Archives for category: Music

So last night’s pub philosophy circle was one of those classic subjects: art. Tim Cross led the discussion which was lively if full of assertions and opinions but lacking in philosophy. Tim’s talk was great, but our audience let him down, I feel. What it did demonstrate is that philosophy of art remains an area of much debate and it fuels a lot of entrenched opinion.

My feelings on the subject were pretty agnostic going in. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy art. In particularly photojournalism and photo-realist painting, interestingly, both schools of which are sometimes touted as not art at all. My view is that good photo-realism adds something to mere representation that is almost intangible – and it is that, in fact, which is the slippery essence of what ‘art’ is.

But any debate on art quickly falls into rather crass examples of what one likes or dislikes as if that explains what art is or isn’t. A slightly deeper debate will often get to the categories of what makes art ‘art’ but these too are often distracting traps of little consequence. Keen to play along, however, and at a push I came up with a simple triad of core qualities which we might use to define ‘art’. I am not yet certain how many of these qualities need to be in place to qualify, at least one, probably two but sometimes all three, but I’m absolutely happy with that ambiguity, just as what is/isn’t art can be slippery and open to debate.

Here it is; I’ve gone with the 3 c’s purely to keep it simple.

art

COMMUNICATION
All art has to engage at least the creator but ideally both the creator and the viewer. It is like a human without a self – it needs reflection. To regard it is to engage in it but if a piece of art fails to communicate with you then it probably isn’t art but rather it is just an object. To you. So, that is not to say that absolutely all viewers need to be able to comprehend it: there’s no magic number in consensus, but some general acquiescence to the fact there is something more than an object will do. In fact, it is probably easier to consider a piece of art which doesn’t communicate with you in some way to define this difference between object and item imbued with meaning in some way. Which is different, of course, to ‘not liking’ what’s being communicated – it is still communicating with you.

It is easy to regard art as beautiful (the art communicates beauty to you) but there is also other means of communication at play here: the beguiling (Mona Lisa) or the horror (Bacon or Guernica, for example) to name but two other expressions.

CRAFT
The most obvious quality. And then there’s ‘found’ objects which are given a context and thus communicate as more than mere objects. So, no, not everything needs to be made from scratch to qualify as craft; the craft might be the ability to capture something already in existence, which brings us nicely to…

CHOICE
The choice of subject, place and materials all bring the craft into being.

The combination of all these three (and in some cases perhaps, only two of these), and by varying degrees and in different forms is what makes art.

Arising out of these are other factors which might explain why some things become art or in some cases ‘great’ art after a period of time. Things like context, subject and whether the art is novel or innovative. Sometimes, however, something may be crafted (like a steam engine) only to become art over time as context changes (scarcity or changes in train design now reveals the craft or art of the steam train). You might disagree with the example there, but the same process might explain the increasing regard for some art over time, or some novels.

The creation of art has the consequence that it does, however, become a commodity. Questions of who buys art, why and at what value, is a separate debate to this, and it is a question rather of what do we mean by the ‘value’ of art, normally in a commercial sense, but sometimes in a critical sense.

Disappointingly, I find debate around art tends to miss what we might call the people’s arts. Gardening, cooking, or more thanks to modernity maths and coding might be considered an art. We debated whether the London Underground map is art. I said yes. Others said it was merely good design. I said it is also good design, but it is art. It has gone beyond design, as evidenced by people being compelled to buy and hang prints of it, a pursuit disconnected with its original purpose.

Finally, I wanted to consider the question ‘why is the question ‘what is art’ important to us?’

It is my opinion that all shared human endeavours and experiences that we hold in common will eternally be important questions and considerations for man. Probably because it is one of the characteristics which make man human.

Art is like all universal experiences – invaluably human.

