A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett

Excerpted from A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett, Chapter 4: “Distorted View—See Through Baby Blue”. Reprinted by arrangement with Da Capo Press. Copyright © 2010 by Rob Chapman. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

‘Interstellar Overdrive’ was a zeitgeist moment in the development of English pop music, the moment when pop liberated itself from its blues roots. With an opening theme, a lengthy passage of group improvisation, a minor key variation on the theme and a conclusion that restates the introductory theme, it is closer in structure to jazz than pop, but, if anything, the interplay between Syd Barrett’s atonal abstractions and Rick Wright’s Morse stabs and eerie vibrato squalls were closer in spirit to the European avant-garde than anything else. ‘It’s a magnificent piece of contemporary music. It stands up against The Rite of Spring. I’m not being hysterical about that,’ says Anthony Stern, who was assistant director on Peter Whitehead’s Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London.

Any one of a number of R & B combos could have annihilated Pink Floyd musically during this period. Many contained an abundance of gifted and technically proficient musicians steeped in the legacy and tradition of the blues and jazz. Pink Floyd carried no such baggage. Suddenly, their lack of conventional musical skills, the very factor that had previously counted against them and had consigned them to failed auditions and occasional gigs at private functions, became a prime asset in the newly exploratory sound-world of psychedelia. ‘That sudden switch from Bo Diddley to John Cage – it’s a much more abstract style of music,’ says Anthony Stern of ‘Interstellar Overdrive’. ‘And that was really the most exciting part about Syd’s growth, ’cos I think he really was a forerunner of all kinds of stuff. That ability to capture a real rhythmic pulse in ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, having that drive which comes from rock music – you can say the one thing he kept from Bo Diddley is that relentless pulse. And then there’s the fragmentation of the melody line in the most beautiful jazzy kind of way, but you’d never say “Interstellar Overdrive” was a piece of jazz. It’s just this wonderful, hybrid thing where rock ’n’ roll just lets go of itself and lets its hair down.’

‘Interstellar Overdrive’ may have been partly inspired by ‘The New Thing’ in jazz but unlike most modern jazz pieces (or indeed the club acts of most R & B groups) it contains no solos. The band simply didn’t have the chops to venture into extra – vagant extemporisation with any degree of conviction. Indeed there are moments in Peter Whitehead’s footage, as there were many times at UFO, where Syd and Rick’s sonic voyaging simply runs out of impetus and begins to strain both credulity and patience. But ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ isn’t about proficiency and technique. Instead, what Pink Floyd do with the resources available to them is create something entirely new out of ensemble playing. Like the Velvet Underground’s ‘European Son’ or ‘Sister Ray’, ‘Inter stellar Overdrive’ functions as a kind of antimusic. Individually the members of Pink Floyd have none of the abrasive presence or musical pedigree of the Velvets, but collectively they lock into exactly the same kind of primal empathy. It was this very lack of proficiency that gave Pink Floyd’s extended pieces their unique edge. That careful counter-balancing of Syd and Rick’s abstractions, enhanced by the Binson Echorec, and underpinned by Nick and Roger’s basic and uncomplicated rhythm section brought into play a whole new dynamic previously unheard in English pop music.

Peter Jenner has always claimed that Syd Barrett’s descending opening theme to ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ was based on Jenner’s tone-deaf rendition of Love’s version of Bacharach and David’s distorted view – see through baby blue ‘My Little Red Book’, which they covered on their debut album released on Elektra in the early summer of 1966. A conflicting school of thought, one championed by Roger Waters among others, is that the theme is Syd’s pastiche of ‘Old Ned’, Ron Goodwin’s opening theme to Galton and Simpson’s Steptoe and Son, which was firmly established by 1966 as the most successful comedy show of the era. It never seems to have occurred to anyone that both theories are equally plausible, and that by working in the immediate context with the tools available at his disposal Syd, as he had done with the words ‘Pink’ and ‘Floyd’, simply forged a hybrid out of these disparate sources and created something entirely new in the process.

One thing the Whitehead footage does confirm is the extent to which Syd had absorbed and adapted the techniques he had seen used by Keith Rowe and AMM. Three minutes into ‘Nick’s Boogie’ he lays his guitar in his lap and begins to play ‘table-top’ style. ‘When the guitar is against your stomach it becomes very much an expression of what you’re about, who you are, your thoughts. It’s about you,’ says Keith Rowe. ‘When you lay the guitar on the table, there’s a kind of a distancing. It tends to reflect issues rather than express you. Environment is reflected rather than you expressing something about the environment.’

This is precisely what Syd was doing in the midst of the light shows at the Free School and UFO, acting as an ego-free conduit for musical exploration, distancing and decentring himself, reflecting as much as expressing. Early in 1967 he took a bunch of small circular polished metal discs, of the kind that were beginning to appear on girls’ belts and op-art mini dresses, and glued them to his Fender Esquire, making the instrument literally reflective (and refractive.) Throughout the Whitehead footage he can be seen constantly challenging the gestural lexicon of the rock guitar, whether by radically detuning his instrument or adopting unconventional and untutored slide techniques.

