkier end of things, and some of the first songs he tried to play on the guitar were those of Joe Brown:
[Excerpt: Joe Brown, “I’m Henry VIII I Am”]
Barrett grew up in Cambridge, and for those who don’t know it, Cambridge is an incubator of a very particular kind of eccentricity. The university tends to attract rather unworldly intellectual overachievers to the city — people who might not be able to survive in many other situations but who can thrive in that one — and every description of Barrett’s father suggests he was such a person — Barrett’s sister Rosemary has said that she believes that most of the family were autistic, though whether this is a belief based on popular media portrayals or a deeper understanding I don’t know.
But certainly Cambridge is full of eccentric people with remarkable achievements, and such people tend to have children with a certain type of personality, who try simultaneously to live up to and rebel against expectations of greatness that come from having parents who are regarded as great, and to do so with rather less awareness of social norms than the typical rebel has.
In the case of Roger Barrett, he, like so many others of his generation, was encouraged to go into the sciences — as indeed his father had, both in his career as a pathologist and in his avocation as a mycologist. The fifties and sixties were a time, much like today, when what we now refer to as the STEM subjects were regarded as new and exciting and modern.
But rather than following in his father’s professional footsteps, Roger Barrett instead followed his hobbies. Dr. Barrett was a painter and musician in his spare time, and Roger was to turn to those things to earn his living.
For much of his teens, it seemed that art would be the direction he would go in. He was, everyone agrees, a hugely talented painter, and he was particularly noted for his mastery of colours.
But he was also becoming more and more interested in R&B music, especially the music of Bo Diddley, who became his new biggest influence:
[Excerpt: Bo Diddley, “Who Do You Love?”]
He would often spend hours with his friend Dave Gilmour, a much more advanced guitarist, trying to learn blues riffs.
By this point Barrett had already received the nickname “Syd”. Depending on which story you believe, he either got it when he started attending a jazz club where an elderly jazzer named Sid Barrett played, and the people were amused that their youngest attendee, like one of the oldest, was called Barrett; or, more plausibly, he turned up to a Scout meeting once wearing a flat cap rather than the normal scout beret, and he got nicknamed “Sid” because it made him look working-class and “Sid” was a working-class sort of name.
In 1962, by the time he was sixteen, Barrett joined a short-lived group called Geoff Mott and the Mottoes, on rhythm guitar. The group’s lead singer, Geoff Mottlow, would go on to join a band called the Boston Crabs who would have a minor hit in 1965 with a version of the Coasters song “Down in Mexico”:
[Excerpt: The Boston Crabs, “Down in Mexico”]
The bass player from the Mottoes, Tony Sainty, and the drummer Clive Welham, would go on to form another band, The Jokers Wild, with Barrett’s friend Dave Gilmour. Barrett also briefly joined another band, Those Without, but his time with them was similarly brief.
Some sources — though ones I consider generally less reliable — say that the Mottoes’ bass player wasn’t Tony Sainty, but was Roger Waters, the son of one of Barrett’s teachers, and that one of the reasons the band split up was that Waters had moved down to London to study architecture. I don’t think that’s the case, but it’s definitely true that Barrett knew Waters, and when he moved to London himself the next year to go to Camberwell Art College, he moved into a house where Waters was already living.
Two previous tenants at the same house, Nick Mason and Richard Wright, had formed a loose band with Waters and various other amateur musicians like Keith Noble, Shelagh Noble, and Clive Metcalfe. That band was sometimes known as the Screaming Abdabs, The Megadeaths, or The Tea Set — the latter as a sly reference to slang terms for cannabis — but was mostly known at first as Sigma 6, named after a manifesto by the novelist Alexander Trocchi for a kind of spontaneous university. They were also sometimes known as Leonard’s Lodgers, after the landlord of the home that Barrett was moving into, Mike Leonard, who would occasionally sit in on organ and would later, as the band became more of a coherent unit, act as a roadie and put on light shows behind them — Leonard was himself very interested in avant-garde and experimental art, and it was his idea to play around with the group’s lighting.
By the time Barrett moved in with Waters in 1964, the group had settled on the Tea Set name, and consisted of Waters on bass, Mason on drums, Wright on keyboards, singer Chris Dennis, and guitarist Rado Klose. Of the group, Klose was the only one who was a skilled musician — he was a very good jazz guitarist, while the other members were barely adequate.
By this time Barrett’s musical interests were expanding to include folk music — his girlfriend at the time talked later about him taking her to see Bob Dylan on his first UK tour and thinking “My first reaction was seeing all these people like Syd. It was almost as if every town had sent one Syd Barrett there. It was my first time seeing people like him.”
But the music he was most into was the blues. And as the Tea Set were turning into a blues band, he joined them. He even had a name for the new band that would make them more bluesy. He’d read the back of a record cover which had named two extremely obscure blues musicians — musicians he may never even have heard. Pink Anderson:
[Excerpt: Pink Anderson, “Boll Weevil”]
And Floyd Council:
[Excerpt: Floyd Council, “Runaway Man Blues”]
Barrett suggested that they put together the names of the two bluesmen, and presumably because “Anderson Council” didn’t have quite the right ring, they went for The Pink Floyd — though for a while yet they would sometimes still perform as The Tea Set, and they were sometimes also called The Pink Floyd Sound.
