Syd Barrett & Pink Floyd
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Friday, January 10, 2014

Norman Smith and Syd Barrett

Norman Smith
When Norman Smith, a former Royal Air Force glider pilot and failed jazz musician, saw an advertisement in The Times in 1959 stating that EMI were looking for apprentice engineers under the age of 28, the 35 year old decided to lie about his age. At the interview, his cheeky criticism of Cliff Richard, the label's rising star, chimed with his interlocutor's views and also made Smith stand out among the hundred or so applicants. He was one of the three apprentices hired on the spot and began work at EMI's Abbey Road Studios.

For the next six years, Smith worked closely with the producer George Martin, most famously as engineer on all of the Beatles' sessions, from their audition in June 1962 up to the Rubber Soul album at the end of 1965. Although he didn't take part in the Sgt Pepper sessions, Smith went on to produce several albums which helped define British psychedelia. Between 1967 and 1969 he produced Pink Floyd's The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, A Saucerful of Secrets and Ummagumma , and helped the band experiment as they sought a way out of the chaos following the departure of the founder member Syd Barrett.

In the Spring of 1967, the band was the toast of the London underground, famous for its freeform, freak-out style of instrumental improvisation and throbbing, hallucinogenic light shows. It was all a little overwhelming for Smith, who was one of the more senior staff members at Abbey Road. But he knew he was on to something.

“I’m an old jazz man myself,” he says, laughing. “I didn’t know anything about psychedelia. But I could see that Pink Floyd were extremely popular, so I thought, Well, it looks as though we can sell some records here.”

Although Smith was still able to dabble behind the console after moving into production, once he began working with an underground, London-based, psychedelic rock outfit known as the Pink Floyd in early 1967, he "had too many other things to worry about such as Syd Barrett". And, having first seen the band at London's UFO Club, he also had to get to grips with their material.

Recording began almost immediately after signing to EMI in March 1967 and continued during an intense touring schedule through June and early July. Though Syd was still lucid and maintained a strong artistic control, he was, by the end of the sessions, becoming more withdrawn and difficult to communicate with. Norman Smith, called 'Normal' by John Lennon, found Syd especially tiresome. Sceptical of the band's musical ability and inclined to dismiss Barrett's songs as infantile, the sessions were not an altogether happy affair for Smith.

Norman Smith

“I realized as time went on that Syd really and truly, in my opinion, didn’t get any pleasure out of recording,” Smith observes. “Syd’s thing was he would write these songs; he would go to an underground club, or something of that nature, and perform these songs. And that was really it for him.”

"When I look back I wonder how we ever managed to get anything done," Smith said. "It was sheer hell. There are no pleasant memories. I always left with a headache. Syd was undisciplined and would simply never sing the same thing twice. Trying to talk to him was like talking to a brick wall because the face was so expressionless. His lyrics were child-like and he was a child in many ways; up one minute, down the next."

Faced with the unreceptive Smith, Syd found another line of communication into the control room via Peter Bown. The eccentric Abbey Road engineer, then in his early forties, struck up an unlikely friendship with Barrett, resulting in some of the more unusual sounds on the album. "Bown was as loopy as they come," remembers King. "He'd sit at the mixing desk painting plastic skin on his fingers because he was worried they'd wear out through overuse."

"Syd's guitar was always a problem because he would not keep still and was always fiddling with his sound," says Bown, who retired in 1991. "He used to go and kick his echo box every now and then, just because he liked the sound it made. We wrecked four very expensive microphones that first night. They got louder and louder until everything was overloading and the mics just gave up the ghost. "With Syd you just never knew what was going to occue. We all knew he was taking drugs fairly heavily but, nevertheless, he was very creative. The fact that he didn't understand the recording process terribly well meant that he was less rigid about what could and couldn't be done. No-one really understood Pink Floyd, particularly Norman. Pink Floyd were different and they were meant to be different."

