Barrett as guitarist and composer

All discussion related to Roger Keith (Syd) Barrett.
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Barrett as guitarist and composer

Post by scarecrow »

PostPosted: Sat Sep 30, 2017 3:49 pm Post subject: Barrett as a guitarist and musician Reply with quote Edit/Delete this post
I'm wondering if there's any interest in a thread specifically about Barrett's guitar skills and musical/ compositional technique? Maybe it should be two threads?!

I suppose my starting point would be that various friends of Barrett have commented that he wasn't an exceptional guitarist, and his conventional musical knowledge was seemingly limited. Some people were surprised he was successful as a musician, although he was widely expected to be successful as a visual artist. Perhaps this is all unsurprising as visual art seemed to be where his main interest and talent was, at least up to the point of him moving to London.

Definitely Barrett was grounded in the blues, that being evident in most of his compositions, choice of band name etc. I wonder how much pre-electric blues informed his musical direction, specifically the largely acoustic nature of his solo records. Perhaps that was more to do with circumstances than choice, but it could've also been trying to achieve the intimacy and simplicity of old blues recordings. Were the 74 recordings simply a result of not having anything pre-prepared and being put in a studio? Or was there an urge to 'go back to the roots'?

His use of chromatic chord changes stood out and was unusual (at least in Western pop music), perhaps creating a slightly sinister edge (I'm thinking Arnold Layne, Astronomy Domine for example).

Baby Lemonade has a pretty unusual and inventive chord progression (which I love, and would regard as one of his best). I tend to think this probably came from an experimental and spontaneous compositional technique, rather than music theory. Well probably most rock/ pop composers don't neccesarily use much music theory, Rick Wright perhaps being a notable exception.

I'm interested in whether Barrett applied a similar approach to visual art and music composition, seemingly often favouring rapid bursts of activity, enjoying the process of creativity itself. I doubt we'll ever know much about how Barrett wrote songs, its a case of speculating really. I think Waters said that Barrett wrote lyrics first, which sometimes resulted in very interesting and unconventional time signatures (eg Bike).

I tend to think Barrett was a pretty good guitarist, if not necessarily in technical terms. Perhaps this thing about him not being a great guitarist comes from people comparing him to Gilmour, who is obviously more technical, but then again more conventional and predictable both in terms of guitar playing and composition.

I also think Barrett's lack of conventional music training and technical limitations probably played some part in his inventiveness and distinctiveness as a composer and player, taking him where trained musicians might not go.

Also I wonder a bit about how Barrett considered himself as a musician? In terms of his decision not to continue with music, obviously there were very difficult circumstances involved in his time with Pink Floyd and after. Was he (amongst other things) uncomfortable with being a celebrity and the practical implications of that, or perhaps he didn't regard his musical career as being particularly exceptional, after a time he was surprised people were still interested in listening to it?

Any thoughts?
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Re: Barrett as guitarist and composer

Post by scarecrow »

My music theory knowledge isn't amazing so there may be mistakes/ better ways of describing:

The most basic songwriting and guitar playing would most likely be based on three major chords, the tonic, subdominant and dominant or I, IV and V, so A D and E or C F G etc.

Twelve bar blues would be based on these plus playing these as seventh chords, which makes sense around the 'blues scale'.

There's a few Barrett songs based on just these three chords plus sevenths eg Bike, Chapter 24, Dark Globe.

Blues scale wikipedia:

I'm assuming Barrett's composition technique came from his lack of conventional musical training and learning guitar from instrumental 12 bar blues playing (rather than classical guitar or learning songs from other genres). So it might've been based on those chord progressions and playing runs along the blues scale.