Dennis left soon after Barrett joined, and the new five-piece Pink Floyd Sound started trying to get more gigs. They auditioned for Ready Steady Go! and were turned down, but did get some decent support slots, including for a band called the Tridents:
[Excerpt: The Tridents, “Tiger in Your Tank”]
The members of the group were particularly impressed by the Tridents’ guitarist and the way he altered his sound using feedback — Barrett even sent a letter to his girlfriend with a drawing of the guitarist, one Jeff Beck, raving about how good he was.
At this point, the group were mostly performing cover versions, but they did have a handful of originals, and it was these they recorded in their first demo sessions in late 1964 and early 1965. They included “Walk With Me Sydney”, a song written by Roger Waters as a parody of “Work With Me Annie” and “Dance With Me Henry” — and, given the lyrics, possibly also Hank Ballard’s follow-up “Henry’s Got Flat Feet (Can’t Dance No More) and featuring Rick Wright’s then-wife Juliette Gale as Etta James to Barrett’s Richard Berry:
[Excerpt: The Tea Set, “Walk With Me Sydney”]
And four songs by Barrett, including one called “Double-O Bo” which was a Bo Diddley rip-off, and “Butterfly”, the most interesting of these early recordings:
[Excerpt: The Tea Set, “Butterfly”]
At this point, Barrett was very unsure of his own vocal abilities, and wrote a letter to his girlfriend saying “Emo says why don’t I give up ‘cos it sounds horrible, and I would but I can’t get Fred to join because he’s got a group (p’raps you knew!) so I still have to sing.”
“Fred” was a nickname for his old friend Dave Gilmour, who was playing in his own band, Joker’s Wild, at this point.
Summer 1965 saw two important events in the life of the group. The first was that Barrett took LSD for the first time. The rest of the group weren’t interested in trying it, and would indeed generally be one of the more sober bands in the rock business, despite the reputation their music got. The other members would for the most part try acid once or twice, around late 1966, but generally steer clear of it. Barrett, by contrast, took it on a very regular basis, and it would influence all the work he did from that point on.
The other event was that Rado Klose left the group. Klose was the only really proficient musician in the group, but he had very different tastes to the other members, preferring to play jazz to R&B and pop, and he was also falling behind in his university studies, and decided to put that ahead of remaining in the band.
This meant that the group members had to radically rethink the way they were making music. They couldn’t rely on instrumental proficiency, so they had to rely on ideas.
One of the things they started to do was use echo. They got primitive echo devices and put both Barrett’s guitar and Wright’s keyboard through them, allowing them to create new sounds that hadn’t been heard on stage before. But they were still mostly doing the same Slim Harpo and Bo Diddley numbers everyone else was doing, and weren’t able to be particularly interesting while playing them.
But for a while they carried on doing the normal gigs, like a birthday party they played in late 1965, where on the same bill was a young American folk singer named Paul Simon, and Joker’s Wild, the band Dave Gilmour was in, who backed Simon on a version of “Johnny B. Goode”.
A couple of weeks after that party, Joker’s Wild went into the studio to record their only privately-pressed five-song record, of them performing recent hits:
[Excerpt: Joker’s Wild, “Walk Like a Man”]
But The Pink Floyd Sound weren’t as musically tight as Joker’s Wild, and they couldn’t make a living as a cover band even if they wanted to. They had to do something different.
Inspiration then came from a very unexpected source. I mentioned earlier that one of the names the group had been performing under had been inspired by a manifesto for a spontaneous university by the writer Alexander Trocchi. Trocchi’s ideas had actually been put into practice by an organisation calling itself the London Free School, based in Notting Hill.
The London Free School was an interesting mixture of people from what was then known as the New Left, but who were already rapidly aging, the people who had been the cornerstone of radical campaigning in the late fifties and early sixties, who had run the Aldermaston marches against nuclear weapons and so on, and a new breed of countercultural people who in a year or two would be defined as hippies but at the time were not so easy to pigeonhole.
These people were mostly politically radical but very privileged people — one of the founder members of the London Free School was Peter Jenner, who was the son of a vicar and the grandson of a Labour MP — and they were trying to put their radical ideas into practice. The London Free School was meant to be a collective of people who would help each other and themselves, and who would educate each other. You’d go to the collective wanting to learn how to do something, whether that’s how to improve the housing in your area or navigate some particularly difficult piece of bureaucracy, or how to play a musical instrument, and someone who had that skill would teach you how to do it, while you hopefully taught them something else of value.
The London Free School, like all such utopian schemes, ended up falling apart, but it had a wider cultural impact than most such schemes. Britain’s first underground newspaper, the International Times, was put together by people involved in the Free School, and the annual Notting Hill Carnival, which is now one of the biggest outdoor events in Britain every year with a million attendees, came from the merger of outdoor events organised by the Free School with older community events.
A group of musicians called AMM was associated with many of the people involved in the Free School. AMM performed totally improvised music, with no structure and no normal sense of melody and harmony:
[Excerpt: AMM, “What Is There In Uselesness To Cause You Distress?”]
Keith Rowe, the guitarist in AMM, wanted to find his own technique uninfluenced by American jazz guitarists, and thought of that in terms that appealed very strongly to the painterly Barrett, saying “For the Americans to develop an American school of painting, they somehow had to ditch or lose European easel painting techniques. They had to make a break with the past. What did that possibly mean if you were a jazz guitar player? For me, symbolically, it was Pollock laying the canvas on the floor, which immediately abandons European easel technique. I could see that by laying the canvas down, it became inappropriate to apply easel techniques. I thought if I did that with a guitar, I would just lose all those techniques, because they would be physically impossible to do.”
