The Dark Star - Syd Barrett

Behind the myths of Pink Floyd’s cosmic founder
The Dark Star - Syd Barrett
The kaleidoscopic rise of Syd Barrett was shattered by his fragile state of mind amid an unhealthy appetite for hallucinogens. Clash traces the life behind the myths of Pink Floyd’s cosmic founder.

With dark curls, deep-set brown eyes and a mirrored Fender Telecaster, Syd Barrett epitomised the burgeoning psychedelic scene that emerged as Swinging London dropped a tab and weaved flowers into its hair.

Photographer Mick Rock first met him in the mid-Sixties and described him as “the man who had everything”. For a while he was about as cool as it got, with London’s hippest fawning over him and his dapper clobber at alternative clubs such as UFO. However, within months clouds had gathered over Barrett’s very irregular head, and he drifted from the scene amid rumours of a drug-induced breakdown, while those he’d led for months blossomed into beautiful flowers, freaking out beneath the late-Sixties sun.

Roger Barrett was born in January 1946 and spent his childhood in bohemian Cambridge with his middle-class family. By his teens he had acquired a guitar and a love of R&B and jazz music, inviting friends over for sessions in his parents’ basement after school.

But in December 1961 Barrett grew up fast when his much-loved pathologist father Arthur Max Barrett died from cancer. The dark mornings and freezing nights provided a fitting backdrop to a home already cloaked in sadness - and the grieving Barrett retreated further into his music and art.

By 1963 Barrett, now going under the name Syd, was also trying his hand at writing songs. As the months rolled on a distinctive style emerged, with the teenager displaying a knack for melody and finding inspiration in the work of Edward Lear and The Beatles.

As time went on Barrett formed bands with friends around Cambridge. Long afternoons were spent along the banks of the Cam, strumming acoustic guitars and boozing. But as idyllic as this was, London and stardom were never far from Syd’s mind. In summer 1964 he packed his bags and headed for the capital to begin a course at Camberwell Art School. Upon arrival he moved in with another Cambridge friend, Roger Waters.

Waters soon offered his new housemate - two years his junior - a place in his blues band. Syd had an immediate impact: changing the name to Pink Floyd in homage to legendary bluesmen [Pink Anderson and Floyd Council] and emerging as a creative leader. Barrett steered the band away from R&B staples and into the darkness of free-form improvisation.

Mick Rock - who would later shoot the iconic ‘Madcap Laughs’ album sleeve - first met Barrett over Christmas 1966. Syd and Roger were home from college and the band decided to play a gig. Rock had recently started studying at Cambridge, and was urged to go along by friends.

“Friends said to me you have to see our mate Syd, he has this band Pink Floyd,” Mick remembers.

Barrett made an instant impression on the young undergraduate. For Rock, Syd was the focal point - smouldering onstage with his head down, fingers dancing over his strings while a primitive lightshow splashed blobs of colour around the room. “There right in the middle of it all bobbing up and down was this extraordinary character - and he was the band,” says Mick. “I didn’t really notice the rest of them at all.”

When it came to music and art Syd was pretty focused. He slung rules and convention from the window in favour of improvisation and natural form - whether writing songs or painting in oil.

Friend Ian Moore said in Syd Barrett And The Dawn Of Pink Floyd: “Having no rules was something Syd had a thing about. He was well ahead of the things we were into... he was for anarchy and rebellion.”

Syd’s approach to music and art suggested an open-mindedness; a willingness to try anything once. This had been evident when he arrived a few months earlier at a summer garden party in Cambridge - held by friends recently turned onto a new drug, LSD.

The day has since fallen into rock mythology, but at most Barrett was probably expecting a quick buzz. Instead the experience was profound and affecting, launching Barrett on a surreal rocket trip from which he would return changed. Sugarcubes were laced with the drug and passed around the friends, with Syd sliding into a twelve-hour trance.

Mick Rock, who also photographed David Bowie during the Seventies, summed up the prevailing attitude of the times: “None of us were very old, eighteen or nineteen. The culture was only just starting, the alternative culture. It was all piling in very hard and fast and all pretty extraordinary.”

