“Remember when you were young? You shone like the sun,” sings Roger Waters on the Pink Floyd classic “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.”
Even back in 1975 Floyd fans knew the band’s nine-part suite (comprising the bulk of the Wish You Were Here album) was written in homage to band mate, Syd Barrett, who became a recluse after years of prolonged drug abuse. Memorably, the troubled Barrett—overweight and shaved bald— was all but recognizable to his former colleagues when he paid a surprise visit to Abbey Road Studios during sessions for the album.
“Now there’s a look in your eyes like black holes in the sky.”
Now available from Eagle Rock Entertainment, The Pink Floyd & Syd Barrett Story is perhaps the definitive documentary on the band’s early days with Syd, and the iconic front man’s harrowing descent into acid-fueled madness. Originally released in 2001, the film now boasts additional bonus material and enhanced sound (Dolby Digital Stereo). Spread across two discs, the extra features—gripping interviews with Floyd’s Waters, David Gilmour, Richard Wright, and Nick Mason—plunge viewers deeper into Floyd folklore and help separate fact from fiction with respect to Syd’s tragic musical life (and bring the production to a satisfying 214-minute running time).
The movie explores Barrett’s early days as an art student in Cambridge, where he rubbed elbows with Gilmour (who’d eventually replace him in Floyd). Inspired by old-school blues rockers and the burgeoning psychedelic scene of the mid 1960’s, Barrett started jamming with London Polytechnic pupils Waters and Mason in local clubs. Their band name—The Pink Floyd—was Syd’s clever portmanteau of the names of Carolina bluesmen Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, and the group itself experimented heavily with noise under Barrett’s direction.
Producers (Basil Comely, Peter Jenner, Bo Powell) and musicians (Jerry Shirley, Robyn Hitchcock) attest to Barrett’s vision, remarking on his Telecaster-induced musical mayhem at local concerts and “freak outs.” Even former Floyd guitarist Bob Klose chimes in, recalling Syd’s use of a Zippo lighter-as-slide to produce feedback on his guitar strings. But friends and critiques alike are also quick to note the groundbreaking nature of Barrett’s acoustic songs and stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Blur’s Graham Coxon shares fond memories of absorbing Barrett’s “musique concrete,” noting how the sound effects used by early Floyd (clocks, bicycle bells, goose honks) left indelible impressions. Hitchcock—himself no slouch on guitar—reserves praise for Syd’s uninhibited verses, which frequently included vague imagery and references typically edited out by more guarded writers.
We accompany Barrett, Rogers, Wright, and company in nascent versions of The Floyd (The Abdabs, Leonard’s Lodgers) as they provide live scores for architect / landlord Mike Leonard’s tripped-out light shows and witness footage of their unwieldy-but-innovative jams at Joe Boyd’s UFO Club. Increasingly high-profile gigs at The Marquee lead to a management deal—and an eventual signing with EMI, who release the band’s debut, Piper at The Gates of Dawn.
But Barrett—whose recreational LSD use began in 1966—had become increasingly unhinged by late ‘67. Waters, Wright, and Mason report that they tolerated Syd’s erratic behavior for the most part. But the now-sexagenarian musicians stress that they were ambitious young men presented with great opportunity at the end of the Sixties: They could bear Barrett’s off-the-wall demeanor, but couldn’t afford to have an unreliable front man hamper their success. Recruiting Gilmour as go-to guitarist, Pink Floyd carried on as a five-piece for a brief time, with Syd still poised at the microphone for as long as his mood held.
When it came time to record Saucerful of Secrets, the band simply stopped picking Barrett up for rehearsals. Gilmour and Mason acknowledge the apparent cruelty of their actions but insist they’d done everything they could for their detached compatriot; initial therapy sessions didn’t pan out. Syd’s vision had grown more introspective, and his ability to be productive on a consistent basis effectively stunted by incipient insanity.
Syd’s former girlfriends / female associates (Lindsay Cormer, Jenny Spires) attest to Barrett’s loving, whimsical nature, and many of the film’s archival images depict the young musician cavorting with the ladies in meadows and on beaches. Photography Mick Rock remembers Barrett not quite being “there” even when shooting the band; slides of the rare five-man Floyd show Syd looking on from the background. Listening to the discussion of Syd’s self-imposed isolation, it’s a wonder he attended as many shows and photo sessions as he did.
Waters and Wright have not-so-fond memories of how Barrett refused to mime a song for television’s Pat Boone Show. Later, Barrett freezes up onstage with short-lived post-Floyd band The Stars, whose bass player chalks up the dates with Syd as his worst concerts ever.
The documentary provides critical review of Barrett’s two solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett. Recorded in 1970, both albums found Syd tracking with multiple producers (Peter Jenner, Malcolm Jones) at several sessions—with no small assistance from Waters and Gilmour. Looking back, Gilmour says it was impossible to get Barrett to perform anything the same way twice. If a particular recording bore some of Syd’s old magic, they’d leave it as is. If not, he and the other musicians would construct passable tunes out of Barrett’s rough demos. Hitchcock, Coxon, and others dish on favorite Syd tracks like “Octopus,” “Rats,” “Dominoes,” and “Effervescing Elephant.” Floyd tunes penned by Barrett prior to his ’68 departure are also scrutinized (“See Emily Play,” “Bike,” “Astronomy Domine”)—and we get the inside scoop on the panty-plucking pervert who inspired “Arnold Layne.”
View the trailer here for Pink Floyd & The Syd Barrett Story: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPw2AOzzwoY
Noted painted Duggie Fields reminisces on his time sharing a flat with Barrett at Wetherby Mansions in Earl’s Court; Syd painted the apartment floorboards and leisurely occupied himself with arts and crafts. By the dawn of the ‘70s, however, Barrett had quit Floyd’s London home base, walking the distance back to his family home in Cambridge. He died there in 2006.
Even if fans derive nothing new from the John Edginton-directed doc, the story remains compelling. Told by the people who knew him best, Barrett’s tale packs additional emotional heft—and it’s easy to make a case that Syd’s abrupt descent presaged those of modern musicians, such as Andy Wood (Mother Love Bone) and Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), who likewise suffered from what today would surely be more readily spotted as a “dual diagnosis.” It’s just that far less was known about mental illness in Barrett’s time, much less the specific condition (schizophrenia) triggered by Syd’s rampant use of psychedelics and hallucinogens.
The lengthy bonus interviews (particularly those with Waters and Gilmour) are stirring. Welcoming a camera crew into his home, Gilmour dishes on the halcyon days and plays “Wish You Were Here” on the same acoustic guitar used on the record. He proffers his very first instrument—a Spanish guitar acquired when he was 14—for inspection—and the Ovation employed on “Comfortably Numb.” But the atmosphere grows tense after a while, and Gilmour bristles when asked about the Waters-written Wall album.
“What’s that got to do with Syd Barrett?” retorts the vexed guitarist.
Gilmour relaxes somewhat when the interviewer diplomatically points out that the drug-addled character played by Bob Geldof in The Wall movie clearly used Barrett as a reference, limiting his synopsis to, “It lacked soul.”
Wright apparently agreed. The keyboardist (who died in 2008) cites Wish You Were Here as his favorite Floyd album—the only one he ever listened back to “for pleasure.”