Okay, for those 2 remaining, I hope to be able to come up with something that is not a deja vu.
At least that’s my goal.
Let’s face it right away: Pink Floyd, an iconic band for a multitude of music lovers of several generations – Hi-Fi fans or not – are certainly among the most overexposed musicians in record collections and playlists.
This overexposure leads inexorably to the rejection by that slightly snobbish minority, perhaps just for the sake of being contrarian, against the tide.
In short, like the flatearth-ists, the no-vax, the conspiracy theorists, and so on.
However! For so much hype and so many fans, there will certainly be some reason too…
But here I am not interested in discussing it.
Instead, I am interested in focusing on something about their eventful beginnings, the phase of lesser commercial success and with fewer admirers but a mine of inspirations for comments, discussions, quarrels.
A dialectic both of strictly musical criticism and witness to the cultural and customs events that marked the unrepeatable effervescence of the late 60’s and which, for the first time, saw the generation of adolescents as protagonists (who at that time were a little more grown-up than the current ones).
An anti-militarist and somewhat spoiled army, raised – and often born – after the most devastating war, in a world galloped by a turbo economy drugged by funding for post-war reconstruction, in which food, clothing and other necessities were forgotten problems, quickly replaced by the anxiety of getting cars, televisions, vacations, education, entertainment.
London had overtaken Paris in becoming the laboratory capital of European cultural fashions. The traditional dullness of the city had been cancelled by the noisy soundtrack, enlivened by the musical antagonism between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
The 2 bands were just the tip of the iceberg of a myriad of beat musical groups that were experiencing and exporting a radical transformation: from swinging London, in geometric optical style, often in black and white, to the psychedelic explosion of impure and mixed colors, applied to twisted designs, of floral or kashmir inspiration, deformed above all by too many sleepless nights and by some “recreational” abuse too.
Returning to ours, they almost accidentally became the protagonists of that revolution in progress.
As soon as they arrived from the quiet Cambridge in the capital, to start their university studies, in a legitimate search for visibility and success as pop stars, they gladly seized the sponsorship opportunity offered by the radical movement that gravitated around the International Times (IT) magazine, led by activist John Hopkins.
In the role of official underground musicians, just few steps far from the university, they found open the doors of the UFO club, founded and managed by that Joe Boyd who became their first producer. They were engaged in the nocturnal concert-events, to raise funds for the “movement”, in which – let’s face it – the multisensory alchemy between their dissonances and the light show constituted a perfect freak phenomenon. It attracted a few young people in full hormonal storm but also a colourful little crowd of extravagant types, including the still unknown David Bowie and Peter Gabriel, and in which it happened to meet VIPs of the calibre of the 4 Beatles, the conceptual artist Yoko Ono (not related yet to John Lennon), Marianne Faithful, Mick Jagger …
But here I am not at all interested in making a biography or historiography ad usum delphini. Today it is enough to insert the magic name in the YouTube search to discover a cornucopia of documentaries containing period films and interviews in memory, even released by the keeper of the elementary school of each member of the group. The pharaonic traveling museum exhibition Their Mortal Remains continues to carry around the world, as relics, a heterogeneous Pinkfloydian object collection, in which the various electronic gadgets with which new sounds were created by manipulating the old ones, stand out for interest. Then you don’t count the books published on the subject, often copies of themselves and difficult to distinguish from trash opportunistic merchandising operations.
A reference, if only for pleasant reading, is the weighty and all-encompassing autobiography written by the drummer Nick Mason himself (Inside Out, fig. 1). But particular interest (I was about to write obsession) has as its object the enigmatic figure (it’s an understatement…) of the founding member and inspirer of the group, Roger Keith Barrett.
Philologists cannot overlook the English fanzine Terrapin which dates back to the mimeograph period and can be found on the official site dedicated to Syd http://www.sydbarrett.com/.
In my library I also have a biography written by 2 English journalists and published in Italy ( fig. 2) with a very bad press, and even a real comic that romances the abundant anecdotal, drawn and produced in Italy (Jugband Blues ) which, however, with its black-and-white chiaroscuro, makes the Barrettian story even too dark.
For lovers of the more strictly musical part, I consider it a real pity that the meticulous and precise analysis that Carlo Pasceri reserves for the early Pink Floyd ( fig. 3) does not include Barrett’s solo works (which are perhaps too little to deserve a separate volume).
So the charm emanating from the artist is evident from the amount of material concerning him, almost all after his exit from the scene or even posthumously (Syd left us in 2006) like the Italian comic strip Wish You Were Here, of 2015.