I was talking about last night’s Tintern Philosophy Circle pub meet and a talk by Tim Cross ‘Art – some philosophical questions’. Next month (each 3rd Tuesday, 7.30pm) is Prof. John Clarke on ‘Sartre: on authenticity & sincerity’ and December has a guest speaker on ‘Religion & Science’.

mwftearth_coverThe Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis

I’ve said it before in The Clarion: I am not a fan of sci-fi. Last time I was talking about ‘The Death of Grass’, which left me horrified. It was written with the calibre of John Wyndham, but will all the nightmare of the best apocalyptic fiction.

And it is therefore with equal surprise that I discover that it wasn’t a one-off experience. Despite some reticence I really enjoyed Walter Tevis’ novel ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’, famously brought to life as a film of the same name in the 1970’s by visionary director, Nicolas Roeg.

Both books don’t feel like sci-fi at all, much to the credit of the quality of writing itself. In fact, Tevis’ other famous novel was ‘The Hustler’ (also made into a famous film), which is a gritty tale of pool sharks.

My edition was the original film tie-in, with a painting of the iconic image of David Bowie as the mysterious Thomas Newton/alien. A version of this also appeared on Bowie’s own ‘Low’ LP sleeve and while the paperback states the music soundtrack would be ‘available on RCA’, this never happened, although Bowie is said to have scattered musical doodlings for or influenced by his role in the film across albums in the 70’s. Indeed, another image from the film appear as the cover of ‘Station to Station’.

For sure, it is now hard to think of Newton being anyone but Bowie, and this is to the film’s credit. The casting and feel is spot-on and mirrors the book beautiful – complements it where you, like me, have seen the film, but have yet to read the book. And the book is far better as it simply doesn’t have those wayward forays into sexual exploration and nor do we have to endure occasionally shaky-acting.

But putting aside the movie, Tevis’ work is full of compassion, longing and thought on the notion of being a stranger in a strange land. It has more to do with ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘The Bell Jar’ than it does traditional sci-fi. The writing is taught, dialogue believable and pace just right. At times it reminded me of ‘The Swimmer’ (also a famous book and film), and at others’ a feature-length and more mature ‘Twilight Zone’ or ‘Tales of the Unexpected’.

‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is also a deeply humane book. It takes the concept of a looking at man through the mirror of an alien point of view. But that alienation is one many of us feel. We feel it when we are teenagers and when we are alone in a crowd in a foreign place or visiting a new city. We feel it with wonder when we see ourselves in a moment of silence looking at art in a gallery or catch ourselves aware of ourselves as a species when at the zoo. But most of all, we feel when the world – full of humans – seems incredibly lonely.

Newton feels the gravity of earth heavy on his disguised frame; but he feels the pointlessness of existence and man’s folly just as heavily: “a heavy lassitude, a world-weariness, a profound fatigue with this busy, busy, destructive world and all its chittering noises.”

The novel ponders quietly the big themes without pushing any particular agenda or world-view. Newton considers, for example “this peculiar set of premises and promises called religion.” But finds solace in some types of music.

Providing counter-balance is Professor Bryce. He’s not quite the narrator and certainly not entirely likeable either. In the movie he’s an aging playboy, but the novel gives his character more tragedy and more drink. Imagine Charles Bukowski as a failed university science professor. He’s not an idiot and indeed, it is through his fascination with Newton’s inventions which drive the narrative to a truly horrible conclusion where, as Tevis puts it, the reveal has the monkeys performing the tests on the humans.

In their parrying Newton and Bryce become friends, comrades and critics. They argue over the philosophical position of science and its funding: “Somebody has to make the poison gas.” And this leads us with the primary concern of the novel: the destruction of mankind by his own kind.

This is a moving and tragic novel of apathy and alienation. It is expertly crafted and still yet a page-turner.

