Roger Waters had the dominant personality; David Gilmour and Rick Wright the musicianship. Perversely, though, the person who exerted the greatest influence on Pink Floyd’s 50-year career was someone who left the band 48 years before that career ended.
Syd Barrett only made one full album with Pink Floyd, after which depression took him over and he retreated from public life. By January 1968 he was gone from Pink Floyd. In 1974 he played his last music, and returned to his mother’s house in Cambridge, England, where he lived, a curious legend disturbed only by the occasional reporter, until his death in 2006.
Syd was gone but he was never completely forgotten by Pink Floyd. Their first globally-successful work, 1973's Dark Side Of The Moon, drew heavily on themes of professional anxiety and mental illness, inspired – if that's the word – by him. Their next, Wish You Were Here (1975), featured a song Shine On You Crazy Diamond explicitly about him. Even when Waters assumed sole captaincy of Floyd songwriting around The Wall in 1979, it's hard not to see Barrett's alienation with the music business as having fathered Waters's own.
This new box set – The Early Years, nearly 30 discs, with replica memorabilia and vinyl singles; a handsome trove of music, all for a correspondingly handsome sum of £399 (Dh1,825) – is just the kind of product that we might expect from a hugely successful band. Indeed, it has been put together by tanned, rather portly 70-somethings, who will next year commemorate their many triumphs with a museum exhibit.
However, this is a different kind of story. Although the music is excellent, much of the material here records the period of Pink Floyd’s greatest anxiety: after Barrett’s departure, and before their first global success, when they are forced to confront an extremely difficult question. Without a major songwriter what, exactly, will they do?
In 1965, as the set begins, Pink Floyd are a band like countless others of their generation: teenagers entering further education with a love of American R&B music and a wish to make something similar. They are led by Roger “Syd” Barrett, the most adventurous and inquisitive mind in their close-knit group. Even on the earliest demos, Barrett’s eccentric wit exerts a powerful spin on their source material.
It doesn't take long for his inspirations – the wonder and literature of childhood, amplified by experiments on the consciousness – to give rise to songs of great strangeness and originality. Arnold Layne, about a man stealing clothes from washing lines, and its follow-up See Emily Play were both commercial successes, but in the glare of promotional engagements, domestic touring and foreign travel, the mental illness that had long lain dormant in Barrett was suddenly permitted to wake.
Barrett unspooled in public and his erratic behaviour led the band's record company to lose confidence in his wayward genius. Nor was the situation easy to disguise. A new member, David Gilmour, was recruited to paper over the plentiful cracks. Syd, meanwhile, who had written all the songs on the band's debut album The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn now on the follow-up, A Saucerful Of Secrets, only wrote one.
That song, Jugband Blues, is forlorn but brilliant. In fact, its production seems to enact Barrett's own recent state: a brilliant opening statement, a disorientating and frightening passage in which things seem to splinter utterly. At the song's end, the singer sounds completely broken. Still, as tragic as was the background narrative, this wasn't the only Barrett song of the period, evidenced here by unreleased contemporary gems: the fragmentary In The Beechwoods, Scream Thy Last Scream and particularly the mischievous, groovy Vegetable Man.
It’s very easy to understand how, by the mid-1980s, with Syd alive but unseen, and these tracks only available on the black market, that a huge mythos should have grown up around him – contributing in part to the British psychedelic revival of 1985 to 1987.
This set values substance over myth, and adds musical bones to the Barrett ghost. As well as early demos like Lucy Leave and the Bo Diddley-inspired Double O Bo, there is a 1967 live set from Stockholm, and the band's improvised soundtrack for Peter Whitehead's film Tonite Let's All Make Love in London. A disc of less sonically-perfect stuff finds Vegetable Man appearing again, clearly recorded in front of a radio in 1967. You can completely see why someone would do this.
All of which helps to explain why, in 1968, Pink Floyd were in so precarious a state, a band with a burgeoning fanbase, but no songwriter. What Pink Floyd did then – namely transform themselves from a lively psychedelic pop group into makers of epic, conceptual rock – might not have quite the dark romance of the Syd Barrett legend, but it is a tense and compelling story, which makes up the bulk of the material here. Even with Syd, improvisation was what had distinguished the live Floyd from the eccentric narratives of their studio songs. Now, in the absence of words, the band explored that avenue extensively. Privately, the band were in crisis. Publicly, they continued to offer a sensorily-deranging live show as much as they ever had done.
As the comprehensive set of material here attests, the band had a number of improvisational and astrally-minded Syd-era standbys (Astronomy Domine, the first track on Piper; Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, and Interstellar Overdrive) which could flesh out a set of their more sophomoric compositions. In this period, one track, the scarifying but structured Careful With That Axe, Eugene, was renamed and repurposed on several occasions.
In the absence of words, we discover, the Floyd soundtracked ballet, tried musique concrete, and most notably offered their services as rock composers for movies. For More in 1969, and Zabriskie Point in 1970 and the less enjoyable Obscured by Clouds in 1972, they worked to amplify atmosphere. Prompted by a cinematic mood, they made steps towards evolving their own sound.
What Pink Floyd were looking for – ironically, for former architecture students – was structure. In the studio, they tried to write conventional songs, and by 1969, the likes of Grantchester Meadows (by Waters) and Fat Old Sun (Gilmour) showed they were getting somewhere. Live meanwhile – as you'll hear on disc 8 – they picked selectively from among their recent developing material to help it punch a heavier conceptual weight, creating two works they called The Man and The Journey.
This kind of editing was to provide their eureka moment. At a 1971 live radio broadcast, we hear DJ John Peel comment on how much Fat Old Sun has changed – it's now about 15 minutes longer than it used to be, and has incorporated several distinct new sections. Likewise, in the studio, the band would build epic music from smaller units of sound.
It could be a painstaking, often soul-destroying process. We know Echoes as the centrepiece of band's breakthrough album, 1971's Meddle. However, as the band worked on it, they were disheartened, splicing together dispiritingly small snippets of sound, calling each "Nothing".
Disc 16 opens with Nothing Pt 14, but if the title sounds unpromising, the music itself is quite the opposite. Over the course of seven minutes, we are introduced to the becalmed, watery expanse that will become Echoes, and are subjected to an exquisite, mounting tension.
Syd, for the moment at least, is out of mind, and the band are finding unprecedented space within a gently evolving structure. Above all, after their many frenetic experiments, the band finally sound calm; secure in the knowledge perhaps, that finally they know exactly where they are going.
John Robinson is associate editor of Uncut and The Guardian Guide’s rock critic. He lives in London.