After all, already in the years of youthful splendour, the charisma of the “crazy diamond” shone to the point of eclipsing all the companions and it cannot be denied that only the defection of the first guitarist-leader-spokesperson-composer-author, practically defenestrated by the former partners due to his unreliability, allowed the growth – before the explosion – of the oldest bassist and co-founder, Roger Waters.
It means that the “ugly” of the group, perhaps less picking-up girls but harbouring, much more than companions, ambitions to be rock stars and engaged hankering for writing, songwriting. These impulses would then have projected the new line-up to produce great works, rewarded by global successes, well supported by the superior technical skills of Rick Wright and David Gilmour (the only true professional of the band).
A production based on long instrumental passages and on often visionary and allegorical texts, almost all written by Waters, who, once off the sixty-eight hangover – from the apical maturity of The Dark Side of The Moon onwards – become critical, full of content with considerable depth social, human, civil. Even political. In a crescendo of words that – in the last works – cross over into a self-referential logorrhoea that prevails and suppresses music.
In fact, in my opinion, the creative parable of the group, the one that went down in history, ends with The Wall. The figurative wall is knocked down only in the record, while the one between Waters’ hypertrophic ego and the rest of the band is unassailable and the most pleasant and immediate things of the following works are mostly heated soups, while the more complex ones (I didn’t say worst) are corrosive expressions of existential hatred, unresolved psychodramas and professional and private conflicts. Which are certainly not the ideal ingredients to climb the charts…
In the trilogy of the multimillion-dollar best seller Dark side, Wish you, The Wall, the group is already more institution than experimentation and the evolutionary dynamic is essentially internal, passing from the creative chorus of the first 2 works to the individualism of the last, which comes after a long interval in which the world music scene has seen the passage of punk, disco music, new wave, novelties that have destroyed a good Animals, already corroded by internal conflicts.
Returning to the beginnings, the purpose of this provocative article is to overturn the scale of values attributed to the early works of PF in relation to the contribution of Syd Barrett.
First of all, I would like to demolish all the overwhelming psychedelic iconography and anecdotal circulating about Syd, which I have carefully avoided reporting. His old friends have already thought too much about it: the rock star photographer Mike Rock, the housemates of the bustling London apartments and companions of the youthful excesses. I therefore avoid all the various photographs with absent eyes, at half mast, before they became “like black holes in the sky”. I avoid all the stories told, winking and complacent, the weeks spent in the trip and the milled mandrax pills mixed with hair gel. All testimonies dedicated to excesses, which have passed into history a bad behavioural model, unfortunately emulated by many young people still lacking the necessary maturity.
Dusted off after many years by the ex-partners themselves, but passed on the sly because it has less audience, it is instead the whole drama of Syd’s real mental illness. More cause than consequence of substance abuse. Psychiatry of the time was still powerless in diagnosing and treating problems and pathologies that the bohemian expressionism of the then more fashionable culture celebrated almost as positive values (Timothy Leary’s “Turn on, tune in, drop out“, just to mention a psychiatric worker).
In fact, I am convinced that for Syd the daily abuse of psychedelic drugs indicated the impossibility of contact with reality, and not the escape from it (as frequent among young people, still unprepared to face a reality that has become so complex). He manifested to belong to a parallel science fiction dimension, expressed in a sincere artistic vein, naïve, multidisciplinary (he was the only one in the band to study art and not architecture, and let’s not forget his activity as a painter), whose ambitions of some economic returns were more suffered than pursued.
Nick Mason in his maturity days recalls: “Yes, Syd could be bothered, maybe even crazy, but maybe we were causing this problem, chasing our desire for success and forcing Syd to align with our ambitions. Maybe it was Syd who was surrounded by madmen”.
Better late than never!
Barrett, apart from the intuitions of the long suites of the debut, on which his companions built a characterizing, identifying style, probably had a very different and equally fascinating musical vision, perhaps purer and more lasting.
Without detracting from the subsequent masterpieces of the band, The Piper does contain gems, but set in frames closely linked to the fashion of the time, conditioned by the liberating echoes coming from the States. Listening to them today in a state of lucidity may still please but I can’t help but feel a bit archaeologist.
On the other hand, listening to Barrett’s 2 solo albums (and some of his works fished out in Opel ), finally free from that obsession of becoming a rock star that excited old friends, is always fresh, brilliant, persuasive, current, in telling witty stories, whispering love songs or chanting gothic nursery rhymes, nothing special, but poignant of the involuntary pathos of those who document their inexorable change of destiny, the liquefying of their consciousness and of the ability to maintain contact with the world of the healthy.
Having left his place to his friend Roger, Syd was able to express that brain damage that the group could not grant him, he was able to look at the dark face of the moon, until they still wished him to be there, with them. But by that time, he had become comfortably numb and the wall around his head was too high. And thick.
