The real Syd Barrett – by the people who knew him (2024)

By Kris Needs

( Prog )

last updated

Ten years on from his death, the magic and mystery of Syd Barrett as the architect of Pink Floyd endures – and a larger canvas emerges of a confident, multi-talented originator...

The real Syd Barrett – by the people who knew him (1)

Using the broadest brush strokes, Pink Floyd became the UK’s first major psychedelic band thanks to their visionary leader Syd Barrett, then the world’s biggest prog rock band after they cut him loose in early 1968. But, like the tragic spaceman in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barrett had been cut adrift to float in his private inner world until he died, leaving one of rock’s most mysteriously evocative legends.

Devastated by the LSD consumption indulged by many with joyful abandon but which proved excessive to his own constitution, Syd was an artistic genius, gifted in so many mays he couldn’t separate one from another in his beleaguered, swirling brain. By the time he chose his first love of painting over music, it was too late.

Growing up in Cambridge’s rich cultural history with like-minded artists and future collaborators such as Storm Thorgerson, Roger Waters and David Gilmour, Syd was an ebullient teenager, inspired by jazz, R&B, the Rolling Stones and The Goon Show. While the city’s panoramic skies or idyllic hills inspired his painting, Syd also relished the fact that Romantic poet Byron was a Cambridge legend. David Bowie once called Syd “a poet in a rock band”, and songs like Chapter 24 and The Scarecrow encapsulated his lyrical world of child-like wonder derived from classic literature.

The real Syd Barrett – by the people who knew him (2)

“He was able to access a time we all wanted to go back to: the magic garden and innocence,” says Jenny Fabian, who danced to the Floyd at UFO, met Syd in his later twilight zone phase and described him in her seminal novel Groupie. “You felt there was somebody there who understood innocence but couldn’t be innocent in the world, because you can’t,” she says now. “He told us that’s where we wanted to be.”

In December 1964, 18-year-old Syd met 15-year-old Jenny Spires at Cambridge’s Union Cellar. Jenny has tried to keep her privacy and stayed away from books she dismisses as “lop-sided”, TV docs and interviews; until now. “He came up and introduced himself,” she recalls. “Unbeknown to me he had sketched a picture of me standing at the bar. He said, ‘Hi I’m Roger, I’ve got my own band, we’ve just done some recording and are changing our name to Pink Floyd’.”

Jenny became Syd’s girlfriend (and “Jennifer Gentle” in Lucifer Sam). “We listened to blues, Dylan, the Kinks and Animals. People always say he was into The Beatles but he was more into the Stones. We listened to some jazz; Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, and things like Dave Van Ronk, Jesse Fuller and Bo Diddley. His musical tastes were very eclectic.” She remembers Syd as “very together, always confident, always with some project on the go, some painting or song idea. Syd would always be writing songs in a notebook, which he’d tell me were written for or about me, like Bike. He was very loving and wrote me letters all the time. His main thing was always painting. He’d write and tell me what paintings he was doing. He played at my 16th birthday party in summer 1965.”

One of Syd’s letters recounted how the band had sacked singer Chris Dennis and he was taking over vocals. “When they all got their grant money, he wrote to say they’d been in the West End and bought £235 worth of gear. ‘Imagine my voice through all this money!’ He didn’t think he could sing. He was happy playing rhythm guitar. Then he wrote and said Bob Klose’s parents had said he had to leave the band because he wasn’t doing enough college work, so Syd took over lead guitar too.”

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Pioneering British poet Michael Horovitz, who co-organised 1965’s landmark Wholly Communion event at the Royal Albert Hall, and was part of the committee which started the Notting Hill Carnival, recalls encountering the earliest Pink Floyd. “This band of youngsters would play at our weekly gigs. They gradually got better. They seemed to grow up at All Saints Hall and were great to dance to. They liked seeing the audience dancing, and they would improvise a lot. Syd’s early songs (starts singing) ‘I’m alone, on my own, I get stoned’ were plaintive. They seemed an interesting variation on old blues, highly original.”

