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Syd Barrett

Born Roger Keith Barrett, 6th January 1946, Cambridge, England, “Syd” epitomised the psychedelic 60s in both greatness and indeed tragedy. After regulars at the local Riverside Jazz Club found out his surname, they re-christened him after an old drummer from the area, Sid Barrett (which he soon altered to Syd).
Syd was talented enough to secure a place at the prestigious Camberwell Art School in 1963, and once in London, he teamed up with his old friend ROGER WATERS, who’d asked him to join his band The Screaming Abdabs. At Syd’s suggestion, the band renamed themselves PINK FLOYD after Georgia bluesman Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.
Turned on to LSD by a friend, BARRETT became fascinated by the mysteries of the universe, even carrying around a Times Astronomical Atlas. This obsession would later inspire such Floyd classics as `Astronomy Domine’ and `Interstellar Overdrive’. The latter’s main riff was famously derived from a chord pattern Syd worked out after hearing manager Peter Jenner attempting to hum LOVE’s version of Burt Bacharach’s `My Little Red Book’.
Their ground-breaking 1967 album `The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’, on which these two tracks appeared, made the group, and especially Syd, major-league rock stars. This was something that did the rising star’s increasingly erratic mental health no good whatsoever. By the time of the album’s release, he had moved into the infamous Cromwell Road flat in London, living on a daily diet of hallucinogenic drugs and beginning to develop a piercing stare which would scare even the most hardened person in his company. At E.M.I.’s request, Syd recorded two further tracks `Scream Thy Last Scream’ and `Vegetable Man’, which were unsurprisingly rejected, E.M.I. staff producer Norman Smith dubbing them “lunatic ravings”.
His penultimate offering for the Floyd `Apples And Oranges’, flopped, and Syd’s mental condition deteriorated further. After missing some shows and performances, Waters eventually made it clear he was surplus to requirements. His last effort with the group `Jugband Blues’, appeared after his departure on Floyd’s sophomore album `A Saucerful Of Secrets’ (1968). It was his last poignant statement for Floyd, a self-diagnosis of his encroaching schizophrenia.
E.M.I. (actually Harvest records) still had enough confidence in BARRETT to offer him a solo deal, and he set about recording his debut THE MADCAP LAUGHS {*8}.
Released very early in 1970 after a laborious year in the studio, it featured prog-jazz-rock combo SOFT MACHINE (more or less ROBERT WYATT), drummer Nick Mason and other Floyd-ians, hence its brief entry into the UK Top 40. Despite Syd being high on the tranquilliser Mandrax, the album had its moments via the likes of `Octopus’, `Dark Globe’, `Terrapin’, `No Good Trying’ and `Long Gone’ making up for the other lost-in-the-ether tracks. A step in the direction on the lines of twee-pop or freak-folk, although these terms were never used at the time, it’s since been regarded, alongside possibly The INCREDIBLE STRING BAND’s `5000 Spirits’, as the genre’s most defining moment.
The hastily recorded BARRETT (also 1970) {*6} used a session band featuring DAVID GILMOUR (his friend who’d earlier replaced him in ‘Floyd), fellow producer Rick Wright and HUMBLE PIE’s Jerry Shirley. This gave Syd some cohesion, and although it was more assured in depth, it lacked the fragility of its predecessor. Tracks that did come up to scratch were `Baby Lemonade’, `Gigolo Aunt’, `Wined And Dined’ and `Effervescing Elephant’. The album was poorly received and Syd retreated to the cellar of his mother’s home in Cambridge. He resurfaced in 1972 as part of the doomed Stars project (with Twink of PINK FAIRIES and Jack Monk) before finally giving up music altogether.
In 1975, prog-meisters ‘Floyd paid homage to Syd on their classic `Wish You Were Here’ track `Shine On You Crazy Diamond’; virtually unrecognisable outside his old circle of friends, the man attended some sessions but didn’t contribute.
BARRETT never fully recovered from his debilitating mental illness, and tragically he became almost blind due to diabetes related problems. Whether the drugs actually caused his decline or merely assisted it is something that will no doubt continue to be debated long into the future. A flawed genius whose legend and influence grow stronger with each passing year, SYD BARRETT was a whimsical child-like star, burning brightly in a kaleidoscope of technicolor sound before dropping out into a haze of drug-induced psychosis. He has since been attributed and stylised by many, including Television Personalities, Robyn Hitchcock and the Legendary Pink Dots. Further releases surfaced from the late 80s onwards, notably outtakes package OPEL (1988) {*6}, which featured `Milky Way’, `Dolly Rocker’ and `Birdie Hop’; different versions appeared on Syd’s boxed set CRAZY DIAMOND (1993) {*8}.
Sadly, having lived alone at his late mother’s home in Cambridge, Syd died of a diabetes-related illness on the 7th of July 2006.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Dec2011

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