You might think that  – written in 1963 – and famously filmed in the 70’s with a very 70’s ‘feel’ ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is set in the 1970’s, but in fact it is set in the then future of the mid-late 1980’s. It predicts global nuclear war within 30 years of that. Of course, the Cold War was raging in the 60’s and Tevis rightly predicted it would still be so by the 1980’s. But the fall of the Soviet Union was not something explored then. This does not make Tevis’ forecast flawed as the same deadly arsenal continues to exist today and, as we see in recent months, it no longer requires opposing ideology to create the tension between old and emerging super powers: resource and territory dispute continue to be enough. It is a warning that we can all yet fall to earth.

 

An interview
I caught up with The Hi-Life Companion as they were busy finalising their second album, with primary recording of the new suite of songs behind them.

‘Say Yes!’ the first long-player from these Wye Valley-raised brothers, presented an intelligent mix of influences and moods. On it they moved from straight-forward power-pop to a face-full of indie fuzz only then to detour pleasantly into their British twist on Americana.

For this second album the duo, both of whom have settled in Bristol in the UK, have metaphorically returned to the Wye Valley and Forest of Dean of their Brockweir childhood. Along the way they delve into histories both personal and local.

Brothers Jon and Matt form the core of the band. They do all the writing, arrangements and primary recording. But to capture the full sonic invocation of their ideas they then recruit a range of talent to enhance the sound, do the final mix and play live.  Many, but not all personnel appeared on the first album, ‘Say Yes!’ which was released in November 2010.

The Hi-Life Companion’s first single was released in 2008 and since then the band have featured on innumerable independent compilations, internet web-radio stations and pod-casts across the US and Europe, as well as enjoying airplay on Colin Murray on BBC Radio 1 and Tom Robinson on BCC Radio 6.

The Bloodbuzzed blog included their impending release in the ‘Music To Look Forward To in 2012’ list.

This e-interview with Jon Troy was undertaken in June 2012. Jon is one half of the song-writing duo, rhythm guitarist and singer. Together with his brother Matt, he also recorded the album.

Q: Let’s get the obvious questions out of the way first. Is there a working title for the new album yet?
‘Our Years in the Wilderness’.

Q: Will the people who bought ‘Say Yes!’ be disappointed or surprised?
I’m not sure; we’ll have to see I guess. Hopefully not disappointed – it’s much more ambitious, certainly, but still has the love of a good tune that ‘Say Yes’ hopefully had. On that record we were just really trying to write good pop songs, but in the end neither myself or Matt were at all happy with the end result even though other people seemed to like it. We’ve always felt we’ve had much better songs in us, and of course, in our heads they always sound magnificent…

Q: Which track from the first album would, musically, fit most comfortably on the new album?
I’m not sure many of them would really. Sonically, it’s {the new album} a vast improvement.  As with ‘Say Yes’ there are trumpets and harmonies and strings, but the new tunes are fuller sounding and more densely layered. I guess there are just more harmonies, more trumpets and more strings. It’s a much more rounded and realised extension of the first album.

Q: This album isn’t a concept album in a prog-rock sense, but there is a narrative to it. Tell us about it.
All the songs are about the West Country in some way, mainly the Forest of Dean where we grew up, but also Bristol and the surrounding area. Lyrically, there is a connection between all the songs, they all interrelate in some way, and it’s meant to follow the path of childhood, growing up, exploring frontiers, love and loss and ending your days looking back on it all, lived through different characters and different times.

Q: Which came first, the narrative or the songs?
The songs. In that the music came first; I worked on the lyrics afterwards. Lyrics take ages, and there’s always that gnawing feeling that you’re repeating someone else’s.  A bit like when Matt comes up with a riff and I have to tell him that it already belongs to Black Sabbath.

Q: At what point did the narrative emerge, and why did you feel it was something worthy of exploration?
Probably after we’d been working on four or five demos, the lyrics all seemed to join up and reflect local places and times in our lives. There seemed to be a real connection in the geography and stories: some autobiographical, some wrapped up in local myths and legends around the Forest of Dean. They all seemed to belong on an album together. I also love songs that mention specific places; you find that a lot in American music where certain places, towns or cities become mythologized through music. I wanted to do the same with the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley.