The basic chord framework which most Barrett songs are built around is based on the hexadic (pentatonic plus one) blues scale, but turning each root note of the scale into a major chord. I'm
guessing this might have come from playing a mixture of lead and rhythm guitar, and also Bo Diddley being a massive influence (this being very evident with the release of the '65 First Recordings). A lot of Barrett's lead playing is very rhythmic, often with sections of jumpy repetition of a single note, as if it's being played like a chord. (This also features in pening of the Byrds Eight Miles High, guitar solo in VU All Tomorrows Parties, maybe they all took this from Bo Diddley) Interstellar Overdrive is an obvious example of this, based around a single descending scale which returns in the end section as the same scale played as major chords.

'Conventional' songwriting would be much more likely to expand on the tonic, subdominant and dominant by adding in a relative minor. So in the key of C adding in an A minor, in G going to Em, in A to F#m etc

But Barrett hardly ever (never?) goes there. He would much more likely go to the major chord for this interval, and it is that interval (3 semitones) which is probably the most distinctive 'trademark' Barrett compositional trait (another trait being chromatic major chord intervals, which you could also relate to runs of the blues scale). It's an unusual progression, which I don't think you would find very much in other writers of this period. Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Kinks obviously incorporate the blues but in terms of chord progressions mostly rest on conventional Western music theory.

I think it was maybe Barrett's lack of musical training and enthusiasm from breaking boundaries which freed him up to instinctively follow this unusual interval/ melodic framework. Or maybe it came from the close relationship between the tonic seventh chord and the third major chord. In the key of A, A7 would be notes A C# E G, so it's only a small jump to a major C chord (C E G). Or it could be a case of starting off with all the 'white note major chords' within a key of A. Or possibly it was the influence of Arthur Lee, also prone to unusual chord progressions, on the first Love album eg 'Mushroom Clouds' ('Help us with our problems' section, jumps from A to C).

I've got a feeling there's maybe a simpler way of looking at this which I'm not articulating/ my music theory is too rusty.

Examples of this interval include:
See Emily Play – jump from verse section in G, to the big E major chord in the chords
Jugband Blues – 'sea isn't green' end section A and C major
Arnold Layne – verse, from A to F# (via G), and jump in chorus A to C
Candy and a Currant Bun – bridge between verses A to C (via B)
Scarecrow – C to A ('everyone knows', 'arms didn't move' etc)
Long Gone (Bb to G to E)
Waving my Arms in the Air ('no care' etc C to A)
Terrapin (E to G, A to C)
Take up thy Stethoscope and Walk – obviously a Waters composition, but written in the style of Barrett with chromatic chord run from E to G

A couple of examples of how distinctively Barrettian this chord progression is: Blur's Far Out, which is obviously a sort of tribute/ pastiche of Barrett both musically and lyrically, and is mostly just this two chord progression (verse C to Eb, verse to chorus jump from F to Ab). Far Out has all the notes of a hexadic blues scale as major chords (C, D, Eb, F, Ab, Bb), which you could say was Barrett's main palette which he painted his songs from. Similarly, Julian Cope seemingly tried to capture the essence of Barrett on Fried, going to Cambridge's Spaceward Studios to record. Eg Sunspots (verse CAGE), Bloody Assizes (ACGE), Search Party (E verse to C chorus via Am and Bm). (Blur were also extremely influenced by this record).

Possibly Kraftwerk's Spacelab, which is mostly based around those two chords also. Barrett's influence on Krautrock is an interesting question. Can, Kraftwerk etc seemed to have liked Barrett era Floyd, and then there's the separate thing of the krautrock bands collectively trying to sculpt a new melodic framework by deliberately avoiding the blues scale, rejecting Americanisation and crafting a progressive central European culture, part of a process of moving on and dealing with the Nazi era of their parents' generation.

Anyway, a few thoughts on the impact of relying on this limited chord palette: I think the fact that Barrett rarely went to the relative minor or any minor chords for that matter accounts for the bright, exuberant vibe which permeates Piper. I think the unusual use of the third chord interval created something which sounded original and distinctive, and it's non-conformity with conventional Western pop chord progressions is a bit disorientating, like you're not sure where it's going/ what key it's in.

