An Introduction to Syd Barrett with former Pink Floyd manager Peter Jenner
The late, great Syd Barrett was born 70 years ago today (he died on July 7, 2006).
In his memory we post this conversation with Pink Floyd’s former manager Peter Jenner, who shares his perspective on the band’s enigmatic former frontman.
This piece originally appeared a few years ago on our sister site, Jambands.com.
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… – “Golden Hair,” Syd Barrett.
Like many Pink Floyd fans, my introduction to Peter Jenner began when I put the needle down on the opening track on their first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. “Astronomy Dominé” features Jenner’s voice which starts off the number, and it is Jenner’s voice here which tells a fascinating tale of his involvement with Syd Barrett and the Floyd in their early days before his further success as a prominent manager of numerous acts in Blackhill Enterprises, and then, Sincere Management, over the last four decades, including T. Rex, Roy Harper, The Clash, Robyn Hitchcock, and Billy Bragg. Jenner is also the Emeritus President for IMMF (International Music Manager’s Forum), and an outspoken artist activist via his work with such organizations as AURA (Association of United Recording Artists), where he is a council member.
But that all followed a few years of conversion in the mid-1960s from assistant lecturer at the London School of Economics to his “baptism of fire” in the true spirit of DIY band management. Indeed, the old educational cliché is turned on its head: if one doesn’t care to teach, well, then, manage Pink Floyd in its earliest incarnation. Jambands.com caught up with Jenner in his England home on the occasion of the release of the new compilation, An Introduction to Syd Barrett. The package is significant because, for the first time, it includes not only Barrett’s work with the Floyd, but various remastered solo material, some re-mixed by Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, who also served as Executive Producer on the project. The album also contains a rather fascinating and improvised 20-minute instrumental, “Rhamadan,” as a bonus track. Indeed, the piece is reportedly produced by Peter Jenner, but like so many things one will encounter in this interview, the past is often a mysterious haze; although, we dwell in the unwritten future.
Let’s begin with your tenure as Pink Floyd’s co-manager, along with Andrew King, during the Syd Barrett era, which led to your choice to manage Syd after his departure from the Floyd, while managing acts with King for Blackhill Enterprises.
Yeah. Well, where to start? Andrew and I got into management by mistake or by accident. I was a very junior university professor, an ‘assistant lecturer’ in English terms [London School of Economics]. I’d always been a music fan, and, also, I became involved with our own independent label, which was distributed by Elektra in the UK. That seemed interesting and fun. There were all sorts of stuff happening in the cultural world at the time in the UK, a lot of excitement, and all of it driven from the Beatles and the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” and Dylan, the Stones and The Who—a huge interest in what was happening in the music world and, suddenly, Britain was in the middle of it.
For a 23-year old, at that time, that was a very exciting time to be observing it. It seemed like “oh, look, the music biz” and then, there was this band and they didn’t want to be on the label, they wanted a manager, so Andrew and I said, “Let’s manage this band. Why not?” He had a bit of money and wasn’t working, and I was getting a bit bored with what I was doing at the university. I couldn’t really work out what I wanted to do any research on, which made any sense to me, and was worth doing—sort of general alienation. We ended up looking after The Pink Floyd and that seemed like a hobby. Before we knew where we were, the hobby had taken off and become an overnight sensation in the UK with all sorts of dodgy people trying to become our friends. We ended up getting a deal with EMI, the Beatles label, and my God, working at Abbey Road with Norman Smith who had been the Beatles engineer, and the Beatles were down the corridor, and we’re making records and “oh, wow—we’ve got a hit (laughs), a hit album, and we’ve got a hit single,” and…this is easy. This is easy. It was all just such a sort of whirl. It was an accident, a blessed accident.
Subsequently, it all exploded, it was fantastic, and it all went pear-shaped. I don’t think we got used to the idea that it was successful before it all started crashing and burning. “See Emily Play” was a hit, straightaway, and we tried to have another hit. We went to America. Bill Graham was phoning us up to come and do gigs at the Fillmore, and all this stuff was happening and the album was a hit and people wanted to see us in Europe, and “my God—this is fantastic,” but, then, it just all started getting difficult.