Q: It seems like you pretty much did the whole thing by yourselves – just you and Matt. And yet you still chose to bring others in and call it a Hi-Life Companion record rather than an album of your own work. Why?
Matt and I aimed to play everything ourselves, and then get people in for the things we couldn’t. There’s not really a ‘band’ on this record, although obviously there will be when we do it live.

Having said that, it’s much more musically ambitious. Perhaps things did go a bit Brian Wilson in terms of the number of vocal and string parts, as well as the flute, harp, horns and on one song, we even had a colliery band. But that’s the beauty (or curse) of having computers and using programmes like Logic – with effectively unlimited tracks you can completely indulge yourself.

Overall, though, Matt and I tried to do the majority of it ourselves largely because we work so instinctively together. It’s a partnership that stretches back to when we were kids. We know how we work, and what our strengths and breaking points are. There’s just an unspoken understanding which makes recording together easy. Recording other people is always harder: you have to be on your best behaviour.

Q: What new influences are on this album which weren’t there on ‘Say Yes!’?
‘Say Yes’ was a bit of a hodgepodge of influences. I guess this was partly as a result of us consciously trying to write a song that sounded like A or a bit like B.

On this album there was less intent, and the songs arrived through a more organic process – we just played what we felt like playing at
the time. But we were listening to a lot of Richard Hawley, John Grant, Gorky’s and early REM, so some of that may have seeped in.

Q: social media and the internet have seen your recordings seep around the webosphere; do you see this as a threat to the band’s commercial viability, a challenge to the control of your work, or as a compliment or tool to get content viral?
If I had to balance getting paid for people downloading our music or it being available to a much wider audience for free I’d certainly choose the latter.

At the level we’re at, file-sharing is both a pleasure and a necessity: its people passing on music they like by recommendation, and I’m still amazed at the thought that someone in Argentina or Canada can listen to us. Knowing that someone in South America is listening to ‘Times Table’ is bizarre when you think we recorded it ourselves in a bedroom in Bristol. When we first started out in bands that was unthinkable. The only people who heard us were the neighbours.

Q: the cover of your first album had a Peter Blake, British working-class feel which complemented the songs. Should we be judging the content of this album by its cover? Is the design already in the bag? Is this side of things important to you?
That cover was a painting called ‘The Big Kick’ by Tim Wright, a Cornwall artist. It’s pretty much about the only thing we’re happy with on that first album! We haven’t got anything definite for this one yet but it’ll be something ‘local’ for us; something related to the Forest of Dean of Wye Valley. The art-work certainly needs to reflect the content, and I love an album with a great sleeve, or something interesting when you open it up.

Q: Personally, you first recorded with Airport Girl playing drums on both their ‘Honey, I’m An Artist’ and ‘Slow Light’ albums (both on the Fortuna Pop! label). Do you still compose and record the drum parts for The Hi-Life Companion and only get Mark (Freeth) in for live duties? Did you find the drums a creative stifle?
I roughly work out the drum parts and then Mark plays them. I did the drums on one track on this new album but the rest are Marks. It’s been quite a learning curve recording drums. On the first album we just stuck a couple of microphones near a set in an untreated room and I bashed away. To give you an idea of the level we were at, to try and dampen down click-track bleed through the headphones we just strapped pillows to my head…on this one we’ve taken longer to get a better, more professional sound. Besides, Mark is a much better drummer at blasting through the quicker numbers.

Q: How much of the arrangement is done away from the recording stage?
Pretty much all of it really. We worked out demos for most of the new songs a couple of years ago, and they’ve served as the basis for the proper recordings we’ve been working on since then. But we still added and improved late in the recording stage, and this is often the most enjoyable and creative bit, suddenly adding a part that you’ve just thought of. So much of recording is endless takes of a given established part that it’s fun to be creative and do something which takes the song in a slightly different direction.