Rowe’s technique-free technique inspired Barrett to make similar noises with his guitar, and to think less in terms of melody and harmony than pure sound.
AMM’s first record came out in 1966. Four of the Free School people decided to put together their own record label, DNA, and they got an agreement with Elektra Records to distribute its first release — Joe Boyd, the head of Elektra in the UK, was another London Free School member, and someone who had plenty of experience with disruptive art already, having been on the sound engineering team at the Newport Folk Festival when Dylan went electric. AMM went into the studio and recorded AMMMusic:
[Excerpt: AMM, “What Is There In Uselesness To Cause You Distress?”]
After that came out, though, Peter Jenner, one of the people who’d started the label, came to a realisation. He said later “We’d made this one record with AMM. Great record, very seminal, seriously avant-garde, but I’d started adding up and I’d worked out that the deal we had, we got two percent of retail, out of which we, the label, had to pay for recording costs and pay ourselves. I came to the conclusion that we were going to have to sell a hell of a lot of records just to pay the recording costs, let alone pay ourselves any money and build a label, so I realised we had to have a pop band because pop bands sold a lot of records. It was as simple as that and I was as naive as that.”
Jenner abandoned DNA records for the moment, and he and his friend Andrew King decided they were going to become pop managers. and they found The Pink Floyd Sound playing at an event at the Marquee, one of a series of events that were variously known as Spontaneous Underground and The Trip. Other participants in those events included Soft Machine; Mose Allison; Donovan, performing improvised songs backed by sitar players; Graham Bond; a performer who played Bach pieces while backed by African drummers; and The Poison Bellows, a poetry duo consisting of Spike Hawkins and Johnny Byrne, who may of all of these performers be the one who other than Pink Floyd themselves has had the most cultural impact in the UK — after writing the exploitation novel Groupie and co-writing a film adaptation of Spike Milligan’s war memoirs, Byrne became a TV screenwriter, writing many episodes of Space: 1999 and Doctor Who before creating the long-running TV series Heartbeat.
Jenner and King decided they wanted to sign The Pink Floyd Sound and make records with them, and the group agreed — but only after their summer holidays. They were all still students, and so they dispersed during the summer. Waters and Wright went on holiday to Greece, where they tried acid for the first of only a small number of occasions and were unimpressed, while Mason went on a trip round America by Greyhound bus. Barrett, meanwhile, stayed behind, and started writing more songs, encouraged by Jenner, who insisted that the band needed to stop relying on blues covers and come up with their own material, and who saw Barrett as the focus of the group.
Jenner later described them as “Four not terribly competent musicians who managed between them to create something that was extraordinary. Syd was the main creative drive behind the band – he was the singer and lead guitarist. Roger couldn’t tune his bass because he was tone deaf, it had to be tuned by Rick. Rick could write a bit of a tune and Roger could knock out a couple of words if necessary. ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’ was the first song Roger ever wrote, and he only did it because Syd encouraged everyone to write. Syd was very hesitant about his writing, but when he produced these great songs everyone else thought ‘Well, it must be easy'”
Of course, we know this isn’t quite true — Waters had written “Walk with me Sydney” — but it is definitely the case that everyone involved thought of Barrett as the main creative force in the group, and that he was the one that Jenner was encouraging to write new material.
After the summer holidays, the group reconvened, and one of their first actions was to play a benefit for the London Free School. Jenner said later “Andrew King and myself were both vicars’ sons, and we knew that when you want to raise money for the parish you have to have a social. So in a very old-fashioned way we said ‘let’s put on a social’. Like in the Just William books, like a whist drive. We thought ‘You can’t have a whist drive. That’s not cool. Let’s have a band. That would be cool.’ And the only band we knew was the band I was starting to get involved with.”
After a couple of these events went well, Joe Boyd suggested that they make those events a regular club night, and the UFO Club was born. Jenner and King started working on the light shows for the group, and then bringing in other people, and the light show became an integral part of the group’s mystique — rather than standing in a spotlight as other groups would, they worked in shadows, with distorted kaleidoscopic lights playing on them, distancing themselves from the audience.
The highlight of their sets was a long piece called “Interstellar Overdrive”, and this became one of the group’s first professional recordings, when they went into the studio with Joe Boyd to record it for the soundtrack of a film titled Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London.
There are conflicting stories about the inspiration for the main riff for “Interstellar Overdrive”. One apparent source is the riff from Love’s version of the Bacharach and David song “My Little Red Book”. Depending on who you ask, either Barrett was obsessed with Love’s first album and copied the riff, or Peter Jenner tried to hum him the riff and Barrett copied what Jenner was humming:
[Excerpt: Love, “My Little Red Book”]
More prosaically, Roger Waters has always claimed that the main inspiration was from “Old Ned”, Ron Grainer’s theme tune for the sitcom Steptoe and Son (which for American listeners was remade over there as Sanford and Son):
[Excerpt: Ron Grainer, “Old Ned”]
Of course it’s entirely possible, and even likely, that Barrett was inspired by both, and if so that would neatly sum up the whole range of Pink Floyd’s influences at this point. “My Little Red Book” was a cover by an American garage-psych/folk-rock band of a hit by Manfred Mann, a group who were best known for pop singles but were also serious blues and jazz musicians, while Steptoe and Son was a whimsical but dark and very English sitcom about a way of life that was slowly disappearing.
