“When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating desperate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”
Talented, gifted, joyful, friendly, dashingly handsome — Such were the common descriptions of Syd Barrett, the original lead singer and co-founder of Pink Floyd.
Though he contributed immensely to the band’s early writing, he had his own demons to face. His heavy use of LSD led to his unraveling as he became increasingly depressed and withdrawn — Though his transformation came gradually, he had reached a point where he was “a completely different person,” as a bandmate recalled. Other than the present speculation that he had suffered from schizophrenia, he couldn’t recognize his old friends, he couldn’t remember where he was — And by the time he was forced to leave the band, his face was so often just a blank stare, as if no one were living in his head.
As the band moved on, David Gilmour, who initially replaced Barrett only on the guitar, now completely took his place as the lead singer too.
Years later, Pink Floyd released their breakthrough album, The Dark Side of the Moon — The album that forever transformed them from cult musicians into mainstream giants. It was an album themed around stress or the pressures of modern life — Time, money, mental illness, mortality.
In the drummer, Nick Mason’s words, “Dark Side contained strong, powerful songs. The overall idea that linked those songs together — the pressures of modern life — found a universal response, and continues to capture people’s imagination. The lyrics had depth, and had a resonance people could easily relate to, and were clear and simple enough for non-native-English speakers to understand, which must have been a factor in its international success.”
After Dark Side, the band toured heavily for three years, and now a new pressure emerged — It was time to write new material. With the success of the previous album hanging above them like a cloud, it wasn’t easy to write new songs. They had arrived at the fork in the road where they had to assess whether they were businessmen or artists — Why were they in the game?
In their personal lives, they felt disillusioned and unsatisfied — With all that fame, their lives still hadn’t changed.
“We were very disconnected,” said keyboardist Richard Wright. They were exhausted, uninspired, estranged, and they hardly looked at one another in the eye as they worked in the studio — They always arrived late to work, and whole days of desultory studio sessions brought to nothing being accomplished.
Until one moment, noodling around with his guitar, David Gilmour played four notes on that sounded particularly haunting and mournful. Those four notes struck a chord in frontman Roger Waters — They triggered in him memories of Syd Barrett. Upon hearing those notes, Waters felt as though Barrett’s ghost was lingering in the studio.
By that time, Waters had already come up with the theme of “absence” for the album. Adding lyrics to Gilmour’s guitar work, what started as those four notes later became a song in tribute to Barrett — Its sparse lyrics suggested that they were in search of their lost friend, and that their rise to stardom had played a role in his downfall.
The song is titled,
During the recording of Shine On, an unexpected guest came to visit — A large, fat bloke with a shaven head watched the band in the control room, his face vacant. The band did not recognize the withdrawn man sitting in the corner, until only about an hour later, one of them realized, “It’s Syd.”
Horrified by Barrett’s physical change, they still had a vision of the enthusiastic character they had last seen seven years earlier who was skinnier, and had dark curly hair. Their memory of Barrett was less of the dazed Syd who had left the band, but so much more of the friend who was like a brother to them. Distressed at Barrett’s appearance, the band was reduced to tears.
Still remembering the rush of confusion that day more than twenty years later, Mason wrote, “His arrival suddenly and unexpectedly brought back a whole part of the life of the band. Guilt was one feeling. We had all played some part in bringing Syd to his present state, either through denial, a lack of responsibility, insensitivity or downright selfishness.”
Mason also wrote, “The lyrics were already written, but Syd’s visit underscored the melancholy of them, and maybe influenced the final version of the song.”
David Gilmour lamented, “It was a great loss. Imagining what he would have gone on to do, he would have become so great.” After his short visit, Barrett slipped away into his private life and was never seen again.
The album they worked on is what we now know as Wish You Were Here — Revolving around the theme of absence, the album mourns the past : the band’s early years when they were just a group of friends playing music together, and the present : becoming cash cows for a corporate label, and causing the camaraderie they once shared to become strained.
They wished that Barrett still had his mental faculties. They wished that they were there for one another, not just as a band, but firstly, as friends.
