Genius is so elusive; There are many ways to measure a person’s intellectual capacities and a library’s worth of studies about categorizing the several ways these abilities intersect, yet we’re still not quite there with dissecting what genius exactly is. There are still some aspects of it that seem impenetrable. All we can rely on is intuition: We just know one when we see them.
Syd Barrett was a genius. He was one the same way Kanye West is one.The same way Bobby Fischer was one. The same way Nadia Boulanger was one. Most importantly, he was one the way Roger Waters isn’t. You see, there are certain values that describe talented, committed creators — ambition, consistency, attention to detail, technical proficiency. Those don’t necessarily apply to actual geniuses, and they certainly don’t apply to Barrett. He was severely unstable, but every time he gathered himself he was a game-changer. His art was raw, unmeasured, chaotic, but it speaks to us in ways that not even the most meticulous Pop architect could even fathom. He was a sonic voyager, but that penchant for exploration came from an honest place, away from the pretentiousness of the grand artistic gestures of the time, which is why The Piper at the Gates of Dawn proved so revolutionary.
1967 was a landmark year for global youth: The Summer of Love, the push by a loud, vibrant counterculture into the mainstream, the movements for social liberation and an ever-increasing demand by young people for a seat at the table, were the elements of struggle in perhaps the most intense generational battle in recent human history. LSD, and its potent and (for many) liberating effect, inspired all of these movements, and it found its musical identity in the Psychedelic scene, but the free-loving, optimistic cultural atmosphere of the time often meant that the messages — both sonic and lyrical — by these artists were positive, rose-colored, uplifting.
The music of Pink Floyd, by contrast, was a noisy, scary freak-out. Tracks like “Astronomy Domine” and “Interstellar Overdrive” perfectly captured the spirit of their disruptive, mostly improvisational live performances at the UFO club, where Paul McCartney (kind of) discovered them. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was recorded at Abbey Road, around the same time The Beatles were making their grand statement, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but these records couldn’t be more different. While the Fab Four were creating “the definitive work” of Studio Pop construction, Pink Floyd were set to destroy. Piper was mainly a reflection of Barrett’s fragmented mind, not the most ambitious attempt at Pop perfection. However, songs like “See Emily Play”, “Lucifer Sam” and early single “Arnold Layne” were proof that Syd was able to write a pretty damn good Pop song, even with his quirky, stream-of-consciousness lyrics or the academic-influenced use of sound-collage.
Which brings me back to one of my original takes: Syd Barrett is a genius and Roger Waters is not. When he became the de-facto leader of the band, and just like The Beatles in 1967, Waters’ ambition led him to create some of the most monumental albums ever, ushering in the reign of terror of AOR and Pink Floyd’s dominance in the Rock world. His emphasis on production excellence made them collaborate with the father of all audiophiles, Alan Parsons. Yes, he’s immensely talented and one of the most influential musicians of the 20th Century, but he’s been still standing on the shoulders of a giant. Building on the blueprints of true genius. Pink Floyd became The Crazy Diamond’s gospel according to Waters, Gilmour, Mason and Wright.
Syd Barrett soon later left the band and descended into schizophrenia. He is a casualty of the psychedelic age. The same way Roky Erickson is one. The same way Skip Spence is one. And the fact that Pink Floyd carried on without him and became the biggest band on the planet made him an object of endless mythologizing, fueled by the music press’ awful fetishization of mental illness. But the man — uncut, unfiltered and in his prime — is infinitely more interesting than the legend. Piper was merely a taste of his brilliance, and yet it took the rest of the band 30 years and another 15 albums to catch up.