Q: Do you have a complete picture of the layers you want to add to a demo, or does this arise out of the playback?
Mostly it’s just getting it down onto tracks, but as I say, there are always new ideas and other additions that happen once we’ve got the majority of the song complete.

Q: You’ve turned 40 since the first album, does this mean the second album is more reflective than the first. Is it darker? How much are you guided by the sound of the first album, by which I mean is there a ‘Hi-Life’ sound you find you’re looking to maintain even if the theme is different?
The new album is definitely more reflective and considerably darker, but I’m not sure whether that’s related to my age or not. We wanted the album to have an overall theme and feel, and that has turned out to be a fairly dark, melancholic and romantic one. ‘Say Yes’ didn’t really have a cohesive sound at all – like the first Airport Girl record it sounded like lots of different songs recorded in different places at different times by different people. But just as Rob did with the Airport Girl follow-up ‘Slow Light’, we wanted to avoid that confusion as far as possible. I wanted it to sound like the same band throughout, even though the ‘band’ is for the most part just Matt and me. I’ve never really been happy with our ‘sound’ before. In fact, I think we sounded terrible on record, so hopefully there’s an improvement with this new material precisely because it is a more consistent and organic reflection of ‘us’.

Q: You presented touring with Airport Girl as a mix of euphoria and exhaustion. What’s your approach to live performance with The Hi-Life Companion?
Mostly I’d have to say it was exhaustion. I haven’t really enjoyed having to organise so many different people for rehearsals: it’s been a real struggle getting people together. The last time we were preparing for gigs attendance at rehearsals was pretty inconsistent. I guess I’ve had to accept that for some people the band just isn’t as important as it is for us, which is understandable. When we get around to putting a band together to play live again we’ll have to have a re-think in that respect.

In terms of actually playing live my enjoyment has always been tempered by that feeling I get when playing songs I don’t actually like. Again I think it’s a process of admitting ‘I don’t like playing that song and it sounds dreadful’ and focus instead on what we want and would enjoy playing. It’s accepting that often the most painful part of a gig is where you’re playing a song you hate, badly. Basically, I need to be more assertive!

Q: What are you most proud of with this album? How many tracks were surplus to the final number which will feature? Is there a stand-out obvious first single?
I’m proud of the fact that between us we’ve worked at it and worked at it, and now we’re within sight of the finish line. I think we’ve got better songs, with better lyrics and better singing. In fact everything sounds so much better.

There are 11 tracks on the album and we’ll probably have at least one more left over, which might find its way onto a compilation – or we might give it away through a free download or something. I think it’s only when all the tracks are fully mixed that we’ll know what really stands out. Some of the songs sounded great as demos, but you never know if they will sound as great when recorded and mixed ‘properly’.

Expect the new album to be ready by the Autumn of 2012.

Last night, as I watched probably one of the best concert films I’ve ever seen it struck me just how boring they are.

The appropriately titled ‘Don’t Think’ sees the Chemical Brothers attempt to make a proper film of a concert. Their conceit is to put the viewer both in the crowd and enjoy the super-clear visuals close-up (which you couldn’t if you stood at the back).

Then I spotted the problem: these films always fail because there’s no narrative.

To be fair, ‘Don’t Think’ tries to be as immersive in the gig experience as you can possible be without bobbing up and down in your lounge rammed with strangers in a Japanese subway-like bouncy huddle. But you’d still have to watch the thing in the dark and at maximum volume to get 1/10th of the feel of a real gig. And that’s why most of the concert films I’ve seen don’t even clock that figure.

When I was younger, the music used to be enough. But that would be denying the spectacle of seeing your heroes prance about in all their self-satisfied glory, performing vastly inferior versions of the great album tracks you love, which somehow managed to elevate my appreciation of the event. Van Halen’s ‘Live without a net’ captured Eddie Van Halen at his peak. But it also gave us Sammy Hagar instead of David Lee Roth, and a drum solo (that’s right a drum solo – even in jazz drum solos never work!) from Alex VH. It was a curious mix of admiration and disappointment stretched over an hour and a bit.

