Wednesday, July 7, 2010

July 7: Syd Barrett, founding member of Pink Floyd, died on this date in 2006 ...

... He was 50 years-old when he passed away.

Roger Keith Barrett was born in Cambridge, England. He is most remembered as a founding member of psychedelic/progressive rock band Pink Floyd, providing major musical and stylistic direction in their early work, although he left the group in 1968 amidst speculations of mental illness combined with heavy drug use.

Barrett was active as a rock musician for about seven years, recording two albums with Pink Floyd and two solo albums before going into self-imposed seclusion lasting more than thirty years. His post rock-band life was as an artist and a keen gardener, ending with his death in 2006. A number of biographies have been written about him since the 1980s and Pink Floyd wrote and recorded many tributes to him after he left, the most known being the 1975 album Wish You Were Here.

His father, Arthur Max Barrett, was a prominent pathologist, and both he and his wife, Winifred, encouraged the Roger in his musical pursuits. Barrett acquired the nickname "Syd" at the age of 14, a reference to an old local Cambridge jazz Double Bassist, Sid Barrett. Syd Barrett changed the spelling of his first name to Syd to differentiate himself.

His father died of cancer 1n December 1961, less than a month before Barrett's 16th birthday. In an effort to help her son recover from his grief, Barrett's mother encouraged his band, The Mottoes, to perform in their front room. Roger Waters and Barrett were childhood friends, and Waters often visited the Barrett home.

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Best of Syd Barrett: Wouldn't You Miss MeA Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett

Starting in 1964, the band that became Pink Floyd underwent various line-up and name changes including "The Abdabs," "The Screaming Abdabs," "Sigma 6," and "The Meggadeaths." In 1965, Barrett joined them and they became known as "The Tea Set." When they played a gig with a band that had the same name, Barrett made-up the name "The Pink Floyd Sound," by juxtaposing the first names of the Blues musicians Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. Eventually, they dropped Sound from their name.

While Pink Floyd began by playing cover versions of American R&B songs, by 1966 they had carved out their own style of improvised rock and roll, which drew as much from improvised jazz as it did from British pop music.

That year, a new rock concert venue, the UFO, opened in London and quickly became the go-to place for playing and listening to psychedelic music. As the "House Band," Pink Floyd was their most popular attraction, and, after making appearances at the rival Roundhouse, became the most popular musical group of the so-called "London Underground" psychedelic music scene.

By the end of 1966, Pink Floyd had agreed to be managed by Andrew King and Peter Jenner. Through Joe Boyd, the promoter of the UFO Club - and an influential figure in the British music scene - a recording session was arranged for the group in January 1967 at Sound Techniques in Chelsea, which resulted in a demo of the single "Arnold Layne."

King and Jenner took the song to EMI, who were impressed enough to offer the band a contract, and an agreement for an album. By the time the album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, was released, "Arnold Layne" had reached number 20 on the British singles charts and the follow-up single, "See Emily Play," had done even better, peaking at number 6.

Their first three singles, including "Apples and Oranges," were written by Barrett, who also was the principal visionary of their critically acclaimed 1967 debut "Piper" album. The album's title was taken from the mystical "Pan" chapter of The Wind in the Willows. Of the eleven songs on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Barrett wrote eight and co-wrote another two.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was recorded intermittently between January and July 1967 in Studio 3 at Abbey Road Studios, and produced by former Beatles engineer Norman Smith. This was during same time at Abbey Road that The Beatles were recording Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in Studio 2.

When The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was released in August of that year it became a smash hit in the UK, hitting #6 on the British album charts. However, as the band began to attract a large fan base, the mounting pressures on Barrett are thought to have contributed to his escalating psychological problems.

Through late 1967 and early 1968, Barrett's behaviour became increasingly erratic and unpredictable, partly as a consequence of his reported heavy use of psychedelic drugs, notably LSD. Many report having seen him on stage with the group, strumming on one chord through the entire concert, or not playing at all.

At a show at The Fillmore in San Francisco, during a performance of "Interstellar Overdrive," Barrett slowly detuned his guitar. The audience seemed to enjoy such antics, unaware of the rest of the band's consternation.

During their disastrous shortened tour of the U.S., where Pink Floyd was trying to make inroads, guitarist David O'List from The Nice was called in to substitute for Barrett on several occasions when he was unable to perform or failed to appear. On their return to the UK, David Gilmour - a school friend of Syd's - was asked to join the band as a second guitarist to cover for Barrett, whose erratic behaviour prevented him from performing.

For a few shows, Gilmour played and sang while Barrett wandered around on stage, only playing on rare occasions. The other members tired of Barrett's antics and, in January 1968, on the way to a show at Southampton University, the band elected not to give Barrett a ride. By then, they had decided to keep him in the group as a non-touring member, since to that point, Syd had written most of their material.

Even this arrangement quickly proved to be impractical.
According to Roger Waters, Barrett came into what was to be their last practice session with a new song he had dubbed "Have You Got It, Yet?" The song seemed simple enough when he first presented it to his bandmates, but it soon became impossibly difficult to learn and they eventually realized that Barrett kept changing the arrangement. He would then play it again, with the arbitrary changes, and sing "Have you got it yet?" Eventually they realised they never would and that they were the brunt of an "inside" Syd Barrett joke.

Barrett did not contribute material to the band after A Saucerful of Secrets was released in 1968. Of the songs he wrote for Pink Floyd after The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, only one, "Jugband Blues," made it to the band's second album. "Apples and Oranges" became a less-than-successful single, and two others, "Scream Thy Last Scream" and "Vegetable Man," were never officially released. Barrett supposedly spent time outside the recording studio, waiting to be invited in. He also showed up to a few gigs and glared at Gilmour.

On April 6, 1968, the group officially announced Barrett was no longer a member of Pink Floyd.

After leaving Pink Floyd, Barrett distanced himself from the public eye. EMI and Harvest Records convinced Syd to go solo,  and he released two solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett. Most of the compositions on both albums date from Barrett's most productive period of songwriting, late 1966 to mid-1967, and it is believed that he wrote few new songs after he left Pink Floyd.

Many artists have acknowledged Barrett's influence on their work. Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, Marc Bolan, and David Bowie were early fans; Jimmy Page, Brian Eno, and The Damned all expressed interest in working with him at some point during the 1970s. Bowie recorded a cover of "See Emily Play" on his 1973 album Pin Ups. Townshend called Barrett "legendary."

Painting by Syd Barrett
With Roger Waters in "saner" times. 

Barrett's decline had a profound effect on Roger Waters' songwriting, and the theme of mental illness would permeate Pink Floyd's later albums, particularly 1973's The Dark Side of the Moon and  Wish You Were Here two years later which was a deliberate and affectionate tribute to Barrett.  The songs "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" and the title track being specifically about him. The title track borrows imagery of a "steel rail" from Barrett's solo song, "If It's In You," from The Madcap Laughs album.

A series of events called "The City Wakes" was held in Cambridge in October 2008 to celebrate Barrett's life, art and music. Barrett's sister, Rosemary Breen, supported this, the first-ever series of official events in memory of her brother.

After the success of "The City Wakes" festival in 2008, arts charity Escape Artists announced plans to create a centre in Cambridge, using art to help people suffering from mental health problems. The charity has set up a trust to raise money for the centre and has started fundraising by auctioning a mosaic designed by Syd while he was a teenager growing up in Cambridge.


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