This experimentation with acid continued as 1967 reared its head amid much pot-smoking and writing of songs - with Barrett’s behaviour alienating his ‘straight’ bandmates while at the same time making him the Floyd’s star attraction. The band began to take up more of Syd’s time. Returning to London for his second year, after spending time busking in St. Tropez with old mate Dave Gilmour, he decided to quit college and focus instead on writing.

This spaced-out vibe was fast becoming the Pink Floyd’s sound, and it was getting them quite a name among London’s beautiful people. In December 1966, and now managed by Pete Jenner and Andrew King, they took to the stage of the soon-to-be-named UFO. Much was said about the club and the hipsters soon took it as their own. Dressed in lurid paisley, the Floyd became the house band, firing stabs of feedback and noise from the stage towards a crowd in the midst of an LSD honeymoon.

Rock suggests that Syd was at the eye of the hurricane: “At the UFO Syd seemed to me to be the centrepiece - remember how good looking he was and charismatic and energetic and creative? And he had beautiful girlfriends. Syd was the man who seemed to have everything.”

Music writer Hugh Fielder said in Syd Barrett And The Dawn of Pink Floyd: “He seemed to spend most of his time with his back to the audience, detuning his guitar... you could see the rest of the band struggling to keep up.”

Among the UFO crowd’s favourite Syd songs was ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, an instrumental which tipped its hat to opening the doors of perception. The sprawling episode showed little regard for musical form; its dizzying, nauseous sound swirling and undulating like a bad trip. The song was among those written as Syd sought to meld art and music into a coherent whole, writing lyrics and music as if painting in oil.

A clutch of songs were written during this fertile period, with Barrett pushing himself to his very limits both musically and psychologically as the winter of ’66/’67 raged and howled outside. Syd was living in a flat in Earlham Street at the time, surrounded by groupies and dope smoke.

Among the songs resulting from these sessions was a saucy number about a transvestite who stole knickers from washing lines. ‘Arnold Layne’ was a mainstay of their UFO sets, and upon the release of the condensed single version, the word psychedelic was cropping up all over the place.

By March 1967 the UFO’s success had spread beyond London and the national press and major record labels were now taking an interest in the debauched, drug-addled goings on. EMI won the race to sign the scene’s nascent poster boys, securing their signatures with a £5,000 advance. New single ‘Arnold Layne’ was then hit with a trendy radio ban, attracting more people to the band and building further hype around Syd.

With a single in the charts and the newspapers full of acid headlines, the busy Floyd were in increasing demand. Meanwhile Syd’s creativity was reaching its zenith, with his senses awakened to all around him. He followed up ‘Arnold Layne’ with ‘See Emily Play’, telling of a “lost girl” from the UFO who “tries but misunderstands”.

Hundreds of blissed-out kids headed for Alexandra Palace that April night to watch the Floyd perform at the 24-hour Technicolour Dream - an all-night freak-out organised by the underground newspaper International Times. Beautiful hippy chicks gathered at the front of the stage, eager to attract a flicker of recognition from the mercurial Barrett, who was fast becoming the coolest man in the country.

The previous month the band had headed into the studio, with EMI keen to capitalise on the success of ‘Arnold Layne’ with a debut album. Producer Norman Smith was brought in to give form to Syd’s psychedelic visions. Smith, who had learned at the foot of George Martin while engineering The Beatles, had difficulties with Syd. “I’d call him into the control room to give a few instructions. Then he’d go back out and not even sing the first part the same,” he told Mike Watkinson and Pete Anderson.

But differences aside, Smith gave the Floyd structure, and with him on-board they recorded an accessible commercial album. At its heart was Barrett’s acid-skewed vision: nursery rhyme lyrics swirled around far out guitar work; cosmic, trippy songs merged into claustrophobic Victoriana.

Their debut, ‘Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’, was released in August 1967 to widespread acclaim. The paw prints of its creator were stamped all over it, with Syd taking the name from The Wind In The Willows and designing the trippy artwork.

