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May 1994 - Mojo Magazine Print E-mail

THE THIRD COMING

And it came to pass that the Syd Barrett Group became the Roger Waters Quartet, who became the David Gilmour Trio. And many various were the evils that befell them upon the highway.

Three decades and 140 million albums later, the sheer familiarity of the Pink Floyd phenomenon obscures the strangeness of it all. Unlike any of their contemporaries, for whom drastic changes in line-up have normally spelled disaster, The Floyd are well into their third coming. They opened their account as the Syd Barrett band, hoisted themselves into the international superleague as the Roger Waters quartet, and having survived the successive departures of two inspirational leaders and principal songwriters, are now continuing to hold their own as the David Gilmour trio.

Small wonder the accepted wisdom holds that with Pink Floyd it is the sights and the sounds that matter; that for them, personnel are little more than technicians servicing a vast, high-tech "son et lumiere" spectacle, or perpetuating a brand name. The band endorse and encourage this view of themselves as a personality-free zone, to the point of giving only one interview to mark the release of their new album, The Division Bell. "We don't have to promote a Bono or a Mick Jagger," drummer Nick Mason tells me. "The thing you have to remember is, we're so wonderfully boring." What this thoroghly English remark conceals though is an equally English history of childhood friendships and teenage alliances, casting long shadows over the lives and careers of a group of young, now middle-aged, men.

Most accounts of the origins of Pink Floyd begin at Regent Street Polytechnic, London in 1964, where three architectural students, Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Rick Wright, formed a college R&B band, later recruiting a student from Camberwell Art school, "Syd" - real name, Roger - Barrett. The true foundations of Pink Floyd though had been laid much earlier. It is no coincidence that the band's three leaders, Barrett, Waters and David Gilmour grew up together in Cambridge, in fairly comfortable middle class circumstances. Their mothers, according to Gilmour, all had connections with Homerton, the nearby teacher's training college. But the key to their knowing each other was the man whose ghost still hovers above the band: Syd Barrett. Waters and Barrett shared the same primary and grammar schools, and were drawn to each other, despite the age difference, partly because each had lost his father. Gilmour and Barrett, both a couple of years younger than Waters, became friendly aged 14, and ended up at Cambridge Tech together, studying 'A' levels. "We would hang around the Art Department, playing guitars every lunchtime. Teaching each other basically," Gilmour recalls.

In the summer of 1964 the pair went busking in San Tropez, playing Beatles songs from the Help album on the streets of the fashionable resort, before getting thrown in gaol by the French police. "The thing with Syd was that his guitar playing wasn't his strongest feature. His style was very stiff. I always thought I was the better guitar player. But he was very clever, very intelligent, an artist in every way. And he was a frightening talent when it came to the words, and lyrics. They just used to pour out." There was never any doubt that Syd Barrett constituted the guiding spirit of the early Pink Floyd. The year after the St. Tropez trip, he was down in London painting and studying fine art when Waters asked him to join a blues band called, rather unpromisingly, The Tea Set. At the time, Waters was an all purpose strummer, more interested in the idea of the group than in mastering any specific instrument, let alone the bass guitar. Mason, the drummer, was his best mate at college. Wright supplied what little musical expertise they had.

One of Barrett's first contributions was a proper name, decided at half time during a gig at RAF Uxbridge, there being two Tea Sets on the bill that night. With a typically swift and esoteric flourish, Barrett combined the Christian names of a couple of his favourite bluesman, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. Particularly delighted to have Barrett aboard was Rick Wright, the group's keyboard player, who had dumped architecture and was now moonlighting at the London College Of Music. "It was great when Syd joined. Before him we'd play the R&B classics, because that's what all groups were supposed to do then. But I never liked R&B very much. I was actually more of a jazz fan. With Syd the direction changed, it became more improvised around the guitar and keyboards. Roger started playing the bass as a lead instrument, and I started to introduce more of my classical feel."

Together, they led Pink Floyd into the swirling psychedelic dawn of 1966, where the band's reputation for uncompromising weirdness soon turned them into the darlings of the English underground, then centered on clubs like Joe Boyd's UFO, located in the basement of an Irish pub on Tottenham Court Road. The idea of incorporating a light show Mason attributes to a lecturer from Regent Street Poly, Mike Leonard, whose house in Highgate they all lived in. "Mike thought of himself as one of the band. But we didn't, because he was too old basically. We used to leave the house to play gigs secretly without telling him."

Syd permed his hair and they all took to wearing patterned satiny shirts. By the summer of 1966, Pink Floyd had acquired a couple of young managers, Peter Jenner and Andrew King, and a strong London-based following. "You must never underestimate how unpopular we were around the rest of England," Mason insists. "They hated it. They would throw things, pour beer over us. And we were terrible, though we didn't quite know it. Promoters were always coming up to us and saying, I don't know why you boys won't do proper songs. Looking back on it, I can't think why we persevered."

