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01.04.20 Nick Mason: “He should have retired three, four, six months earlier.”

Syd Barrett - Dark Globe - Uncut May 2020 Fifty years on from his debut solo album The Madcap Laughs, Syd Barrett’s myth is as powerful as ever. Here, Nick Mason remembers the mercurial brilliance of his former Pink Floyd bandmate and their journey together from Stanhope Gardens in Highgate to the soundstages of American TV chat shows.

When I first met Syd, he was the most charming and outgoing guy. He had come to London to go to Camberwell School Of Art, and he moved into the flat in Stanhope Gardens, Highgate, that Roger and I had rented from Mike Leonard. Mike was the fifth member of the band for a little while back then.

This was the beginning of Pink Floyd. When we were Sigma 6, before Syd joined; we were a little bit jazzy and a little bit Top 20 — we played "Long Tall Texan", things like that. It carried on like that when Syd joined, but only for a little bit. The idea was that with Syd on board we could really start being a proper band — and being a proper band excluded Mike.

We were rehearsing at Stanhope Gardens at this point, and also in a pub, The Gatehouse, which was walking distance from there, on the main road. They had an upstairs room which we hired for the evening for a fiver or a tenner. Syd wasn't a virtuoso, none of us were. You know that thing about 10,000 hours, and once you've done that you're probably going to be OK at something? Well, when we started we'd probably done about 50 hours! It wouldn't have been more than 100 — we'd have done a number of rehearsals, two hours apiece, a few gigs and that was it. What you need is enough time to get away with it all, until you learn how to do it.

We had begun to see that the way forward was to have original material. No-one else but Syd had written anything. Maybe Rick had, but it never got recorded by the band or even learnt, to my knowledge. The initial songs that he wrote must have been the ones we made into demos at Broadhurst Gardens — "Lucy Leave", "Butterfly"... also "Candy And A Currant Bun". I'm not sure that Syd was the driving force or the leader exactly but he was certainly the front of the band, and frankly being the writer tends to give one quite a lot of control anyway. One wasn't particularly aware of it, though. I don't think he was particularly pressing for control. The other person who was forceful, of course, was Roger. But I don't really remember that as being part of the makeup of the band then.

In late 1966, Peter Jenner and Andrew King discovered us and we started a residency at All Saints Church Hall in Notting Hill. Syd was writing then, but I still remember a review saying that what we were doing was interesting but that we really should drop "Louie Louie" from the setlist. They were probably correct.

* * *

In 1966 we did something like six or seven gigs. We'd played a couple of student parties and a hop at the Regent Street Poly. But we were not gigging — we didn't have a van initially, so the whole thing of even moving equipment around was difficult. Then Peter and Andrew got involved. In 1967 we played 200 gigs.

We started playing extended pieces at the Hornsey College Of Art. All the stuff we did there was weird — it was not suited to songs or a regular repertoire! Because of working with their light and sound workshop, we made these early versions of psychedelic music. That was developed further at UFO at the end of the year.

As far as improvising went, we were quite good at starting up but not necessarily falling back on what we'd done before. The big thing was the Binson Echorec for Syd's guitar. Syd had it first — Rick almost had enough to do just with his electric Farfisa. Moving from R&B covers to this more expansive style was quite a change, of course, but a number of people did it. That's how it was then. I always loved how Zoot Money & The Big Roll Band became Dantalian's Chariot overnight... flared trousers, permed hair. Suddenly they were part of the Swinging Sixties. Brilliant! Somewhere along this transition, we started shedding "Long Tall Texan", "Louie Louie" and whatever, ending up with more of Syd's original songs, things like "Chapter 24", that we eventually recorded on The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. We were fairly relaxed about what we were doing and how we were doing it.

I think Syd was beginning to use LSD by the time we played All Saints. When we got to UFO, he was doing a lot more of it. But it's not something that you can see -you can see someone smoking or snorting or injecting — so you'd never know. Us and The Soft Machine were both seen as being house bands at UFO — though we had slightly more status within the industry. We had produced a minor hit record at least, whereas Soft Machine never got close to doing anything quite that crass! They were proper grown-ups. But it meant that we pulled in a bigger audience because of that.

Syd got on really well with Joe Boyd when we recorded "Arnold Layne". He was happier with him than working with Norman Smith on Piper.... Joe was much more part of the counterculture, and Andrew and Peter were absolutely supportive of Syd, too. Joe worked for Elektra, which behaved more like an indie label, whereas EMI was a full-on commercial operation — Manchester Square, A&R departments, marketing department, £25 for the cover of a record, that's how it worked. Of course, they had had The Beatles, which made them top dog.

