Syd Barrett, January 1993
By B. Hogg
"What color is sound" 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 quest ion 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 immediately 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 found 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 stage 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 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 company 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 national attraction.
(missing a part)
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-garde 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 ill-starred 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 canceled.
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.