Syd Barrett’s Faerie-Tales

Syd Barrett has always been a major influence for me; a lost genius amidst the tumultuous cultural times of the late 1960s. I even managed to slip him into my novel Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, as an oracle of wisdom to my deranged protagonist. It’s no secret that he was an enthusiastic user of LSD, but probably less well-known (apart from amongst his fan-base) that his very irregular head often interacted with the world of the faeries.

Probably the best biography of Syd is Rob Chapman’s Syd Barrett – A Very Irregular Head, sydbarrettaveryirregularheadukpublished in 2010. Chapman goes to some length in analysing Syd’s early influences, and how they translated into the first Pink Floyd album Piper at the Gates of Dawn in 1967. The very name of the album is taken from a chapter in Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows, where Rat and Mole take a distinctly mystical journey downriver, and encounter the god Pan playing his pipes in tune with the natural world around him: “in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, Mole looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, wind-in-the-willows-2-piper-at-the-gates-hi-rezgleaming in the growing daylight.” Chapman suggests that Graham’s influence ran deep with Syd, whose ideas about transcendentalism and pantheism came largely from the author’s works. This is confirmed by Syd’s compatriot Emily Young (potentially the inspiration for the Floyd song See Emily Play), who suggested that Syd brought the faerie-tale influences from his childhood into his adult songwriting: “That English Robin and Puck and Goodfellow thing. The slightly whimsical faerie quality that he had, always reading Wind in the Willows. He thought the trees have secrets… I think he was absolutely in touch with that.”

Syd also tapped into other influences, most notably Lewis Carroll and Hilaire Belloc. These were authors who were reacting against the somewhat puritanical children’s literature of the 19th century, by creating subversive stories, deeply entrenched in traditional faerie-tale motifs, but then adding surreal tones on top. This was just in keeping with what Syd was attempting to do with Pink Floyd in 1967, when the cultural zeitgeist was flipping its lid. He was at the forefront of the British psychedelic revolution, but much of his outlook and lyrics were informed by the whimsical longing for an extended childhood, where the influences of Graham, Carroll, Belloc et al. were pervasive. His on-off girlfriend at the time, Libby Gausden, suggested that he got all of his lyrical ideas from these authors and a few pocket books of English nursery rhymes. She also talks about him recreating scenes from his favourite stories when they went for excursions into the country. Whether Syd’s increasing use of LSD informed his interaction with the natural world and the faerie entities he transformed pink_floyd-the_piper_at_the_gates_of_dawn_40th_anniversary_edition-frontal1into song, is not known, but is certainly a possibility. There is little doubt that much of the musical and lyrical content of Piper at the Gates of Dawn evolved from psychedelic states, imbuing the record with an otherworldy enchantment, punctuated by the arcane whimsy of Syd’s influences. Outside of the cosmic rock-outs of Astronomy Domine and Interstellar Overdrive, the album is overwhelmingly Syd’s vision of a faerie-tale world, in the English tradition. This is not all fey whimsy though. Matilda Mother is a good example of a faerie-tale laced with hints of darkness:

Matilda Mother  musical-notes-symbols-milxy8pia

There was a king who ruled the land. fairy_tales_boston_public_library
His majesty was in command.
With silver eyes the scarlet eagle
Showers silver on the people.
Oh Mother, tell me more.

Why’d’ya have to leave me there
Hanging in my infant air
You only have to read the lines
They’re scribbly black and everything shines.

Across the stream with wooden shoes
With bells to tell the king the news
A thousand misty riders climb up
Higher once upon a time.

Wandering and dreaming
The words have different meaning.
Yes they did.

For all the time spent in that room
The doll’s house, darkness, old perfume
And fairy stories held me high on
Clouds of sunlight floating by.
Oh Mother, tell me more
Tell me more.

In Flaming, Syd explicitly takes on the persona of the faerie ‘mad with joy’:

Flaming musical-notes-symbols-milxy8pia

Alone in the clouds all blue 14484920_10157543723620300_6568624044142842904_n
Lying on an eiderdown.
Yippee! You can’t see me
But I can you.

Lazing in the foggy dew
Sitting on a unicorn.
No fair, you can’t hear me
But I can you.

Watching buttercups cup the light
Sleeping on a dandelion.
Too much, I won’t touch you
But then I might.

Screaming through the starlit sky
Traveling by telephone.
Hey ho, here we go
Ever so high.

Alone in the clouds all blue
Lying on an eiderdown.
Yippee! You can’t see me
But I can you.