And you can definitely hear both influences in the main riff of the track they recorded with Boyd:
[Excerpt: The Pink Floyd, “Interstellar Overdrive”]
“Interstellar Overdrive” was one of two types of song that The Pink Floyd were performing at this time — a long, extended, instrumental psychedelic excuse for freaky sounds, inspired by things like the second disc of Freak Out! by the Mothers of Invention. When they went into the studio again with Boyd later in January 1967, to record what they hoped would be their first single, they recorded two of the other kind of songs — whimsical story songs inspired equally by the incidents of everyday life and by children’s literature.
What became the B-side, “Candy and a Currant Bun”, was based around the riff from “Smokestack Lightnin'” by Howlin’ Wolf:
[Excerpt: Howlin’ Wolf, “Smokestack Lightnin'”]
That song had become a favourite on the British blues scene, and was thus the inspiration for many songs of the type that get called “quintessentially English”. Ray Davies, who was in many ways the major songwriter at this time who was closest to Barrett stylistically, would a year later use the riff for the Kinks song “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains”, but in this case Barrett had originally written a song titled “Let’s Roll Another One”, about sexual longing and cannabis. The lyrics were hastily rewritten in the studio to remove the controversial drug references– and supposedly this caused some conflict between Barrett and Waters, with Waters pushing for the change, while Barrett argued against it, though like many of the stories from this period this sounds like the kind of thing that gets said by people wanting to push particular images of both men.
Either way, the lyric was changed to be about sweet treats rather than drugs, though the lascivious elements remained in. And some people even argue that there was another lyric change — where Barrett sings “walk with me”, there’s a slight “f” sound in his vocal. As someone who does a lot of microphone work myself, it sounds to me like just one of those things that happens while recording, but a lot of people are very insistent that Barrett is deliberately singing a different word altogether:
[Excerpt: The Pink Floyd, “Candy and a Currant Bun”]
The A-side, meanwhile, was inspired by real life. Both Barrett and Waters had mothers who used to take in female lodgers, and both had regularly had their lodgers’ underwear stolen from washing lines. While they didn’t know anything else about the thief, he became in Barrett’s imagination a man who liked to dress up in the clothing after he stole it:
[Excerpt: The Pink Floyd, “Arnold Layne”]
After recording the two tracks with Joe Boyd, the natural assumption was that the record would be put out on Elektra, the label which Boyd worked for in the UK, but Jac Holzman, the head of Elektra records, wasn’t interested, and so a bidding war began for the single, as by this point the group were the hottest thing in London. For a while it looked like they were going to sign to Track Records, the label owned by the Who’s management, but in the end EMI won out.
Right as they signed, the News of the World was doing a whole series of articles about pop stars and their drug use, and the last of the articles talked about The Pink Floyd and their association with LSD, even though they hadn’t released a record yet. EMI had to put out a press release saying that the group were not psychedelic, insisting”The Pink Floyd are not trying to create hallucinatory effects in their audience.”
It was only after getting signed that the group became full-time professionals. Waters had by this point graduated from university and was working as a trainee architect, and quit his job to become a pop star. Wright dropped out of university, but Mason and Barrett took sabbaticals. Barrett in particular seems to have seen this very much as a temporary thing, talking about how he was making so much money it would be foolish not to take the opportunity while it lasted, but how he was going to resume his studies in a year.
“Arnold Layne” made the top twenty, and it would have gone higher had the pirate radio station Radio London, at the time the single most popular radio station when it came to pop music, not banned the track because of its sexual content. However, it would be the only single Joe Boyd would work on with the group. EMI insisted on only using in-house producers, and so while Joe Boyd would go on to a great career as a producer, and we’ll see him again, he was replaced with Norman Smith.
Smith had been the chief engineer on the Beatles records up to Rubber Soul, after which he’d been promoted to being a producer in his own right, and Geoff Emerick had taken over. He also had aspirations to pop stardom himself, and a few years later would have a transatlantic hit with “Oh Babe, What Would You Say?” under the name Hurricane Smith:
[Excerpt: Hurricane Smith, “Oh Babe, What Would You Say?”]
Smith’s production of the group would prove controversial among some of the group’s longtime fans, who thought that he did too much to curtail their more experimental side, as he would try to get the group to record songs that were more structured and more commercial, and would cut down their improvisations into a more manageable form. Others, notably Peter Jenner, thought that Smith was the perfect producer for the group.
They started work on their first album, which was mostly recorded in studio three of Abbey Road, while the Beatles were just finishing off work on Sgt Pepper in studio two. The album was titled The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, after the chapter from The Wind in the Willows, and other than a few extended instrumental showcases, most of the album was made up of short, whimsical, songs by Barrett that were strongly infused with imagery from late-Victorian and Edwardian children’s books.
This is one of the big differences between the British and American psychedelic scenes. Both the British and American undergrounds were made up of the same type of people — a mixture of older radical activists, often Communists, who had come up in Britain in the Ban the Bomb campaigns and in America in the Civil Rights movement; and younger people, usually middle-class students with radical politics from a privileged background, who were into experimenting with drugs and alternative lifestyles.
