THE PINK FLOYD & SYD BARRETT STORY
director: John Edington
review by J.C. Hartley
A BBC Omnibus programme released on DVD which despite the title is predominantly about Syd Barrett himself, the hugeness that was Pink Floyd, after Barrett's departure, only being sketched in where songs and concepts sprang from the band's attempts to deal with their erstwhile front-man's sidelong shuffle into mental illness.
Being an Omnibus programme there is some tricksy camerawork, attempting to replicate visually the drugs experience, but otherwise this is a noble attempt to consider an artist whose influence far overwhelms the fairly frugal output of the creative period of his life. The blurb on the box promises that a handful of tracks from early Pink Floyd are featured but there is little more than a few bars or choruses built into the narrative.
There is still some argument over the nature of Syd's illness, and it has been suggested more than once that he played to the gallery with regard to expectations of his mental state; percussionist Jerry Shirley isn't entirely convinced that Syd didn't know what was going on, and provides the delightfully non-PC observation that, "Nutters have moments of great clarity." Dave Gilmour describes a recording session for his solo work where Syd was clearly attuned to the technicalities of a difficult piece of production, although the 'mind-boggling' ability to navigate through the time sequences of reversed tapes and backwards guitar might indicate a mind on a completely different wavelength to what we consider normal.
Barrett was a Renaissance man, painter, poet and musician, in a particularly English vein that declared itself in a love of the language and the ability of that language to be manipulated in a subversive manner. His early work for Floyd, on the first disc of the double album A Nice Pair, a steady seller that kept him in royalty payments, shows winsomeness run through with a hint of menace in the tradition of Kenneth Grahame and Hillaire Belloc. Whether he was inspired by the nobler ideals of artistry and just refused to cope with the commercial demands of success, or a fragile grasp on reality was shattered by over-enthusiastic drug use is open to debate, but few now can argue against intense or long-term drug use having a permanent effect on even the most stable of psyches; Roger Waters' memory lapses in the extended interview section seem all too familiar for anyone who lived through the 1970s.
The band's apparent abandonment of Syd is a little hard to take at times, although they were clearly upset at his disintegration, and reminders of his musical past were said to be upsetting for him. Nick Mason honestly points out that Barrett's difficult behaviour was less than welcome at a time when the band were beginning to take off, and consequently they were often less than supportive; some attempts to get Syd into therapy were rebuffed and maybe some of the radical theories regarding mental illness at the time wouldn't have been very helpful.
This is an entertaining biography for fans of Barrett and Floyd and newcomers alike. The extras include extended reminiscences from Roger Waters and David Gilmour, acoustic performances of some of Syd's solo work by Robyn Hitchcock and Graham Coxon, and a biography of Barrett.