It’s hard for some people to understand because they have an image of what Floyd became but, at that time, Syd Barrett was the complete focus of the band.
Absolutely. Absolutely. He was absolutely the heart of the band. He wrote the songs. He was the lead singer. He was the lead guitarist. He was the pretty one. He was the most handsome. He was the one that everybody wanted…well, no—Rick [Wright] was very handsome, as well. But [Barrett] was the one that people wanted to interview. If you’d wanted to interview The Pink Floyd back then, you’d had wanted to speak to Syd.
Two things were going on at the same time, and one couldn’t just reference current societal trends that tell someone how to take care of someone else when they have certain issues: you are a young man managing a successful act—a huge explosion, this accidental thing—and your focal point, Syd Barrett, is deteriorating.
Yeah, starting to have, as you say in that wonderful American way, there were “certain issues,” indeed. (laughter) And, yes, absolutely, there was like a baptism of fire, I think for all of us, including, the other members of the band. It was an extraordinary sort of thing to go through, and to be discovering the music business from…I mean, I had never been in any business before. I had just been at school, I had been at university, and then I’d started teaching in the university. I didn’t know anything. I was an economist. And, you know, “WOW—look at all this stuff. Contracts? What are they? Gigs? What’s that? How do you do a gig? (laughter) Where do you hire a van? What’s a van? Equipment? What equipment?”
So the first thing we did when Andrew and I started managing the Floyd was that we bought them some equipment. In three or four days—maybe, it was a week—it was stolen, and we hadn’t insured it. Lesson one. (laughter)
You also helped with the initial lighting design, which would become such a big fixture in Floyd shows, by getting some of that equipment, as well. Is it true that you were taking advantage of circumstances while you were so far removed from what was going down at the light shows at American gigs, specifically on the West Coast, and that actually helped the Floyd develop their own imagery?
Well, yes, but I think the thing was that what was going on was it was a bit like, you know, we thought that we were doing something like they were doing in California. But in fact, it was totally different. There was some overlap; some of the original lighting had come from the guys that had come to the first UFOs [a UK underground club; literally, as it occupied the basement of 31 Tottenham Court Road], and were doing some of those oil, blippy lights. We thought that was great, but we always thought, somehow, the band should be the whole multi-media thing, as they say now, but we were saying that back then. The idea was that we were creating an experience. That was all part of the bullshit.
As you say, my partner and I built some lights because we thought lights would be really important, and you could get some more drama, and have blippy lights, as well. That was all part of the show. Interestingly, one of the things, because we didn’t know anything about lighting, was that we just bought light fittings, from Woolworths or Wal-Mart or whatever. They were domestic light fittings and we stuck them on bits of wood, which we bought from the carpentry shop, you know. (laughs) These lights were fixed spots, spotlights, so they had a very short range. To get them to work, you had to have them very close to the band. We put them close to the band, and that, of course, meant that if you had a screen behind the band where we put on the blippy lights, the oil lights which we were trying to do from the word ‘go’, really, after we’d seen them at UFO, and we got to know how to do them and we learned how all that worked—but, these lights were so close that you got these huge shadows that, of course, were very dramatic. We thought, “Fantastic!” because you’d get these shadows of people moving, and you’d shift the lights, and the shadows moved because they were so close to them. It was a very interesting thing, but we didn’t know what we were doing. We had no idea. Pretty soon, we had someone that had a better idea, but it picked up from there—there’s no question. It set the idea that the Floyd would have lights, and that was part of the show from the word go. From the first thing that we wrote about them it was about a multi-media thing.
Eventually, the Floyd recorded an album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn that was Syd Barrett’s artistic zenith. His songs have stood the test of time, despite many imitators, because no one has ever been able to write a lyric or a tune quite like him. In 1967, when the debut album came out, did you have enough time to stop and appreciate what he and the band had accomplished?
