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July 12th, 2006
Wed, Jul. 12th, 2006 10:47 am

Syd Barrett has died aged 60.

I remember 1967. I was in the Doune Gardens, behind the family house in Edinburgh, and I had a little Crown transistor radio. That's where I first heard "See Emily Play". It stood out -- much weirder and more beautiful than anything else on the radio. A bulletin from another world.

When David Bowie made his "Pinups" album I didn't much like it. The only track I could actually remember from the 60s was "See Emily Play". That's the only song on the record which contained enough strangeness, the kind of strangeness you could hear in Bowie songs like "The Bewlay Brothers".

Syd went "beyond", and his iconic power is based on incommunicability -- he's on the dark side of the moon. But later Floyd become messengers, channelling him the same way Bowie channels his psychotic brother Terry in some of his best work. They tap into that "beyond".

Young Syd is, visually, a rock archetype. He looks like Bob Dylan, Marc Bolan, Robert Smith, Richard Ashcroft. Older Syd looks like Lawrence of Felt, a similarly legendary casualty of... something or other.

You hear echoes of Syd in Wire and Blur and David Bowie's "Low" album.

Syd is both the best and worst advertisement for LSD ever.

When I lived in Chelsea (I lived at 37 Draycott Place between 1985 and 1990), the flat where Syd had lived (the one in the photos on "The Madcap Laughs" sleeve) was just around the corner on Draycott Avenue. I used to think of him when I walked up to shop at Europa. My flatmate Mick Popper was the biggest Floyd fan ever, and sold bootlegs. That flat was like a rock museum. In the bathroom was a huge goat's head, a relic of the Rolling Stones' "Goat's Head Soup" tour.

My favourite Syd Barrett song is "No Good Trying". The chord changes are so weird, the bass so psychedelic, the lyrics communicate derangement in a weirdly focused way. "You're spinning around and around in a car with electric lights flashing very fast..." The song reminds me of Bowie's "Always Crashing in the Same Car".

There's a definite charm in being wasted. I've never tried it, though. I'd hate to be wasted.

I don't really like post-Syd Pink Floyd.

Epigone pop almost spoils Syd for me, because now I hear the lisping Damon Albarn when I hear Syd, and when I watch this video I can't help thinking of the worst period of Creation's epigone rock, the late 80s, when everyone was wearing those paisley shirts and dithering about in a field. There was even someone called Jeff Barrett, the worst press officer I ever had, because when he should have been doing my press he was off in a field somewhere, wearing a paisley-pattern shirt, taking drugs.

What a curse it was to be born too late, condemned to revere the 60s! Not that the 60s didn't deserve it, mind. It's just that the 80s began so well, with new idioms being minted, but then lost its nerve and fell to kneeling at the shrine of the (admittedly great) 1960s. I'm sure it's something to do with demographics, the baby boomers being all-powerful. And post-modernism saying it was okay to recycle the past endlessly. "Then" was "now", etc. Well, it wasn't.

If you can strip all the epigonery out of your mind, there's something impressive about Syd's First Trip. The idea of people running through the woods, high as kites, staring at tree-stumps and seeing... what?

Tonight let's all make love in London is also great for setting the scene the young Syd burst into, Swinging London. It's a promotional film for a UFO club event at Crystal Palace by Peter Whitehead, and it's dedicated to Syd. And The Look of the Week is a brilliant BBC clip with an incredible musicological analysis and interview cross-examination of the Floyd (not an appreciation) by Hans Keller.

The VH1 clip is alas also part of the retro-epigone thing, part of The Great Museum of Rock syndrome which kicked in during the 80s. Mojo, Q, Uncut, VH1, the Great Museum of Rock. All endlessly memorializing (and killing) a few moments of aliveness in the 1960s.

There's a picture of Syd from April 2001, taken near his mother's house in Cambridge. He's a middle-aged man wearing shorts, a man with a shaved head, a vegetable, a dosser, a loser. He's carrying some papers. You can't help wondering if he's got a copy of Mojo magazine in there somewhere. If he's going home to read about his own moment of aliveness.

Britain is still there, rock music is still there. People still know how to be sane in rock music, clever enough to reproduce the interesting bits, or to write exhaustive historical articles about the interesting bits. But do they still know how to be mad and eccentric? Is there anybody in the charts as crazy as Syd Barrett was when "See Emily Play" charted? Is there anybody who'd try to stop its release, as Syd did, because it was "too commercial"? Is there anybody who'd write the unreleaseable "Vegetable Man" as a follow-up?

It doesn't feel like Syd's dead now, because it's felt like he's been dead since the 60s. Syd went missing just before the genius of rock did.

But of course saying this leads us straight to the logic of Mojo magazine. It's the conclusion Mojo starts from. How to escape this loop, this self-fulfilling prophecy?

Notes on Mojo magazine

I'm not saying Mojo is a bad magazine. In fact, it's one of the better rock magazines, and it's been consistently supportive of me in reviews ("a laptop Tom Lehrer"). But you could paraphrase its mission statement as "The Continuing Adventures of Dead People Much More Alive Than You'll Ever Be". And the problem with that is that it fosters a reverential, interpretative culture. It turns rock music into classical music, a music of the museum and the academy. Although they write their own material, bands now are more like classical musicians; they mostly just interpret the masterpieces left behind by dead (or ageing) composers.

The reason I object to this state of affairs is that there's a clear binary in my head. I started making records when I was a literature student at a conservative university. "The Continuing Adventures of Dead People Much More Alive Than You'll Ever Be" could also be a paraphrase of what my Eng. Lit. course was all about. And I turned to popular music because it was alive. How disappointing, then, to see it, too, enter the museum.

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