In September 1965, Allen Ginsberg stole the show at the Poetry Olympics at the Albert Hall. The following spring, rumours began to reach London (via antennae in Indica Books) of Ken Kesey's Acid Tests in San Francisco and New York's Lower East Side heroes the Fugs. Month-old copies of the Village Voice carried reviews of underground films by Jack Smith and Jonas Mekas while Situationist happenings occurred in Paris and the drugged and bearded Provos emerged as a political force on the Amsterdam city council.
London had its creative eccentrics, but its primary function in the coming revolution seemed to be as a hub of communication. Extraordinary characters stopped over in London on their way from Paris to Ireland, New York to Morocco or San Francisco to Delhi. The central drama of Don't Look Back is Dylan's visit to London. London, after all, had The Beatles and the Stones and mini-skirts and Kings Road, all well-established and profitable "overground" phenomena. While new, drugs-and-politics-fuelled energy was bursting forth all over the world in the summer of 1966, there was no sign that London's own revolution would be anything special: the excitement, so far, was imported.
Then, in late August, came stirrings in London W11. All accounts of London's "psychedelic underground" start with the Powis Square benefits for the London Free School. The lights, the music, the atmosphere, the Notting Hill freaks, the drugs, Pink Floyd on stage, the dancing... Suddenly, there was a focus, a regular event to talk about, to look forward to, to compare with other events. The ripples of joy that spread through W11 in its wake were palpable. We had lift-off!
The joy lasted just under a year. There are many analyses of the causes of the rise and fall of Freak London during those 11 months and some have much to recommend them. Around the same time as the Stones bust, for example, John Hopkins, editor of International Times, co-proprietor of UFO Club and inspirational figure, was jailed for eight months, plunging most of us - to say nothing of Hoppy himself - into a gloom that took a long time to lift. Weekend hippies began to outnumber the original Freaks at concerts and demonstrations. But those months also mark the arc of Syd Barrett's journey across the London sky. When he retreated into incomprehensible silence, the joy came to an end.
That's way too pat, you're thinking. Too sentimental, too convenient in the week leading up to a Tribute To Syd concert at the Barbican. But let's look more closely at the music that inspired that magical year. The kind of extended improvisations for which the Pink Floyd were famous can be - and usually are - tedious beyond bearing. But if the guitar player at the heart of it is a genuinely original player and if the jumping-off point is a jaunty, slightly demented English music-hall melody, those trippy excursions into the abstract become something else entirely.
"A movement is accomplished in six stages/And the seventh brings return."
Where did that melody come from? It has nothing to do with The Beatles, nothing to do with The Stones or Dylan or anything else afoot in pop music in 1966. It was so surprising - it made a roomful of stoned kids look up and grin, first at the stage, then at each other.
Light shows were central to what happened that year. In the colourful gloom the four members of Pink Floyd were so serious, so self-effacing, as they stared down at their instruments while blobs of light bubbled and covered the stage, you could barely make out any individual features. But there is nothing remarkable about hiding in the murky light unless the audience is trying to pierce it and see someone's face. Syd's sparkling eyes always shone in the murk. Self-effacement was fascinating when the singer was that beautiful.
That year may have marked the birth of a counterculture in which the usual ambitions of capitalism were forsworn, but the London Free School, International Times and the UFO Club were full of driven hustlers, schemers and dreamers. I know - I was one of them. Desires and urgencies surged through the crowds at concerts, even amidst the tripped-out and genuinely loving currents that passed through everyone. Underneath, Syd could have been the most ambitious of us all but he never showed it. His unconcern was the hurricane's eye around which the storm generated such powerful winds. The brilliance of his songs, thrown almost casually into our midst, gave us the confidence to create what we did. We knew the music we were dancing to was world class.
Without Syd, we would have been a colony of the American Cultural Revolution. With him, a new world of unabashedly English music was born, owing almost nothing to the blues that Pink Anderson and Floyd Council had sung in 1930s South Carolina, the blues that had inspired almost all of British pop music up until the spring of 1967.
On 10 May, a diverse group of singers and musicians will pay tribute to Syd. They - the list currently includes Chrissie Hynde, Vashti Bunyan, Kevin Ayers, Mike Heron, Robyn Hitchcock and others we're not allowed to mention - will sing songs from all of Syd's "periods". Many have gravitated towards the "later" songs from the (for me) hard-to-bear solo albums. On those CDs, you hear a damaged man, but you also hear great songs. When did he write them? I sat next to him in the winter of 1966 in his manager's flat as he sang song after song, explaining that the group couldn't use them all and maybe I knew someone else who would like to record them? All appear on the solo albums.
The great bassist Danny Thompson is eloquent in his ridicule of the praise and honours that fall to the recently deceased. "What about when he was alive?" But when Syd was alive, paying homage seemed like an intrusion. Besides, we have to be honest: profits will go to a charity chosen by Syd's family, but we're really doing this to remind ourselves how important he was to us, how beloved he was and how things wouldn't be the same if he hadn't written his curious, oh-so-English songs.
"You're the kind of girl that fits into my world/I'll give you anything everything if you want things."
"If you want things." No American could have written that.
We're stuck with our desires, our all-too-linear ambitions and our compulsion to file greatness in its proper place. If we're very lucky, on 10 May, we'll catch a bit of the off-hand breeze kicked up by Syd's hurricane 40 years ago.
"I know a room of musical tunes/Some rhyme some ching."
Take a couple if you wish, they're on the dish.
Syd Barrett - Madcap's Last Laugh, Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891), 10 May
Now here's a couple of links to see how it was ))) A lo-ve-ly rendition of Emily, hopefully it will remove the cover by Bowie from my memory that seemed to have stuck in my mind as a piece of .... well, don't blame me!