Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head by Rob Chapman

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Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head by Rob Chapman

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Category: Entertainment
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of the 'lost genius', who formed Pink Floyd but left the group within a year of their initial success, and failed to – or perhaps never wanted to – sustain a career for the remaining 38 years of his life.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: May 2010
Publisher: Faber & Faber
ISBN: 978-0571238545

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I don't think I'm easy to talk about, I've got a very irregular head, Barrett said at the end of what turned out to be his final interview with the music press in 1971.

Roger Barrett, who later acquired the moniker 'Syd' (let's make him Syd from now on) was born in Cambridge in 1946. The fourth of five children, he was the only one to inherit any lasting artistic talent, which came from his father Max. The latter was a senior pathologist, member of the local Philharmonic Society, gifted singer, pianist and watercolour painter.

Syd's main interests during his formative years were painting and reading. The author, who has clearly had a lifelong fascination with his subject despite having seen him play live only once, devotes several pages in an early chapter to the writings of Hilaire Belloc, Kenneth Grahame, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, and the influence they had on his lyrics. For while attending art college in London, like many of his peers, he fell under the spell of music at a time when British beat and pop singles were beginning to morph into the English Underground counter-culture. Chapman's analysis of the late sixties is a penetrating one, as he demonstrates how everything from radicalism, CND, and the left's disillusion with the Labour government to jazz, blues and underground cinema, and the extraordinarily diverse social mix in London W11, which included Portobello and Goldhawk Road, all came together to shape what at the risk of sounding pretentious might be loosely defined as the British musical revolution of 1967, or at least the heart of it.

When Pink Floyd formed in 1965, they were one of the first acts, if not the first, to feature extended solos and improvisation. Curbing their more left-field instincts at first to make reasonably accessible and radio-friendly singles, they scored two Top 20 hits shortly after signing to EMI Records in 1967. But with hindsight Syd was one of those people ill-equipped to cope with success, stardom and becoming in effect public property. As the group's drummer Nick Mason put it, he had not realised what it meant to be a pop star. Drugs did the rest, and by the time they released their first album, 'Piper at the Gates of Dawn', its title taken from the name of a chapter in 'The Wind in the Willows', his behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic. The tipping point came on a short American tour when he took to detuning the strings on his guitar and rattling them on stage, or just blowing a whistle at one performance.

In January 1968 they recruited an additional guitarist, David Gilmour. For four gigs they were a five-piece, and then simply decided not to pick Syd up for the next – or the next after that. Three months later, it was announced that he had left the band. Fears that they would not last without their songwriting genius were soon dispelled as they went from strength to strength. Two members of the management decided to stick with him, hoping he had potential as a solo performer. He was coaxed into the studios long enough to record two solo albums, released at the beginning and end of 1970, but by then it was apparent that, to quote Chapman, he was in permanent and irreversible retreat from fame and ambition. In 1972 he was persuaded to join another band, Stars, which lasted barely a month. Another round of recording sessions two years later proved an unmitigated disaster – and his last.

Syd, who now disowned the showbiz name and went back to being Roger, returned to a private life in Cambridge, punctuated by spells of ill-health, mental as well as physical. The legend flourished, fans continued to hope for a comeback, documentaries were made, and there were some bruising intrusions on his privacy and that of his family by those who should have known better. He took up painting again half-heartedly, but destroyed most of his works just after completing them. At the age of 60 he was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer, and died two months later.

On the whole this is a sad book about a man who was in effect burnt out in his early twenties, with almost forty years still to live. However, even anyone who might have only a tangential interest in the artist or the group will find it an incisive examination of what was happening to music and 'the underground' in the sixties and beyond. Chapman has drawn several themes together to create a gripping book, written with insight, sympathy and remarkable objectivity, which is ultimately far more than just a biography of the subject.

Our thanks to Faber & Faber for sending Bookbag a review copy.

You could shelve this book next to Syd Barrett & Pink Floyd: Dark Globe by Julian Palacios. If you enjoy this, for further insights into the music scene of the time, why not also try Tony Visconti: the Autobiography: Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy by Tony Visconti, Light My Fire by Ray Manzarek, or Roxy: The Band That Invented an Era by Michael Bracewell.

Booklists.jpg Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head by Rob Chapman is in the Bookbag's Christmas Gift Recommendations 2010.

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