In Tune

Syd was an incredible performer,’ says Peter Brown, who saw Pink Floyd play several times during this period. ‘Miles had invited me down to Powis Square. “You’ve gotta hear this band.” I didn’t think that much of them actually, but I liked Syd. And then because I was kind of persona grata at UFO I used to go down there a lot – partly chasing girls, but partly because it was a kind of a loose community at the time, and we all had certain aims in common. Syd was incredibly charismatic, and within his limitations he could do things on guitar that were very, very interesting. Some of them were textural things and others were definitely kind of linear improvisational type things. I mean, when he was on, when he was happening, he was really happening, y’know?’

‘Just as Picasso is said to have said, “I don’t seek, I find”, I think it’s true of Syd.’

‘I have to admit that he never struck me as special as everyone now thinks he was,’ says Barry Miles. ‘But to me he was the most sympathetic one out of the Pink Floyd. He was the one that was most in tune with what was going on at the UFO club and avant-garde music in general. He was very interested in electronic music, like Luciano Berio, who was very important at that time with his recordings of speeded-up and slowed-down collages of tape. Syd was very interested in this sort of thing, which is why he was so interested in AMM. And he certainly knew a lot about art. He was fascinated by the subject. He genuinely cared about what was going on in America. He would talk about De Kooning and Rothko and all the stuff that was being shown at the Whitechapel Gallery. I was never a close friend of Syd’s, but the few conversations we had were usually on that kind of level, because we had the same art school background and the same influences.’

Syd’s fascination with the Dutch abstract expressionist Willem De Kooning reveals another line of contact. Chaim Soutine’s ‘thick squidgy excited paint’, as Robert Hughes put it, had a big influence on De Kooning, the originator of what became known as action painting, and influenced Syd further on down the line. Indeed Robert Hughes’ description of De Kooning as ‘a creature of Protean vitality who subsumes the history of art in his own person, becomes a touchstone of the culture, and so transcends all questions of originality’ echoes Andrew Rawlinson’s early assessment of Syd, and like so many comments on his influences might just as easily have been applied to Syd himself.

Co-manager Andrew King agrees that, for all his apparent spontaneity and improvisation, it was clear that Syd had thought things through conceptually. ‘Someone once said to Picasso, “I could do that in five minutes”, and Picasso replied, “Well, it took me seventy years and five minutes.” Syd’s guitar explorations were like that. They didn’t come out of nowhere.’

‘I think that’s a quote from Whistler, actually,’ says Anthony Stern. ‘I think Whistler was sued by somebody for fraud, because he’d painted in a very abstract kind of way. And someone said, “You could do that in twenty minutes.” And he replied in the same spirit, “I’ve been doing this for a lifetime. So, it’s twenty minutes plus a lifetime.” But yes, Syd definitely did put in the hours and he put in the persistence.’

Andrew Rawlinson also draws a comparison with the modus operandi of the twentieth century’s greatest artist. ‘Just as Picasso is said to have said, “I don’t seek, I find”, I think it’s true of Syd. And I think Syd is quite Picasso-like. I mean in his method of working. I’m not comparing him with Picasso, but we all know Picasso would try anything. And whatever you want to say about him as a self-promoter and making himself out to be the genius artist, which is probably all true, it’s clearly the case that he thought, “Oh, I think I’ll have a go at that. Why not?” And he did it all his life. Syd was the same. It’s just that Syd’s creative life didn’t last very long.’

In January 1967 a German film crew from Bavarian Rundfunk came to London and made a one-hour documentary entitled Die Jungen Nachtwandler (The Young Nightcrawler) directed by Edmund Wolf, who also provided the commentary. Much of the footage was shot at UFO. As with Peter Whitehead’s film, it captures the raw innovation of Pink Floyd’s music in their early days. Wolf ’s footage allows us to hear approximately four and a half minutes of an astounding live version of ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, which is immeasurably more free-form and abstract than the version that would eventually appear on the Floyd’s debut album.

Of course, as with any truly exploratory music, the Floyd’s sonic journeys could be notoriously variable in quality. By its very definition, genuine experimentation does not always have a tangible outcome. Even Coltrane had his off nights, flailing away in the outer reaches of the cosmos, and there were certainly nights at UFO when the individual components weren’t gelling and when chemically induced voyaging among audience and performers alike gave way to uninspired noodling and musical cul-de-sacs.

‘There was very little finesse in the early days,’ concedes Barry Miles. ‘Syd was never a brilliant guitar virtuoso. He was much better at exploring ideas. There were often, particularly at the UFO club where they’d play for hours, long periods where it would get really boring to be quite honest. I’m sure that sounds sacrilegious but you’d be thinking “Jesus, God, please” as Syd went up and down the keys with his bloody lighter or marbles or steel ball bearings. And Roger was barely competent on bass. Nick would be the only person who would keep it going some nights. The leapers at the front were often dancing to him because the rest would be way off the beat.’

Photo (partial) by © Caroline Julyan

Rob Chapman writes for Mojo magazine, where his obituary of Syd Barrett was published. He has also written for Uncut, The Times, Guardian, and the Independent on Sunday. He lives in Manchester.

© 2010 by Rob Chapman