The Walmart in my hometown used to stock a DVD called Syd Barrett’s First Trip. It must have been on the shelves sometime around 2002-2004, because I must have been somewhere in the vicinity of 12 to 14 years old at the time. I know this because I hadn’t heard any of Barrett’s music yet, but I had heard Wish You Were Here, so I basically knew the story. One version of it, anyway.
It seems clear now that this DVD was in fact a pirated product. The rights to the film contained on it had been purchased by Barrett’s friend (and replacement in Pink Floyd) David Gilmour in the ’90s, with the noble intention of preventing its distribution. His reasons are obvious: for a modern audience with foreknowledge of the tragedy that came after, there is only one reason to want to watch Syd Barrett’s first drug experience, and that is to gawk at the first moments of a slippery slope. (Never mind that the film does not in fact show Barrett’s first LSD trip; he was dozens of trips into his love affair with psychotropics at the time when the footage was shot. The inaccurate title appears to have been the invention of yet another purveyor of morbid voyeuristic thrills, more on whom shortly.)
In retrospect, the DVD’s cover alone ought to have been a dead giveaway of its seedy provenance. It looked like your uncle could have done it: blood red text in a dodgy font over a photograph with a deliberately (?) skewed aspect ratio. The photograph shows a despondent-looking Syd Barrett kneeling shirtless on the floor, staring up into the camera through eyes darkened by shadow and smeared mascara. 12- to 14-year-old me could easily identify this figure with the tragic hero of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” This was the photographic embodiment of Roger Waters’ lyric about “a look in your eye like black holes in the sky.”
But even that fails to quite get at the largest manipulation at play in this pirated package. From the look of it, and with a small bit of background knowledge about Barrett’s seemingly drug-induced decline into acute mental illness, you might expect that the image you see on the front of the case would be a still taken from the film within it. It is not. The orange and black paint on the floor indicates that the photo must come from around the time (and perhaps the same photoshoot) as the album cover for The Madcap Laughs, Barrett’s 1970 solo debut, released after his expulsion from Pink Floyd in a period of intense personal distress. The film itself was made in more innocent times: 1966, before Pink Floyd had recorded any music at all. And if a still from the film had been used to promote the DVD, all promise of depravity and derangement would have evaporated into a thin mist of tasteful pointlessness.
I’ll refrain from linking to it, but the video can usually be found online. It was directed by Barrett’s friend, Nigel Lesmoir-Gordon, who later described the film as having “a certain nostalgic charm.” It shows a young, clean-cut Barrett, with his trademark perm still some time in the future, tripping on LSD in the Gog Magog hills. Barrett meanders about. He lies in the grass. He places mushrooms over his eyes (normal field mushrooms — entirely un-psychedelic). He looks completely unlike the tormented poet on the cover shot, and by all accounts they were in fact two very different Syds. This is innocuous home video footage: by friends, for friends.
But in the late ’70s, at which point Barrett was living in seclusion, Lesmoir-Gordon began showing the film publicly under its most recognized title: Syd Barrett’s First Trip. We can speculate about his motives, but the fact that he only publicized the footage once Barrett had acquired a cult following as much for his tragic myth as for his music says something, if not everything. And the fans who gathered to gawk started a chain reaction that led directly to Gilmour’s acquisition of the rights in an attempt to scatter the rubberneckers, and eventually to the pirated DVD’s arrival in Walmart’s movie racks, packaged in a lie.
But whether they knew it or not, when they chose that picture of Barrett for the cover; when they stuck with Lesmoir-Gordon’s inaccurate, sensationalist title; the pirates completed the narrative that the film they were hawking only told in part. The story of Syd Barrett is all present, here. The fey, arty innocent of the pre-fame days is represented in the film. The ailing burnout from scant years after is there on the cover. It’s two frames of the fall from grace: the forbidden fruit and the Land of Nod.
If there’s an album that dramatises Barrett’s fall as effectively as this, it isn’t Wish You Were Here. It isn’t even The Madcap Laughs. It’s the quintessential “difficult second album”: A Saucerful of Secrets, on which Barrett’s tragedy is most acutely expressed through his absence.
Let’s double back. We’ve already seen how EMI staffers managed to coral Pink Floyd into focusing more on songs than formless improvisations when they were in the recording studio. But what were those songs were actually like? More to the point: what kind of songwriter was Syd Barrett, and what did Pink Floyd lose when they lost him?
