For music, amongst other things, the 1960s was a momentous time. An era of upheaval where longstanding social mores were destroyed and the handbook on everything was re-written. When you look back, you quickly see that most of the world’s most influential band’s abounded during that hallowed decade and that with close inspection, without the ’60s acting as a sort of ‘Big Bang’ moment, to all intents and purposes, we would not be where we find ourselves now.
Many of the biggest acts of the decade were pioneering, on and off the stage, and duly, it was a time that was characterised by the perennial shoulder-rubbing and cross-pollination between many of our favourite musicians. This wasn’t just limited to music either. It was a time of interdisciplinary mixing, with fashion designers, activists and actors all occupying the same social strata, culminating in such a heady time.
The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Aretha Franklin, the number of bonafide stars the ’60s spawned is dazzling. Undoubtedly though, as is well documented, The Beatles were the biggest and most significant act of the ’60s, and without their contributions to society, it isn’t ridiculous to posit that life as we know it would look markedly different.
However, the ’60s also gave us another group, who first embarked on their long sonic journey in 1964, Pink Floyd. The band released their iconic debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, in 1967, which is now hailed as a masterpiece and an early cornerstone in the psychedelic rock genre. However, as was often the case with many artists back then, issues developed from frontman Syd Barrett’s regular use of LSD, exacerbating his mental health struggles, and by all accounts, a significant change in his personality.
This was a time when the effects of drug use and mental health weren’t known or spoken about, and it led to Barrett departing the group he formed in April 1968. This would lead to the ascension of David Gilmour, who would help to take the band on their increasingly prog journey, making them one of the defining bands of the ’70s, and of all time.
Due to Barrett’s mysterious character afforded to him by the press and fans stemming from his hermit-like lifestyle after departing Pink Floyd, and the genius of his songwriting, it led to him being revered as a demi-god-like figure in the annals of rock. His material with Pink Floyd is iconic as it features his overtly British accent, which inspired early David Bowie, children’s story like narratives and lullaby melodies, and visceral guitar work. In addition to his opaque lifestyle, these factors have culminated in many rumours abounding about Barrett’s life.
One of these is that the Beatles 1968 track ‘What’s the New Mary Jane’ was inspired by Barrett. Again, this stems from the longstanding image of the ’60s as a time of constant shoulder-rubbing by artists. It has long been rumoured that Barrett inspired the Beatles to pen the tune as Pink Floyd recorded The Piper at Abbey Road Studios in London, where the Beatles famously decamped to for the latter half of their career.
The bands even used adjacent studios sometimes, so naturally, it is not wrong to imagine that they would have briefly crossed paths. In fact, evidence exists to suggest that John Lennon and wife Yoko watched Pink Floyd headline 1967’s psychedelic fund-raising spectacle, The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream, as Yoko Ono was also on the bill.
‘What’s the New Mary Jane’ definitely sounds like a budget version of a Syd Barrett tune. It features futile lyrics such as, “she liked to be married to yeti, he cooking such groovy spaghetti”, a slightly unhinged vocal melody, backed up by equally as lopsided music. However, the song was clearly an experiment, as it never made it onto a Beatles album. It is understandable to think that Barrett directly inspired it, as it makes use of the zany sound effects and noises that characterised the Barrett era Floyd.
Unfortunately, that’s about the extent of it. There is no solid evidence to suggest that Barrett personally inspired the Beatles’ track; rather, it is more likely that the Beatles’ track was just a part of the massive psychedelic boom that was happening at the time. LSD was in its supremacy, flower-power was in full swing, and this clearly had an effect on the musicians and the music. Furthermore, the first “official” studio take of ‘What’s the New Mary Jane’ was recorded in August 1968, by the time Barrett had left Pink Floyd altogether.
Listen to ‘What’s the New Mary Jane’, below.