Then there’s the advent of the voyeuristic take on concert films. The first I saw was Metallica’s ‘Cliff ‘Em All’ – a tribute to Cliff somebody (their former bassist who died before his time), mixed with their own sardonic take on the moniker of their own ‘Kill ‘Em All’ album. Here we saw the band at their most jokey and knockabout but this managed only to destroy the doom-laden seriousness of their image I had been so attracted to in my brief spell of metal (I quit Metallica and metal writ large at ‘Master of Puppets’, after listening to ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ for the first time on my way back from the Monsters of Rock festival in 1988).

Music is about music, not the jokes, personalities, banter (Jim Morrison in ‘Live at the Hollywood Bowl’), tricks (Eddie Van Halen) – it is the songs themselves that matter.

OK, you say, what about Pink Floyd’s ‘Live at Pompeii’? Bubbling mud aside, that’s about the performance, you cry. There’s even no audience! True. But prog rock normally had its own imaginary narrative. Unfortunately it is often naïve and, in Floyd’s case, a bit sixth form. Which can also ache boredom 21minutes in to the same song. It’s a performance of tracks better played and recorded in the studio. Nothing more.

Still, by the time I attended what I regard as probably the best gig – DJ Shadow during his Private Press tour – the music was finally accompanied by visuals that were actually in complete time with the music. This meant visuals in synchronicity of this level were, however, only able to step up to fill the void of having no lead vocals which is often missing in much electronic and sampled music. It was, however, a brilliant show. The songs were great, loud, brilliant renditions of the album tracks, complemented by superb visuals, guests vocalists (Radiohead’s Thom Yorke) and expert turntablism. Josh too was a refreshingly honest musician who admitted mistakes and shared his dissatisfaction with you when he made them. Of course, in the euphoric atmosphere we missed them completely anyway, but his authentic care for the music and performance was admirable. He thought he was a dweeb, we thought he was a genius.

When I saw the concert film of Shadow’s show later released on DVD, however, I was disappointed. It bore no resemblance to the experience I had that night in Bristol’s Academy. The songs were the same, the visuals the same but it was drained of all its life. The gap it revealed was the thing that is the essence of good art: it is that which distinguishes a masterpiece from a cheap fake.

I guess that is why even ‘Don’t Think’ occasionally breaks away to a strange outside the arena trip, where the movie switches to a segmented music video-style. It seems to do this because the vast backdrop of lights and animated video visuals by now are becoming tiresome.

And you could forgive them this foray: the Chemical Brothers had previously shown great form with their music videos. But on the whole I find music videos are another grossly uneventful experience. Exception to the rule, their ‘Star Guitar’ sees the rhythm and video as one. Then their brilliant choice of Spike Jonze to direct their ‘Elektrobank’ promo delivers a fantastic homage to 80’s triumph of the underdog-type movies typified by things like ‘The Karate Kid’. I recommend you YouTube it, not least since it stars the lovely Sofia Coppola (who Jonze would eventually marry).

But note, these all have narrative of a kind and a short duration and that is why they work.

The concert film has a long duration and no narrative. They’ve tried to fix the problem by ramping up the immersive vibe, but fail to realise that not everyone will play the film at full volume during a house party on an elevated large flat-screen. They’re fixing the problem at the wrong end. They’ve done a good job, but it is still boring by DVD chapter 14. I found myself skipping chapters. Next. Next. Yeah. Next. End.

Here’s my theory proven.

‘Don’t Think’ includes a CD version of the gig. Boring; I’ll never listen to it. Prefer the original album tracks they’ve laboured over so lovingly.

Compare this, however, to a CD of music from movies that use music well. Like, for example Wes Anderson’s ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’: a truly brilliant film and, um, fantastic soundtrack CD which my family all enjoy.

Or ‘Jungle Book’? Or ‘The Accidental Tourist’? Or ‘Schindler’s List’? Or ‘The Double Life of Veronique’? etc.