Perhaps what’s most astonishing about Barrett is how immediately he announced himself as unconventional. The single “Arnold Layne,” Pink Floyd’s very first utterance on record, is a pop song so flawlessly clothed in the aesthetic of its time that it’s easy to miss the fact that it breaks a lot of rules that nobody else was breaking. Psychedelia is rightly credited with expanding the sonic palette of rock music, but even the artists most devoted to that mission tended to leave other elements of the music in its usual state of simplicity. Since the Beatles have emerged as a ready-made inverse of early Pink Floyd, let’s go with one of their most sonically adventurous tracks as a counterexample:
| When I wake up early in the | mor-ning // | Lift my head / | I’m still yawning |
| When I’m in the middle of a | dream /// | Stay in bed / | Float upstream… |
The structural simplicity of “I’m Only Sleeping” is by no means typical of the Beatles, but it does a pretty good job of demonstrating how a rock song generally works: four-measure phrases in 4/4 time (note the four bolded syllables in each line quoted above). This is the default. It’s what feels most natural. And it’s hardly limited to rock: virtually all Western music defaults to this pattern. Now, let’s look at “Arnold Layne”:
| !/ Arnold La- | -ane /// | !/ had a str- | -ange /// | hob-by /// | !/// |
| !/ Collecting | clothes /// | Moon-shine | wash-ing li- | -ine /// | !/ They suit him fine |
I’ve marked the stresses here with bolded syllables and exclamation points. Notice that in this example, there are six measures per phrase. This is Barrett’s first public statement, and he has already abandoned a fundamental tenet of pop music. It would only get weirder from here:
|Lime and limpid green, a second sc- | -ene, a fight between the blue you |
once knew /// |
| Float-ing down, the sound resounds a- | -round the icy waters under- | -ground /// | !/// |
“Astronomy Domine”: track one on the first LP. And now we’ve got phrases of different lengths within the same verse: three measures, followed by four. (The next two phrases are three measures and two measures, respectively. So that complicates things even further.)
Phrase lengths are obviously only one small element of a song’s construction. But Barrett’s take on harmony and melody can be equally complex and unconventional. This is either the work of a restless innovator, or a naïf with more intuition than knowledge. I’m inclined to go with the latter. I imagine the idea that an artist could produce songs that are more complex than average by exercising less discipline may seem counterintuitive, but hear me out. (There is a certain amount of speculation involved in my conclusion, but that’s par for the course where Syd Barrett is concerned.)
Barrett’s biographers portray him as being temperamentally different from his Pink Floyd bandmates in one crucial way: he never wanted to be a rock star. Roger Waters, for his part, made his dreams of fame and fortune entirely clear in early interviews. On the other hand, to hear some of Barrett’s art school friends tell the story, he would have just as soon been an obscure painter. He used to give away his best pieces.
In keeping with this, it wouldn’t surprise me if Barrett’s songs didn’t strike him as unorthodox at all, but rather tossed-off with no effort expended towards making them conform to normal standards. In other words, his songs are not meticulously constructed with the goal of subverting convention or accruing complexity: they just turn out like this. Barrett had enough intuition that he probably never needed to obsess over records the way that many aspiring pop musicians do. Thus his songwriting is defined by absences: the absence of imitation, and the absence of conventional structure. “Arnold Layne,” “Astronomy Domine,” “Bike,” and “See Emily Play” are the masterpieces of an artist who never intellectualised his process.
It’s worth noting that by the time Barrett recorded The Madcap Laughs his sense of rhythm and phrasing (which, as we’ve already seen, was odd at the best of times) had become so unpredictable that even Soft Machine, the most sophisticated jazz fusion band in England, had trouble playing along to his solo tracks. You could easily ascribe this to his declining mental state, and you’d probably be mostly right. But in the absence of early demos, we can’t say for sure that the songs on Piper didn’t sound like that as well, before Pink Floyd had the chance to rehearse and hone them into something that they could keep track of. After all, it was the other three who were the professionals.
Lest it sound like I’m being derisive: if I’m correct in my hypotheses about Barrett’s songwriting methods, then he was a songwriter of nearly unprecedented intuition — and far more of a miraculous anomaly than if he were the calculating genius he’d have to have been if I’m wrong.
And so we arrive, finally, at A Saucerful of Secrets. We’ve already said that this album expresses the tragedy of Syd Barrett through his absence. And we’ve said that Syd Barrett’s songwriting is defined by certain absences as well. Solve for x, and you find that Saucerful is notable for the presence of the conventional song structures that Barrett so frequently avoided:
| Lit-tle by little, the | night turns around / | !/// | !/// |
| Count-ing the leaves, which / | trem-ble at dawn / | !/// | !/// |
Even the album’s relatively freeform title track, Saucerful‘s analogue to “Interstellar Overdrive,” was based on a sort of graphical score dreamed up by Waters and Mason — the sort of thing you might expect from an avant-garde composer like John Cage or Cornelius Cardew.
When you listen critically to the songs on Saucerful that aren’t credited to Barrett (all of them but “Jugband Blues,” in a total inversion of the credits on Piper), they sound far less desperate than you might expect from a band who just lost its leading light. (Cf. the Velvet Underground, post-Lou Reed.) Rather, they just sound more considered than Barrett’s songs did — less instinctual. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn showed us a band who was relishing the act of simply being Pink Floyd. A Saucerful of Secrets shows us a band that’s actively engaged in the labour of continuing to be Pink Floyd.
And then it ends with “Jugband Blues,” maybe the saddest song ever written. In his final moments on a Pink Floyd record, the rapidly deteriorating Syd Barrett takes advantage of a rare moment of lucidity to tell us exactly how it feels inside his brain. It is, not coincidentally, his most structurally capricious song of all.
A Saucerful of Secrets sounds like phase one of the heat death of psychedelia. It sounds like what happens between Syd Barrett’s First Trip and the cover shot of Syd Barrett’s First Trip. It also marks the start of one of the longest and most fascinating transitional periods in any rock discography. Pink Floyd’s music from 1968 to 1973 is far more than just the long march to The Dark Side of the Moon, but in retrospect it seems astonishing how long they persevered before all the pieces fell back into place. The members of Pink Floyd were rock’s ultimate strivers.
Soon enough, that would become the norm.