Saucerful of Secrets: Saluting Syd Barrett’s Recorded Legacy
Syd Barrett spent only 60 years on Earth, although for at least some of that time – maybe lots of it – Syd seemed to be in a place that was more interstellar. Barrett’s recorded legacy of two Pink Floyd albums, two solo albums, a few live recordings and a handful of singles is the work of a visionary who ultimately lost both his vision and his grip on reality. He also lost his life to pancreatic cancer in 2006, after a 34-year retirement, or retrenchment, from music.
Barrett was born on January 6, 1946, 65 years ago. His career as a musician lasted only seven years, starting in 1964 with the formation of Pink Floyd, who had four different names during their first year including the Screaming Abdabs and the Meggadeaths (take that, Dave Mustaine).
Barrett’s self-made musical realm was a kaleidoscope of fantasy and distortion and sonic gamesmanship perfect for the LSD-drenched times. Syd’s (and early Floyd) fans included such rock dignitaries as John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger. He developed a vocabulary of extended technique based on alternate tunings, slide teamed with Echo-Plex, feedback and an angular attack instantly recognizable on such early Pink Floyd numbers as “Lucifer Sam” and “Interstellar Overdrive,” which remains a study in epic six-string heaviness.
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By October 1967, Barrett’s gnarled guitar playing – which alternated between angular blocks of sound and cascades of rippling or sliding notes – teamed with his sweetly nasal voice, ruffled English look, and lyrics about gnomes and childhood innocence had elevated Pink Floyd from the London underground to touring with Jimi Hendrix, supporting their critically heralded debut Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Yet his deterioration became obvious by the year’s end.
Many of Pink Floyd’s numbers, like the clangorous “Astronomy Domine,” were based on simple chord structures, but Barrett in his ailing state took that to an extreme on stage. Sometimes he simply stood in place and stroked a single chord throughout an entire set, or sat on the floor, not playing at all. At a concert in San Francisco he reportedly detuned his guitar string by string on “Interstellar Overdrive” – a gambit the crowd might have taken as a burst of creativity, but one his bandmates knew was just another example of progressive deterioration.
Barrett’s school chum David Gilmour was brought into Pink Floyd to support Barrett whenever he seemed to be drifting away, but he also sang and played guitar on those nights when Syd might merely wander, as if lost, across the stage. Too many of those nights occurred, and on the way to a gig in January 1968 drummer Nick Mason, bassist Roger Waters and keyboardist Richard Wright decided to simply pick up Gilmour and leave Barrett at home.
Gilmour and Barrett’s friendship nonetheless remained intact, and they collaborated on Syd’s two solo albums. Uneven as those recordings are, they remain the last fragile signposts of a great rock and roll mind. And it’s worth observing that Barrett always remained in his bandmates’ thoughts and ultimately inspired 1975’s classic Pink Floyd album Wish You Were Here.
In celebration of Barrett’s birth date – an international holiday for psychedelic rockers – here’s a look at the essentials in the “Crazy Diamond”’s musical legacy:
Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967): Recorded in EMI’s Abbey Road studios as The Beatles were also cutting Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, this Pink Floyd psychedelic masterpiece is the home of the classics “Interstellar Overdrive,” “Lucifer Sam,” “Astronomy Domine” and the instrumental “Pow R. Toc H.” Drenched with reverb and odd overdubs like vocal noises and searing, screaming, warbling guitar, it is far from uncalculated. Such influences as Gregorian chant, composer Gustav Holst, Barrett’s cat, the I Ching and free jazz improvisation mingle in its eddying pools of sound.
A Saucerful of Secrets (1968): Barrett’s last album with Pink Floyd is a radical leap from Piper at the Gates of Dawn, with more orchestral compositions, lush textures, and a drift from the strictures of song structure. The title track and the Eastern modalities of “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” set new standards for rock improvisation. These compositions left the blues behind for a realm between classical, jazz and world music – trance music for the psychedelic tribe.
The Madcap Laughs (1970): After a tentative start, the album was abandoned for nearly a year and then resumed with the help of Gilmour and Waters. Barrett insisted on cutting his guitar tracks and vocals alone and having the studio musicians play to those recordings. Further complicating matters, he insisted that they take just a few passes at almost every song, without any rehearsal. Hence, numbers like “No Good Trying” sway in their tempos, reflecting the players’ uncertainty. Nonetheless, there are glimmers of Barrett’s ability to create his own world in songs like “Octopus,” which brims with playfulness.
Barrett (1970): Gilmour and Floyd keyboardist Wright were recruited before Barrett entered the studio this time, but that didn’t keep the affair from becoming extremely erratic. Only one song was cut with the studio band and Barrett playing together – “Gigolo Aunt,” which inspired the name of Boston-based alternative rock group the Gigolo Aunts. Ultimately, Gilmour and Wright decided to let Barrett record alone again, and defaulted to overdubs to finish the album. As a result, the album has a folk-rock orientation and what comes through once again is Barrett’s melody and whimsy – and his fragile state of mind. When Barrett was poorly received, Syd withdrew to his mother’s home in Cambridge and, save for a short tenure in a band called Stars in 1972 and another attempt at recording in 1974, withdrew from the music business for good.