But the social situations were different. In America, the younger members of the underground were angry and scared, as their principal interest was in stopping the war in Vietnam in which so many of them were being killed. And the music of the older generation of the underground, the Civil Rights activists, was shot through with influence from the blues, gospel, and American folk music, with a strong Black influence. So that’s what the American psychedelic groups played, for the most part, very bluesy, very angry, music,
By contrast, the British younger generation of hippies were not being drafted to go to war, and mostly had little to complain about, other than a feeling of being stifled by their parents’ generation’s expectations. And while most of them were influenced by the blues, that wasn’t the music that had been popular among the older underground people, who had either been listening to experimental European art music or had been influenced by Ewan MacColl and his associates into listening instead to traditional old English ballads, things like the story of Tam Lin or Thomas the Rhymer, where someone is spirited away to the land of the fairies:
[Excerpt: Ewan MacColl, “Thomas the Rhymer”]
As a result, most British musicians, when exposed to the culture of the underground over here, created music that looked back to an idealised childhood of their grandparents’ generation, songs that were nostalgic for a past just before the one they could remember (as opposed to their own childhoods, which had taken place in war or the immediate aftermath of it, dominated by poverty, rationing, and bomb sites (though of course Barrett’s childhood in Cambridge had been far closer to this mythic idyll than those of his contemporaries from Liverpool, Birmingham, Newcastle, or London).
So almost every British musician who was making music that might be called psychedelic was writing songs that were influenced both by experimental art music and by pre-War popular song, and which conjured up images from older children’s books. Most notably of course at this point the Beatles were recording songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” about places from their childhood, and taking lyrical inspiration from Victorian circus posters and the works of Lewis Carroll, but Barrett was similarly inspired.
One of the books he loved most as a child was “The Little Grey Men” by BB, a penname for Denys Watkins-Pitchford. The book told the story of three gnomes, Baldmoney, Sneezewort, and Dodder, and their adventures on a boat when the fourth member of their little group, Cloudberry, who’s a bit of a rebellious loner and more adventurous than the other three, goes exploring on his own and they have to go off and find him. Barrett’s song “The Gnome” doesn’t use any precise details from the book, but its combination of whimsy about a gnome named Grimble-gromble and a reverence for nature is very much in the mould of BB’s work:
[Excerpt: The Pink Floyd, “The Gnome”]
Another huge influence on Barrett was Hillaire Belloc. Belloc is someone who is not read much any more, as sadly he is mostly known for the intense antisemitism in some of his writing, which stains it just as so much of early twentieth-century literature is stained, but he was one of the most influential writers of the early part of the twentieth century. Like his friend GK Chesterton he was simultaneously an author of Catholic apologia and a political campaigner — he was a Liberal MP for a few years, and a strong advocate of an economic system known as Distributism, and had a peculiar mixture of very progressive and extremely reactionary ideas which resonated with a lot of the atmosphere in the British underground of the time, even though he would likely have profoundly disapproved of them.
But Belloc wrote in a variety of styles, including poems for children, which are the works of his that have aged the best, and were a huge influence on later children’s writers like Roald Dahl with their gleeful comic cruelty. Barrett’s “Matilda Mother” had lyrics that were, other than the chorus where Barrett begs his mother to read him more of the story, taken verbatim from three poems from Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children — “Jim, Who Ran away from his Nurse, and was Eaten by a Lion”, “Henry King (Who chewed bits of String, and was cut off in Dreadful Agonies)”, and “Matilda (Who Told Lies and Was Burned to Death)” — the titles of those give some idea of the kind of thing Belloc would write:
[Excerpt: The Pink Floyd, “Matilda Mother (early version)”]
Sadly for Barrett, Belloc’s estate refused to allow permission for his poems to be used, and so he had to rework the lyrics, writing new fairy-tale lyrics for the finished version.
Other sources of inspiration for lyrics came from books like the I Ching, which Barrett used for “Chapter 24”, having bought a copy from the Indica Bookshop, the same place that John Lennon had bought The Psychedelic Experience, and there’s been some suggestion that he was deliberately trying to copy Lennon in taking lyrical ideas from a book of ancient mystic wisdom.
During the recording of Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the group continued playing live. As they’d now had a hit single, most of their performances were at Top Rank Ballrooms and other such venues around the country, on bills with other top chart groups, playing to audiences who seemed unimpressed or actively hostile.
They also, though made two important appearances. The more well-known of these was at the 14-Hour Technicolor Dream, a benefit for International Times magazine with people including Yoko Ono, their future collaborator Ron Geesin, John’s Children, Soft Machine, and The Move also performing. The 14-Hour Technicolor Dream is now largely regarded as *the* pivotal moment in the development of the UK counterculture, though even at the time some participants noted that there seemed to be a rift developing between the performers, who were often fairly straightforward beer-drinking ambitious young men who had latched on to kaftans and talk about enlightenment as the latest gimmick they could use to get ahead in the industry, and the audience who seemed to be true believers.
Their other major performance was at an event called “Games for May — Space Age Relaxation for the Climax of Spring”, where they were able to do a full long set in a concert space with a quadrophonic sound system, rather than performing in the utterly sub-par environments most pop bands had to at this point. They came up with a new song written for the event, which became their second single, “See Emily Play”.
[Excerpt: The Pink Floyd, “See Emily Play”]
Emily was apparently always a favourite name of Barrett’s, and he even talked with one girlfriend about the possibility of naming their first child Emily, but the Emily of the song seems to have had a specific inspiration. One of the youngest attendees at the London Free School was an actual schoolgirl, Emily Young, who would go along to their events with her schoolfriend Anjelica Huston (who later became a well-known film star). Young is now a world-renowned artist, regarded as arguably Britain’s greatest living stone sculptor, but at the time she was very like the other people at the London Free School — she was from a very privileged background, her father was Wayland Young, 2nd Baron Kennet, a Labour Peer and minister who later joined the SDP.