To the wider world it seemed like he was at the peak of his powers, however those closer to home noticed cracks emerging. The good-looking and charming Syd was surrounded by hangers-on, but some of these were leading him further from reality, agreeing with everything he said dropping acid like rhubarb and custards. Mick Rock: “He got a lot of attention very fast, off girls but also from admirers, fellow spirits who looked to him as being something very special.”

Syd was now living on the Cromwell Road in a scene flat where cups of tea were reportedly spiked with LSD. Peter Jenner told Mojo: “They even gave the cats acid. I don’t think they were evil geniuses deliberately trying to fuck with Syd’s mind: they were just heavy, loony messianic acid freaks.”

Now at gigs the clues were there for all to see. Girls who’d clamoured to touch him at Alexandra Palace were now having trouble seeing the famous twinkle in his eyes, for Syd just stood clutching his Telecaster, his eyes empty and hollow, staring right through them.

Meanwhile, pressure was building from the record company for a follow-up to ‘Emily’, but with rumours rife over Syd’s state of mind it didn’t seem likely. His behaviour was becoming more and more erratic, with him refusing to perform on Top Of The Pops among other things.

The word on the street was that acid was sending Syd west, but Mick Rock thinks it was also a rejection of the pressures of fame: “There was a fine balance in Syd which enabled him to produce this revolutionary music but also it was when the pressures got strange he could drop into another psychological state. He didn’t want to deal with the pressures.”

But Syd’s reaction to EMI’s request for a new single suggested he knew there were darker forces at work. He offered songs with titles such as ‘Vegetable Man’ that suggested his advancing breakdown was weighing heavily on his mind. In ‘Jugband Blues’ he sang about how he was “much obliged to you for making it clear that I am not here”, the words mumbled incoherently, their singer all at sea.

Old mucker Dave Gilmour joined the band in the studio during these sessions: “Syd didn’t seem to recognise me and just stared back... he was a different person,” he told Mike Watkinson and Pete Anderson.

Amid all this chaos the band embarked upon a tour of the States. Mick Rock remembers: “Something happened on that American tour in the autumn of ’67... he didn’t want to go out and play the same songs every night. He was getting unhappy.”

During the US tour Syd walked out of a chat show, and refused to move his lips as the band prepared to mime on American Bandstand. Within days, the tour was abandoned. After America it seemed the ground beneath the Floyd was opening - with Syd on one side of the crack and the rest on the other.

Mick Rock suggests that Barrett’s goals were different to those of his bandmates: “The band had got a taste of this other thing and they wanted to find out more about it and they were a bit more old school ambitious. Syd was this dancing spirit who didn’t care about those things; to him they were nothing.”

After another disastrous tour Dave Gilmour was approached about filling in for Syd. The original intention was to work as a five-piece with Syd staying home and writing while the band toured. Those plans soon, however, fell apart and Gilmour was made a permanent replacement early in 1968.

The official announcement came in April 1968 that Syd was no longer with the band, however he often turned up at gigs and recording sessions. The two managers shunned Floyd to look after Syd’s affairs, with a solo deal soon in the bag. By May he was back in the studio recording, but the sessions were scrapped as he fell further into oblivion. Mick Rock: “Syd’s was a form of a breakdown because he didn’t want to communicate with anybody and he did withdraw from a lot of his old friends.”

For a year he did nothing - staying home taking acid, sometimes unwittingly, according to reports. But after a short spell in hospital in Cambridge, he was back in London, this time living with artist Duggie Fields, who said he was “withdrawn and moody”.

By 1969 he was back in the studio to record a clutch of new songs for Malcolm Jones’ Harvest label. Things started well, with the studio giving him focus. But with a heady cocktail of acid and mandrax buzzing around him, trouble was on the horizon. Dave Gilmour was brought in to help Syd and producer Jones get something on tape amid all the madness.

