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January 7, 2014 / Erik Ritland

Remembering Syd Barrett

Syd Barrett, the founder and original leader of Pink Floyd, is one of my songwriting heroes. He was the main force behind Floyd’s seminal debut album Piper at the Gates of Dawn and, despite limited involvement, had some of his most memorable guitar playing and his best song, “Jugband blues,” on their second album A Saucerful of Secrets. His two dreamy folk solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, further proved his genius and solidified his reputation.

How highly regarded he is despite his relatively small output speaks to how creative, and game-changing, his songs are. An art school dropout like many other of the best English songwriters of the period (John Lennon, Roger Waters, Pete Townshend), the fairy tales he read as a child and literature he read as he grew up imbued his beautiful, playful, dreamy lyrics.

Especially Piper at the Gates of Dawn, but also Saucerful of Secrets, are as good as psychedelic rock ever got. Barrett’s lyrics and soulful, erratic guitar playing, the instrumentation of Roger Waters, Nick Mason, and especially keyboardist Richard Wright, layers of well-placed, mind-expanding sounds, and their ability to experiment with song structures gave their music a vision that no other psychedelic rock band equaled. Highlights include hypnotic “Chapter 24” and “Pow R. Toc H.”; the whimsical “Bike,” “The Scarecrow,” and “The Gnome”; the catchy rock of “Arnold Layne,” “See Emily Play,” “Lucifer Sam,” and “Matilda Mother”; and the expansive, mind-blowing “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Astronomy Domine.”

His best Floyd song, though, is the last track on Saucerful of Secrets, “Jugband Blues.” Barrett’s mental descent, brought on by his own history of illness but exacerbated by heavy drug use, is well-documented. He could barely keep himself together by the time he retired after the release of his second solo album. His mental state is set to music and poetry in “Jugband Blues”:

It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here
And I’m most obliged to you for m-making it clear that I’m not here
And I never knew the room could be so big
And I never knew the room could be so blue
And I’m grateful that you threw away my old shoes
And brought me here instead dressed in red
And I’m wondering who could be writing this song…

A simple folk song at its core, the ominous Salvation Army band horns and wild experimental noises take it to another level completely. The lyrics are a scary, powerful intimation of Barrett’s mental state, especially its concluding lines:

The sea isn’t green
And I love the queen
And what exactly is a dream
And what exactly is a joke?

Barrett would go on to record two solo albums,syd-barrett
The Madcap Laughs and Barrett. The lyrics are similar to what he wrote later on in Floyd, strange, erratic, stream-of-consciousness poetry. Musically, though, it’s much more folk oriented. The acid rock noises and guitars of Floyd are replaced with Barrett’s plaintive acoustic strumming and a small, simple backing band. Like “Jugband Blues” his best solo song “Dark Globe” is telling of his mental state:

Oh, where are you now?
Pussy willow that smiled on this leaf
When I was alone you promised a stone from your heart
My head kissed the ground
I was half the way down
Treading the sand
Please, please lift a hand
I’m only a person
Whose armbands beat on his hands hang tall

Won’t you miss me?
Wouldn’t you miss me at all?

The poppy bird’s way
Swing twigs coffee brands around
Brandish her wand with a feathery tongue
My head kissed the ground
I was half the way down treading the sand
Please, please, please lift a hand
I’m only a person with Eskimo chain
I tattooed my brain all the way

Won’t you miss me?
Wouldn’t you miss me at all?

We do miss you, Syd. On this, what would have been his 68th birthday, we remember his invaluable addition to music.

Erik Ritland is a journalist and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. He writes frequent Daily Rambles and Ramblin’ On catalogs his writings on culture, music (including his own projects), sports, religion, and many other topics. You can reach him via email here.


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