Looking back on the Pink Floyd of the late 60s, the fledgling band first led by Syd Barrett can seem a bit like Britain’s answer to The Velvet Underground. Idiosyncratically druidic, mysterious, and playful, but also inspired by literature (though Barrett was much more Kenneth Graham than Delmore Schwartz), drawn to experimental film and hypnotic stage effects, inspired to turn the experience of being on specific drugs into a disorienting new way of playing music.
The comparison may seem odd, especially given the Velvets reputation as the most famous band no one heard of until after they broke up and Pink Floyd’s reputation as one of the biggest-selling bands of all time. But before they filled stadiums, they were scrappy and strange and psychedelic in the earliest sense of the word.
Sadly departed singer Chris Cornell remembers discovering their first record, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, in the mid-80s, and meeting a very different Pink Floyd than the one he’d come to know: “It could almost have been a British indie-rock record of the time.” Indeed, Syd Barrett’s work, including the solo albums he recorded after leaving the band, left a long, lasting impression on indie rock.
[T]he important thing about The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was the music’s strange juxtaposition – sometimes whimsical and pastoral, but simultaneously desperate and sad. I don’t think I ever found another record which that type of dichotomy worked so well. With Syd Barrett, it never felt like an invention.
The BBC’s Chris Jones put it a little more succinctly: “this is Edward Lear for the acid generation.”
If all of this sounds appealing and if, somehow, like Cornell, you missed out of the earliest incarnation of Pink Floyd—with elfin savant Barrett first at the helm—you owe it to yourself to watch the hour-long compilation of footage above featuring some of the earliest live performances, first with Barrett, then a fresh-faced David Gilmour taking over for their second album, A Saucerful of Secrets.
As Barrett’s spidery Telecaster lines give way to Gilmour’s gritty Stratocaster riffs, you can hear a more familiar Floyd take shape. They clearly always wanted to reach an audience, but in their first several years, Pink Floyd seemed totally unconcerned with filling arenas and selling albums in numbers measured by precious metals. Songs like “Astronomy Domine” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” are all about heady atmosphere, not the gut-level hooks and brevity of pop.
Though they started out in 1965 like every other British classic rock band, obsessively covering American blues songs, Pink Floyd took their rock chops to another galaxy. “If you look back at some of the great psychedelic albums that came out that year”—writes Alex Gaby in an essay tour of the band’s entire catalogue—The Piper at the Gates of Dawn “doesn’t quite sound like any of those…. It’s as if Pink Floyd were the piper and they are opening up the gates to a new dawn of psychedelia and music.” Watch the gates open live, on film, above.
Psychedelic Scenes of Pink Floyd’s Early Days with Syd Barrett, 1967
Pink Floyd Plays With Their Brand New Singer & Guitarist David Gilmour on French TV (1968)
Watch David Gilmour Play the Songs of Syd Barrett, with the Help of David Bowie & Richard Wright
When Pink Floyd Tried to Make an Album with Household Objects: Hear Two Surviving Tracks Made with Wine Glasses & Rubber Bands
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
Fantastic era for PF. Garrett’s solo work is a fine continuation of that sound.
Fantastic era for PF. Barrett’s solo work is a fine continuationtion of that sound.
When I clicked on this, I was expecting some newly – discovered rare footage. As much as I love it, this is simply material from the box set. Nothinhg new here.
Syd Barrett’s story is so sad. It’s hard to just write it off as ‘another acid casualty’. Barrett had what it takes to be a sensation. He was so original with his songs that he wrote along with the unique sounds from his guitar. He was Pink Floyd’s front man and a talented singer. Syd was so very charismatic (much more so than the other 3) everyone he met instantly liked him and felt they were witnessing ‘greatness in the making’… As brite as his light shined, was as fast as it dimmed and then burned out completely after taking massive amounts of LSD in a 7 day period of time… Syd was replaced by David Gilmour and the rest is history except for Syd, who returned back at his childhood home with his mother and was often seen riding his bike to the store. He lived out the rest of his life as a recluse until his death at the age of 61…