No, I certainly didn’t think that I would be talking about the album 43 years later. That never crossed my mind. Indeed, the first contract we signed with EMI, they only got royalties for 25 years. We all thought, “Well, that’s not a problem. We’re 24, and that’s a lifetime away.” (laughter) I mean, that part changed.
You’re absolutely right. I think the thing was that people in America don’t realize, perhaps, was how very English that stuff Syd was writing. It came very much out of that tradition of Lewis Carroll and A.A. Milne and other children’s writers of the 19th century who had a history of a sort of whimsy writing for young kids. I think that had a lot of influence on the way we all thought. That was a form of children’s writing that we would have all been brought up on in the 40s—me and Syd. In a sense, it was harking back to a lot of that memory of a bucolic past, which never really existed because we were children of the war. We were children born during the war, or just after the war, brought up in a really quite drab, very drab way—in the context of what life is like now. There were a lot of shortages, and so, by the 60s, things were beginning to open up. You could get things.
Even in the 60s, we never got to hear the music from the West Coast because the records from America were by no means necessarily released in the UK. We heard about things like the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, but hadn’t heard anything. We read about them. There was an awareness that something was going on, but very little of it came over to the UK on that underground thing. And Hendrix came and lived here. That was a bit later, but you know. Things like, through the underground, I heard early Velvet Underground tapes. That came to me on a cassette. A friend of mine had it, and we listened to it, and I said, “That’s a great band. They’d be great to work with the Floyd.” I phoned up John Cale because someone knew John Cale’s number. So very small things, there were links, but there wasn’t much contact. I tried to get to manage them. I said, “Oh, let’s manage him, as well. This management line’s a good one; let’s manage the Velvet Underground.” And they said, “Oh, no, we have a manager.” And I said, “Oh, O.K.” But it was this naivety that you could just phone someone up (laughs), and manage them, and they might say yes. They might not. But, hey, this is it; we just do it.
There was a freedom going through in that era—unlocking of lots of doors with what was happening with the Beatles and the Stones and the Who and the Kinks and all these bands showing that British bands could take on the world. That was really new. That was really new and that was an exciting time in that sense, and presumably, I just got caught up in it as a music fan. I’d been a jazz fan, and then I got into R&B and, then, there was something that was more interesting, which was the psychedelic stuff. We heard the Fugs and there were a few things that came through, but not much. There was a lot that we’d read about like free concerts and things like that. .
Right. And before the Floyd, you had DNA Records. How did that all play out?
DNA Records? You know about that? Oh, you’ve been doing your homework. DNA. In London Free School, it was myself and Hoppy [John Hopkins], who was the key person, and Felix de Mendelsohn and Ron Atkins. Ron was interested in jazz, Felix had more of a classical background, and I was interested in blues and rock ‘n’ roll and jazz and so was Hoppy. One of our blokes, one of our geezers in our group, in the London Free School was Joe Boyd who was doing stuff for Elektra Records. He was the only person we knew in the music industry. So, we thought, as we were doing all of this revolutionary small art, cultural stuff, let’s see if we could do a record. I had forgotten who knew AMM [an improvisational jazz band which would go on to influence Floyd, among other experimental outfits]. I think it was Ron. We met AMM and Cornelius Cardew was involved, and it somehow had to do with Stockhausen, John Cage, and Ornette Coleman, and all these things. I met my wife [Sumi]—alas, now, passed away some years ago—she was in England (she was Japanese-Canadian) with her friend who was Ornette Coleman’s girlfriend. So it was Ornette Coleman and there was that scene, and there was the Poetry Olympics and [Allen] Ginsberg, and there was a huge amount of stuff going on. Yoko [Ono] started appearing and the Beatles stuff was getting more and more interesting and the gaps between the music silos were breaking down.
