A Very Irregular Head
When Syd Barrett retired from public life at the age of twenty-five, he become one of the most enigmatic figures in popular music history. For the briefest of times he had burst onto the London Underground scene of the 1960s. Like scattered fireworks, he quickly faded into darkness. His more than thirty years of silence, combined with stories of LSD-induced madness, left him as an unsolvable puzzle.
Just what happened to Syd Barrett that turned him from a vibrant genius at the centre of the London counterculture to an antisocial recluse? As in all biographies of Barrett, this question hovers over Rob Chapman’s A Very Irregular Head. In trying to answer it, Chapman sets out to puncture many of the myths that have surrounded Barrett, particularly that of ‘Syd the acid casualty’. Taking his method from literary biographies, Barrett’s rapid ascent to become a defining figure of the London Underground and his precipitous decline is told with sensitivity and scrupulous research.
Already a painter of promise as a teenager, Barrett was one of a group of Cambridge friends who moved to London. Chapman draws an excellent portrait of this Cambridge milieu and its particular intellectual culture. They stood at the crosscurrents of influence that fed into the Sixties: American rhythm and blues and jazz, beat poetry, marijuana, experimental film. Later on they became interested in the exploration of inner space through drug use, eastern mysticism and alternative lifestyles.
Barrett moved arrived in London in 1964 and shortly afterwards joined a band. Though younger than the others, he quickly became the dominant figure of the group, writing stream-of-consciousness songs filled with English whimsy, romantic yearning, and psychedelic imagery. He named the band The Pink Floyd.
Those who knew Barrett at the time described him as charming and charismatic, witty and sensitive. There was a light his eyes and a bounce in his step. One of Pink Floyd’s managers described him as a ‘genius’. To a close friend he was the most ‘facilely talented person’ they’d ever met. He was ‘the most glamorous person’ at his art-school according to another. There was just something about him.
Pink Floyd quickly became the unofficial band of the London Underground, that collection of countercultural movements that included both lifestyle wings (hippies with long hair and beads in their hair) and the New Left. Early on they played a benefit for the London Free School, a radical attempt to create community education, later one for the underground newspaper International Times. Shortly afterwards Pink Floyd became the house band at the legendary UFO club on Tottenham Court Road one of the centres of the counterculture.
Barrett became a ‘pop-star’ with the launch of their first single, ‘Arnold Lane’, about a man who stole women’s underwear from clotheslines (it was banned from one of the London radio stations in 1967 when it was released).
But it was at the UFO club that Barrett and the band experimented with extended avant-garde improvisations – known as ‘freak outs’ – in a form resembling jazz, the most famous called ‘Interstellar Overdrive’. These pieces were often rambling jams where Barrett developed a guitar technique based on echo, feedback and distortion. Often he ran his zippo lighter along his guitar strings to create eerie sounds. This was popular music being broken apart by the avant-garde. To this they added a primitive light show where coloured oil was heated up and projected onto them.
But along with success came the pressures of fame. The group had a brutal tour schedule of touring in 1967 – according to Rob Chapman 137 gigs in that year– and he was under relentless pressure to write more hit singles. The creativity that made him such a magnetic personality now came into conflict with commercial pressure. He came to dislike the industry.
Like many of the audience at UFO, Barrett began to take LSD regularly, and, together with the increasing pressures of fame, he began to come apart psychologically. Stories abound about his ‘madness’ at this time. At times he would take to the stage and detune his guitar, strum a single note all night, or perhaps not play at all.
Nobody knows quite what happened to Barrett in these days of 1967. Was it the LSD? Was it the pressure of fame and the music industry? Was it some deeper cause from his youth such as his father’s death? The happy and charismatic young man became sullen, introverted and unpredictable. One of the weaknesses of A Very Irregular Head is Chapman’s inability to secure interviews with Barrett’s former band members. A still more significant silence is that of Barrett’s former girlfriends. Perhaps they could provide some explanation of Barrett’s breakdown, but they never get much space in Chapman’s book.
Barrett himself seemed to show a terrifying awareness of his decline. Under pressure to write another hit, Barrett penned the song ‘Vegetable Man’, which was simply a darkly satirical description of himself which described his yellow shoes, blue velvet trousers and bad hair cut, finishing with ‘It’s what I wear, it’s what you see. It must be me, it’s what I am, Vegetable man. I’ve been looking all over the place for a place for me, but it ain’t anywhere, it just ain’t anywhere. Vegetable man.’ Thus the ‘most beautiful man’ in London (as some have described him) saw himself.
Eventually, the rest of his band members ejected Barrett – who had written practically the entirety of their first album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn – from the group, in the process losing their managers who believed without him they’d have no future. In later years, they became one of the most famous groups in the world. Their space-rock descended from the Barrett days but lacked the poetic lyrics or the humour, replacing them with portentousness and, in the eyes of some, pretentiousness.
A shadow of his former self, in the next few years Barrett recorded two solo albums in haphazard and shambling fashion. Gone were the psychedelic trappings: the new material was defined by anguish and loss. Throughout A Very Irregular Head, Chapman does a wonderful job of making sense of Barrett’s lyrical influences, including the tradition of English whimsy that included Hillair Belloc, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame. He shows how Barrett’s lyrics – often rather off handedly described as ‘stream of consciousness’ – work in the manner of poets such as the imagists.
Still, the later songs had a strangeness to them. The wonderful lyricism and original melodies were still there but, with their shifting meters and enervated delivery, there was something broken about them. As in the song ‘Dark Globe’, where he plaintively asked, ‘Please lift a hand, I’m only a person with Eskimo chain, I tattooed my brain all the way. Won’t you miss me? Wouldn’t you miss me at all?’ In his final interview he stated, ‘I’ve got a very irregular head.’
At the age of twenty-five, Barrett retired from public life. Eventually he settled back in Cambridge where he lived a reclusive life, hounded by fans, until he died in 2006. He never regained his former ebullience, nor it seems did he regain much mental clarity. Stories of his madness continued on, though according to his sister, he was never diagnosed with a mental illness. He did return to painting, though burned most of his work once finished.
Though Chapman himself warns against it, it is impossible not to read his Barrett biography as a history of the Sixties itself. At one moment so full of possibility and creativity, so filled with the breaking of boundaries, with experimentation, with rejection of conservative methods and mores, so ‘consciousness changing’. And then, shortly afterwards, devoured by bad drugs and commercialism. Chapman himself finishes the book with a manifesto of sorts, which only further emphasises this reading of Barrett’s life. In these final pages, he charts the cul-de-sac that popular movement found itself in during the 1970s, when it abandoned the avant-garde.
This narrative is common to most of the art forms that underwent a period of radical innovation and experimentation in the 1960s. Perhaps Chapman overstates their defeat. Rather, they tended to be dispersed, still continuing on in the interstices of the culture.
Barrett’s work proved to be wildly influential on punk, David Bowie, The Damned, The Jesus and Mary Chain and others. Perhaps Chapman also undervalues the new forms of music emerging in the late seventies and eighties, including reggae, hip-hop and – most clearly descending from the early Pink Floyd – electronic music.
Whatever the case, A Very Irregular Head does Barrett a great service, treating its subject with a seriousness not always given. Still, the enigma of Barrett continues. Despite all his research, Chapman cannot offer a conclusive account of Barrett’s shattered retreat from the world. A Very Irregular Head only serves to highlight the terrible tragedy of Barrett’s disintegration, which all-too-powerfully comes to stand in for the burning out of the Sixties counterculture itself.