Tim Willis: Experimental musician who was prone to sabotage

Click to follow

Syd Barrett was a star of the Cambridge scene when he was a teenager. He was a terribly charismatic young man; into poetry and painting. He came from a close-knit academic community, he was the son of a don and had a great ability with words.

Cambridge was home to acid culture and he was right in at the beginning of the psychedelic scene.

Barrett originally wanted to be an artist, which he eventually became. He never found that immediacy in the recording business. So he went up to London, and with drummer Nick Mason, guitarist Roger Waters and keyboard player Rick Wright, played some hip underground clubs. They became an overnight sensation. He and Rick Wright came up with this sound which was keyboards and synthesised sound, with guitar effects over the top. It was a totally new sound.

But he was buzzing, he wrote "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play", and they became pop stars at the same time as being an underground act.

He was also the first guy to have the distinctive English intonation that David Bowie adopted. In the mid-Sixties, he said a concert had to be a theatrical experience, more than just a few guys standing on stage, a legacy that he leaves. He was taking a great deal of drugs, playing a lot and recording a lot.

At that time, if you wanted to promote your album you had to travel up and down the country, playing endless gigs. And they had to play the same songs again and again, which was a terrible treadmill for Barrett. While he wanted to be experimental, the management wanted a new hit single. He probably found all the concentration on him difficult to cope with. For someone so iconic, he was a complicated mixture of reserve and charm, and was torn about fame.

Tensions in the band grew as he was battling with his own drug problems. He began to sabotage the band's performances. Eventually, they had to go their own ways. Just before leaving the band, he told Waters that he should get two backing players and a saxophone, which is the signature of the Dark Side of the Moon in many ways. Barrett made two haunting solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett.

He moved to Cambridge, and was a private person. In later life, he had a lot of trouble relating to people, having been a very charming young man. But he seems to have been content enough.

I guess his epitaph would be the line "Wouldn't you miss me?" from the song "Dark Globe". But it would be jollier if it were "Here I Go".

Tim Willis was talking to Geneviève Roberts

Madcap, a biography of Syd Barrett by Tim Willis, is published by Short Books at £7.99