Fast forward to the late 70s, Pink Floyd embarked on their In The Flesh tour, promoting their album, Animals. It was their first tour playing in huge stadiums, and their ever growing fame and fortune were testing them to their limits.
Roger Waters felt that the intimate artist-audience connection was lost in playing bigger shows. He said, “I disliked it intensely because it became a social event rather than a more controlled and ordinary relationship between musicians and an audience…The front sixty rows seemed to be screaming and shouting and rocking and swaying and not really listening to anything. And those further back could see bugger-all anyway.”
During one of the shows, a few people in the audience lit up firecrackers, prompting Waters to scold and yell at them. On another show, Waters got so irritated that he ended up spitting at a fan’s face.
Afterwards, Waters was torn. How could he do such a thing, he wondered. He was 33 years old, the primary songwriter of one of the biggest rock bands in the world — But his marriage had failed, and his band seemed to be following suit — He and David Gilmour, the other key creative force in the band were growing apart. Waters had money and fame, but he was just unhappy, and angry. He still felt as though he was unable to escape the pains of his childhood, beginning with the absence of his father, who died serving in World War II.
With the help of the band’s producer, Waters saw a therapist, to whom he opened up about the alienation that he was experiencing. He confided about his desire to build a wall between him and the audience across the stage during the shows. Night after night during the tour, Waters coped by imagining a wall standing between him and the screaming fans — And this, became the central theme to Pink Floyd’s next album, The Wall — A record revolving around abandonment, isolation, and the never-healing scars inflicted during childhood.
Inspired by his own life and also of Syd Barrett, Waters came up with the concept of a character who, overwhelmed by his childhood scars and society, builds a wall to isolate himself from the world.
The title tracks, Another Brick in The Wall Parts 1 to 3, serve as pillars to the album. In Part 1, the character starts building a wall to shield himself from pain after he loses his father in the war. In Part 2, having gone through his years in rigid schooling, one rife with beatings and emotional torture, the character becomes motivated to build his wall even larger. Until finally, in Part 3, he completely isolates himself from the world.
“I was trying to make sense of my life,” said Waters. “And to some extent, I did.” But as Waters’s story developed, he realized that the wall would have to come down. The character realizes that he has to deal with reality as it is, and that there’s no good in living in isolation — Just as Waters had learned.
It’s not a new thing to say, but it’s definitely worth remembering : Human beings, each of us are unique — We have experiences and traits in us that make us who we are — We have parts of our lives, our experiences — That have never happened before in history, and will never be repeated again.
Sometimes, we don’t have to look too far for the perfect idea, when we can take the inspiration we need from our own lives, or at least, from our own environment.
Take a look back at how Pink Floyd made their records — Often times, all they had to do was look at what was immediately in front of them.
In making Dark Side of the Moon, they were growing in their career as a band. They observed the pressures in their lives — Money, deadlines, stress of flying, fear of death — All of which became concepts for the songs.
When they made Wish You Were Here, they were feeling dried out and disconnected — And that’s exactly what they wrote about.
And when they made The Wall, they again wrote about a situation that they were facing. The songs are thinly veiled reflections of Roger Waters’s own biography — He himself had lost his father in the war. The song “Mother” was written because Waters himself was raised by an overprotective mother. “Another Brick in The Wall Part 2” was written because Waters was educated in a boarding school. “Comfortably Numb” was inspired by Waters’s experience of being injected with tranquilizers before a show.
The things that happen in our life seem so chaotic as we’re going through them and feeling them. But often, when we look back, everything fits perfectly and purposefully together, like a finely crafted novel.
Borrowing writing wisdom from Ernest Hemingway, whenever he had trouble writing, he would tell himself to write “just one true sentence” — And that could mean something he had seen or heard from somewhere, or it could mean something that knew.
He was also quoted as saying, “Whatever success I have had has been through writing what I know about.”
And today, as you attempt to create something new — Look within yourself, look at the world around you — And try writing just that one true sentence. One dab of paint. One silly, simple sketch. One tiny melody.
Whatever it takes for you start.
And hey, don’t forget to have fun while you’re at it.