Syd started approaching his guitar like a canvas, as displayed on Interstellar Overdrive, one of the live improvisations the Floyd played as house band at UFO, the London counterculture’s seminal Tottenham Court Road space disco. “Syd could really improvise,” says poet Pete Brown (who would soon write lyrics for Cream). “He had a real imagination and could instinctively come up with lots of ideas. The Floyd rhythm section was kind of stodgy but they could get in a groove. It’s what Syd did on top that really counted. Whenever he was in control then it was happening.”

The real Syd Barrett – by the people who knew him (3)

Jenny Fabian was there too; “I thought they were incredible. Interstellar Overdrive seemed like Ravel’s Bolero in reverse. That regular beat meant that we could all flounce around in our kaftans. Of course Syd was very attractive! The doomed poet. There were not that many people but it suddenly felt like something was happening that you were gonna be part of. It was like an awakening. I have to say the acid did help. That’s why the people who watched them became possessive and they became our underground group. Syd’s lyrics could be cosmic or like fairyland; a weird mixture which was exactly what 1967 was all about. He captured the times.”

Syd was inspired by London free music ensemble AMM and their guitarist Keith Rowe. The two bands played Spontaneous Underground events at the Marquee between January and March 1966, and at UFO from December 1966. Syd would watch Rowe from the side of the stage, copying his techniques of rolling ball bearings along the strings and visiting the studio when Floyd manager Peter Jenner co-produced AMM’s first album, AMMMusic, released on Elektra in 1967. The first 30 seconds of Floyd’s Flaming are supposed to imitate AMM, its title derived from their Later During A Flaming Riviera Sunset.

The real Syd Barrett – by the people who knew him (4)

Filmmaker Peter Whitehead, who made the Wholly Communion movie, met Syd in Cambridge in the early 60s when he was on a painting course and the Floyd rehearsed at the house where he was staying. After Jenny Spires moved to the Earlham Street house in Covent Garden where Syd was living, she met Whitehead at King’s Road boutique Granny Takes A Trip, where she was modelling. She suggested Syd’s band would be perfect for the film he was making called Tonite Let’s All Make Love In London. A visit to UFO persuaded him to use Interstellar Overdrive. Whitehead’s footage of the band’s first time in a proper studio has graced every Floyd documentary since.

When it came time to record, Syd reached into his notebook of lyrics, mainly written during a bout of fevered activity in 1966. Spires remembers an excited Syd calling her that Christmas, bursting to play her a new song called Arnold Layne. She was stunned.

“You always hear it was an anecdotal thing about this guy nicking underwear,” says Spires. “That’s part of it but, it was also a protest song about decriminalising hom*osexuality.”

The song influenced Pete Brown to change his singing style. “It was a tremendous breakthrough when Syd wrote things like Arnold Layne and See Emily Play. I suddenly saw that I didn’t have to be transatlantic. I could explore Britain’s strangeness as well as being driven by the blues. Arnold Layne encapsulates the whole British thing of eccentricity and perversion. It’s one of the great songs for me. When Syd had his brain he used it incredibly well.”

Next, See Emily Play appeared as the perfect marriage of Floyd’s psych sound and Barrett’s lyrical genius. It has been assumed that it was inspired by politician’s daughter Emily Young, but Jenny Spires says this was not the case; “Syd loved the name Emily, quite unusual then, and used to say, ‘If I ever have a daughter I want to call her Emily’. ‘Emily’ was Syd’s Alice.”

The real Syd Barrett – by the people who knew him (5)

Around this time, those close to Syd noticed a change, illustrated by his refusal to appear on Top Of The Pops. “When I saw him at the Technicolor Dream at Alexandra Palace he looked vacant,” says Spires. “He had glandular fever for a second time in 1965. He was still quite worn out when they signed with EMI and had to go up and down the country doing gigs. It was exhausting for them all but, not only did Syd have to play, he had to write songs and be the frontman, too. He basically didn’t want to be a pop star. After the American tour, he was finished. I saw him when he got back from the States and he had to go on the Hendrix tour. He looked terrible.”

