12 January 1968. Pink Floyd took to the stage as a five piece band for the first time, at Birmingham’s Aston University. Pink Floyd may have had a top ten charting single but not all was going well. Their main creative force, Syd Barrett, all rock-star-looks and the embodiment of a sixties hipster – which meant shaggy hair, black corduroy jacket and paisley shirt rather than the 2015 hipster uniform of beard, skinny jeans and a plate of pulled pork – appeared to be unravelling, not helped by his prodigious use of LSD. You’d be surprised how few doctors prescribe vast quantities of hallucinogenics to help patients with fragile mental health.
A new recruit, David Gilmour, had been recruited to help out alongside Syd.
A U.S. tour and subsequent support slot for Jimi Hendrix at The Royal Albert Hall showed the progress Floyd were making, but the band were left frazzled by Barrett’s behaviour.
Syd had never been overly reliable, going back to when the band had been booked to play Top of the Pops with single “See Emily Play”.
For most bands, a Top of the Pops appearance is one of those moments you dream of, like scoring the winning goal in the cup final, or, if you are a parent of young children, having five minutes to sit down and read the paper uninterrupted.
He was hugely reluctant to go on, and was so out of it for one show he couldn’t stand up (they sat him on a cushion) and had to be dragged to the studio by the band. He refused a third appearance, and when Floyd was booked for the Saturday Club radio show, he simply walked out before it was the band’s turn to go on.
Back in Birmingham in 1968, fresh faced, good looking new boy Dave Gilmour, drafted in to shore up Barrett’s erratic playing, was not entirely comfortable. Barrett was not in mid season form. Indeed, he seemed somewhat perturbed by Gilmour’s presence onstage.
Barrett stood so close to Gilmour as to be just an inch from his face.
Gilmour’s eyes cried out for help.
Barrett continued to stand onstage right in front of Gilmour, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they were in the middle of playing a show. Barrett then began walking around Gilmour, his childhood friend, like a panther, “as if checking that Dave was a three dimensional object” in the words of Floyd roadie Iain “Emo” Moore, checking “that he was real. It was as if Syd was thinking: Am I dreaming this?”
Imagine if you started a new job, doing whatever it is you do, and on the day you begin, the guy whose job it used to be prowls around, circling you, sometimes standing two inches from your face whilst you quietly get on with your job. You’d probably begin to feel at least mildly disconcerted. You have to give Gilmour a bit of credit for keeping calm there.
Gilmour had been incorporated into the band during three days of rehearsals in a West London school hall in January 1968. Syd spent a couple of hours teaching the band a new song, called “Have You Got It Yet”. Each time the song reached the chorus, Syd would change the song, so the band could never get it. As a piece of performance art or comedy, it was rather clever. But it also confirmed to the rest of Pink Floyd that they were right to draft in another guitar player alongside Syd. “Alongside” soon became “instead of”.
Syd left Pink Floyd on the night of 26th January 1968. I say he left. What actually happened is that the other members of the band decided not to pick him up on the way to a gig at Southampton University.
The gig went so well, they didn’t call for him the next night either.
This caused a few issues for keyboardist Richard Wright, because he was still sharing a flat with Barrett. Wright would tell Barrett that he was going to nip out for a packet of cigarettes and then nip away, play the show, and come back the next day.
It says a lot about Barrett’s situation that he was slow to catch on.
There was one gig on that UK tour however when Barrett did turn up, according to roadie Emo. He was already there when the band set up the gear onstage. Barrett sat at the side, waiting for the show to begin. It wasn’t until Floyd took the stage without him that it sunk in that there was someone else playing his part.
Barrett’s departure was officially announced on 6 April 1968. His mental health had declined and he withdrew from public life.
Pink Floyd are recording the follow up to the gazillion selling “Dark Side of the Moon”, an album called “Wish You Were Here”. At it’s heart is a tribute to Syd Barrett called “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”.
You probably know the rest…
Floyd were doing the vocals for the title track of the album. During a playback each of the band noticed a bald, sixteen stone man in an old tan rain mac, carrying a plastic shopping bag, lurking in the studio. He had shaved his eyebrows off, and every now and then he would hold a toothbrush still to his teeth and jump up and down to brush them. At first, none of them recognised this man.
After forty five minutes, Gilmour realised it was Syd Barrett.
“A huge shock” said Gilmour “I hadn’t seen him for about six years”.
Roger Waters had tears in his eyes. It was terribly sad to see what had become of the sixties hipster with the Byronic good looks and boundless enthusiasm.
After seven years’ absence from being a member of Pink Floyd, Syd had returned, on the very day Floyd were doing a song about him.
Keyboards player Rick Wright later told an interviewer: “I saw this guy sitting at the back of the studio… and I didn’t recognise him. I said, ‘Who’s that guy behind you?’ ‘That’s Syd’. And I just cracked up, I couldn’t believe it… he had shaven all his hair off… I mean, his eyebrows, everything… he was jumping up and down brushing his teeth, it was awful…
“Roger [Waters] was in tears, I think I was; we were both in tears. It was very shocking… seven years of no contact and then to walk in while we’re actually doing that particular track. I don’t know – coincidence, karma, fate, who knows? But it was very, very, very powerful.”
Barrett meanwhile appeared oblivious to the seven year gap. His next question had echoes of that night seven years previously, when he had stood at the side of the stage before the band played without him…
“Right, when do I put my guitar on?” asked Syd.
Waters gently told him the guitar part was all done.
The band and Syd all went down to the canteen, shared a cup of tea and talked for a while, and after some time had passed Syd left the studio.
“It couldn’t have happened without him” Waters later reflected. “On the other hand, it couldn’t have gone on with him. I wanted “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” to get as close as possible to what I felt. That undefinable, inevitable melancholy about the disappearance of Syd. Because he’s left, withdrawn so far away that, as far as we’re concerned, he’s no longer there.”
“Syd wore out his welcome with random precision”.
Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here was released forty years ago today, on the 12th September 1975.
Pink Floyd Ultimate Music Guide
Embryo: A Pink Floyd Chronology by Nick Hodges and Jan Priston
Syd Barrett & Pink Floyd by Julian Palacios
Pigs Might Fly by Mark Blake
Categories: Rock Music