Geoff Hoon: How Syd reflected the dark side of the Hoon

'See Emily play' was a masterpiece of psychedelic invention

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The death of one of your heroes from adolescence is always an intimation of mortality as you nostalgically recall the music, how you were when you first heard it, and what it meant to you then rather than what it sounds like now.

The early music of Pink Floyd was written out of the imagination of Syd Barrett - original, spacey, quirky. Like "Arnold Layne" it was "a strange hobby" - because quite unlike the world-dominating band that came later, their early albums were an acquired and eclectic minority taste that reflected their leader's daytime dreams, writing songs about distant galaxies, transvestite thieves or his bike.

I still have a 45 of their "See Emily Play" a masterpiece of psychedelic invention that made the top 10 in 1967 and seemed to be the model for Pink Floyd's early soundtrack of crashing guitar chords and science-fiction space travel. We "Set the Controls for Heart of the Sun" by "Interstellar Overdrive", arriving at "Astronomy Domine".

Perhaps only the members of Pink Floyd can say how much of that sound was Barrett and how much the collective efforts of a band of friends open to invention and experimentation. What is not in any doubt is that Barrett left the band before they made it really big, becoming one of rock music's saddest stories.

Most accounts suggest that the effects of a Sixties cocktail of too many drugs and a mental breakdown left him incapable of keeping his place in the band. Nick Mason, Pink Floyd's drummer and biographer, has described their guilt when one night the rest of the band simply failed to pick him up for a gig, and from then on carried on without him.

Yet they never forgot, after leaving him at home, as they went on to be one of the world's biggest bands. They helped on his two solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, more acclaimed now by the likes of Graham Coxon than they were at the time. They have also been generous, seeing that Barrett's songs were included on their greatest hits album to ensure continuing financial support in his later years. And some of their greatest songs are about him - "Wish You Were Here" and "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" ("Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun").

Recording the latter song at Abbey Road in 1975, the band noticed an overweight, shaven-headed, slightly dishevelled man who had somehow found his way into the studio. They simply had not recognised their old friend, who had turned up to see his old band at work.

In his book about Pink Floyd, Nick Mason is not quite certain that it was the song about Barrett that they were working on but the fact that he turned up out of the blue to see them after so many years apart has become a modern rock legend.

The members of Pink Floyd also sought to respect their friend's privacy as he lived in his home town of Cambridge, subject from time to time to invasions by over-enthusiastic fans or photographers. I have often wondered whether, during my years at Cambridge, without knowing I might have walked past him on the street.

It was the river and the surrounding fenland that provided the inspiration for much of his band's best music and perhaps one of his best songs - "Float on a river, for ever and ever Emily, Emily/ There is no other day/ Let's try it another way/ You'll lose your mind and play/ Free games for May/ See Emily play".

Pink Floyd reformed for the world - to make poverty history. Perhaps they might play again in memory of a man who was once their leader and their inspiration, their "piper at the gates of dawn".

Geoff Hoon is Minister of State for Europe

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