New Film Dispels Myths About Pink Floyd’s Visionary Founder Syd Barrett
Syd Barrett is the stuff of legends. The founder of Pink Floyd, Cambridge-born Barrett was also its front man, lead singer, primary (and almost exclusive) songwriter, spokesman and public face. But his time in the spotlight was comparatively brief: for reasons never completely explained (at least not to everyone’s satisfaction), Barrett suffered some kind of breakdown; by 1968 he was out of the group he had put together. He left behind a clutch of classic singles, one groundbreaking debut album (Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn) and one stray, oddball track (“Jugband Blues,” with the prophetic lyric “And I’m most obliged to you for making it clear that I’m not here”) and faded into the mist.
Unlike so many members of the fabled and so-called “27 Club,” Roger Keith Barrett didn’t die in that era. With the help of friends he would release a pair of idiosyncratic albums – The Madcap Laughs and Barrett – in 1970. But not long thereafter, he completely disappeared from public life, eventually settling down in his Cambridge hometown. There he lived a quiet existence. After an illness, he passed away in 2006.
Barrett’s life remains shrouded in mystery. Did – as many have speculated – he sustain damage from a surfeit of LSD trips? Was he schizophrenic? Did he simply reject the life of a pop star and redirect his creative energy toward painting? Countless articles, books and other media have speculated at length as to what happened to Syd, and why. In the more than half-century since his exit from the music scene, a cottage industry has sprung up around his work, life and legend.
A collection of outtake Barrett solo recordings, Opel was released in 1988; the few remaining scattered unreleased recordings came out in bits and pieces; perhaps most notable were the archival tracks included on the first few volumes in the massive Pink Floyd boxed set, The Early Years 1965-1972. Tracks like “In the Beechwoods” and “Vegetable Man” showcased Barrett’s compositional genius and hinted at the challenges that would eventually sideline him.
One Barrett-era Pink Floyd track that has never surfaced is the notorious “Have You Got It Yet?” The song was so named because during rehearsals, each time the rest of the band – then consisting of bassist Roger Waters, keyboardist Richard Wright and drummer Nick Mason – seemed to get a handle on how to play the oddly-structured tune, a mischievously taunting Barrett would change the song, singing its title as a refrain.
Fittingly enough, Have You Got it Yet? is also the title of a new documentary that opens a window into the Syd Barrett story. Conceived by director Roddy Bogawa, Have You Got It Yet? is unique among Barrett-related projects in that is has the explicit and/or tacit approval and cooperation of key figures in Syd Barrett’s life and brief career.
Bogawa secured the cooperation of principals in Barrett’s story thanks in large part to his reputation as a thoughtful filmmaker. His 2011 documentary, Taken by Storm: The Art of Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis was the first major motion picture to explore the story of the famed art design group headed by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey “Po” Powell. Hipgnosis dominated the optical landscape of the late ‘60s and ‘70s rock era; their album cover work is the defining visual component of countless albums. Hipgnosis artwork, photography and design graces most of the Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd releases, several albums by Paul McCartney and Wings, and scores of others.
Even as a teenager, Bogawa became obsessed with Hipgnosis, and with Thorgerson in particular. And once he was a filmmaker, he channeled that obsession into how own work. He kept asking himself, “Who is this guy who shaped my teen psyche so much?” And he sought the answer by making the film. Thorgerson cooperated on that project, and in the process became aware of the breadth of Bogawa’s talent and vision.
At the Los Angeles screening of Taken by Storm, Thorgerson found himself in conversation with an old friend, singer-guitarist Rob Dickinson; Thorgerson had designed several album covers for Dickinson’s old band Catherine Wheel. “Storm,” Dickinson enthused, “Roddy should do a film about Syd Barrett!” The very next day, Thorgerson – himself a childhood friend and confidante of Barrett’s – began encouraging Bogawa to take on just such an ambitious project. “I’ll produce it,” he told the filmmaker. “You direct it.”
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