Just a month after "Arnold Layne", we were in Studio 3 at Abbey Road recording Piper. It was very quick. Roger and I had been in college most days, and then suddenly we had become professional, and we were spending seven hours a day doing music rather than an hour and a half. Initially, Syd was pleased about all this — in the Pink Floyd exhibition at the V&A there was a letter he wrote, saying how excited he was by the whole thing, by us getting our own van.

For each Piper session, our bloke set everything up. We had to do the drum sound fresh each time and all the mics were set up again. I think notes were taken each time; most of the engineers were very well trained, so they knew how to get things done very quickly. But I do remember that it took as long to make The Damned's Music For Pleasure as it did just to get the drum sound set up at Abbey Road.

We recorded the drums and bass together at the same time, and a guide guitar and keyboard, then they were bumped down to one track, to give another three tracks. That was it, because after that you'd be worried about hiss building up.

The rest of us realised that it didn't really work with Norman Smith when we were doing A Saucerful Of Secrets later on. But I suspect that even with Piper, Syd was thinking that he didn't particularly want Norman's control on it. I can imagine Syd thinking, know how I want to do this, I don't want Norman trying to turn it into a hit single...' Which I think Norman felt some obligation to try and do, whereas Syd was pushing in a weirder direction. "Interstellar Overdrive", say, was a genuine jam: at any point it could have gone off in any different direction! Then again, Syd knocked out "The Gnome" or "Scarecrow", something that was so not psychedelic and more English, bucolic, rural.

* * *

The machinery had come together and we were gigging a lot by this point. We did some pretty average stuff, though, driving around England playing Top Rank ballrooms to people who really weren't interested or, in some cases, hated it. When we played the Tulip Bulb Auction Hall in Spalding [May 29, 1967] in Lincolnshire, we were down the bottom of the bill. Cream were there and so was Jimi Hendrix. The headliner, though, was Geno Washington & The Ram Jam Band. What you'd tend to get at these gigs was a division, so you'd get hippies, university students and potheads at the front, and the rather angry soul fanclub at the back, shouting abuse.

At every Top Rank place, the stage revolved — it was not great! But we were desperate, we wanted to succeed, we wanted to play, and I look back on it and think, `Why the fuck did we do that?' Because there wasn't anything else, other than going back to architecture school, and we just thought, 'No, we want to carry on doing this.'

It all began to go wrong for Syd after the first single, "Arnold Layne". The warning signs came when we were doing Top Of The Pops for the second time, with "See Emily Play". Syd said, "John Lennon doesn't have to go to the BBC and mime — why should I?" Syd had been up for Games For May, but later in the summer we had to pull out of a number of gigs, including the Blues And Jazz Festival at Windsor, because of Syd. So Roger and Syd went to Formentera with the idea that it gave Syd the opportunity to recover — which clearly didn't work.

Of course, Syd was really exercised with the whole acid thing by this point. He was not doing it recreationally, it was meant to be something much more cerebral. He was on 'the journey', and the fact that he tripped badly almost strengthened his resolve to try and break through. Years later Jenny Spires sent me this info on a particularly savage form of LSD that was available in that period. It was something like 10 times stronger than regular LSD. Quite a few people who took it never recovered. It's possible that Syd did some of that. No, I wasn't tempted by this path to LSD enlightenment — I thought it was quite scary! Roger, Rick and I were on rum and lime! We generally hung out at the management office in Alexander Street rather than in Syd's flat or wherever Roger or Rick or I were living. I don't think I ever went inside the flat on Cromwell Road [where Barrett's heaviest LSD use is believed to have occurred].

But who knows if it was all drug related? I think Syd lost interest in the machinery, he lost interest in doing Fab 208 photoshoots, miming on Top Of The Pops, all that sort of stuff. Later on, the playing went to pot, but the real problem was the whole thing of being in a pop music industry, when he thought he wanted to be an artist. I mean, he was very cool, and then he became pretty loose and wasn't particularly cool any more, then he became quite withdrawn.

By the time we recorded "Apples And Oranges" in the autumn, we were struggling with the singles, and at that point we were probably playing live Thursday, Friday and Saturday, having Sunday off, and then going back into the studio on Monday. When we played London shows we would be in the studio in the day, too.

