“Syd had a strange way of writing, which made it sound like a ‘normal’ pop song, and then it would lurch into something else,” recalls Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason of the late Syd Barrett, the band’s original singer whose mental health struggles led to his departure during their second album, 1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets. “[That] makes it such a great vehicle for us,” the rock legend continues, referring to his new group Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, which has spent the last few years reinventing Floyd’s earliest material on stage.
“The trouble with the later albums is that we ended up with a tendency of trying to play them as perfectly as they were recorded. But Syd’s writing is interesting, because it covers really quite a wide sort of genres, so this material is so much easier to wander off and do one’s own version of, say, the slightly bucolic, almost folk song-type rural idyll of ‘Scarecrow’ or the very free-form ‘Astronomy Domine’ or ‘Interstellar Overdrive.’”
A new live album and concert film captures Saucerful Of Secrets’ 2019 show at London’s fabled Roundhouse, where the Barrett-era Floyd also performed around the time of their 1967 debut, Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The only album to feature Barrett as the band’s frontman, Piper is a certified psychedelic classic — but unlike the band’s beloved ’70s output, their earliest albums remain comparatively neglected.
“It’s the tyranny of the ‘Big Four,’” Mason explains, referring to The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals and The Wall. “I’ve always been interested in the idea of exploring the old catalog. After the Pink Floyd Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition, I was reminded how special and undervalued the early period of Pink Floyd is. Then Lee Harris came along with the suggestion of putting a band together. It had been 25 years since I’d been out with a band playing live, but it made me realize I wanted to play this music live again, so the timing was everything.”
“I dreamed this thing up, sure,” confesses Harris, the former guitarist of legendary U.K. band the Blockheads. “But Nick was surprisingly interested, and without him it wouldn’t have come together. He was the constant in Pink Floyd – it was his drumming that really was the backbone of that band – so without him it just would not be the same.”
Still, it’s Syd Barrett who — more than fifty years after leaving Pink Floyd, and over a decade after his death — remains the inspiration for the project, and the glue that binds it together.
“Syd’s ghost has held sway over every British music movement that’s come along since he left Pink Floyd,” says bassist Guy Pratt, who started playing with Pink Floyd in 1987 and has since toured regularly with David Gilmour. “It is interesting getting inside the glass display case of Syd, re-humanizing Pink Floyd, rather than doing some note-perfect stadium show. Our Pink Floyd is this rather scrappy, poppy, punk group.”
Along with Mason, Pratt and Harris, Saucerful of Secrets also includes Gary Kemp, the guitarist (and actor) best known as the songwriting force behind the ’80s new romantic group Spandau Ballet, and keyboardist Dom Beken, who worked with Floyd keyboardist Rick Wright on his final solo sessions before his death in 2008.
“I became aware of early Pink Floyd through David Bowie, and later Johnny Rotten,” says Kemp, who breathes new life into the songs as the band’s primary vocalist (and whose guitar playing throughout Live at the Roundhouse is nothing short of stunning). “Syd was definitely an inspiration for both of those artists, and they were both hugely important to me. Also, as someone who comes from London, I kind of get where Syd’s head was at. Plus, there’s the unique style of storytelling that Syd had — never in the same voice twice — that as an actor myself helped me approach the songs in character.”
For his part, keyboardist Beken adds a bit of a wildcard element to the band. “There’s only two people in this band who are not lifelong Floyd fans: me and Nick,” he jokes. “I did work with Rick (Wright), but I think that distance is essential when you’re playing music that is so alive and of the moment.”
Mason’s Saucerful Of Secrets has a loose, imprecise approach that owes as much to early The Who as to Pink Floyd, giving them the edge needed to bring Barrett’s music, long confined to recordings that hardly captured the improvisational nature of its origins, to life.
“The best review was our first review,” Kemp recalls, excitedly. “Neil McCormick called it ‘Punk Floyd,’ which I loved, because there is that energy Floyd had before they became posh. When we got the band together, it wasn’t like, ‘Well, let’s try and emulate those records.’ Also, we’re not trying to be a tribute band. Nick is the genuine article, so we agreed, ‘Let’s make this band as fresh as we possibly can.’”
For Mason, things weren’t quite that simple. “I remembered the basics of the songs, but what I underestimated were the complexities that Syd had written into them,” he admits. “I’ve always feared becoming my own tribute band. The bands who do that, I’ve never wished to stop them. But for me, rock n’ roll has always been about one’s own interpretation of the music, and Syd’s music is perfect for that.”
Pratt agrees that the anarchic nature of Pink Floyd’s early music is what sets Saucerful of Secrets apart from the myriad acts playing the band’s music live. “The early Floyd stuff is just nuts. It’s all over the place,” he says emphatically. “No one else could do this, and David and Roger [Waters] certainly don’t seem to want to, so Nick owns this stuff now, and rightly so.”
Now, at 76, Mason is no longer quite so ready to hang up his drumsticks.
“Before the lockdown went into effect, we were working constantly, doing it night after night,” he shares. “With Floyd, the tours were usually so short, we’d be just getting into it and learning the show properly, and then, more or less, we were getting ready to pack up and go home. If a miracle happened, and Roger and David suddenly said, ‘Do you know what? We really need to go and do this tour,’ for some worthwhile cause or other, I’d happily do it. But I’m certainly not holding my breath, because what’s exciting is that this is the beginning of a band, rather than a midpoint or an ending. So my focus right now is this band, because I’m having the time of my life. Besides, I don’t think any of us will want to pack it up and open a restaurant or anything, and if at some point somebody brought in new music to work on, great. That, I think, would be the greatest tribute we could pay to Syd, in a way.”