‘The Madcap Laughs’ sleeve was shot by Mick Rock, whose memories of the time cast a shadow of doubt over the tragic figure of rock mythology: “Syd was still Syd to me: It wasn’t like he was a different person... I had heard of strange outbursts, but he was always okay with me.”

He tells Clash how Barrett offered him a brew before they got down to shooting the session in the bohemian hippy pad. “There was [girlfriend] Iggy (The Eskimo) prancing about with nothing on, he was in this room where he had painted himself into a corner... in painting the floor with those stripes you could see all the cigarette butts and the rubbish underneath the paint.”

The striped floorboards indicated that Barrett had returned to his first love of painting, something which Rock believed he was always more comfortable with: “Remember he was a painter? Well, that is really what he was at his core... I think he thought like a painter more than a musician.”

‘The Madcap Laughs’ spent time in the Top 40 after release in 1970 and received good reviews. Plans for a follow-up were soon announced, with Barrett telling the NME he was going to get a band together. However, sessions for ‘Barrett’, also produced by Gilmour, were fraught.

Besides, Syd was fast losing interest in his music, becoming increasingly reclusive, with the mandrax shooting his memory to bits. “The hall was a cloud of black smoke,” Duggie Fields said in Syd Barrett And The Dawn of Pink Floyd. “Syd had put some oil on to cook chips and had just left it.”

The second album was finished but, with Syd refusing to do promotion, it sank without trace. Not that that seemed to bother its architect, who by its 1971 release had moved back to Cambridge. Once back home, away from the stress and anxiety of London, he painted. “He could simply get up, paint, watch TV play music and bugger it all,” Rock explains. “He didn’t have to answer to anyone.”

And aside from an ill-fated performance with Stars in 1972, this is pretty much where he stayed - in the same basement where ten years earlier he’d fallen in love with blues and R&B as a talented kid with a head full of dreams. He was twenty-four.

As the months passed Syd changed with the seasons: he put on a little weight, cut his hair shorter, wandered the streets for miles. Meanwhile in London, his mysterious exile further fuelled rumours of his mental collapse, building the mythology this article was commissioned to feed.

Understandably, the music press were keen to interview Syd. One of the first to get there was old pal Mick Rock, working for Rolling Stone. The photographer remembers: “I think he felt less pressured; you can see the pictures of him with a tennis racket and there are quite a few pictures where he is laughing... I remember his mum bringing us tea and scones.”

Talk of tennis and afternoon tea seems at odds with stories detailing Barrett’s rapid descent into schizophrenia, but Rock suggested there was light at the end of the tunnel when they met in 1971. “It wasn’t like he was a tortured soul; he wasn’t quite sure what he was going to do, and was trying to find his way.”

Although Rock’s words suggest a degree of hope, it was fading fast. Other people who interviewed him at the time spoke of a fear in Syd’s eyes, and scatty rambling answers to questions. As the winter of 1971 bled into 1972 and beyond, he became increasingly reclusive. Over the years rare sightings were reported in the national press, and Syd Barrett became a hip name to drop. Young influential musicians wore his name like a designer T-shirt in interviews, in turn opening the door for a whole new generation of fans.

But amid all this talk of sightings and schizophrenia; of acid and ‘Arnold Layne’, it is easy to get caught up in the mythology and forget that beneath the mind-bending music and the blank-eyed stare there was a real person - with hopes and fears, hang-ups and happiness, just like me and you.

Perhaps this is best summed up by Mick Rock: “I spoke to his sister Rosemary and I actually sent her a print of a shot I had taken where he’s got this very impish grin and she said, ‘Well, that’s my brother to me, not some lunatic.’ He was a bit mischievous, he was playful.”

And that impish grin continued to frame his face from time to time until he died in 2006 after suffering pancreatic cancer, taking with him the hearts of thousands of fans whose imaginations have been captured by his extraordinary rise and fall, as well as his impish grin.

Words by Shane Gladstone
Photo by Mick Rock


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This interview appears in the current issue of Clash Magazine, out now. Read more about the new issue HERE.

Access the digital version of the issue HERE and subscribe to Clash magazine HERE.

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