Few artists have captured the imagination in such a short period of time quite like the former Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett did.
Despite only contributing to one whole album for the band and making two solo records, Barrett is still seen today as a pin-up of 60’s psychedelia, childlike whimsy, and a creative talent that burnt so brightly it was practically blinding.
However, he is also seen as one of the first rock and roll tragedies of an era that was littered with them. Yet while the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison died and became immortalised, Barrett lived but slipped into a reclusive anonymity. This only seems to have heightened his appeal over time though. 46 years on from when he released his self-titled second solo album (on 13th November 1970), we take a look back at what would essentially be his final studio creation…
During the middle of 1967, Pink Floyd had embarked on their first American tour. The mood should have been jubilant after a few underground hits back home and a chance for exposure stateside presented itself. However, the mood was anything but that. The band were struggling as a whole and the heavy schedule, coupled with a propensity for drug use, saw Barrett’s grip on reality slowly slipping.
He appeared onstage with his guitar some nights, others not. But when he did have it in his hands the situation wasn’t necessarily better, as he proceeded to play it woefully out of tune. A disastrous appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand witnessed Barrett refusing to lip sync his performance, while a slot on Beach Party– an American hit program at the time- was scrapped altogether.
Upon returning to England, David Gilmour was drafted in as a fifth member. He was there to enable the band to get through their gigs, in the face of Barrett’s increasing unreliability. But it became apparent as the months ticked by that he would actually replace Barrett. The former frontman went on to contribute a few things to A Saucerful of Secrets, the most noticeable being ‘Jugband Blues’ which displayed exactly where he was at mentally at that time.
But just as Pink Floyd were beginning to gain momentum, their initial leader was gone. Barrett escaped from the limelight and embarked on a life away from the pressures of stardom. His drug use continued though and tales of his exhaustive experiences with LSD soon became folklore.
Eventually, Barrett did begin working on his debut solo album. The Madcap Laughs, as it would be named, was punctuated by a rotating cast of producers, a spell in a psychiatric ward for Barrett, and a number of incredible songs.
Towards the end of the sessions, Gilmour and Roger Waters entered into proceedings and helped their former bandmate complete a few final tracks that he had been struggling to commit to tape. Released in January 1970, the album received positive initial reviews. And in February, Barrett helmed a live session for John Peel’s Top Gear program in order to promote it. Just one song from the album- ‘Terrapin’- was played though.
Instead, Barrett chose to play a number of unheard songs, which included ‘Baby Lemonade’ and ‘Gigolo Aunt’. Notoriously impatient, it seemed the musician had already grown tired of his debut material after its long gestation period. And he now had set his focus on other songs. After a number of aborted sessions in 1968 though, it was anything but a certainty that he would actually venture back into the studio and record them.
Those previous sessions were done with songs which Barrett had brought to Pink Floyd first. On his second album there was little material left over that he actually wanted to continue to work on. ‘Effervescing Elephant’, the closing track, was actually written by a 16 year old Barrett, but apart from that many of the songs were generated inside the studio.
On board once again as a producer and player, Gilmour explained what it was like working with Barrett;
“We had basically three alternatives for working with Syd. One, we could actually work with him in the studio, playing along as he put down his tracks. This was almost impossible, though we succeeded on ‘Gigolo Aunt’. The second was laying down some kind of track before and then having him play over it. The third was him putting his basic ideas down with just guitar and vocals. Then we’d try and make something out of it all. It was mostly a case of me saying ‘Well what have you got then Syd?’ And he’d search around and eventually work something out.”
The sessions proved at times to be incredibly frustrating for all involved. But there was still undoubtable magic left in the songs which Barrett came up with. His condition had continued to decline since his departure from the band. But, with help from Gilmour, fellow Pink Floyd member Richard Wright and Humble Pie’s drummer Jerry Shirley, the album took a noticeably fuller sounding form than its predecessor.
Surprisingly, Barrett had returned to the Abbey Road studios just a few days after his appearance on John Peel’s show, eager to record his new songs. Whereas his debut had been glued together after endless takes and sessions over a year, his second was different. The four men in the studio combined to create an album from numerous flurries of activity and creativity, while a few month-long breaks in between padded out the process slightly.
“You never knew from one day to the next exactly how it would go,” Shirley said of the experience. Meanwhile biographer, Tim Willis, delved into a little more detail with it. “Barrett was all over the place. He’d forget to bring his guitar to sessions. And sometimes he couldn’t even hold his plectrum. He was in a state.”
Despite disintegrating mentally throughout the process, Barrett’s ability to convey his emotions remained amazingly proficient. His keen sense of wordplay as sharp and as full of detail as ever.
“So equally over a valley, a hill, Wood on quarry stood, each of us crying, A velvet curtain of gray, Mark the blanket where the sparrows play, And the trees by the waving corn stranded, My legs move the last empty inches to you,” he sang solemnly on ‘It is Obvious’.
“Even though he was clearly out of control when he was making his two solo albums, some of the work is staggeringly evocative,” Waters noted. “It’s the humanity of it all that’s so impressive. It’s about deeply felt values and beliefs.”
Pink Floyd’s debut, The Piper At the Gates of Dawn, was the first material which Barrett had written as a musician. “In short, it is a happy explosion of creative potential,” Sean Murphy wrote for Pop Matters about it. “It’s more light than dark, more ebullient than enigmatic.”
However, just three years later these binaries had switched and, despite his still whimsical wordplay, both Barrett’s solo albums were drenched in the sweaty bleakness of uncertainty and isolation.
The plodding ‘Dominoes’ is perhaps the greatest example of this on his second album. While on ‘I Never Lied To You’ he sounds completely lost and confused as his life seems to be spinning away from him as he tries to comprehend it all.
“To be with you, to be alone…I can only think, ‘Why I am here? What’s meant to be?’”
Barrett was released just over ten months after his debut, with the short turn around delighting the singer. It was punctuated by Pink Floyd’s touring commitments and the making of their new album Atom Heart Mother, but the sessions were still all wrapped up within six months. For whatever reason though it didn’t generate the same kind of interest that his debut had and failed to even chart.
His two solo albums acted as sketches of the human psyche as it was consumed by an overwhelming cocktail of emotions. They vividly captured a singer right on the cusp of his creative tether. In the years after there were numerous attempts at recording more songs and albums, but nothing ever eventuated.
In 1974, his two solo efforts were warmly received after they were released in America as a double album. From this newfound interest, his manager Peter Jenner managed to wrangle some recording time for his client. Unfortunately, it would prove to be the final time Barrett stepped into a studio as a recording artist.
“Every day if he walked out of the studio and turned left he would come back again. And if he turned right he would disappear,” the producer for the sessions John Leckie remembered. “One day he left and turned right, and that was the last we ever saw of him.”