Of Syd we have a first-class human heritage, as well as the artistic one.
God forbids! The Piper is, for me, the monumental birth certificate of the band, freed from the beat songwriting clichés, as well as having represented my entry imprinting in the world of hi-fi, as I have also unashamedly told in other of these pages.
But they are different uses.
The Piper takes you on a roller coaster, from the sidereal space of Silver Surfer to the multidimensional space of dr. Strange, swooping through flaming clouds, landing in a barley field populated by drunken gnomes, by melancholy scarecrows and by diabolical Siamese cats.
And then you wake up, sweating.
The solo works, devoid of archive sound samples but full of artisan experiments with tapes, are more contemplative and I can listen to them even for company, without being overwhelmed and without having the impression of participating in an acid test.
In reality The Piper seems to me to be the result of great clarity of mind and great commercial ambitions, in evident competition with Sgt. Pepper, just dished out in Abbey Road, in the next-door recording studio, in the vortex of the radical movement: underground culture but always fashionable. Post- beat. Mainstream, we would say today. And, deep down, one of the causes most defended by the movement was, trivially, that of the liberalization of cannabinoids, if not drugs in general.
In Syd’s 2 works the mental confusion is real, not related to substance abuse. The dissolution of the synapses is palpable, piece by piece, until he loses the pitch and forgets his own texts written shortly before.
It is the authentic testimony not of voluptuous and recreational alterations, procured with drugs for intellectuals of good family, but of the lability of balance and of the ability to maintain contact with reality, against the irreversible centrifugal forces that, when you least expect it, they can come to separate the cerebral lobes, opening cracks through which the pieces of consciousness contained therein are dispersed into nothingness.
For anyone who has had the misfortune of dealing with something concerning this type of problems, the emotional involvement is as deep as incommunicable.
On a strictly musical level the Barrett’s solo works have nothing in common with the form of suites spatial (Astromy Domine, Interstellar Overdrive from The Piper, and, even more, the next A Saucerful of Secrets) that will be developed by Waters as distinctive identity of the PF. Nor can there be any signs of the even more extensive symphonic concept albums that will make the group fortune, and whose creative merit goes to the post-Barrett band.
In The Madcap Laughs we find instead the more intimate and naïve compositional vein, often acoustic, between blues and folk, which in The Piper is the protagonist only in The Gnome, whispered, and in Jugband Blues of A Saucerful (but let’s not forget that Jugband Blues had already been composed and played before The Piper was issued and, placed at the end of the second disc, as a farewell to the band, it appears of impressive foresight). We therefore lack all that collection of strange noisy sounds, today we would say “sampled”, present in the EMI archives and used in The Piper in profusion, as children would do in a toy store.
In his first album, Barrett makes the sounds himself, clearly establishing the distinction between mastering technique and crafting art. Barrett was not a virtuoso in the speed sense but he compared himself with Hendrix, on tour in Europe, in the creative research of sounds, in the unorthodox use of the instrument and, above all, in the experimentation of external processors very different from the usual “effects”, such as wah-wah and feedback. Stuff to win the attention and respect even of giant guitarist, such as Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend and Frank Zappa. Today’s young musicians must consider that what today can be done digitally, by pressing a few buttons in software, was then achieved with analog rudimentary circuits or, even worse, through the reckless manipulation of ¼” multi-track tapes, connected in loops, played backwards in the Revox and panpotted in ping-pong between the channels.
If Waters limits himself to contributing only as a producer on some songs, his friends Gilmour and the best Soft Machines intervene to help Syd in the painful realization of The Madcap.
The voice, almost always calm, hypnotizes us with its Cambridge accent, neutral, scholastic, which makes the lyrics very understandable, so much so that the songs could be used in English courses. Although not belonging to a virtuoso of the uvula and losing control of intonation (and not only that) on several occasions, the voice remains warm and soft, even in the scratchy pieces, and the typically British nasality is perceptible only in the spoken passages.
A few months after The Madcap, the next Barrett enjoys, even more than the previous one, a support that sometimes appears compassionate, in which Wright joins a multi-instrumentalist Gilmour (in the various pieces he tries his hand at bass, organ and drums), who will tell his astonished amazement, in front of the unprecedented creative interventions on the guitar made in post-production by Syd, despite a rookie by comparison.