I can think of a couple of examples where Barrett does go for big minor chord changes. I don't know how much of a method he had, but he seems to have been adept at marrying the mood of these chord changes with the lyrics. For example, you could break See Emily Play down into the 'happy' and 'sad' bits – shifting to a plaintive Am on 'misunderstands', returning to a hopeful G on 'tomorrow' and jumping to a jubilant E major for 'there is no other way'.

'Long gone' jumps from a bluesy verse in E blues (Bb G E) into the powerful and heartwrenching Am chorus, one of the saddest and most powerful Barrett choruses which returns to a bluesy A7. The arrangement is also very powerful, with the wavering single note organ part (Rick Wright?) reaching crescendo into the chorus, and the strained vocal harmony split between octave and octave minor third. (I sometimes wonder if Waters was specifically referencing Barrett's pained high range vocals on 'Don't Leave me Now' and elsewhere on The Wall, it's always reminded me of Barrett, but then again its maybe just a case of two Cambridge accented singers with limited vocal range).

But Barrett also created quite a range in mood between basic major chords and seventh chords. Eg on Dark Globe, strained high range vocals over C7 then D7 chords for the 'wouldn't you miss me' sections. You could say it's a blues approach, using the subdominant and dominant seventh chords to express something painful in a more robust way than a more plaintive relative minor chord.

Also I slightly wonder if Barrett is also referring to a seventh chord in Chapter 24, when he sings the 'seventh brings return'. There is certainly something very satisfying about the change from A to D on 'return'. I think it's because the song isn't starting on the tonic of D, instead a D major scale vocal melody is floating above an A major drone for the first section, the vocal melody suggesting a seventh chord when he sings 'seventh' (hitting G on brings) and decisively hitting the tonic on 'return', then another big chord change to G on 'change returns'. There's a floating quality to the end section 'sunset, sunrise' in A, because the chords don't return to tonic, instead lingering on the A dominant.

Neither Chapter 24 nor Dark Globe sound bluesy, because the vocal melody mostly follows a straight major scale rather than a blues scale (the Early Recordings songs tend to follow blues scale vocal lines and are obviously delivered in a pseudo-American blues accent). The mix of major scale vocal lines over blues-scale led guitar playing is probably another distinct Barrett trait which along with his upper-middle class Southern English accent accounts for Barrett era Floyd being described as distinctly English.

Anyway, what's my point? I know I'm not the only person to wonder if Barrett just ran out of musical ideas, with his songwriting based around something quite basic and limited. His intuitive and experimental style did mean he could come up with interesting progressions eg the chromatic key change in Baby Lemonade from verse to chorus. You could also chart his development as a songwriter with him becoming more adventurous chord progression-wise, certainly from the Early Recordings songs into Piper material and between Piper and the solo records.

I suppose an intuitive compositional technique is not unusual, it is probably the norm within rock music. The Floyd don't seem to have had a particularly efficient method of composition or even very good collaboration and communication. It is likely Wright who took the group into the more interesting modulations, Waters lacking the skills and melodic imagination; although he was more imaginative with sound collages which permeate all eras of Floyd and he did learn to craft powerful songs from fairly straightforward chord progressions. Post Barrett Floyd did have perserverence and an architectural approach which was at odds with Barrett who seemed to revel in the spontaneous and the nature of creativity itself.

I think Rob Chapman really captures this in his chapter on Barrett's Floyd in his Psychedelia and Other Colours book, especially his down-to-earth analysis of the 1967 interview by Meatball Fulton, where Barrett talks in more depth than elsewhere about his artistic approach; putting aside the particular circumstances in 1967, from a music making perspective, it seems unlikely Barrett would've been interested in continuing to collaborate in that band for any length of time. Also, as soon as Pink Floyd ventured out of London it probably was very apparent how small and limited the Spontaneous Underground scene actually was, plus a lot of bands find that 99% of the time spent being on tour is extremely dull.

