“I don’t think I’m easy to talk about. I’ve got a very irregular head. And I’m not anything that you think I am anyway.” — Syd Barrett
One of the most enigmatic frontmen of the 1960s had his time cut short under the spotlight, and the talent he seemed so keen to share would become unachievable. Syd Barrett’s powerful songwriting stood him out among his contemporaries and here we’re taking a look back at some of Barrett’s best songs through the eyes of his Pink Floyd bandmate Nick Mason.
Syd Barrett was the iconic singer-songwriter and co-founder of Pink Floyd. His talent, unfortunately, could not keep pace with his self-destruction and eventually saw Barrett kicked out of the band he had already gained fame for. Working alongside Roger Waters and Richard Wright with David Gilmour joining shortly before Barrett’s departure, it soon became clear that Barrett’s personal demons were taking over.
Despite his misgivings, Barrett is still regarded as one of the most pioneering creatives of British alternative music regardless of being involved for such a short period of time.
Active in music for less than ten years in total, Barrett recorded four singles, numerous unreleased tracks, Pink Floyd’s debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and, finally, contributed to sections of the band’s second album A Saucerful of Secrets.
Soon enough, the wheels came off and Barrett’s battles with mental health and heavy usage of psychedelic drugs would spell the end of his time with the band and see the musician end up in a downward spiral. He would see himself out of music for 12 months and struggle to regain his composure—but he did, if only for a short while.
Upon his return, looking more than slightly dishevelled, Barrett would release two solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, in 1970, before announcing his retirement from the music industry and public life, living in strict privacy right up until his death in 2006.
While notoriously difficult to work with, Roger Waters once said on reflection: “Syd is a genius,” when remembering how the early years of Pink Floyd were formed. And it’s hard to argue. Though the singer’s longevity is often a reason for his oversight, the initial movements of Pink Floyd into fame and notoriety were all off the back of Barrett’s singular vision.
Now, remembering his former bandmate, drummer Nick Mason sat down with Rolling Stone to pick out five of Barrett’s songs he considered to be his favourites.
See the full list, below.
Nick Mason’s favourite Syd Barrett songs:
5. ‘Astronomy Domine’ – The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, 1967.
Kicking things off is ‘Astronomy Domine’, the first track to be featured on Pink Floyd’s debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which was released in 1967. It became one of the band’s seminal moments in their discography.
In what was initially categorised as psychedelic rock, the song’s legacy is best remembered as Pink Floyd’s first step in the direction of space rock. It opens with the sound of their manager, Peter Jenner, reading the names of planets, stars, and galaxies.
“This is such a great drum track in an interesting time signature,” Mason told Rolling Stone. “It reminds me a little bit of Ginger Baker, who was a huge influence on me,” he added before describing the song’s sci-fi vibe.
4. ‘Bike’ – The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, 1967.
Staying with Pink Floyd’s debut album we have ‘Bike’, this time though, we’re skipping from the beginning to the end with the record’s closing number.
The song offers a glimpse inside the mind of Barrett whose lyrics detail a bike, a mouse called Gerald, and a girl who first his world as he repeats the chorus: “You’re the kind of girl that fits in with my world
I’ll give you anything, everything if you want things.”
“The lyrics to this are so very Syd, astonishingly clever,” Mason said of the song. It’s hard not to admire the strange, weird and wonderful places Barrett could take his audience.
3. ‘Interstellar Overdrive‘ – The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, 1967.
Written in 1966 and featured on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn a year later, ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ is a ten-minute instrumental epic that set the foundations of some of the psychedelic material the band would become famous for.
Rumour has it that the song was created when Barrett overheard former manager Peter Jenner humming a song and, taken by the melody, tried to recreate it on his guitar.
Mason said of the song: “This is a track that is open to improvisation and reinterpretation. When you play the opening riffs, you can freestyle it so many different ways.” It’s a classic Pink Floyd track which we’d imagine is still beloved widely by their fans to this day.
2. ‘Vegetable Man’ – The Early Years 1965–1972, 2016.
This previously unreleased track found itself in limbo somewhat upon its creation, with Pink Floyd not sure of where to place the song as they finished work on the band’s second studio album, A Saucerful of Secrets.
However, as pressure was ramping up on focal songwriter Barrett to produce new material, his behaviour became more and more erratic around his heavy LSD usage and the song was eventually scrapped. The song was bootlegged for decades before finally getting an original release as part of a retrospective compilation record in 2016.
“A wonderful song. It sounds relatively simple, but it’s actually a bit more complicated and almost punk,” Mason said. It’s perhaps a slight reach to suggest the track is a punk number, however, Floyd have been famed for laying down the foundations of some of rock and roll’s sturdiest institutions.
1. ‘Arnold Layne’ – Echoes: The Best of Pink Floyd, 2001.
In 1967 Pink Floyd released the single ‘Arnold Layne’ backed by ‘Candy and a Currant Bun’ but it struggled in the charts and is now generally perceived as being way ahead of its time.
The song tells the story of a cross-dressing man who likes to steal women’s clothes from a washing line and, according to Roger Waters, it was based on a real person: “Both my mother and Syd’s mother had students as lodgers because there was a girls’ college up the road, so there were constantly great lines of bras and knickers on our washing lines and ‘Arnold’ or whoever he was, had bits off our washing lines,” he once said.
Mason said of the song: “This is a really unusual song. It’s part of the late-1960s thing where suddenly songs are more than just ‘I’m gonna get you, babe’.” The track would even go on to inspire a young David Bowie to seek out his own band.