The emotional resonance is there from the beginning: asked what Pink Floyd would have been like without Syd Barrett, bassist Roger Waters is pensive. Slowly, he reveals his true thoughts. “We wouldn’t have existed if it hadn’t been for Syd,” he says, his smile heaving under the sense of pride. “We would have been one of those thousands and thousands of bands who play blues….and might have wrote the odd crappy song, and then they disappear.”
Considering Waters’ influence on the band – he effectively wrote Dark Side of The Moon and The Wall almost entirely on his own – this is no passing comment, but a compliment from one precocious songwriter to another.
The new documentary, Have You Got It Yet? The Story of Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd, details the successes, frustrations, and love shared by the band in its earliest incarnation. Barrett, commonly written off as an eccentric who lost his way, emerges from the screen the most well-rounded of the musicians who contributed to the band’s history.
Born in Cambridge in 1946, Barrett displayed artistic proclivities as a child and proved to be well-liked as a creative thinker among his peers. He went to school with David Gilmour and knew Storm Thorgerson socially (both men worked with Pink Floyd in years to come.) He was, the documentary points out, “fiercely intelligent” and “loads of fun,” which makes his decision to spend much of his life as a recluse more challenging for audiences to accept. Yet he left behind two astonishingly inventive albums – The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, recorded with Pink Floyd, and The Madcap Laughs, released as a solo effort. The latter inspired songwriters as varied as punk progenitor John Lydon to the art-pop works Blur issued during the 1990s.
Behind the scenes, Barrett presented himself as a painter, who worked with “great energy” and held “a great sense of color.” The standard of material was never in doubt, but it was the way Barrett and Pink Floyd presented themselves as the reason they lingered on in the public consciousness long after the expiration of an everyday rock band.
By 1967, the chasm between music and art was dissipating, as was evident by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Barrett was anxious to bring it to the next level. As it happened, stardom wasn’t to his liking, and he drifted back to the parochial England that had served him well as a child.
What the film offers isn’t closure, but context. We’re offered a more authentic view of Barrett, a world away from the fallen idol who inspired such herculean epics as “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” and “Poles Apart.”
And yet the man is decidedly more interesting than the myth, capable of bringing his parents to near ecstatic levels of laughter when he opted to keep a piece of broccoli in his mouth.
Contrary to posterity, Barrett wasn’t the “poor” individual eulogized by the trendy music mags, but rather a guitarist who had accrued enough wealth to buy an apartment to store his instruments in. (We see the envy behind some of the interviewees’ eyes when they recall the “two million quid” that poured into his bank accounts on an annual basis).
There are tidbits in the film: we learn how the Burt Bacharach standard “My Little Red Book” ended up inspiring “Interstellar Overdrive”; pictures taken of recording sessions show Barrett, nominally a guitar player, composing on a keyboard. No less a luminary than Pete Townshend describes an early Floyd performance as “psychedelic heavy metal.”
Have You Got It Yet? The Story of Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd is much more than a documentary about a rocker, but a fully fleshed-out portrait of an Englishman celebrated by his nearest and dearest.
Photo: Fair use image of Have You Got It Yet…documentary, globally distributed by Abramorama