Syd was much of the reason. Encouraged by Jenner, he was beginning to write songs which adapted the melodic approach of The Beatles to the harsher sounds and spacey electronic atmospheres that dominated Pink Floyd's rambling live shows. Early in 1967 EMI signed the band for an advance of £5,000, a princely sum by the standards of the day, but less significant than a contract which, for the first time, required the artistes to deliver albums rather than just singles. And whatever they did, Pink Floyd could, for a while, do no wrong. Their Games For May concert at the Festival Hall introduced the world's first quadrophonic sound system, built for the group by the boffins at EMI. Arnold Layne, See Emily Play, and the first album The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn were all rapturously received.

Six months later, the brightest hopes of the British psychedelic movement were in trouble. Barrett's fondness for LSD had always been a little worrying, since he wasn't the most stable character to start with. "You could see the occasional girlfriend with bruises," one old friend recalls. By the end of 1967 he had been made virtually catatonic through a regime of daily tripping. The Floyd had had to field substitutes before, notably when Dave O'List, the guitarist of The Nice, stepped in to cover for Barrett on a couple of dates during their British tour with Jimi Hendrix. As 1968 came around, they were looking for a full-time replacement. Jeff Beck was considered, but rejected on the grounds that he would be too expensive and couldn't sing. The only other serious candidate was Dave Gilmour, whose Cambridge-based band Jokers Wild had previously supported the Floyd, at Syd's request.

The original plan was for the Floyd to continue as a five-piece, on the model of the Beach Boys, with Barrett cast in the roll of Brian Wilson, mainly staying home to write songs. Syd, in his more lucid moments, had other ideas, urging his partners to hire two sax players and a girl singer. By the spring, and after a number of chaotic appearances as a quintet, it became clear that Pink Floyd had a new line up, and that Syd Barrett wasn't part of it.

"I loved the first album, but I thought the gigs were pretty interminable," Gilmour recalls. "It was too anarchic. I was all for musicking things up a bit. I definately considered myself a superior musician and I remember thinking that I could knock them into some sort of shape." The problem was Roger Waters. The pattern of the next 12 years, according to Mason, the band's resident diplomat, boiled down to "Dave's desire to make music, versus Roger's desire to make a show". In the early stages thought, the relationship was even simpler; it was pure Cambridge: "I was the new boy. Not only that, I was two years younger than the rest of them, and you know how those playground hierarchies carry over. You never catch up. Roger is not a generous spirited person. I was constantly dumped on. And to get my point across I had to make increasingly histrionic, stubborn gestures."

Wright, who was to become progressively isolated from the other members of Pink Floyd during the 1970s, felt Barrett's departure more keenly than was ever recognized. As well as losing a musical foil, he lost his only ally in a band which, as Gilmour robustly points out - and he should know - "was never a jolly bunch of friends. Things between the four of us were always pretty rocky". Long before Waters called for Wright's resignation in 1979, the two were at loggerheads. They began arguing at college. "We would never have been friends if it weren't for the band." As personalities, the two were clearly ill matched. Waters, abrasive and assertive; Wright, sensitive and slightly dithery. In addition, as Peter Jenner points out, "Rick was Roger's real rival. He was better looking and he had the better voice." The other non-Cambridge Floyder, Mason, stuck close to Waters, the college friend whose bolshy spirit of independence he, initially anyway, admired.

That left Gilmour, considerably more reasonable than Waters but equally hardheaded. All in all, the discovery that Wright nearly left the band when invited to do so in the spring of 1968 seems hardly surprising. "Peter and Andrew (Jenner and King, Floyd's managers) thought Syd and I were the musical brains of the group, and that we should form a break-away band, to try to hold Syd together. He and I were living together in a flat in Richmond at the time. And believe me, I would have left with him like a shot if I thought Syd could do it."

The most telling evidence of the enduring power of Barrett's charsimatic talent and personality lies in the intense respect he still inspires in his childhood friend, Roger Waters. "Syd was the only person I know who Roger has ever really liked and looked up to," says Peter Jenner. Long after Waters had stopped talking to the others, and was attempting to claim the credit for most of what Pink Floyd accomplished in the '70s, he was unstinting in his praise for Barrett. "I could never aspire to Syd's crazed insights and perceptions," he told Q in 1987. "In fact for a long time I wouldn't have dreamt of claiming any insights whatsoever. I'll always credit Syd with the connection he made between his personal unconscious and the collective group unconscious. It's taken me fifteen years to get anywhere near there. Even thought he was clearly out of control when making his two solo albums, some of the work is staggeringly evocative. It's the humanity of it all that's so impressive. It's about deeply felt values and beliefs. Maybe that's what Dark Side Of The Moon was aspiring to. A similar feeling."

 
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