Understanding Pink Floyd’s “Jugband Blues”

Lately, I’ve been returning to the Pink Floyd obsession of my early teens. Like many fans, I was enamored of The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, but felt clever for insisting their best album was actually Animals.

For the past couple months, my Pink Floyd phase has returned in full force, but I haven’t listened to any of the three above-mentioned albums much at all. Instead, I’ve been digging deep into their early work for the first time.

As a kid, I never really understood why so many fans focused on the band’s original frontman Syd Barrett. I thought, he was only with the band for one full studio album and part of another—how important can he really be?

It’s probably true that some of Barrett’s enduring fame is due to the allure of his mysterious, tragic life story. People love to romanticize mental illness and engage in uninformed speculation over whether his mental breakdown in the late 1960s was the result of an inability to cope with commercial success, undiagnosed schizophrenia, drug use, or a combination of those factors.

Maybe his undeniable good looks also feed into his enduring popularity.

Young Syd Barrett

That being said, the biggest discovery I’ve made during this recent reprise of my Pink Floyd obsession is how vital Barrett is, both as an artist and a person, to understanding the band’s output not only when he was a member, but throughout the decades following his departure.

Barrett was a close friend of all the band members, including his eventual replacement David Gilmour. His mental breakdown affected them emotionally for years to come. They watched as their friend lost his personality and connection to the outside world.

Echoes of that experience can be heard in the lyrics of many their albums from Dark Side onward—most overtly on Wish You Were Here, but also to a large extent on The Wall.

He also influenced them artistically in a profound way. Barrett wrote the vast majority of the band’s songs in their early years, yet there wasn’t an extremely stark stylistic break after his departure. As distinctive as Barrett’s songwriting was, many early songs by Rick Wright, David Gilmour, and Roger Waters sound as if they could have been written by Barrett, lyrically and musically. Even though the band didn’t become world-famous until several years after Barrett’s departure, it’s doubtful that Pink Floyd as we know it could have existed without him.

The bread and butter of any Barrett fan is Pink Floyd’s 1967 debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Most of the songs are by him, although two of his best from that time period, “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play,” were released as singles instead.

Vic Singh’s cover for Piper at the Gates of Dawn. From left to right: Mason, Waters, Barrett, Wright.

As much as I love Piper at the Gates of Dawn, I want to talk about Barrett’s sole songwriting contribution to Pink Floyd’s second album A Saucerful of Secrets: “Jugband Blues.”

“Jugband Blues” was Barrett’s last song for Pink Floyd that was on an original release. I’ve chosen to focus on this song because of its fascinating construction as a musical composition and because its lyrics, though quite perplexing, shed light on what Barrett and the band were going through at the time.

Storm Thorgerson’s cover for A Saucerful of Secrets

If you don’t know the song, or even if you do, I recommend watching the video below, which was, oddly enough, funded by the Central Office of Information in London as a video to promote Britain abroad. Evidently they didn’t mind the clear sarcasm of the non sequitur in the lyrics near the end: “And I love the queen.” Anyway, I love this video.

The audio is clearly not from that performance, but the lack of synchronicity only enhances the video’s psychedelic look. Near the end, watch as Nick Mason repeatedly hits his snare drum and Rick Wright mimes playing recorder during a section that’s only Barrett’s guitar and vocals.

There are many other reasons I love this video. We get to see the band members pretend to play instruments they clearly don’t—Waters on tuba, Barrett on cornet, and Wright on trombone. Waters doesn’t even seem to be bothering to press the valves most of the time. Barrett is a little more convincing.

I don’t know how much artistic control, if any, the band had for this video, but the trippy lights match the live visuals their performances were known for. The montage during the atonal brass band section seems to capture the mental disorientation Barrett was experiencing.

The close-ups of Barrett singing show his expressionless face with a dead look in the eyes, matching his appearance in the band’s poorly lip-synched live performance of “Apples and Oranges,” another Barrett original, on American Bandstand that same year.

I would point out Barrett’s distant, uninterested demeanor in the post-performance interview, but that could just as easily be due to Dick Clark’s dull, unengaging questions as to Barrett’s mental condition.