DNA was an attempt to have a progressive label, which would have avant-garde pop, avant-garde folk, avant-garde jazz, and avant-garde classical. In other words, breaking down those barriers. Subsequently, I looked at the figures and realized (laughs) that the deal we got from Elektra was so shitty —which, of course, we hadn’t looked at; we just thought, “Great! We’ll make a record.”—and that we would never ever make a penny. It wasn’t a question of getting rich. It was a question of just being able to afford to do it to make more records. And to make it viable, we would have to have a pop act because we would have to have something. Pop acts sold lots of records. I mean, very naïve. If you have a pop act, you’ll sell lots of records. I didn’t realize really that most pop acts didn’t sell many records. (laughs) I subsequently discovered that to my cost frequently. That was, in a way, what drove me towards the Floyd, as you said, with DNA—it was finding a pop band to put on DNA.
Let’s jump forward in time (or back to the Barrett strand in this interview), and discuss the circumstances, which led to Syd’s departure from Pink Floyd. Essentially, this transition period built a bridge to the solo material, which appears on An Introduction to Syd Barrett. The thought at the time was that you and Andrew King would work with Syd with the hope that he’d have room to breathe on his own as an artist, and you would also work with other acts for Blackhill Enterprises?
Yeah. Yes, there was an economic problem. Originally, the Floyd and ourselves were setup as a six-way partnership. At that point, because we were so hot, things started coming to us like T. Rex, or Tyrannosaurus Rex at that time. The question was “would we have to clear with them everything we did in the management company? And would they have to clear everything with us?” Like what to do about Syd—they’d have to clear with us. So there was an awareness, in some sense, that there was a management company growing, and there was a band that was growing, and I don’t think we analyzed it and saw it in those terms. I wish we had. We didn’t really work out how we could cope with it; it was all sort of muddled up. It made sense for us to suggest “well, look, if we’re going to break up, well, then, we’ll go on looking after Syd because Syd’s the one who writes all the songs and sings and plays the guitar and he’s the founder of the band, and you three guys couldn’t get on and be the Pink Floyd. And who knows? Bryan Morrison thinks he could work it with you—great.” In a way, it was incredibly non-angst-y. They said, “We don’t think we can work with Syd.” We finally agreed, having struggled against it for some time, and we began to see it. “You’ve tried, we’ve tried, we’ve all tried in various ways of working with Syd. It’s not working. You go ahead and do your thing—go on being the Pink Floyd, and Syd and us will get on with it.”
Now, I don’t think anybody really explained this to Syd. It wasn’t easy to explain things to Syd. (laughs) I don’t think it ever was clear to him that that was the deal. And I don’t think he probably would have minded, either, if he did know. It all just flowed through. That’s what happened.
During parts of 1968, you went into the studio and recorded tracks with Syd. Was that material being considered for a solo album, or was it an opportunity to take Syd into the studio and see what happens?
Yes. I mean it was definitely EMI and ourselves who thought “wouldn’t it be great to get an album from Syd, so let’s just go and see.” We knew he had lots of bits and pieces of songs, and that he had some old songs that maybe he could use and all the rest of it. And, “hey, he can write some more songs because he writes these great songs.” And it would never cohere. I could never get him to play that song, or play that song again, or “what about that song?” We would look through the books of his songs. I could never work with him in some sort of coherent, logical fashion. He didn’t seem to quite understand, or I didn’t communicate properly. It was always a very sort of…he would play some stuff and I’d try and capture it and try and get him to play it again if it was good. There’d be a bit of a song there or a bit of a lyric there and a bit of tune there and see. All of it was just let the tapes go to see what comes through.
He was incapable of taking a linear path on any one thing at that point?
Well…(laughs) I could certainly not get anything out of him. That was for sure. Who knows what someone else might have been able to do. I’m humble enough to know that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.
There is an amazing 20-minute instrumental on An Introduction to Syd Barrett called “Rhamadan,” which is listed as previously unreleased and produced by you. The track features percussion, dulcimer, Mellotron, and sound effects, and everything is wild and stretched out. Do you know when that track was recorded?
I think that was something which was done for a soundtrack, or something. I’m not sure. It doesn’t ring…there were various soundtrack-y things that we did during the course of the period—odd bits of recording in places—and it may have turned up from that and doing demos before we started doing the album with EMI. There were various bits and pieces, and I don’t know if, maybe, that was done for a soundtrack for a film that someone once did that never got used. I really don’t know. There were various things which happened, and then these things get dug up because they weren’t done for the record company, they weren’t songs, they weren’t finished, and they were sort of like sketches which were left lying around. (laughter) I don’t know—like in an artist’s studio, you do a doodle and it’s left lying around.