But far from the rock standards of the time and from the glamour ridden by the ex-partners, now set to climb institutional success in the post-’68 intelligentsia (they have already published or are working the soundtracks for fashionable movies, plus the ambitious Ummagumma, the supersymphonic and learned Atom Hearth Mother), the success of Syd’s second test is even lower than the first. The 2 albums were re-released a few years later, reunited in double-record set, only to commercially exploit the boom of The Dark Side, when Syd had already retired from the scene taking refuge in Cambridge, among the loving affections of the family. After all, belonging to its other dimension entailed progressive loneliness first, then isolation, until it became a cage, a self-inflicted enclosure, silvered (golden cannot be said) by copyright, correctly guaranteed by the old partners, which allowed dignity.
The Opel anthology, from 1988, contains some unpublished and alternative tracks of the material already published in the 2 official albums. It does not add much, except to highlight the opportunistic commercial exploitation linked to the character and present the mental failure in such a morbid way that the old friends, now in trio and musically led by Gilmour, censored a couple of songs, considering them outrageous.
The Barrettian musical legacy, with and without Pink Floyd, as well as being cultivated in a nice facebook page echoed by an active facebook group, was recently celebrated and revitalized by Nick Mason who, at almost 75 years old, started the Saucerful of Secrets project. I don’t know with what energies, he took him on a world tour with event-shows based mainly on Syd’s repertoire, organizing an efficient traveling bandwagon, stopped only by the restrictions due to the pandemic.
I missed the Italian dates of 2019 but, from the videos consulted, it seems to me that Nick, everything but an old man, has shown how you can put on a great show, without blockbuster sets, without flying pigs, without crashing planes, without exploding walls. One show that, based on the new-tech interpretation of the early years light shows, celebrated the roots of a global success, that honours the comrades that fate has forced to be absent, that respects discreetly those who have followed other paths.
Before the billions and the Money– filled jet set, there was a group that experimented sounds that played with the mind. Before the crude obsessions for madness and war, understandable for Waters’ personal history but forced for his companions, there had been less committed lyrics, but capable, however, of digging furrows in the soul, in which to insinuate new, invented sounds, challenging electronics.
This 75-year-old boy, a distinguished sir passionate about racing and vintage cars, has thrashed the myriad of cover bands, official and otherwise, very talented, often deserving in their philological research, but anchored to consolidated successes, to the easy hits that, however, cannot be coherent, linked as they are to such distant and different moments in life, of the authors and their audience.
I find it of great value and courage to re-propose to a new audience the memory of the brilliant creative meteor of Syd Barrett, a quick-change artist whirling between reckless interstellar manoeuvres and home scenarios, between the quiet countryside of Cambridgeshire and chaotic and colourful London apartments, between the madness screamed with the feedback of the Stratocaster and the intimate madness, caressed with a slightly out-of-tune acoustic guitar.
We cannot deny a component of nostalgia, of everyone, performers and audience, for the uncontrolled energies of adolescence and the twenties, for the hunger for excesses and discoveries, for a world that was a little simpler, naïve and curious.
Perhaps the only thing that seemed out-of-tune in the videos I consulted is the reduction of the show to a somewhat liturgical, symphonic event, with the public rather plastered in their expensive numbered armchairs and inhibited from releasing the energy awakened in the bodies, of several generations, resonating with a music that stimulates an instinctive dance.
I notice here that everything I’ve written so far verbosely refers to musical artistic creations older than 50 years, and we are still preaching about.
Sorry if it’s cheap!
Surviving artistically for more than 50 years is not for all moderns. Apart from the evolution of Afro-American music, which spanned the whole of the 1900s, the music produced 50 years before the 60’s-70’s was already born with the mark of “classical music”.
The most modern and innovative composers could have been Stravinsky and Ravel, completely cut off from popular enjoyment, which was barely intercepted by Gershwin.
It is no coincidence that pop was invented only in the 50’s, with rock’n’roll and with the affirmation of the music industry.
Well, of all the immense “progressive rock” production between the 60′ and 70’s, the indisputable creative and technical skills of so many talents (for all, I mention only King Crimson, Genesis, EL&P, Yes) are today almost unknown to those who aren’t close to retirement age and, in any case, hardly enter the playlists, even for mothball lovers.
For heaven’s sake, beyond the PF there are many worlds to discover, but how do we want to consider the fact that the bizarre inventions of Syd Barrett, inspiration for the subsequent works of the PF, have crossed history and generations, while oblivion has wrapped up almost all those other sacred monsters of prog?
I leave with this question:
I am not a music critic, nor a sociologist.
And I wonder who is writing these words.
And what exactly is a dream?
And what exactly is a joke?
 Syd Barrett, Il diamante pazzo dei Pink Floyd – ed. Arcana – M.Watkinson, P.Anderson – ISBN 9788885859760
 Jugband Blues – di Matteo Regattin – ISBN 9788894818444
 Pink Floyd 1967-1972 Gli anni sperimentali – ISBN 9781539651093