Floyd famously elected not to pick him up one day, and already had Gilmour in the band. While Floyd commenced their rise to fame, Syd faltered through his last solo flight, leaving two albums before retiring. To his credit, Gilmour, who made sure Syd got his royalties, helmed The Madcap Laughs and Barrett. “Syd was really thrilled he was going to record,” recalls Spires. “He didn’t write any more but knew he had books of songs he hadn’t used. People seem to think he wrote songs then, but he didn’t – he already had them. I know because I’d heard most of them. People say they can chart his state of mind through his songs at this time, but you can’t because most of the songs were already written.”

“For me he was very gentle, very innocent, but having a terrible struggle,” recalls Jenny Fabian of the day she visited him at the Wetherby Mansions flat where The Madcap Laughs cover was shot. “He was so far removed it was like he wasn’t there. He was outside himself, which is what happens when you’re on acid. You’re on the ceiling looking down on yourself.”

In 1972, when Syd said he would like to play again, he started jamming with Spires’ then-husband Jack Monck and drummer friend Twink. “They only intended to do some low-key shows and played a local coffee bar a couple of times as Stars, before playing a brilliant outdoor gig at the Market Square in Cambridge. Then they supported the MC5 and Hawkwind at the Corn Exchange, but Syd couldn’t really face those large crowds. It seemed to throw him back to somewhere he didn’t want to be, so he just walked away from it.”

The real Syd Barrett – by the people who knew him (6)

In 1979, Syd returned to Cambridge for good. “Occasionally I’d bump into him in Sainsbury’s or in town, or see him in B&Q buying wood,” says Spires. “He’d actually reached a stage where he was quite content with what he was doing in his life. He’d always say he was painting, because he was a painter. I think he saw the music as a kind of blip on his life. He had created all those songs, then Floyd had gone off and done an extension of what he was doing that he wasn’t interested in.”

Before Storm Thorgerson died in 2013, Spires had been working with him on a film about Syd, which is being edited, provisionally titled Have You Got It Yet?.

“Pink Floyd became the most famous band in the world after they dumped Syd,” says Storm’s friend and colleague Helen Donlon. “They were very ambitious but, because of their guilt, dragged him around like a ghost. Wish You Were Here was one album hugely inspired by Syd. Aubrey Powell who, with Storm, designed its cover, told me the album is really all about absence, Syd’s absence, and that’s what makes it so powerful. But the irony is that when they were recording the track on the album Roger specifically wrote for Syd, Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Barrett, as we all know, turned up at the studio, allegedly unrecognised by the band at first. But in a sense, Syd never really left. Whereas when Brian Jones left the Stones, they erased him then moved on, Syd became a spectral fifth member of the Floyd. He’s also become the most famous poster boy for the counterculture because he was so intelligent, inspiring and inspired but also doomed. He is the Icarus of the 1960s and his fall was leapt upon by the moral majority, ‘drugs are bad!’, etc, so he also became a poster boy for the wrong reasons.”

“Poor Syd,” concludes Jenny Fabian. “He might have been able to retreat and go on creating, but I don’t think the creativity was still there. We don’t know what destroyed that, whether it was the drugs or that something was stopping him creating because he didn’t want to join the circus.”

“He could see what he was doing musically in an artistic way because he came from an arts background,” says Pete Brown, who recalls talking with Gilmour once about him writing some lyrics for Floyd. “That’s why he had such a problem with the commercial side of the music business. Had he gone on a different route, he could have ended up being John McLaughlin. He wrote some great songs that had a huge influence on all sorts of different people. It was his writing and performance that made Pink Floyd successful in the first place. If he hadn’t been the cornerstone of the band in those early days, people would never have looked at them.”

Many thanks to Jenny Spires and Helen Donlon for their invaluable input. The Syd Barrett book is available from Essential Works. See

The real Syd Barrett – by the people who knew him (7)

Kris Needs

Kris Needs is a British journalist and author, known for writings on music from the 1970s onwards. Previously secretary of the Mott The Hoople fan club, he became editor of ZigZag in 1977 and has written biographies of stars including Primal Scream, Joe Strummer and Keith Richards. He's also written for MOJO, Record Collector, Classic Rock, Prog, Electronic Sound, Vive Le Rock and Shindig!

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