It's normal for composers to get 'stuck' in particular habits, if you are composing intuitively there's a tendency to take the same few routes again and again, unless you find a way of breaking out of this, there's a danger of basically rehashing the same song repeatedly. Once you find your 'musical voice' its difficult to change it. Probably Barrett hit an impasse musically in the early 70s. He wouldn't be interested in developing from improvisation into long-form set pieces as his former band mates did, but he was probably still interested in breaking the mould. He seems to have been aware that collaborating in a band might trigger new possibilities for creativity that would be lacking in working in isolation on songs at home and that he would need to find the 'right people' to play with.

Was Barrett consistent in his approach to music and visual art? Will Shutes framed Barrett's artistic approach in a theoretical context in his 2009 essay, and although Barrett seemed to prefer working quickly and intuitively in broad strokes (in both music and visual art) approach throughout his life, it's difficult to frame it within theory. In his later years, Barrett could draw a very detailed and realistic local scene apparently from memory, so was certainly not lacking in technical ability, but seems to have preferred producing quicker, more impressionistic and evocative works.

Pre-1967, perhaps Barrett expected to be a groundbreaking painter/ visual artist and unexpectedly found himself shifting the paradigms of pop music. Piper was groundbreaking and massively influential and the solo records were also in a different way. Maybe he didn't consider himself to be musically exceptional. In the Meatball Fulton interview, Barrett questions his art school and school education, seemingly seeking to de-programme and question everything he'd been taught going as far back as infant school, remove the influence of art school tutors on his work, and break boundaries ('the shape of the paper') (Or maybe he was just trying to helpfully answer Fulton's rather absurd line of questioning). Barrett's work sits within what Brian Eno calls 'scenius' ie the result of the creative community he sat within – art school, cut-up techniques, beat poetry, AMM etc. A questioning of teachers/ the older generation seems pretty normal for any 21 year old student, and the Summer of Love coincided with a lot of baby boomers coming into adulthood.

Barrett seems to have been excited by being part of a creative revolution, although was also pretty self-deprecating and down-to-earth talking about the Floyd's attempted synergy of light and sound, and had little or no interest in the politics of the scene which Floyd sat within (anti-Vietnam, civil rights etc). He would reference popular culture, but I don't see him ever wanting to make any particular sociological point. Barrett and Waters certainly diverge on this, with Waters lyrically and conceptually making albums around political, sociological and exisential themes which chimed with people (from Dark Side through to the Wall anyway).

I think of Barrett in the 60s being a talented visual artist, influenced by the art world of that era, but not shifting the paradigms in the way he did with music. Perhaps he would've done if he hadn't been pushed into taking a break from art school. I think by the time he settled down in Cambridge in the 80s, realistically he couldn't have exhibited locally or even joined a local art group without it rapidly turning into a media circus. Destroying paintings after they were finished and expanding into other creative endeavours such as DIY, cooking and gardening wasn't so strange. He apparently pursued an interest in art history in later life, so perhaps not much should be read into his scepticism towards academia as a young man in those heady times.

Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying, there's probably not much sense in theorising about Barrett's music and art, and it seemed to be really a case of he did what was enjoyable and was also pretty down-to-earth about it. I rambled on more than intended.
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Re: Barrett as guitarist and composer

Post by rockalbert »

Barrett is my favourite...!!!!
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Re: Barrett as guitarist and composer

Post by Nicholas »

My take on this is how do people create songs if they're sticking to a rule of thumb. I mean David Gilmour has the basic knowledge of how a guitar works and is seen as superior to Syd Barrett. However Gilmour can't write songs. I'm not sure whether he's illiterate or has no imagination but it frustrates me that he collaborates with weak writers when Pink Floyd have always been renowned for creative lyrics. One of the main reasons I prefer the Barrett years to what came later is because you may as well call Pink Floyd from 1968 onwards The Band UK. Prior to Syd joining they had been an average blues combo then went back to the same format. Although you had long drawn out jams it was just basic jeans and t-shirt music played in the desert. Syd being a self taught musician in the most part he created new sounds which I think comes from having the ideas in your head not in your hands. The guitar adapts to the ideas not the other way around.