Was it brought to your attention in the last few years that “Rhamadan” was something that you produced, and they were thinking of putting it on this Syd Barrett compilation as a bonus track?
Oh, no, no, no. No one talks to me. I mean, I don’t know if I produced it, or when it happened. I don’t know if it was when I was doing it; no one’s played it to me. I don’t know whether I produced it, or whether it was done for a third party. I hope that there’s information, whatever information’s available on the album could tell you that, but I’ve got no idea—
And if there isn’t information?
A) It’s the mist of time, and b) Who have we got to pay for this? (laughter)
Perhaps, a bit of the latter.
“We can rely on no one being able to remember in the haze of drugs and age what happened there 40 years ago.”
Let’s provide some clarity and understanding for our various readers—young, or otherwise. What was your involvement with Syd Barrett during the recording and production of his two solo albums in the early 1970s? You were involved in various other acts at that point, right? Roy Harper, among many others.
Yes, I was involved in various other acts like Roy Harper and so on and started doing records for them. I think the thing was that Syd drifted into being looked after by Bryan Morrison, and he asked me if I could get anything out of him in 1974. And then, he tried to get something together with the stuff that we’d done both in ’68 and in ’74.
[As far as the early 70s two solo albums] I think Roger [Waters] and Dave [Gilmour] and everybody wanted to try to do something with Syd, and try to see if there could be any way that it could be got together. I was not involved in those things. So, I don’t know what I produced and I don’t know where the stuff that I was involved with ended up. It all disappeared into a haze. I was running Blackhill with Andrew Hill and we were doing well. There was plenty of business and busy. I would have always done something if anybody had asked me, but no one asked me. I don’t think…you see, I couldn’t have done what Dave and Roger did, which was to, as it were, musically take it over. They took things which were sketches and colourized them. I don’t know how much Syd had to do with any of that stuff which they did up. You’d have to ask them. I don’t know if they, as it were, took the stuff and said, “Well, this is what we can do with it,” and then did it. I presume, at some stage, Syd heard it, and said, “Oh, all right” sort of thing in a casual way. I would imagine someone somewhere approved it. God knows I had nothing to do with it. No one told me what they were doing with it. No one consulted me. Which I thought was a bit naughty, but there you go—at least someone was doing something with it and it was trying to help Syd and that was great. So O.K., there you go, that’s what happens, life goes on, I’ve got other things to do.
How long did you spend time in the studio with Syd in 1974? How productive were those sessions?
I think there were several days, probably five, or six, or seven days, or sections of a day, and nothing really came out that wasn’t rather confused. To this day, the only thing I remember really feeling together was “Golden Hair.” I never realized that was a James Joyce lyric. I just thought it was a lovely song. That was one of the key things that kept me going was trying to get that song done because I thought that was such a killer song.
Indeed. I am going to draw a line from your illustrious and formidable past, and on to your various acts, which you managed, from the Floyd to T. Rex to Roy Harper to The Clash to Robyn Hitchcock to Billy Bragg. I would like to discuss your involvement in modern times with the Association of United Recording Artists, specifically your opinion about file sharing. Did you ever imagine—
Are you trying to get me into trouble?
No, not at all. (laughter) Ever think of how artist’s rights have evolved, or de-evolved, during your time in the music business, and how you are a part of that?
Well, where do you start? I’m so sort of obsessively involved in all that stuff for the last few years. I think, basically, my fundamental position is that copyright was developed for a particular technology and time, and it’s a work that developed as the technology developed, up until the CD. The CD, in a way, was the last manifestation of the old copyright regime, but, also, opened the door to the new chaos because they digitized everything, and it was really easy for people to get the material in an unencumbered digital way. In a sense, the record companies were hoping to get people to buy their records again in the digital format. “We managed to get you to replace your vinyl collection with CDs. Now, we’re going to try to get you to replace your CDs with buying digital files.”