And in The Gnome, we’re left in no doubt about the subject matter. The other members of the band wanted it left off the album, but Syd was having none of it. It’s quirky and childlike, and will always raise a smile:

The Gnome musical-notes-symbols-milxy8pia

I want to tell you a story rien-poortvliet-kabouters
About a little man
If I can.
A gnome named Grimble Crumble.
And little gnomes stay in their homes.
Eating, sleeping, drinking their wine.

He wore a scarlet tunic,
A blue green hood,
It looked quite good.
He had a big adventure
Amidst the grass
Fresh air at last.
Wining, dining, biding his time.
And then one day – hooray!
Another way for gnomes to say

Look at the sky, look at the river
Isn’t it good?
Look at the sky, look at the river
Isn’t it good?
Winding, finding places to go.
And then one day – hooray!
Another way for gnomes to say

After Syd left Pink Floyd in 1968, his solo work became more oblique, and less obviously influenced by faerie-tale motifs. Effervescing Elephant (from the 1970 album Barrett) retained the animation of a Belloc pastiche, but Syd’s ever-increasing use of LSD took him into more obscure musical and lyrical territory. In fact, his lovely 1970 song Golden Hair (from the album The Madcap Laughs) might be seen as a book-end to his fascination with faerie-tales, English whimsy and nursery rhymes. He used the words of James Joyce (from his 1907 Chamber Music) to close a door on his past: “My book is closed, I read no more.” Tom Stoppard used this at the beginning of his 2006 play Rock ‘n’ Roll to great effect:

Lean out your window, golden hairsyd-barrett-the-madcap-laughs-440520
I heard you singing in the midnight air
my book is closed, I read no more
watching the fire dance, on the floor
I’ve left my book, I’ve left my room. For I heard you singing through the gloom
singing and singing, a merry air
lean out the window, golden hair…
Syd Barrett died in 2006, a crazy diamond, who has left a considerable cultural legacy, not least in his English psychedelic faerie-tales, which shone brightly for a brief but beautiful period at the end of the 1960s.

Author: neilrushton

I write about my subversive thoughts... a lot of them are about those most ungraspable of metaphysical creatures; faeries. I published my first novel in 2016, "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun", and my second novel was published in 2020 - 'Dead but Dreaming', where some very cosmic faeries are awaiting the protagonist at an English psychiatric hospital in 1970...

14 thoughts on “Syd Barrett’s Faerie-Tales”

  1. Don’t know what I may have done to offed faeryfolk, but after being blinded in one eye a driver struck me and hobbled me to the extent of fractured knee and torn ligaments. That driver was called Emily (as in See Emily Play). Odd.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, i’m always put in mind of faeries when listening to “Flaming”, especially when Syd sings : “Yippee! You can’t see me, but I can you…”. Syd Barrett seemed like an unpredictable faery himself at times. There seems something otherwordly about him. I love his imagination. I haven’t read ” A very irregular head”, but it’s on my list. (That’s how i found this post actually; was looking for reviews on it. Seems like a fascinating read)

    P.s. loving the header image ( i’m assuming it’s Brian Froud?). Wishing you a sparkling day!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you – glad you enjoyed this, and I agree about Syd’s otherworldliness… I think he had a deep grasp of the faerie, probably aided by his use of LSD. And yes, Brian Froud it is… another person with an instinctive knowledge of the faeries. Thanks again for reading, commenting and following…

      Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a very good question Brian. My esoteric answer is that Syd simply confronted some ‘Truths’ and was unable to correlate them. They burnt him out. Beauty can only survive for a short time – it must die, perhaps acting as a metaphor for all life. The deeper the beauty, the sooner it must end. Apologies if this sounds bleak – it’s not meant to. Syd founded Pink Floyd – they have given much pleasure to millions of people… that’s a pretty good legacy in my view. Thank you for reading and commenting…


  3. The Syd/Piper era of Floyd seemed so far removed from the mega, stadium behemoth that they later became. It’s impossible to think of Syd still performing with them in later years and much as his ‘breakdown’ and fairly rapid fade out into obscurity seems like the great ‘what if’ of 60’s Rock ‘n’Roll it was probably for the best that he returned to his Mum’s house, his painting and those long, lost Sunday afternoons.
    In later years he was quite keen on rather wobbly home improvements (shelves and such) apparently and I had it from people who knew him from old that he was often to be seen perusing the the local DIY (do it your elf? -sorry couldn’t resist) stores in Cambridge.
    For most of us he’s trapped in the image of the sonic genius of the UFO club or that vacant eyed Madcap stare but that’s such a relatively short period of his life and for his last thirty odd years he was, at least sometimes, just an anonymous bloke leaving B and Q carrying a tin of emulsion – albeit with a very irregular head.

    Liked by 1 person

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