About The Author
Rob Chapman is a music journalist who has written for the magazines Mojo, Uncut, Word and Jockey Slut, as well as The Times,the Guardian and the Independent on Sunday. He has compiled and written sleeve notes for artists as diverse as The Last Poets and John Fahey. He was also the singer and a founder member of Bristol post-punk band, The Gl*xo Babies.
He is the author of Selling the Sixties: Pirates and Pop Music Radio and Vinyl Junkyard, charting 40 years of record cover design. His first novel, Dusk Music, follows the career of a teenage guitar prodigy and contemporary of Jimi Hendrix.
His biography, Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head, has already been widely acclaimed as the definitive biography of Pink Floyd's legendary founder. In our exclusive interview, Rob tells us about Syd's use of drugs, how Pink Floyd might have evolved had he remained in the band and his own tendency to sing Effervescing Elephant at the slightest opportunity.
Below the interview is a list of titles by Rob Chapman currently in print in the UK. You may find other editions in our 'New and Used' section by typing the author's name into the Search field at the top of this page and selecting the 'Author Exact' filter to the far right of the Search field.
Questions & Answers
While he was still alive, Syd's family was always very protective of him and your book is the first biography written with their assistance. How did you go about persuading them to open up about him?
Syd's sister Rosemary has spoken to one or two previous biographers so it's not strictly true that the family never co-operate with writers, but you're right that the family is generally cagey and protective and with good reason too, when you see some of the tawdry stuff that has been written about Syd. I know Syd's nephew, Ian (the son of Syd's oldest brother Don.) Ian lives not far from me in Manchester, so he was my 'in' really. Ian vouched for my general good eggness and was able to impress upon the family that my motives were sound.
Syd is often described as an 'acid casualty', but do you think his creativity could have come out without his experiences with the drug?
Who can say? I once saw an interview with somebody talking about the counter culture and he was asked 'What would you have done if you hadn't discovered drugs?' and he replied 'Oh I would definitely have discovered drugs'. And that's what I think about Syd. He would definitely have discovered drugs. I'm sure the drugs enhanced the creativity up to a point as they did with John Lennon or Brian Wilson or any other major artist, but after a while they became debilitating. That 's indisputable. But whether that's an acid issue or a mandrax issue I wouldn't care to say.
You give David Gilmour a lot of credit for ensuring that the sessions for his solo albums resulted in finished albums; would we ever have heard The Madcap Laughs and Barrett without his input?
Madcap, probably. Barrett, probably not. The former evolved gradually over a period of time and Malcolm Jones made more than a decent fist of the production side, but by the time Syd came to make the Barrett album it was all starting to get a bit foggy and reluctance was setting in. I think Gilmour must have had the patience of a saint during the making of that album.
If Syd had remained part of Pink Floyd, what trajectory do you think the band's music would have taken?
I've often thought about that question over the years. Would the Floyd have remained song-based? Would Syd have continued his guitar experimentation? I've always maintained that some of the songs on Syd's solo albums could easily have nestled on the song side of Meddle or Atom Heart Mother. Some of Waters' songs ('If' and 'Granchester Meadows' for instance) are not dissimilar to Syd's, they are in the same pastoral ilk and would have complemented some of Syd's acoustic stuff beautifully. And Rick Wright continued trying to write 'Syd songs' for a couple of years after Syd left. The question is made equally fascinating by the fact that the Floyd continued to evolve gradually after Syd left. There was no sudden change in direction. So that's basically a long winded way of saying things probably wouldn't have been that different.
What was Syd's greatest musical legacy to his former Pink Floyd bandmates?
The band's name actually. Pink Floyd. I did a paragraph or two in the first draft of the book on Syd's reasoning behind the name and then I took it out because it was a bit flowery and fanciful - but I really wish I 'd left it in now. In fact why don't I just reprint it here for you, and people can make up their own minds.
