A blog about Bloomsbury Academic's 33 1/3 series, our other books about music, and the world of sound in general.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Syd Barrett, 1946-2006

This is the start of John Cavanagh's book about The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

***

"That light you can see has taken 36 years to reach Earth," my brother told me as we looked towards Arcturus on a hot July night in 1975. I focused on the star and became mesmerized with the idea that the trajectory of this orangey-yellow glow across space had begun so long ago, or so it seemed to me as a ten-year-old.

Back inside our post-War end terrace house on the outskirts of Scotland’s biggest city, Glasgow, I heard something on the radio that night which seemed as remote and otherworldly as Arcturus. To those who have grown up in the era of the CD and the easy availability of just about any sort of music from the back catalogue, I should explain something about 1975. As the glitter of glam rock became faded grandeur, 1975 was surely the year of the sharpest division between buyers of singles and buyers of albums. Novelty records, country dirges and weak imitations of reggae music filled the Top Forty and if anyone put out an exciting single (and the likes of Be Bop Deluxe and Brian Eno tried), then the chance of it getting anywhere was approximately nil. Many "albums bands" didn’t even bother to issue singles at all. I mean bands like Led Zeppelin and, of course, Pink Floyd. I already loved the Floyd’s Meddle, one of the first half dozen LPs I owned, but the thing I heard that night took me somewhere else entirely. Unlike anything I’d heard before, it was called "Astronomy Domine."

It was an event, a discovery. One moment I was looking at distant constellations, the next I was hearing a voice, like the sound of Apollo astronauts hailing the president from the moon, but more remote; a chugging incessant guitar; massive drums; a jagged bass riff and a song which name-checked planets and satellites, seemed to sweep the higher reaches of the infinite, then cascaded downwards towards "the icy waters underground."

This was Pink Floyd? It didn’t sound anything like Dark Side of the Moon, that was for sure. Then the DJ explained that this was from their first album, that Syd Barrett had fronted the band in those days and that he now lived in a cellar in Cambridge.

With my vivid imagination, I was off and running. He wasn’t out in L.A. making dull AOR music and he wasn’t a dead rock star, like Jimi Hendrix. He’d named this first Floyd album after a chapter in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (a favourite of mine!) and now he lived in an underground lair. Was he rock's answer to Mr. Badger, who lived right in the heart of the woods and preferred to see others before he was seen? This Syd Barrett was clearly unique and someone I wanted to know more about. The next day, I looked at the rack of Floyd LPs in Listen Records (the sort of shop where a picture of Zappa appeared on their carrier bags under the slogan frankly cheaper!) and found The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. It was full price and I noticed that the more affordable Relics compilation album had "See Emily Play" on it. That would do to start.

Relics, "a bizarre collection of antiques and curios," boasted a couple of amazing tracks from Pink Floyd’s debut album: "Interstellar Overdrive" and "Bike." Once I got into those, I had further incentive to own a copy of Piper. I’m quite sure that these sounds would have impacted on my world whenever I found them, but there was something about the arid musical landscape of the mid-70s which made them even more poignant. Piper has served as a form of musical escapism for many people across time, and an escape from 1975 was most welcome to me.

In time I learned more about Syd Barrett and realised that his journey back to a life in Cambridge had been a harrowing one. The stories of Syd’s difficult latter days with Pink Floyd, his lifestyle and his solo albums have been told and retold, sometimes with due regard for accuracy and sympathy for the subject and, sadly, on other occasions where the urge to print a spicy story overrides any other consideration. I am not a journalist.

This fact was helpful when approaching those who had been stitched up by hungry hacks many times before, people like Duggie Fields, who still lives in a flat he once shared with Syd — his workspace as an artist is the room which features on the sleeve of The Madcap Laughs. Over thirty years after Barrett left that address, Duggie still finds unexpected callers on his doorstep, people who are searching for . . . what? A rock ’n’ roll myth or a man called Roger Barrett who has had nothing to do with the music industry for many years?

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a wondrous creation often seen through the distorted view of later events. These things have served to overshadow the achievement of the Pink Floyd on their debut album; an outstanding group performance; a milestone in record production; and something made in much happier circumstances than I had expected to find.

When I was, let’s say, fourteen, I imagined myself going to Cambridge, meeting Mr. Barrett and becoming his friend. Of course, like many fans who had similar notions, I never did and wouldn’t entertain the idea of disturbing him now . . . I’ll leave that sort of crassness to the journalists who still bang on his door and snoop a photograph of him at the local shops or a view through his front window.

This is not another book about "mad Syd." This, instead, is a celebration of a moment when everything seemed possible, when creative worlds and forces converged, when an album spoke with an entirely new voice. "Such music I never dreamed of," as Rat said to Mole.

3 comments:

automator said...

very few records ever made me feel the way Piper made me feel. That first listen, sprawled out on a couch, listing in and out of consciousness, until finally "Bike" blasted out ...

This is the one 33 1/3 that I need.

Il_Duce said...

Piper and all of the Syd Barret works are amazing! It is baffling how few people even know who he is.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your stance re: snarknosed journalists intruding on the retired Syd's privacy, the endless might-be-true stories of drugs, freakouts etc. A pox on them.
I prefer to think of Syd before 1968, when he was still incandescent with youth, creativity, laughter .