Perfect Sound Forever

The Barrett/Hitchcock Connection


Robyn photo by Michele Noach from the Robyn Hitchcock museum

By Keith Walsh
(October 2006)

When Syd Barrett began to lose his mind in the late '60's, music fans around the globe watched helplessly as one of rock's more promising figures began to fade away just as his star was rising. Many put the blame strictly on an excessive use of drugs (and certainly mass media did little to dispel this explanation) while others have suggested that a predisposition for schizophrenia or even Asperger's syndrome (a form of autism) exacerbated by drugs may have been at the root of his decline. Whatever the case may be, after his condition worsened following only a few years in the spotlight, Syd reverted back to his given name (Roger Keith Barrett) and went in to near seclusion for 30 years.

Barrett passed away on July 7, 2006 due to complications from diabetes. And though he spent the most of his adult life in solitude (releasing his last official recording in 1970), the impact of Barrett's musical output endures in the form of the few albums he did record, and by his impact on the many musicians who have been moved by his modes of expression at turns startlingly honest (particularly on the solo albums) or endearingly eccentric.

As a founder of Pink Floyd, and a gifted writer, vocalist and guitarist, Barrett specialized in sometimes whimsical and absurd pop gems over the course of three albums: Pink Floyd's 1967 debutPiper at the Gates of Dawn, and two solo albums The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, both from 1970. The psychedelic Piper is considered by many to be an essential piece of pop history, while two solo albums and a collection of alternate takes and demos (Opel, later released in 1989) reveal a tortured soul seeking redemption through the creative process.

By projecting his pain and suffering outward in the form of a collection of hauntingly beautiful tunes, Barrett gave meaning to the isolated and woeful condition of his existence by sharing it with others. In the harrowing song "Dark Globe" from The Madcap Laughs, he sings lyrics that are best heard to be appreciated:

My head kissed the ground
I was half the way down,
Treading the sand, please, please
Please lift a hand
I'm only a person
With Eskimo chain
I tattered my brain all away
Won't you miss me?
Wouldn't you miss me at all?

Barrett's desperate longing is even more apparent when one observes the ragged tone of his voice, framed by the workmanlike strumming of his guitar, as he reveals the joys found in sharing his sorrow with the world.

Those who call themselves Barrett fans include David Bowie (who once said that there was no Floyd without Barrett) and Brian Eno, but perhaps the best living example of a performer in the vein of Syd Barrett is singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock. While Barrett had been institutionalized a number of times, Hitchcock has carved out a niche for himself writing and singing songs so surreal and spaced-out that in a less enlightened culture he too might find himself institutionalized or at least medicated. Add masterful guitar work and a voice that smacks of not only Barrett, but also John Lennon and Bowie, and you've really got something worth listening to.

Though some of Hitchcock's other influences include the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Captain Beefheart, the Barrett comparison is perhaps the most apt. It's not just the whimsy of Hitchcock's music, or the absurdity of the lyrics that beg the comparison it's a spirit the moves over the face of Hitchcock's entire body of work

In 1976, in a studio in the Cambridge of Barrett's childhood and later convalescence, Hitchcock began his recording career with the Soft Boys, a band that allowed him to fuse an uncanny knack for pop hooks and lyrical invention into a punk/pop synthesis that hints at the years of brilliance to come during a prolific career with his band the Egyptians and as a solo artist. And while there's no evidence that both artists' Cambridge ties are anything other than coincidence, it's interesting to note that the town boasts a high level of creativity and innovation: among its luminaries it counts the great physicist Stephen Hawking, and is at the heart of Britain's high technology center called "Silicon Fen" and the "Cambridge Cluster" due to a remarkable growth in successful high tech startups.

Still in the shadow of Cambridge, on the Soft Boy's second album Underwater Moonlight, Hitchcock displays psychedelic styling and a bizarre sense of humor that finds him professing his love in one breath, while singing about insects bursting out from the flesh under his chin in the next ("Kingdom of Love").

In the spiritual Kingdom of Love,
You are the one that I am dreaming of,
In the spiritual Kingdom of Love,
You've been laying eggs under my skin,
Now they're hatching out under my chin,
Now there's tiny insects showing through,
And all them tiny insects look like you.

And while these lyrics are far more abrasive than anything Barrett ever recorded, their psychedelic, even psychotic flavor can be understood in light of the fact that Hitchcock has time and again declared himself a Barrett fan. When asked by David Hepworth on the occasion of Barrett's death what might be appropriate words for Barrett's headstone, Hitchcock said: "I'd just put 'Syd Barrett.' 'Cause in the end, that's what he was. He was a Syd Barrett. There'd been nothing like it before, and there was nothing like it afterwards -- although it had a huge influence, particularly on me. As you say, the way Robyn Hitchcock has approached life and all the rest of it is really directly descended from that."

Aside from his occasional covering of a Barrett tune, (as early as "Vegetable Man" on Underwater Moonlight), or mentioning him in a song ("1974" from Storefront Hitchcock) a mere glance at the titles of Hitchcock's output not only suggests a considerable debt to his hero, but indicates a departure to points far beyond: "Balloon Man," "The Cheese Alarm," "The Abandoned Brain," "Furry Green Atom Bowl" to name a few. Of note is the Soft Boys' "I Got the Hots," with spoken verses in the lower register and a strutting guitar riff that force the listener to admit that the song is a deliberate tribute to Barrett's "Maisie" (from Barrett).

