BARRETT (1946 - 2006)
Syd Barrett, the maverick frontman and creative force behind the
early Pink Floyd, who has died from cancer aged 60, was the ultimate
of pop recluses. His departure from the band in 1968 - then on the
threshold of global eminence - and his retirement as a professional
musician to lead an outwardly unproductive life was on a par with,
say, Mick Jagger leaving the Rolling Stones in 1964 to live quietly
with his parents.
The fourth of five siblings, he was born Roger Barrett in Cambridge.
If blighted by the death of his father, a hospital pathologist,
his upbringing was more liberal and steeped in culture than most.
Before he graduated to Cambridge High School, he showed promise
as a classical pianist and, more so, as a visual artist. However,
intrigued by an elder brother's skiffle combo, he taught himself
guitar, mostly by playing along to records. He and a kindred spirit,
David Gilmour, practised together, but did not progress much further
than talking about starting a group. It was around this time that
Roger acquired the nickname "Syd". At 16, he was playing
with local beat groups, sometimes sharing a stage with bass guitarist
Roger Waters. On obtaining respective scholarships at Camberwell
Art College and Regent Street Polytechnic, Barrett and Waters moved
to London where their band, the Pink Floyd, smouldered into form,
with Barrett, Waters, drummer Nick Mason and Rick Wright on keyboards.
The gradual introduction of adventurous self-written material and
lengthy monochordal improvisations made them popular fixtures in
the capital's underground clubs where light shows simulated psychedelic
experience. Snapped up by EMI, their debut single, 'Arnold Layne',
was, as expected, self-consciously "weird" - and a Top
30 entry, despite airplay restrictions. The follow-up, a tartly-arranged
'See Emily Play' - also composed by Syd - climbed to #6. Perhaps
more satisfying for the group was recognition by the Beatles, who
looked in during a Floyd session for 1967's groundbreaking 'The
Piper At The Gates Of Dawn'. The maiden album was penned almost
entirely by the charismatic Barrett, who, as a guitarist was as
capable of severe dissonance as serene, if echo-laden, melody, and
whose vocal style was as English as Elvis Presley's was American.
With the other personnel keeping pace, he'd gone far into the cosmos
and back musically with 'Astronomy Domine', and disconnected with
Earth altogether on 'Interstellar Overdrive'. Moreover, 'Gnome',
'Matilda Mother', 'Flaming' and medieval-flavoured 'Scarecrow' cornered
pop's gingerbread castle hour more effectively and instinctively
than, for example, the Beatles' 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds'.
Fortunately for the Fab Four, a now drug-addled Barrett was already
proving ill equipped to cope with pop stardom, particularly after
a troubled US tour and the disappointment of a flop third single,
'Apples And Oranges'. In 1968, David Gilmour was enlisted as the
increasingly unreliable Barrett's understudy and then his successor
during the making of a transitional second album, 'A Saucerful Of
Secrets'. Although happier as concert performers, Pink Floyd were
initially at a loss without Barrett's input.
Attempting to master his more absolute inner chaos, Barrett released
two curate's egg solo albums in 1970, 'The Madcap Laughs' and the
more focused 'Barrett', with help from members of Soft Machine,
Humble Pie and Pink Floyd, and was persuaded to undertake disinclined
promotional stage appearances. Eventually, he returned to Cambridge
where he fronted a trio called Stars, who struggled through a solitary
official booking at the city's Corn Exchange in 1972.
The years left to Barrett were almost perversely unremarkable.
Though he was known to be a painter, he neither exhibited nor sold
any work. Nevertheless, a legend took shape, bringing out strange
stories, the most verifiable of which was of him presenting himself,
portly and shaven-headed, in the studio when Pink Floyd were recording
the 1975 album 'Wish You Were Here', which included the Barrett
tribute 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond'. Since then, intrusive press
photographs of him have portrayed him looking as middle-aged as
his now multi-millionaire colleagues. In the teeth of dull truth,
Barrett continued to fascinate countless fans as well as record
company moguls, scraping the barrel for anything on which he so
much as breathed, such as the big-selling 1993 CD box set, 'Crazy
Diamond', incorporating hitherto-unreleased tracks.
Barrett's income of invalidity benefit and fluctuating royalties
was buoyed by tributes paid by other artists, most conspicuously
David Bowie who revived 'See Emily Play' on his 1973 'Pin-Ups' album,
and more recently 'Arnold Layne', which he performed with David
Gilmour in London. Yet few of the faithful expected or even wanted
Barrett to make a comeback, no matter how rejuvenated or contemporary.
They preferred him as an ever-silent, "no return" saga
rather than one in which he was likely to try and fail to debunk
the myth of an artistic death.
Clayson, The Guardian)