My point is that you can watch these as movies and enjoy the music as part of the overall experience or independently on a music CD. A CD of a concert film is just dull – therein lies the problem. As a Marxist, of course, I see the phenomenon as nothing more than a means of selling us more of the same content a different way so we buy and re-buy that same content, all the while lining the pockets of the record company while the band probably can tick off another contractual commitment.

Concert films are just dull.

Even supposedly the greatest ever – ‘Woodstock’ – is only truly interesting the first time. And this is precisely because it has the narrative of the documentary story revealing just how chaotic and difficult it was to setup and keep from falling apart. After that it is a game of ‘Oh look, it’s so and so.’ And ‘Who’s next?’  Again though, the actual quality of the music is poor compared to the original studio tracks those artists recorded. I once stayed at house of a friend’s brother in Manchester. The brother had an LP of the Woodstock concert. Blimey that was a downer. Overlong clanky noise. Three tracks in, it was a relief when my friend suggested we listen to some Jesus & the Mary Chain instead.

So, concert films are just dull, precisely because of the music.

Feel free to post your objections and suggestions for exceptions to the rule. I will probably remain unconvinced, but you never know – open mind and all that…

DJ Shadow’s last tour saw him hide for most of the show in his globe and project 360 onto the globe. Very clever. But now we have a live visual audio show which really won’t be the same on DVD. See it live only.

It appears to me that perhaps our misunderstanding of Syd Barrett is symptomatic of our inability to cope with psychiatric issues writ large.

A precocious child, Syd was deeply affected by the sudden death of his father, at the age of 15. Since the age of 11 young Syd (Roger then) was a diary obsessive and never missed a day, until that day his father passed away. But this aspect in Syd’s life is often overlooked, with reviews overwhelmingly presenting a single dimension to his madness: Syd – the acid casualty.

Musically Syd’s tastes were The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Booker T. & the MG’s. These are all obvious now, but in the early 60’s the reputation of each of these artists was not what it is today. Elvis was the biggest name on the pop scene, a scene which hadn’t long emerged from simplistic Rock’n’Roll. Nevertheless, Syd’s Beatle obsession, in particular, meant he too wanted to be a pop star and, with a musical family, playing guitar in a band was a natural progression of that desire.

By mid-’67 Syd’s LSD consumption was ‘awesome[i]’ and it fuelled both his song-writing and instrumental improvisation, as well as the nightmarish backlash. By the time Floyd had released their second single (See Emily Play, the first being Arnold Layne) his own sister could see that acid had already got under his skin: ‘The next time I saw him he’d changed so much that I couldn’t reach him. The brother I knew had disappeared.’[ii]

EMI pressed for an album and the resultant long-player was The Piper At The Gates of Dawn, a title stolen from The Wind in the Willows. A strange album which both starts and practically finishes the brief neon glow of the British psychedelic scene, Piper also perfectly juxtaposes Syd’s penchant for surprisingly listenable child-like English folklore ditties (Scarecrow, Bike and The Gnome) with sonic evocations of the Floyd’s UFO club freak-out appearances. Personally, my favourite is Lucifer Sam with its Bond-like rhythm and powerful drumming pushing along scratchy guitars, but Pete Townsend of The Who was not impressed: ‘I thought it {the album} was fucking awful…it was like bubblegum – Mickey Mouse music – and I thought the guy who produced it was a tosser’.

If the album was confused, it presented Syd perfectly.

Or did it? Syd saw himself primarily as an artist: music had become just another form of media for him – it was the act of creating and improvising which interested him most. He loved freedom and loathed structure. We see this infamously in his inability to cohere in both later live and studio settings. He became obnoxiously impossible to work with and David Gilmour – originally brought in to stand-in for the useless Syd – became the band’s saviour, as well as Syd’s own creative executor/producer, making the barest sense of insanity in Syd’s two moorish solo albums: Barrett and The Madcap Laughs.