But being younger than the rest of the attendees, and still a little naive, she was still trying to find her own personality, and would take on attributes and attitudes of other people without fully understanding them, hence the song’s opening lines, “Emily tries, but misunderstands/She’s often inclined to borrow somebody’s dream til tomorrow”.
The song gets a little darker towards the end though, and the image in the last verse, where she puts on a gown and floats down a river forever *could* be a gentle, pastoral, image of someone going on a boat ride, but it also could be a reference to two rather darker sources. Barrett was known to pick up imagery both from classic literature and from Arthurian legend, and so the lines inevitably conjure up both the idea of Ophelia drowning herself and of the Lady of Shallot in Tennyson’s Arthurian poem, who is trapped in a tower but finds a boat, and floats down the river to Camelot but dies before the boat reaches the castle:
[Excerpt: The Pink Floyd, “See Emily Play”]
The song also evokes very specific memories of Barrett’s childhood — according to Roger Waters, the woods mentioned in the lyrics are meant to be woods in which they had played as children, on the road out of Cambridge towards the Gog and Magog Hills.
The song was apparently seven minutes long in its earliest versions, and required a great deal of editing to get down to single length, but it was worth it, as the track made the top ten.
And that was where the problems started.
There are two different stories told about what happened to Roger Barrett over the next forty years, and both stories are told by people with particular agendas, who want particular versions of him to become the accepted truth. Both stories are, in the extreme versions that have been popularised, utterly incompatible with each other, but both are fairly compatible with the scanty evidence we have. Possibly the truth lies somewhere between them.
In one version of the story, around this time Barrett had a total mental breakdown, brought on or exacerbated by his overuse of LSD and Mandrax (a prescription drug consisting of a mixture of the antihistamine diphenhydramine and the sedative methaqualone, which was marketed in the US under the brand-name Quaalude), and that from late summer 1967 on he was unable to lead a normal life, and spent the rest of his life as a burned-out shell.
The other version of the story is that Barrett was a little fragile, and did have periods of mental illness, but for the most part was able to function fairly well. In this version of the story, he was neurodivergent, and found celebrity distressing, but more than that he found the whole process of working within commercial restrictions upsetting — having to appear on TV pop shows and go on package tours was just not something he found himself able to do, but he was responsible for a whole apparatus of people who relied on him and his group for their living. In this telling, he was surrounded by parasites who looked on him as their combination meal-ticket-cum-guru, and was simply not suited for the role and wanted to sabotage it so he could have a private life instead.
Either way, *something* seems to have changed in Barrett in a profound way in the early summer of 1967. Joe Boyd talks about meeting him after not having seen him for a few weeks, and all the light being gone from his eyes.
The group appeared on Top of the Pops, Britain’s top pop TV show, three times to promote “See Emily Play”, but by the third time Barrett didn’t even pretend to mime along with the single. Towards the end of July, they were meant to record a session for the BBC’s Saturday Club radio show, but Barrett walked out of the studio before completing the first song.
It’s notable that Barrett’s non-cooperation or inability to function was very much dependent on circumstance. He was not able to perform for Saturday Club, a mainstream pop show aimed at a mass audience, but gave perfectly good performances on several sessions for John Peel’s radio show The Perfumed Garden, a show firmly aimed at Pink Floyd’s own underground niche.
On the thirty-first of July, three days after the Saturday Club walkout, all the group’s performances for the next month were cancelled, due to “nervous exhaustion”. But on the eighth of August, they went back into the studio, to record “Scream Thy Last Scream”, a song Barrett wrote and which Nick Mason sang:
[Excerpt: Pink Floyd, “Scream Thy Last Scream”]
That was scheduled as the group’s next single, but the record company vetoed it, and it wouldn’t see an official release for forty-nine years. Instead they recorded another single, “Apples and Oranges”:
[Excerpt: Pink Floyd, “Apples and Oranges”]
That was the last thing the group released while Barrett was a member.
In November 1967 they went on a tour of the US, making appearances on American Bandstand and the Pat Boone Show, as well as playing several gigs. According to legend, Barrett was almost catatonic on the Pat Boone show, though no footage of that appears to be available anywhere — and the same things were said about their performance on Bandstand, and when that turned up, it turned out Barrett seemed no more uncomfortable miming to their new single than any of the rest of the band, and was no less polite when Dick Clark asked them questions about hamburgers.
But on shows on the US tour, Barrett would do things like detune his guitar so it just made clanging sounds, or just play a single note throughout the show. These are, again, things that could be taken in two different ways, and I have no way to judge which is the more correct. On one level, they could be a sign of a chaotic, disordered, mind, someone dealing with severe mental health difficulties. On the other, they’re the kind of thing that Barrett was applauded and praised for in the confines of the kind of avant-garde underground audience that would pay to hear AMM or Yoko Ono, the kind of people they’d been performing for less than a year earlier, but which were absolutely not appropriate for a pop group trying to promote their latest hit single.
It could be that Barrett was severely unwell, or it could just be that he wanted to be an experimental artist and his bandmates wanted to be pop stars — and one thing absolutely everyone agrees is that the rest of the group were more ambitious than Barrett was. Whichever was the case, though, something had to give.
