English whimsy had a good run for its money in the 1960s. Pop culture hoovered it up and began to mass-produce it in a variety of forms. It’s odd now to remember how it looked on the hoardings and billboards and store ads: the posters of girls whose tresses became rivers; the Medusa-like transfigurations of our rock idols, those tousled Monica Lewinskies with hair on their chests. Only it wasn’t quite ‘rock’ in those days – and certainly not while Syd Barrett, the master of whimsy, was floating around on the English pop scene.
Barrett remains a big name from the Sixties music archive – a piece of psychedelic heritage. Mostly out of it, very flowers-and-frillsy, yet clever certainly and likeable apparently, he wrote the two 1967 Pink Floyd hits ‘Arnold Layne’ and ‘See Emily Play’ before stumbling into a maze of mental distress from which there was no obvious exit. Rapid decline and obscurity are part of the Barrett legend, as are ideas of madness and genius. And so, as he turns 57, it only remains for death to crown him with the final laurels. Meanwhile, a mortuary chill has taken hold of Pink Floyd’s music – and according to their many former fans, it did so early on, within a year or two of Barrett’s departure. Yet, as the managers and technicians of the great Pink Floyd profit-machine could confirm, it was roughly at the point he left that the band began its ascent to heights of fabulous wealth, churning out music which would become as familiar as flock wallpaper or the Guinness toucan. Understandably, all that Floydish ventilation and curdled aggression masquerading as nature worship was part of the idiom that punk was eager to dump, and the way in which it did so had a bit of a Barrett feel. Punk, after all, was English whimsy with a stud in its tongue. And Tim Willis tells us, in his slightly manic survey of the Syd Barrett myth, that Malcolm McLaren, one of the gentrifiers of punk, had been a bit of a Barrett admirer during the hippie era. Syd’s féerie entourage and girlies in drifting crinoline went out of the window, of course, along with his animated scarecrows (the B-side of ‘Arnold Layne’) and his hippie I-Chingery, but some of the grittier elements from the first Pink Floyd album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, were inadvertently recycled. You could listen to Roger Waters’s wild, largely instrumental ‘Take up Thy Stethoscope and Walk’ and believe you were more than halfway down the 1970s and through the turnstiles of punk, even though this raucous piece, with its choppy anti-virtuoso guitar-work from Barrett, was recorded in 1967.
Cambridge features prominently in Willis’s melancholy story. When they were any good, Pink Floyd were in essence a Syd Barrett thing, and Syd Barrett was a Cambridge thing, the son of a Cambridge pathologist, Max Barrett, who died of cancer in 1961 – Barrett was nearly 16. (There was Roger Waters, too, and David Gilmour – who’d replace Barrett within moments, almost, of the band’s success. Both were Cambridge boys. Both, Willis tells us, had messed around with paint pots in a late-toddler phase in the same Saturday morning art club as Barrett at Homerton teacher-training college.) Willis is good on early-1960s Cambridge cool, and the pre-political, druggy effulgence that seemed to shimmer above the town. It turned out that this sign in the East was burning above the adolescent Syd Barrett in his manger – a family house on Hills Road – though no one seemed to know at the time. It was visible from the Norfolk Broads, if you were coming that way (many were not), but shone brighter if you were in London facing roughly in the direction of the A10, in which case your real newborn in swaddling clothes was almost certainly lysergic acid diethylamide. In Willis’s account, a Stanford University chemistry researcher had fetched up in Cambridge c.1963 with the formula for LSD, and ‘until it was outlawed in 1965, acid consumption was more widespread in this small Fenland town than in all but the most exclusive circles in the capital.’
Syd’s downfall has something to do with drugs, LSD included. In the standard shorthand reckoning, he became an acid epitome, magnificent and, before one knew it, broken – a line which Willis’s story follows more or less, though this is a generous, well-intentioned book, even if it steers us towards the ignominy and sadness of Barrett’s decline, his dark maddenings and his periods in care, which a back-of-the-hall Syd Barrett fan (as I am) doesn’t always need to know.
In October 1966 Pink Floyd played alongside the Soft Machine at the Roundhouse. It must have been a good combination, the second of these two bands – more fun and more presciently post-hippie than early Pink Floyd – going on to produce a few grand creative talents in their own right. Robert Wyatt is the big survivor of the Soft Machine, a Hugo Ball at full lifespan to the band’s jaunty evocations of Dada. But there was also Daevid Allen, the founder of Gong, and Kevin Ayers, an eclectic-comic figure of some talent – in many ways the successful version of Barrett. Like Barrett, Ayers slunk away from recognition early on, after a band debut album, to be replaced, again like Barrett, by a buddy. Unlike Barrett, he was quick to shine on his own: he maintained a steady rate of production, held together several bands, dug up ‘world music’ before there was ever such a notion and enjoyed a cult following in France (Soft Machine were thoughtful and cool, and liked to quote Picabia).
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was released the following year. It was well thought of. But then, on the crest of success, Barrett was suddenly unable or unwilling to comply with all the dim demands of pop promotion. He was one falling star that Perry Como caught but never trousered: when he featured Pink Floyd on his live TV show, during their US mini-tour, Barrett simply refused to mime along.