“Jugband Blues” is like many early Pink Floyd songs in that it juxtaposes off-kilter, sometimes ironically upbeat pop songwriting with cacophonous experimental sound collages.

The song’s quite unconventional form is as follows:

A. Main theme in C major, mostly in 3/4 (10 bars)

B. 2/4 section, still in C major/A minor territory (8 bars)

C. A reprise of the last phrase of A, extended to modulate—more on that later (8 bars, depending how you count it)

D. A new phrase in 3/4 in B minor/D major (5 bars)

E. A D major section in 4/4 that sounds like a chorus, but never returns (13 bars)

F. A march-like brass band section in 4/4, on the chord progression from the “chorus” (16 bars)

G. A sound collage that’s out-of-time until the brass band re-enters, still playing 4/4 march rhythms but now with dissonant, atonal/polytonal pitch content (about 50 seconds)

H. Barrett’s acoustic guitar fades back in playing the C major/A minor chord progression in 3/4 from A, and Barrett sings the same phrase four times (16 bars once vocals enter)

Here is my transcription of the beginning through the “chorus”:

Then there’s all the business with the brass band, followed by a loose recapitulation of the opening:

The textures of the song progress from being ordinary for the genre (vocals and acoustic guitar) to exceedingly bizarre.

An out-of-tune, sloppily played recorder part enters in the third bar (perhaps it really was Wright?). A kazoo enters at E, the “chorus,” doubling the melody.

Then a Salvation Army brass band enters, then a chorus-effected loop of Barrett singing “la-la-la-la…” on a repeated note layers in, followed by an electric guitar trill, Wright noodling chromatically over a pedal tone on his Farfisa organ, etc.

The atonal brass band fading in during the sound collage is right out of a Charles Ives piece, but then the band is abruptly cut off mid-beat and reality reasserts itself, albeit still with mystifying lyrics.

I cannot offer a logical interpretation of each line of the lyrics, but several lines jump out as Barrett’s surprisingly self-aware expressions of his decaying connection with the world around him.

“It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here,

and I’m most obliged to you for making it clear that I’m not here”

The two lines are directly contradictory, but the notion of Barrett being “not here” will ring true for those who know the stories of Barrett playing with his back to the audience and going off into his own world.

The whole song has Barrett (or whoever’s perspective is being expressed, but I think it’s safe to assume it’s somewhat autobiographical) in a passive position, being puppeteered and presented by those around him.

“And I’m grateful that you thew away my old shoes,

and brought me here instead dressed in red.”

As Barrett’s mental state decayed, the band and presumably other people in his life had to take increasing responsibility for him, leaving him less and less in control. Barrett’s polite “gratitude” has a sarcastic edge.

This line seems to suggest Barrett was losing touch not only with others, but with himself:

“And I’m wondering who could be writing this song.”

The chorus depicts a growing apathy and resignation to fate:

“I don’t care if the sun don’t shine,

and I don’t care if nothing is mine,

and I don’t care if I’m nervous with you,

I’ll do my loving in the winter.”

And the closing lines depict Barrett losing touch with reality and losing the ability to socialize:

“And what exactly is a dream?

And what exactly is a joke?”

The band members have never publicly suggested Barrett fought back against his gradual exclusion from the band. For a period of time, according to Gilmour, who then lived with Barrett, Gilmour would sneak out to play gigs with the band without telling him. Barrett later formally left the band, but remained on good terms with the other members.

So the song’s picture of an apathetic, distant Barrett seems to match the history.

As abstract as the lyrics may seem, a characteristic of Barrett’s songwriting is that the lyrics drive musical decisions, especially when it comes to rhythm and phrasing.

The ultimate example would be “Bike” from Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Each verse has its own uneven metrical scheme, determined by the lyrics. “Bike” is also another perfect example of Barrett’s pop songwriting juxtaposed with an experimental sound collage, but I won’t go too much into “Bike” because I want to save it for another post.