They cut the US tour short, but immediately started another British package tour, with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Move, Amen Corner and the Nice. After that tour they started work on their next album, A Saucerful of Secrets.
Where Barrett was the lead singer and principal songwriter on Piper at the Gates of Dawn, he only sings and writes one song on A Saucerful of Secrets, which is otherwise written by Waters and Wright, and only appears at all on two more of the tracks — by the time it was released he was out of the group. The last song he tried to get the group to record was called “Have You Got it Yet?” and it was only after spending some time rehearsing it that the rest of the band realised that the song was a practical joke on them — every time they played it, he would change the song around so they would mess up, and pretend they just hadn’t learned the song yet.
They brought in Barrett’s old friend Dave Gilmour, initially to be a fifth member on stage to give the band some stability in their performances, but after five shows with the five-man lineup they decided just not to bother picking Barrett up, but didn’t mention he was out of the group, to avoid awkwardness. At the time, Barrett and Rick Wright were flatmates, and Wright would actually lie to Barrett and say he was just going out to buy a packet of cigarettes, and then go and play gigs without him.
After a couple of months of this, it was officially announced that Barrett was leaving the group. Jenner and King went with him, convinced that he was the real talent in the group and would have a solo career, and the group carried on with new management. We’ll be looking at them more in future episodes.
Barrett made a start at recording a solo album in mid-1968, but didn’t get very far. Jenner produced those sessions, and later said “It seemed a good idea to go into the studio because I knew he had the songs. And he would sometimes play bits and pieces and you would think ‘Oh that’s great.’ It was a ‘he’s got a bit of a cold today and it might get better’ approach. It wasn’t a cold — and you knew it wasn’t a cold — but I kept thinking if he did the right things he’d come back to join us. He’d gone out and maybe he’d come back. That was always the analogy in my head. I wanted to make it feel friendly for him, and that where we were was a comfortable place and that he could come back and find himself again. I obviously didn’t succeed.”
A handful of tracks from those sessions have since been released, including a version of “Golden Hair”, a setting by Barrett of a poem by James Joyce that he would later revisit:
[Excerpt: Syd Barrett, “Golden Hair (first version)”]
Eleven months later, he went back into the studio again, this time with producer Malcolm Jones, to record an album that later became The Madcap Laughs, his first solo album. The recording process for the album has been the source of some controversy, as initially Jones was producing the whole album, and they were working in a way that Barrett never worked before. Where previously he had cut backing tracks first and only later overdubbed his vocals, this time he started by recording acoustic guitar and vocals, and then overdubbed on top of that.
But after several sessions, Jones was pulled off the album, and Gilmour and Waters were asked to produce the rest of the sessions. This may seem a bit of a callous decision, since Gilmour was the person who had replaced Barrett in his group, but apparently the two of them had remained friends, and indeed Gilmour thought that Barrett had only got better as a songwriter since leaving the band.
Where Malcolm Jones had been trying, by his account, to put out something that sounded like a serious, professional, record, Gilmour and Waters seemed to regard what they were doing more as producing a piece of audio verite documentary, including false starts and studio chatter. Jones believed that this put Barrett in a bad light, saying the outtakes “show Syd, at best as out of tune, which he rarely was, and at worst as out of control (which, again, he never was).” Gilmour and Waters, on the other hand, thought that material was necessary to provide some context for why the album wasn’t as slick and professional as some might have hoped.
The eventual record was a hodge-podge of different styles from different sessions, with bits from the Jenner sessions, the Jones sessions, and the Waters and Gilmour sessions all mixed together, with some tracks just Barrett badly double-tracking himself with an acoustic guitar, while other tracks feature full backing by Soft Machine.
However, despite Jones’ accusations that the album was more-or-less sabotaged by Gilmour and Waters, the fact remains that the best tracks on the album are the ones Barrett’s former bandmates produced, and there are some magnificent moments on there.
But it’s a disturbing album to listen to, in the same way other albums by people with clear talent but clear mental illness are, like Skip Spence’s Oar, Roky Erickson’s later work, or the Beach Boys Love You. In each case, the pleasure one gets is a real pleasure from real aesthetic appreciation of the work, but entangled with an awareness that the work would not exist in that form were the creator not suffering. The pleasure doesn’t come from the suffering — these are real artists creating real art, not the kind of outsider art that is really just a modern-day freak-show — but it’s still inextricable from it:
[Excerpt: Syd Barrett, “Dark Globe”]
The Madcap Laughs did well enough that Barrett got to record a follow-up, titled simply Barrett. This one was recorded over a period of only a handful of months, with Gilmour and Rick Wright producing, and a band consisting of Gilmour, Wright, and drummer Jerry Shirley. The album is generally considered both more consistent and less interesting than The Madcap Laughs, with less really interesting material, though there are some enjoyable moments on it:
[Excerpt: Syd Barrett, “Effervescing Elephant”]
But the album is a little aimless, and people who knew him at the time seem agreed that that was a reflection of his life. He had nothing he *needed* to be doing — no tour dates, no deadlines, no pressure at all, and he had a bit of money from record royalties — so he just did nothing at all. The one solo gig he ever played, with the band who backed him on Barrett, lasted four songs, and he walked off half-way through the fourth.