You can hear Syd’s world fall apart in the Floyd’s second LP closer (Jugband Blues) but it was swinging sixties pop model Lynsey Korner who felt its wrath, as his trips became increasing violent. His violence was only surpassed by his  reclusiveness and strange behaviour. Clearly, he needed psychiatric help. Yet when Syd died, his family said (see Wikipedia page for Syd for citation) that he had never received treatment or even a programme of therapy for his behaviour, even though he was admitted for respite care on a few occasions. Nevertheless, at the time he needed care and help the most, his actions had already lost him all the friends a person needs to help them through such a traumatic experience as a psychological breakdown. Instead, a steady stream of hangers-on and groupies kept him occupied, frustrated and fuelled with mandrax and LSD.

On the whole, though, Syd’s life is lamented by friends and colleagues in a positive light, remembering the Roger Keith Sydney Barrett who jumped for joy outside EMI on their signing a record deal. Gilmour said in 1982: “It’s just a sad, sad thing; a very nice and talented person who just disintegrated.”[iii] And, for sure, even though we hear him as he was when he was at his most objectionable and unreachable to those friends and colleagues, we also are shaken by a rare fragile musical experience.

His surrealistic stream of consciousness writing – not equalled in my mind until Stephen Malkmus in both his Pavement and solo work – was more than just mere random jumbles. Syd delivered in phrase upon phrase a vulnerability unique to his sadness and failure, despite success.

The desire for that success and fame which Syd originally sought soon turned out to feed only the unrelenting addiction of a record company’s insistence on successive successful singles. Syd wasn’t prepared for that, couldn’t do that, and was still young when his mind gave up on him.

Fans’ desire to seek him out and be part of the myth must, I imagine, have also fed his anxieties. Roger Waters felt that later, resulting in at first Wish You Were Here and then later, in a different way, another kind of alienation in The Wall. Syd retreated to solitude and painting. While they craved Syd’s return to the studio, Syd simply chain-smoked and watched TV, wanting to be forgotten and to forget.

Pete Townsend got it right, I think, when he remarked that the story of Syd should ignore the myths and realise that, in fact, ‘Syd was someone with psychotic tendencies who by using too much LSD pushed himself over the edge.’ – by psychotic tendencies, I think he means personality disorder.

Syd when he turned up to Floyd’s WISH YOU WERE HERE sessions

The human mind is a terribly romantic notion. Only insanity gives us a glimpse of existential freedom so repulsively uncivilised, it enraptures our own, sane, imaginations. Romanticism of psychological breakdown aside, Syd’s story is really quite straightforward, and it is probably all the more tragic because of it.

A story comes out in 1990, published in The Guardian: “One day, not long ago, Syd visited his brother-in-law Paul Breen, who runs a Cambridge hotel. Sitting in the hotel office, Syd’s attention was drawn to his brother-in-law’s guitar lying in a corner of the room. At one point Mr Breen was called away. On his return he found Syd holding the guitar and gently strumming a tune. Realising he’d been caught red-handed, Syd dropped the instrument like a stone and turned away sheepishly…[iv]

This story annoys the shit out of me as the book it featured in Crazy Diamond: Syd Barrett & the Dawn of Pink Floyd (which inspired this blog entry) had set itself the laudable task of restraining Syd-spotters (still alive when it was published) and putting to bed Syd myths.  Instead, passages like the above is in effect a rallying call for them.

Anyone who has ever played even a bit of music will innately know that the instinctive nature of instruments is to lure you in. Playing music is irresistible. What Syd’s actions shows in this story is that the instinct is still there, even if he remained ashamed of his own professional musical career. The two are entirely different things.

Syd died in 2006 at the age of 60 from pancreatic cancer.

We should listen to his music and leave the rest alone.


[i] ‘Crazy Diamond: Syd Barrett & the Dawn of Pink Floyd’ by M. Watkinson & P. Anderson (Omnibus Press, 1991)

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.