However, they didn’t quite realize that the problem was that they hadn’t, in any way, protected these CDs. So, at that point, the game was up. I think, since then, they’ve been trying to get the genie back in the bottle, but they let the genie out, and the genie is out. My feeling is that copyright is about the right to copy and to control the right to copy and to monetize the right to copy. That’s what copyright is all about. That’s what the word means. In a digital world, you can’t control copying. That’s the fundamental issue. What you’re trying to do is restrict the machinery and the technology from doing what it does. If you look at the whole digital structure construct—whether it’s the Internet, computers, everything—it’s all about copying. That’s what computers do; they copy. They convert things into digital information, which they can then copy, and they can shift around and they can move around and you can download and all the rest of it.
In a sense, you have to re-think the way that you deal with this. And you have to re-think your business structures, and you have to re-think how you charge for music, or how you compensate or pay people to invest in making music. That’s the thing they haven’t been able to do because you’ve got these huge industrial structures which are trying to hold on. They’ve held on pretty well for ten years. (laughs) They’ve been on the slide now for ten years, and you have to say it’s pretty remarkable that they’ve been able to hold on as long as they have. I think the game is up, and they’ve got to re-build their business. It involves losing a lot of control, I think it involves the artist a lot more, and it involves how people should get paid. I think that the whole structure of the recorded music business—and, therefore, by implications, the whole of the music industry—has to re-think its game.
You’ve got to think about how you’re going to generate enough revenue for people to invest their time and money in making recordings. If you don’t do that, then I think you have a big problem going forward in the music industry because if you don’t have the big stars tomorrow, you’re not going to fill the arenas and the sheds and the stadiums, so the live industry is going to hurt. We’re going to end up with sort of a localized industry, and people aren’t going to be phoning me up from America to ask about things. I think it’ll become localized and amateurized.
Now, is that a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know. I’m not so moralistic about it. What I say is if you want to have a coherent and progressive…if you want to have recorded music made in the styles, and developing from the styles, that we’ve made in the last 40 years, you’ve got to find a way of rewarding that. You have to work out how that can work with the way people use computers, and they use digital devises, and where those digital devices are going. You have to have a fundamental re-think. That means your old game is up. And that’s very hard for anyone who is running a big company with lots of employees to say—“our game is up.”
You see, the trouble is, because of copyright length, the length of copyright, it’s not like what you really needed was to have new industries. If you look at the transport industry, you had stagecoaches, then you had railroads, then you had airplanes, and then, you had ocean liners. And all these businesses grew up against the old one. In the music business, we’ve got this total, new distribution structure, new potential industrial structure—you can make your records at home, you can distribute them yourself, you can download them yourself, and all the rest of it. It’s a different game. But, yet, a lot of the stuff is controlled and owned by these corporations who are built around the old technology. So, it’s like you’ve got the train companies deciding and trying to control the airplane companies: “Hey, you can’t do that because that would upset our old train business.”
Tying all of this together, and taking it into a different line of thinking, the word “copy” comes up quite a bit with those artists who tried to artistically imitate the way that Syd Barrett constructed songs. I don’t think they ever quite got there. Was it his own unique Cambridge, or British, spirit that inspired his work?
I think it was his own, his individuality. No one is original. You all draw on what you’ve heard. I think there are nursery rhymes in there, too. I do believe that every artist is in some sense a cut-and-paste artist. You cut and paste what you experience, and what you’ve heard, or what you’ve read, or what you see, or what you’ve played. You cut and paste those things together in your own combination. And no one has come up with that same combination since then. Hitchcock’s done some stuff which is close to it, but, in a way, I think Robyn is a bit prone to pastiching it. And Syd didn’t do pastiches. That’s what he was—at his best, he was a very child-like person, in the best way. He was very naïve in some ways, and very open, and very innovative, and would try things—try too many things, I think. The seeds of whatever was in his head came out in the music, and came out in where he ended up, as well.