He moved back to Cambridge for a while in the early seventies, and he tried putting together a new band with Twink, the drummer of the Pink Fairies and Pretty Things, Fred Frith, and Jack Monck, but Frith left after one gig. The other three performed a handful of shows either as “Stars” or as “Barrett, Adler, and Monck”, just in the Cambridge area, but soon Barrett got bored again.
He moved back to London, and in 1974 he made one final attempt to make a record, going into the studio with Peter Jenner, where he recorded a handful of tracks that were never released. But given that the titles of those tracks were things like “Boogie #1”, “Boogie #2”, “Slow Boogie”, “Fast Boogie”, “Chooka-Chooka Chug Chug” and “John Lee Hooker”, I suspect we’re not missing out on a lost masterpiece.
Around this time there was a general resurgence in interest in Barrett, prompted by David Bowie having recorded a version of “See Emily Play” on his covers album Pin-Ups, which came out in late 1973:
[Excerpt: David Bowie, “See Emily Play”]
At the same time, the journalist Nick Kent wrote a long profile of Barrett, The Cracked Ballad of Syd Barrett, which like Kent’s piece on Brian Wilson a year later, managed to be a remarkable piece of writing with a sense of sympathy for its subject and understanding of his music, but also a less-than-accurate piece of journalism which led to a lot of myths and disinformation being propagated.
Barrett briefly visited his old bandmates in the studio in 1975 while they were recording the album Wish You Were Here — some say even during the recording of the song “Shine On, You Crazy Diamond”, which was written specifically about Barrett, though Nick Mason claims otherwise — and they didn’t recognise him at first, because by this point he had a shaved head and had put on a great deal of weight. He seemed rather sad, and that was the last time any of them saw him, apart from Roger Waters, who saw him in Harrod’s a few years later. That time, as soon as Barrett recognised Waters, he dropped his bag and ran out of the shop.
For the next thirty-one years, Barrett made no public appearances. The last time he ever voluntarily spoke to a journalist, other than telling them to go away, was in 1982, just after he’d moved back to Cambridge, when someone doorstopped him and he answered a few questions and posed for a photo before saying “OK! That’s enough, this is distressing for me, thank you.”
He had the reputation for the rest of his life of being a shut-in, a recluse, an acid casualty. His family, on the other hand, have always claimed that while he was never particularly mentally or physically healthy, he wasn’t a shut-in, and would go to the pub, meet up with his mother a couple of times a week to go shopping, and chat to the women behind the counter at Sainsbury’s and at the pharmacy. He was also apparently very good with children who lived in the neighbourhood.
Whatever the truth of his final decades, though, however mentally well or unwell he actually was, one thing is very clear, which is that he was an extremely private man, who did not want attention, and who was greatly distressed by the constant stream of people coming and looking through his letterbox, trying to take photos of him, trying to interview him, and so on. Everyone on his street knew that when people came asking which was Syd Barrett’s house, they were meant to say that no-one of that name lived there — and they were telling the truth. By the time he moved back, he had stopped answering to “Syd” altogether, and according to his sister “He came to hate the name latterly, and what it meant.”
He did, in 2001, go round to his sister’s house to watch a documentary about himself on the TV — he didn’t own a TV himself — but he didn’t enjoy it and his only comment was that the music was too noisy. By this point he never listened to rock music, just to jazz and classical music, usually on the radio. He was financially secure — Dave Gilmour made sure that when compilations came out they always included some music from Barrett’s period in the group so he would receive royalties, even though Gilmour had no contact with him after 1975 — and he spent most of his time painting — he would take photos of the paintings when they were completed, and then burn the originals.
There are many stories about those last few decades, but given how much he valued his privacy, it wouldn’t be right to share them. This is a history of rock music, and 1975 was the last time Roger Keith Barrett ever had anything to do with rock music voluntarily.
He died of cancer in 2006, and at his funeral there was a reading from The Little Grey Men, which was also quoted in the Order of Service — “The wonder of the world, the beauty and the power, the shapes of things, their colours lights and shades; these I saw. Look ye also while life lasts.”
There was no rock music played at Barrett’s funeral — instead there were a selection of pieces by Handel, Haydn, and Bach, ending with Bach’s Allemande from the Partita No. IV in D major, one of his favourite pieces:
[Excerpt: Glenn Gould, “Allemande from the Partita No. IV in D major”]
As they stared blankly in dumb misery deepening as they slowly realised all they had seen and all they had lost, a capricious little breeze, dancing up from the surface of the water, tossed the aspens, shook the dewy roses and blew lightly and caressingly in their faces; and with its soft touch came instant oblivion. For this is the last best gift that the kindly demi-god is careful to bestow on those to whom he has revealed himself in their helping: the gift of forgetfulness. Lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the after-lives of little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and lighthearted as before.
Mole rubbed his eyes and stared at Rat, who was looking about him in a puzzled sort of way. “I beg your pardon; what did you say, Rat?” he asked.
“I think I was only remarking,” said Rat slowly, “that this was the right sort of place, and that here, if anywhere, we should find him. And look! Why, there he is, the little fellow!” And with a cry of delight he ran towards the slumbering Portly.
But Mole stood still a moment, held in thought. As one wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to recall it, and can re-capture nothing but a dim sense of the beauty of it, the beauty! Till that, too, fades away in its turn, and the dreamer bitterly accepts the hard, cold waking and all its penalties; so Mole, after struggling with his memory for a brief space, shook his head sadly and followed the Rat.