July 11, 2006

Syd It was announced today (thanks NRO!) that founding Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett died July 7 from cancer at age 60. UK’s London Times has their obituary, and The Guardian Unlimited has theirs.

My brother Mark and I were first introduced to Pink Floyd back around 1971 when a PBS special aired called “The Pink Floyd – England’s experimental rock group”. Being aspiring rockers ourselves and looking for new inspirations following the Beatles’ breakup – our immersion into the Beach Boys would not occur until 1975 – we tuned in. What we saw enthralled us – basically, it was circa-1969-70 spacy-sounding Floyd music played to a film showing various landscape flyovers from a plane with camera suspended below, in various psychedelic colors, no less. Needless to say, we were immediately hooked, and began scarfing up one album after another as our allowances and (for me) paychecks would allow.

We didn’t know then that the band’s line-up at that time was one that had long since ditched their original leader following increasingly-bizarre episodes of psychotic behavior resulting from his continuous hallucinogenic drug abuse. Looking back on Pink Floyd’s career, it’s hard to believe the Barrett canon was restricted to just one LP (The Piper at the Gates of Dawn), three 45 RPM singles (two of which, “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play”, were hits), and a few curiosities (“Jugband Blues” and “Astronomy Domine”) on albums immediately following his replacement by guitarist Dave Gilmour.

Regardless, Barrett’s spirit of inspired lunacy, madness, alienation, paranoia, and psychosis became an enduring theme for much of Floyd’s subsequent work – especially on The Dark Side of The Moon (the whispered opening line “I’ve been made for f**king years…” is priceless), Wish You Were Here (the cut “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” featuring lyrics remembering how when Barrett was young his eyes had “shone like the sun” but were now “like black holes in the sky”), and The Wall albums.

The Times’ obituary summarizes Barrett’s contribution to the group’s initial formation and identity as follows:

Barrett had coined the name as a fusion of two grizzled bluesmen called Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, although hippy romantics will always prefer the story he later told of the name being transmitted to him by a flying saucer while he was sitting on Glastonbury Tor.

At first, the group played mostly R&B covers. But Barrett had begun experimenting with LSD in 1965 and the experience began to inspire his own songwriting. As the nascent post-beat, drug-based hippy sub-culture gathered pace throughout 1966, Pink Floyd — as they were now called — effectively became its house band. The R&B covers gave way to Barrett’s quirky songs and long, improvisational “space” epics, with titles such as Interstellar Overdrive and Astronomy Domine.

During this period, Barrett served in a similar role as the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, penning songs and lyrics that distinguished Pink Floyd from other groups in the “Swinging London” years of 1966-67.

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 Number Six. 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.

Neil Young once sang, “it’s better to burn out than it is to rust”, and no one benefited more from this ideal than Syd Barrett. As his bandmates went on to astounding success in the 1970s and beyond, Barrett retreated into a mundane existence of living with his parents and, in his own words, “eating a lot of pork chops and watching television”. As much as his music and descent into madness became the stuff of legend, elevating him to cult figure status, Barrett’s primary contribution to the Pink Floyd legend was to establish its identity and then “flame out” of the way, giving the band something unique it could exploit and return to again and again. Regardless of Barrett’s talent, my own feeling is that the course of rock music history and the level of success Pink Floyd achieved could not have happened as it did had not Barrett crashed and burned, thus allowing a Gilmour/Roger Waters partnership to flourish.

Rest in peace, Syd – your legend is secure in the music you created and inspired.

Filed in: Religion & Culture by The Great White Shank at 13:07 | Comments Off on R.I.P. Syd Barrett
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