Back in Britain, the ravages set in. The other band members did what they could. Roger Waters tells Willis that some time in 1968, maybe, he drove Barrett to an appointment with R.D. Laing. When he parked the car, Barrett wisely refused to get out. There was a later attempt to get him an audience with the master, but this time Barrett wouldn’t even leave the flat in South Kensington.
In 1970, there were two poignant solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett. The voice and indeed the songs – mostly strum-alongs worked into shape by dubbing on additional instruments – are, as Willis remarks, ‘lower, flatter, stranger’. Quite. Track by track on the first album, Barrett seems in danger of extinction, like the last of a rare species of wader, stranded, sodden and subsiding, on an expanse of tropical mudflat, or possibly the Fens. Quite a few musicians, including the Soft Machine, helped out with Madcap, as Pink Floyd did on Barrett, and Willis recaptures some nice exchanges during the sessions. Robert Wyatt asks what key a piece is supposed to be in and Barrett answers: ‘Yeah.’ Wyatt draws attention to the fact that the rhythm seems to have changed and Barrett answers: ‘Oh really?’ Yet Barrett’s own instructions are in their way quite clear. This exhortation, for instance, after a take he hadn’t liked: ‘Perhaps we could make the middle darker and maybe the end a bit more middle-afternoonish . . . at the moment it’s too windy and icy.’ Years later, Wyatt recalled the final result of The Madcap Laughs as a sketch for ‘a painting never completed. Dead punk when you think about it.’
The rest of Willis is not much fun. It’s the story of an obscure, often unhappy figure pursued by acolytes and would-be dawn-treaders, mostly in Cambridge, where Barrett was often at home, but not to guests, and where Willis intruded on him with bluff discourtesy. Barring the help on Barrett and a mid-1970s musical tribute on one of their albums, it was pretty much over between Barrett and Pink Floyd once their second album, including Syd’s ‘Jugband Blues’, was released in 1968. Barrett’s little coda on this record put out an ingenuous alert to fans about his distressed condition: ‘And what exactly is a dream? And what exactly is a joke?’
Thereafter the band began to glide on the thermals rising from their own steamy and prolific productions. Every commercial success produced a more insufferable, egregious outcome than the one before. Neatly forecast by ‘Jugband Blues’, The Wall (1979) was a grand amalgam of the bad dream and the bad joke, with its reactionary, spoiled-child hit single posturing as a plea for the kiddies. This album has now sold more than 23 million copies. The Record Industry Association of America lists the band among the top ten ‘classic pop’ successes worldwide – well above the Beach Boys, or Ray Conniff.
In the end it comes down to two rival versions of the English middle afternoon. Post-Barrett, Pink Floyd kept on in a middle-afternoonish vein, but they fell in love with the idea of portentous storm clouds in the offing somewhere over Grantchester: this mode begins as a blathering pastoral, complete with twitterings and mooings, and gives way after five minutes (or half an hour) to a tacky, full-on, elemental bruising, dinned in by battalions of techies with all their megawatt, state-of-the-art sound-systems. Barrett’s afternoonishness was far more supple and engaging. It superimposed the hippie cult of eternal solstice on the pre-teatime daydreams of one’s childhood, occasioned by a slick of sunlight on a chest-of-drawers or a snatch of plainsong in the radiator – a daydream that quickly filled with gaudy archetypes and very private, custom-built creations. Barrett’s songs are full of both: bog-standard gnomes on the one hand, homeless mice called ‘Gerald’ on the other. His afternoonishness is lit by an importunate adult intelligence that can’t quite get back to the place it longs to be.
Remarkably, Barrett created the same, precocious longing in adolescents who heard his music at the time. I remember ‘See Emily Play’ drifting across a school corridor in 1967 – I was 15 then – and I remember the powerful wish to stay suspended indefinitely in that music, just as I wanted to hang about for ever in another, much darker song of the same period, ‘My Eyes Have Seen You’, by the Doors. I also remember the quasi-adult intimation that this wasn’t possible. Which may have been why the first strains of ‘Emily’, even then, marked the onset of sulkiness and regret; the thing you adored was eluding you even as you heard it. Roll on teatime.
Willis tells me I’d have gone to see Pink Floyd at Middle Earth, a cult club in Covent Garden, some time in 1968. I hadn’t remembered the date, only the occasion. Most of the audience were equipped with mattresses and by the time the band came on, they were asleep or too high to adopt the upright position. Still, if Willis’s date is correct, at least two of us were standing and within an ace of consciousness. There was me and there was the dear, improbable Syd Barrett, somewhere close to the stage, watching darkly as replacement guitarist David Gilmour ran through all his predecessor’s licks. Perhaps – but ‘Astronomy Domine’, pure Barrett, is the music I remember Pink Floyd playing on the night. This was the other great theme in his early repertoire: a post-teatime exploration of outer space, that other area – like childhood – where very few grown-ups can get. ‘Astronomy Domine’ was the best of this outer-reaches thing, full of intergalactic twangings and pingings which trailed behind a pretty, off-the-wall lyric, never quite audible (‘lime and limpid green/a second scene/a fight between/the blue you once knew’). And so, as far as I could tell, the night belonged to Barrett, but Willis isn’t sure. He reckons Syd had become a chemical nightmare, and that if you’d stuck your ear against his haircut, you’d have heard things going from bad to worse. Perhaps he was living through a grim premonition of The Wall.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.