"I can't in all honesty say that the music meant anything at all to me," Smith confessed. "In fact, I could barely call it music, given my background as a jazz musician and the musical experience that I'd had with the Beatles. Still, there was something about Syd Barrett's songs that was indescribable — they were nondescript, but obviously had that Barrett magic for an awful lot of people. Nevertheless, I got along as well as anybody could with Syd Barrett. He really was in control. He was the only one doing any writing, he was the only one who I as a producer had to convince if I had any ideas, but the trouble with Syd was that he would agree with almost everything I said and then go back in and do exactly the same bloody thing again! I was really getting nowhere.

"I never actually saw Syd taking drugs in the studio, but he had the kind of character that, even if he hadn't taken any, you'd think he was on drugs. He was a peculiar person. You couldn't really hold a sensible conversation with him for longer than 30 seconds. Roger Waters had the best rapport with Syd, but even he found it difficult. I remember them being on [BBC TV's] Top Of The Pops with 'See Emily Play', and beforehand I took them into Number One Studio purely to rehearse what they would do on television for the first time. I was almost choreographing them, silly little old me, thinking they would actually stick with my choreography! Of course, that all went out of the window, thanks to Syd.

"He wasn't happy about doing Top Of The Pops; he didn't like singles — he only liked doing albums — and it was while waiting around for an appearance on [BBC Radio's] Saturday Club that he walked out of the door and went missing. That really was the first sign of his complete mental breakdown, and he never did come back into the studio any more after that, meaning that I had a hell of a hard time with the recordings."

Smith's input did help the band create an accessible album. As bootlegs of the rough mixes made by Syd attest, if Barrett had had his way the album would be full of phase-shifting and heavy reverb. One can only speculate how it might have sounded if Joe Boyd had produced it as originally planned.

Norman Smith

"As musicians, the Floyd were capable enough, but again Nick Mason would be the first to agree that he was no kind of technical drummer. In fact, I remember recording a number — I can't now recall which one — and there had to be a drum roll, and of course he didn't have a clue what to do. I had been a drummer, and so I had to do that. Nick was no threat to Buddy Rich! Roger Waters, on the other hand, was an adequate bass player for what they did, but to be honest he used to make more interesting noises with his mouth. He had a ridiculous repertoire of mouth noises, and we used that on one or two things."

"So, they were capable, but I had a great struggle with them after Syd Barrett went funny and left. They tried very hard to write material — I remember them writing a song about apples and oranges, which I dressed up and released as a single, and that sold about six copies. It was around the time of the Saucerful Of Secrets album, and I really did think that it was all over. We still had to keep the singles coming for the audience that they had established, but the songs that were being composed by the other three guys were, to say the least, lacking in commerciality. Their recording career was going down the drain fast, and then along came Dave Gilmour and things started to pick up again."

After producing 1970's Atom Heart Mother, Norman Smith was the executive producer of Meddle the following year, yet he was about to exit the Pink Floyd story.

Norman Smith

"These guys now knew what they wanted, and so it was silly for me to contribute any more," he explained. "I thought I'd done my bit with them and encouraged them to produce themselves — they were producing tape loops at home and bringing them in to me — as well as to be resourceful in the studio. Having done that, it was time for me to retire gracefully and offer to help them if they needed my advice at any time. However, they didn't, because Roger Waters — a bit like Paul McCartney — had the makings of being a good producer, and Dave Gilmour showed this ability as well, and I personally think that the two of them together were a greater force than Syd Barrett ever was. They were able to get back to what Pink Floyd was all about, and the rest is history."

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Anonymous cyndra barrett said...

Enjoyed the article, but there's one thing missing. Norman Smith, an accomplished musician in his own right, did the final drum roll on the Piper's "Interstellar Overdrive." Evidently, Nick Mason wasn't up to the job.

January 15, 2014 at 12:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The song was actually "Remember a Day" in which Norman took over the drumming duties.

October 1, 2014 at 7:44 PM  

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