'As a name, Pink Floyd has endured far better than some of the other options available at the time. The Beatles built a monumental musical legacy based on a name that was a weak and typically Liverpudlian, pun. Equally time bound is 'The Rolling Stones', taken from a Muddy Waters number, and chosen in haste by Brian Jones when required to come up for a name for an imminent gig. The Beach Boys, The Kinks and The Yardbirds are also unmistakeably of their era. Pink Floyd on the other hand has a certain subtle and neutral beauty about it, Pink variously connoting Caucasian, femininity, nakedness; Floyd suggesting black, rootsy, earthy. Floyd was not an uncommon name among blues and R&B musicians, Floyd Dixon, Floyd Jones, etc. Woody Guthrie had immortalised bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd in song, and the recently deposed heavyweight-boxing champion of the world was called Floyd Patterson. You can hear Syd cogitating over the options, sifting them laterally.
Pink Floyd. Pretty Blues. Blushing Purity. Feminised Authenticity. Naked Outlaws. White Blackness.'
I think it's a beautiful juxtaposition, don't you? It's a very crafty and oblique play on the whole 'can white men sing the blues' thing. That's what I think anyway.
Is Syd's reclusive image an exaggeration of a simple withdrawal from the limelight - much like J D Salinger is now realised to have done - or was he too damaged to function in society at large?
Well, as Grandpa Simpson would say, a little from column A, a little from column B. Syd did withdraw from the pop process. It's feasible that he could still have continued functioning as a musician. Peter Green carried on making an album a year when he was supposedly irreparably damaged - people forget that. Vivien Stanshall made a great album - Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead - while in the throes of chronic alcoholism. The really serious 'damage' with Syd came later. From the mid seventies when he turned up overweight and medicated at the Floyd's Wish You Were Here sessions through to the early eighties, when he walked home to Cambridge and smashed up his house, terrifying his elderly mother in the process. Those are Syd 's lost years when no one could reach him. Later on, of course, he achieved some sort of rehabilitation and equilibrium by returning to his first creative love, painting. I find that very significant.
As well as his musical inventiveness, Syd had a great appreciation for the poetry of language and he was also a prolific painter; you mention the description by Graham Coxon [guitarist of Blur] of him as a 'profound aesthete'. Given the nature of the music industry, might Syd's star have burned for longer if he had focussed on a different artistic sphere?
Undoubtedly. I remain convinced that Syd would have been better suited to the life of a painter, both temperamentally and creatively. Also the parameters for experimentation are much wider and more negotiable in the fine art world than they are in the music world - which is incredibly safe and conservative in comparison. The enfant terrible and the radical gesture are encouraged in the art world. They are generally distrusted in the music world.
The sixties were a time of extraordinary creative flowering on the English pop scene; is there any other musical era in which Syd might have flourished?
Yes. He should have been born in Germany and joined Faust. That's my idea of a dream band. Syd in Faust circa 1973. Or Can: trading licks with Michael Karoli. Can you imagine it?
Syd's back catalogue is certainly eclectic and sometimes variable in quality; which recording would you recommend a novice begin with?
I think it's all or nothing with Syd. There's no room for the half-hearted here. I think you have to sign up for the whole ride. And there's only three albums and some out takes, for goodness' sake. You can listen to it all in an afternoon. That way you can appreciate the well crafted stuff and the splashy messy stuff as well.
You were one of the founding members of the post-punk band The Gl*xo Babies; would you cite Syd an influence on your own music?
Undeniably. I internalised Syd's songwriting style more than anyone else's. In fact I'd say he in the only person who ever directly influenced my songwriting. That's not to say I tried to write songs like his. It didn't manifest itself in emulation. It was more like a memory essence, all that internalised bedroom and front room listening. Our guitarist Dan Catsis was really in to Syd too. He had that same slack stringed choppy style of playing. Punks zealous year zero attitude mean that you couldn't be too overt - even though Syd largely survived the punk wars unscathed. But that never stopped me doing a rendition of 'Effervescing Elephant' whenever Dan had to change a string. You can imagine how much the spikey headed malcontents loved that, can't you?
As a music journalist, you've covered a huge range of music and musicians; having written what is arguably the definitive biography of Syd Barrett, is there another musician you'd like to tackle in such a comprehensive way?
At one time I might have said Nick Drake, but I think the moment has passed. Other than that I'd like to do the definitive biography of John Peel. The marketing people who run publishing will all tell you that there isn't another book to be done about Peel, and that the (unfinished) autobiography and that half hearted collection of his journalism satisfied the demand. I strongly disagree. I think there is a really big canvas book to be done on Peel. If I could get 140,000 words out of Syd Barrett imagine what I could do with the single most important figure in British pop broadcasting.