My Pink Floyd biography, Pigs Might Fly, was first published in 2007. I’m still asked why the book was titled Comfortably Numb in the US. That’s because the US publishers were convinced Americans wouldn’t know what the phrase “pigs might fly” meant, and it was safer to name the book after a famous Pink Floyd song. I’m sure they’re right. But I still think it’s confusing.
When I started writing Pigs Might Fly I wanted to debunk some of the myths surrounding their ex-frontman Syd Barrett. He died a week after I started work on the book, and several of his old mates, girlfriends and associates agreed to talk. Unfortunately, I discovered that many of the stories surrounding Barrett were true, and the reality was even stranger and sadder.
Some years later, I interviewed Barrett’s sister, Rosemary, for Mojo magazine. She painted a very different picture to the one usually portrayed in books and music magazines. There was clearly nothing poetic or glamorous about Syd Barrett’s demise.
Pigs Might Fly was updated and reprinted in 2013 and, again, in 2017, to coincide with the Pink Floyd exhibition, Their Mortal Remains at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. It’s currently in the V&A bookshop.
Book extract from Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story Of Pink Floyd
“He’s on a higher cosmic level, man…”
In 1974 Syd Barrett emerged from his Cambridge hidey-hole. A year before, several months after the Stars debacle, Barrett had been seen playing guitar alongside former Cream bassist Jack Bruce in a Cambridge church hall. Royalties from the Pink Floyd compilation Relics had started coming in, and Barrett again moved to London. After a spell at the Park Lane Hilton he took out a lease on two flats in Chelsea Cloisters, near to Sloane Square. He filled the first sixth-floor apartment with guitars, amplifiers and other possessions, while living in a two-room flat on the ninth.
In April 1974, Nick Kent had written an article about Barrett in New Musical Express, interviewing former associates, including David Gilmour, and drawing together the wealth of anecdotes about the former Floyd singer, many of which subsequently passed into legend: the Mandrax-in-the-hair tale; the meltdown on American TV…
‘Tony Secunda, who used to manage The Move, told me the story about Syd rubbing Mandrax into his hair,’ says Kent. ‘Then someone else told me the same story. As is the case with after-the-fact gossiping, it seemed to me that maybe 70 per cent of these stories were actually true.
’These stories also included the claims that Barrett may or may not have worked in a factory, as a gardener, tried to enroll as an architecture student, grown mushrooms in his basement, been a tramp, spent two weeks in New York busking, tried to become a Pink Floyd roadie….
Seven months before his scathing live review in NME, Kent found David Gilmour an obliging interviewee: ‘We met in a pub in Covent Garden and he was totally candid about the Syd situation and didn’t try and whitewash it. Gilmour had this everyman quality about him. Totally unpretentious. He was with an American girl then, who kept bugging him throughout the interview to go to a restaurant with her. She kept fidgeting and saying, “How long is this going to go on, Dave?” And he was only there for forty-five minutes.
’As well as suggesting that some of Syd’s problems were attributable to his father’s death and that ‘his mother always pampered him – and made him out to be a genius of sorts’, Gilmour wisely pinpricked the mystical aura already surrounding Barrett: ‘He functions on a totally different plane of logic, and some people will claim, “Well, yeah, man, he’s on a higher cosmic level”, but basically there’s something drastically wrong.
’In his NME article, Kent mentioned that Barrett was now living in Chelsea, and frequently visited the Morrison Agency. Bryan Morrison owned Lupus Music, Barrett’s publishing company, who took care of his royalties. Kent also mentioned that EMI were keen to get Barrett back into the studio. Between July and August that year, Syd returned on several occasions to Abbey Road, at Bryan Morrison’s behest.
Engineer John Leckie was present when Syd arrived at the studio. ‘The plan was that Syd was going to make another album by himself,’ says Leckie. ‘He was going to make the album by doing different things every day – piano one day, drums the next, bass the next. I remember he came in with a load of new guitars. But we never got that far. I don’t think we made it to the piano.
’The idea was for Barrett to be recorded playing whatever he wanted, and for his manager, Peter Jenner, to listen through the tapes, and take anything worthwhile, onto which a bass and drums could be overdubbed. A handful of scraps emerged. But the sessions were a disaster. Syd hadn’t written any new songs, and, according to one observer, turned up one day without any strings on his guitar.
‘Bryan Morrison was there,’ continues Leckie. ‘Bryan always smoked a cigar and was in evening wear. He was a big guy who went on to play polo with Prince Charles. Morrison kept pushing Syd – “Come on, Syd, come on, Syd, get it together” – but it was no use. He didn’t have anything.
’Morrison’s anxiety may have been exacerbated by another incident involving Syd from around the same time. Barrett had turned up at Lupus Music and demanded a royalty cheque. When he was reminded that he’d been in a day before and had signed for his cheque then, Syd began shouting. Morrison came out of his office to reprimand him and Barrett bit Bryan’s outstretched finger, drawing blood.
At Chelsea Cloisters, Barrett installed a huge colour TV set, and splashed out on expensive hi-fi equipment and clothes, most of which were stashed in the sixth-floor apartment and rarely touched again. His frequent haunt became the neighbouring Marlborough Arms, where he’d sit alone, polishing off pints of Guinness. Over the course of a few months, he retreated back into himself, cutting off all his hair again, gaining a vast amount of weight, and randomly donating his possessions to the porters at Chelsea Cloisters. At least one eyewitness from the time remembered seeing Barrett in Sloane Square wearing a woman’s dress underneath his overcoat.
‘After my article came out, I kept encountering people who knew Syd from the Cambridge days,’ says Nick Kent. ‘There was always someone saying, “Oh, I was his girlfriend for two months” or “I used to roadie for one of his groups”, and they all spoke about how much he’d changed physically.
’John Whiteley, Syd’s occasional flatmate from Earlham Street nearly ten years before, was among those who spotted him in London that year. ‘I saw him on the Kings Road,’ says Whiteley. ‘It was shocking, because he’d been such a handsome boy. Now he was so overweight, and he’d shaved his head, but he was still walking on his tip-toes, in the way that he did. I stayed on the other side of the road. I couldn’t speak to him.
’Whiteley’s impressions were echoed by others. The sightings soon had a depressing familiarity: the bloated, bald man incongruously dressed in a Hawaiian shirt or huge overcoat, hanging around Earls Court or South Kensington, walking the same way, up on his toes.
Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell would also encounter Syd that year. A few weeks after the NME article, EMI reissued Barrett’s two solo LPs as a double album package. Storm and Po went to Chelsea Cloisters to try and take a new photograph of Syd for the album sleeve. They knocked on the door of his flat. ‘Finally, he called to us through the door, “Who’s there?” ’ remembers Po. ‘I said, “It’s Storm and Po. Can we come in and have a chat?” And he just said, “Go away!” That was the last time I ever spoke to him.
’‘Part of me was angry,’ admits Storm. ‘I thought: Screw you, I’ll be off. Here I was knocking on the door of someone I’d known since I was fourteen and he wouldn’t let me in.’
Buy Pigs Might Fly here…