A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett

Rob Chapman

Pink Floyd's ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ was a zeitgeist moment in the development of English pop music, the moment when pop liberated itself from its blues roots.

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.

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