The American tour in November 1967 was problematic from the start. It makes me shudder. It was great because it was an adventure — I'd been to America once before, but it was different not having to pay for it — but Syd was definitely losing it. First of all there was a problem with the work permits, so we left two days late. On the plane out, I remember the stewardess making everyone extinguish their cigarettes before takeoff — those were the days! — and Syd stubbed it out on the carpet instead of using the ashtray, to the fury of the air hostesses.

We played the Winterland in San Francisco with Richie Havens and Big Brother And The Holding Company, which was great, but the rest of the trip was filled with doing these awful television shows. It was promotion but it was put together by the record company, who didn't really get it at all. Syd was a loose cannon. No-one knew what he was gonna say, or whether he was gonna freak out and try and throttle Dick Clark. It was so uncomfortable for everyone.

Interestingly, thinking back on it, we were doing The Pat Boone Show, but Janis Joplin wasn't doing it, and neither was Richie Havens.

* * *

In London we recorded some more songs, like "Vegetable Man" and "Scream Thy Last Scream". I suspect that Syd first played them to us in the studio. It's likely that he wrote "Vegetable Man" at Peter Jenner's house on Edbrooke Road. I think Syd was living round there then — Peter and Andrew thought they could look after him. "Vegetable Man" was unfinished, really. The structure of the song is not right; it's still missing a middle eight. But it was in the running for a single — which we were desperately in need of. Was there pressure on Syd to write? Well, everyone's relying on you, as the writer... and we had a roadie by then. Possibly by that time we even had two roadies!

The pressure for a single came from the label — EMI would definitely not have said, "This is an unusual band who would work better on albums..." But we all ascribed to it, that was the belief then. We still had our sights set on Top Of The Pops, we were still worrying about whether our photographs made us look as though we were interested in a wardrobe. The album had taken over after The Beatles and Sgt Pepper, but there was still a belief that the hit single was the way forward. You could get your single onto the BBC, and if you couldn't do that, at least onto Radio Luxembourg or Caroline. I think we've forgotten just how important the Top 20 was to launch a band back then. We only decided it wasn't important when we couldn't achieve it a year or two later, which was a perfectly good reason to say, "We don't really do singles..."

"Have You Got It Yet?" was around this time, probably a little bit later. Funnily enough, that's the only song that I remember Syd playing to us ever — it's unforgettable, really. We just spent an hour or two hours learning nothing, just nonsense. It was intentional, I think — a joke, but who knows?

I always maintain that we looked after Syd very, very badly, but we didn't know any better. We didn't recognise what was going on, because we were all so focused on wanting the band to be a success. He really should have retired three, four, six months earlier. We should have realised what was happening and gone our separate ways. But we didn't because we thought we needed him, and we didn't know enough about what was going on.

He became really quite psychotic, attacked girlfriends, all sorts of things. If someone had written it down and put it in front of us though, we still wouldn't have recognised it. We would have thought, 'Maybe we'll give him two days off and it'll all be better...' We still don't know the cause of it all, really. There's the belief that most likely it was LSD damage, but actually it could have been perfectly straightforward. He wanted to be an artist and not a pop star. Maybe that broke him. It certainly wouldn't do any good to be forced down a road he didn't want to go down. Some people have said that maybe there were signs of Syd being a little bit on the spectrum earlier on. But I don't know. If we'd continued with Joe Boyd, it might have prolonged Syd's ability to work, but I suspect it would have petered out eventually. Music moved on and became more rock. By the time Led Zeppelin were out there, it might have got swamped.

Syd's last gig with us at Hastings Pier wouldn't have been our finest moment in terms of the fanbase. I didn't see Syd for many years, then he showed up at the studio when we were recording Wish You Were Here. I can go on explaining what Syd looked like, and the fact that I didn't recognise him at all until he was pointed out — and I agonised about whether to show the Polaroid I took in Their Mortal Remains — but that's how it was. It was quite scary. Phil Taylor thinks with some justification that he came again the next day, because he's uncovered a couple of Polaroids where Syd's dressed in something else. He certainly didn't bring a trousseau with him.

I've lived with Syd's songs for over 50 years now. The first night I played them again with Saucerful Of Secrets, I suddenly thought, I've been here before..? It was really nice! It was the best of where we'd been in 5967 — a band on stage, the audience enjoying it, us enjoying it, with eye contact. What's been nice about playing the early stuff again is remembering the happy side of it, rather than the bad side.

One can endlessly go on about The Pat Boone Show and Lothar And The Hand People and Syd putting oil on his hair and all those stories, which are true and get rolled out every time. But there was an early point at which we were all striving for the same thing and getting there.

* * *

Source: Uncut Magazine #276 May 2020 p. 78-83

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