Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner’s guide to Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett
Syd Barrett, the mercurial frontman of Pink Floyd, sadly lost his battle with mental health on July 7th, 2006. His story is a sad one, blighted with missteps and the nagging sensation of “what could’ve been” continuously gnawing away. So, instead of wallowing in the sadness and lost opportunity, we thought we’d collate six of his defining songs.
The six tracks below work is a beginner’s guide to the forgotten original Floyd frontman, without these songs in the first years of their inception Pink Floyd would never have become the classic rock behemoths they are to this day. It was Barett’s vision and determination which emboldened Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Richard Wright.
Having met at Regent Street polytechnic, the band quickly formed around the ideals and ideas that Barrett and Waters conjured up. While Waters would, of course, grow into the role of the songwriter, it was seemingly one Barrett was born to play.
Unlike any other artist at the time, Barrett seemed to have his finger firmly on the pulse of the burgeoning UK acid rock scene. He was able to create imagery and sonic landscapes the likes of which Britain had never seen before. What’s more, he did it with authenticity.
His talent, unfortunately, could not keep pace with his self-destruction and eventually saw Barrett out of the band he had already gained fame for, with David Gilmour replacing him, as his authenticity swallowed him up. Barrett didn’t just talk the talk when it came to LSD, he walked the walk. In fact, he ran.
Active in music for less than ten years in total, Barrett recorded four singles, numerous different 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.
Below, we’ve picked six of those tracks which define him as an artist.
Syd Barrett’s six definitive songs:
‘Arnold Layne’ (1967)
The song which many would argue launched the careers of Pink Floyd was the brilliant ‘Arnold Layne’. It’s a song that sits sweetly in the hearts and minds of Floyd fans and has been routinely played at their shows ever since.
But the song struggled in the charts on its release and suggested that Barrett’s far-out style may have been a little ahead of its time. Whether it was the sounds the band produced or the unusual content, it found itself struggling against the establishment.
The song tells the story of a transvestite 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.
‘Interstellar Overdrive’ (1967)
Featuring on the band’s debut record The Piper at the Gates of Dawn the ten-minute instrumental song showed the band’s audiences a taste of what was to come. It set the foundations of some of the psychedelic material the band would become famous for.
The song was apparently composed after Barrett overheard their former manager Peter Jenner humming a tune and Barrett, the musical magpie he was, tried to turn it into a song on his guitar.
Picked as one of his favourite songs, Floyd drummer Mason said of the track: “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 Floyd track which we’d imagine is still beloved widely by their fans to this day.
‘Vegetable Man’ (1968)
One of Floyd’s lost songs would eventually find its way to the light despite suffering a posting in limbo. The band were unsure of where to place the original song after they had finished work on A Saucerful of Secrets and had nowhere left for the track.
The track acts as a slightly despairing moment as the pressures of creating new music started to weigh heavily on Syd. His behaviour became more and more erratic around his heavy LSD usage and the song was eventually scrapped.
The song was picked up in 2016 and released as part of a major retrospective compilation record after being bootlegged for decades.
Another one from the band’s debut record The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, is the LP’s final track, ‘Bike’, a song which would go on to define the man behind the growing facade.
The track is a lyrical deconstruction of a bike, a mouse called Gerald and a girl that, as Barrett recalls in the lyrics, ‘fits’ his world. Repeating in 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 final verse of the song is followed by an instrumental piece of musique concrete which sees a sonic collage of oscillators, clocks, gongs bells and violins all producing the clatter of the aforementioned bike. It’s a hint at the moving mind of Barrett.
‘Astronomy Domine’ (1967)
From the end of the record back to the beginning. ‘Astronomy Domine’, the first track to be featured on Pink Floyd’s debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn it became one of the band’s seminal moment on 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 and opens with the sound of their manager, Peter Jenner, reading the names of planets, stars, and galaxies.
It saw the burgeoning talent of Barrett be given the proper space and opportunity to really let loose.
‘See Emily Play’ (1967)
Perhaps the band’s most famous song from the time came shortly after they signed their major record deal with EMI. It was a track that made the most out of studio technology of the time and hinted that Pink Floyd wasn’t your everyday rock band.
Norman Smith, the producer of the record, had been working alongside George Martin on Beatles’ recording sessions and was able to compute Floyd’s vision. Wright’s keyboard is engaging but it’s Barrett’s lyrics which really grabbed the attention of the swinging London set.
It saw the group make their way on to Top of the Pops and gather up a good deal of airplay. It’s arguably the beginning of Floyd’s journey to the top.