Even Hitchcock's unconventional, often angular guitar style owes a debt to Barrett as well. Part of the brilliance of Hitchcock's early solo album I Often Dream of Trains is in the oddly endearing half pop/half classic instrumentals that fall between the songs. Yet it's mostly on the strength of his lyrics and demeanor that Hitchcock has ascended to the throne as the undisputed king of eccentric musical Englishmen.

To wit:

Even Marilyn Monroe was a man
But this tends to get overlooked
By our overweight, sexist, mother-fixated media.

"Uncorrected Personality Traits"


It's not easy to imagine that one showing up on a Ray Davies or Elton John record or anyone else who is concerned with commerciality over expression. And while this and many other Hitchcock tunes are far more explicit than anything Barrett ever created, what they share with Barrett is a dedication to push forward the state of popular music despite popular trends. And while Barrett's efforts were far more primal and less deliberate than Hitchcock's almost strategic peculiarities, artists of integrity are rare enough that they are entitled to a class of their own.

And though Hitchcock has broken and transcended the mold first cast by Barrett, he has revisited it numerous times as a source of inspiration. In doing so over the course of 30 years, he has strengthened his peculiar lyrical inclinations, while dabbling in various forms of punk, psychedelic rock, new wave and folk, proving himself to be one of popular music's most enduring iconoclasts.

The post-Soft Boys years begin with Hitchcock's growing tendency towards achieving a sound that is both commercial yet true to his vision. Element of Light (1986) stands out as an album designed to please the ears of fans of the late new wave period, while Hitchcock's major label debut, Globe of Frogs (1988), surprised many fans by not qualifying as a sellout, and won many converts as well, thanks to the success of the single "Balloon Man." The albums Queen Elvis (1989), Perspex Island (1991) and Respect (1993) continued Hitchcock's trend of success with singles that consistently charted on the lower end of the U.S. Modern Rock Charts (from Wikipedia.org's article on Hitchcock.) In the following years, Hitchcock has continued to expand his body of work in the rock and folk genres.

And though his albums are far more polished than any of Barrett's work, they cannot be fully understood without realizing whose shoulders he stands on. Certainly Hitchcock inherited a generous helping of imagination from his late father Raymond, himself a "cartoonist, futurist and science fiction writer," according to a Hitchcock fan at Fegmania.Yet when one listens to a Hitchcock album, the unmistakable specter of Barrett is not too far off.

Apparently, that's more than coincidence. In an interview with Q Magazine, Hitchcock said: "I did let it get out of hand. Syd went beyond being an influence to points where there'd be a takeover." Hitchcock continues: "It was quite sinister. It was as if at certain times when I was singing or writing it was no longer me but this other guy. There were times when I thought 'My God, this guy is roosting in my head.' I think I've exorcised that now." (cited from "Crazy Diamond: Syd Barrett and The Dawn of Pink Floyd by Mike Watkinson & Pete Anderson," p. 143).

Like Barrett, Hitchcock takes the listener where he's never been, in the latter's case singing about exploding balloon men, brain-shaped aircraft, or that most difficult of subjects , love -- with impressive degrees of passion and sincerity. There is simply no one else in the music world who plays with an audience's lyrical expectations and gets away with it the way that Hitchcock does. Had Barrett not been overtaken by mental illness, the same might have been said of him. Both artists have tackled the taboo lines of gender bending (Barrett's "Arnold Layne" and "Gigolo Aunt"; Hitchcock's "Queen Elvis" and "Man With A Woman's Shadow"), though Barrett's approach to lyric writing is more often confessional in tone, especially on the solo albums, while Hitchcock tends towards more calculated, thought-out quirkiness. One thing is certain both artists and their audiences have enjoyed pushing the envelope with lyrical content that both shocks and amuses.

Despite many similarities in style and approach, the main divergence between Barrett's and Hitchcock's lyrical content remains tied to the fact that Barrett was not granted the luxury of developing a social conscience approaching the caliber of Hitchcock's, as demonstrated in songs like "Legalized Murder" (which takes on capital punishment) or "Filthy Bird" (an indictment of war). Barrett's output on Piper demonstrates a prolific faculty of imagination, and while the solo albums contain the same seed of brilliance, one senses in the solo albums the same brilliance being held together almost heroically in the midst very difficult circumstances.

Just a short time after Barrett's passing, Hitchcock put it this way: "I think he kind of had raw talent. Most people, you know, they'll have a tube of it, and they'll squeeze out a little bit, and then they'll mix in some turps, and they'll... put a bit of it in. They'll do an album and there'll be two great songs that they'll play forever, and then four not bad songs, and three songs that only their fan club like. They'll have better and worse albums, and they'll spread it out like that... But Barrett is like a kid who got hold of a tube of talent, the way that children would get hold of toothpaste squeeze it all out. Barrett sort of went 'Oh yeah,' out it came. And then there was nothing left." (from David Hepworth's The Word Podcast, July 2006).

In a way, Hitchcock's career has had an almost charmed quality that is the antithesis of Barrett's tragic arc. Hitchcock once compared his own musical career to a hot air balloon voyage that manages to stay aloft, thanks to helpful winds in the form of successful singles and movies like Jonathan Demme's concert film Storefront Hitchcock. Suffice it to say the root causes of Barrett's maladies are complex and somewhat inscrutable, but no more difficult to figure out why the fates has chosen to bless Hitchcock's path as he charts his way through a sometimes treacherous industry.

Whatever the case may be, in the future, near and distant, when the name Robyn Hitchcock is mentioned, wherever his songs are played and in whatever form, the shadow of Syd Barrett will be looming nearby.


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