This lyrics-first mentality is demonstrated in the very first phrase of “Jugband Blues.” Before the meter has even been established for the listener, a bar of 2/4 is thrown in, seemingly because the lyrics didn’t need that third beat.

It is odd, though, that Barrett doesn’t make the same choice in bar 6; instead, he holds out the “mmm” sound in “making” for a full beat.

Another phrase where the meter changes to support the lyrics is at section C, and it’s also a quintessentially Barrett-esque modulation:

This is not just the song’s first modulation, but even the first time a chord other than C or Am appears. I say it’s quintessentially Barrett-esque because of the chords and melody moving in parallel in bars 22–25. Moving 10ths or triads in non-diatonic parallel motion is Barrett’s favorite way to incorporate chromaticism.

This technique can be found in numerous places on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. For example, it gave rise to the entire first verse of “Astronomy Domine”:

Another hallmark of Barrett’s songwriting that’s present here is the incongruous juxtaposition of emotions. Barrett had a penchant for hiding dark themes under layers of irony and brightness. “Bike” and “See Emily Play” are both examples of this.

I think it’s fair to call “Jugband Blues” a sort of sad song. “Blues” is in the title. The opening and closing are somber, although the feeling expressed is closer to emptiness or apathy than to agony. The lack of any tonic-dominant motion in the harmony, or really any tension-and-release, contributes to that.

Yet the “chorus,” section E in my transcription, establishes D major with a clichéd IV-I-V-I rock progression and has the upbeat feeling of a typical British Invasion song, contrasting the lyrics. And what’s more ironic than doubling the melody with a kazoo?

The march feels like an intrusion from the outside world, alien to the melancholy beginning and end. The effect is that of isolation from the people around you enjoying their lives. As Barrett’s bandmates tasted commercial success, he was left behind.

The song’s bittersweet tone is also exemplified by the ending. The chord progression from the beginning resurfaces, with a new melody. In the beginning, I hear C major as the key, since it falls on metrical emphases.

Here, in the ending, I hear A minor as the key. I think that’s because the melodic phrases come to rest on the Am chords, and because Am is the first audible chord when the guitar strumming fades in.

So it feels darker than the beginning, but that gets turned upside down with a surprise in the last five bars; Barrett includes a sort of “Picardy third” in his guitar chords, replacing the last two A minor chords with A major.

It’s not overly jarring, since the melody in both cases and the top note in the guitar voicing is the chordal fifth, which is neutral between major and minor. So it’s not prominent; it’s subtle. But it somehow makes the ending even sadder.

I also think it might not be a coincidence that Barrett’s guitar is quite out-of-tune in this last section. The song is clearly spliced together from a multitude of takes, so perhaps the ending just happened to be recorded at a time when Barrett hadn’t retuned for a while, but I think the “bad” intonation enhances the bittersweet quality.

To me, when a chord is out of tune, a touch of ambiguity is added to its emotional impact. A minor triad becomes a little less sad and a little more uncertain-sounding, and a major triad the reverse. Whether that effect was intended here or not, it’s certainly present.

While Barrett would go on to make two solo albums in 1969 and 1970, “Jugband Blues” was a fitting curtain call for his time with Pink Floyd.

The other song from Barrett’s final October 1967 recording sessions with Pink Floyd is “Vegetable Man,” unreleased until 2016. It also illuminates Barrett’s internal struggles using abstract symbolism and dark humor.

“I’ve been looking all over the place for a place for me,

But it ain’t anywhere, it just ain’t anywhere.

Vegetable man, vegetable man.”

My attempts to explain Barrett’s extraordinary songwriting in terms of his life experiences are not to imply that his suffering, his mental illness, or his heavy drug use are what made him a genius. He was a brilliant musician before his breakdown began. If anything, “Jugband Blues,” “Vegetable Man,” and his solo albums represent the remnants of what his musical mind once was.

Barrett in 1975, 29 years old

Given how central Barrett was to Pink Floyd’s aesthetic, it’s quite remarkable that the band achieved its greatest commercial successes and released its most artistically ambitious albums years after his departure. Rather than creatively fizzling after losing Barrett, the band built on his innovations and became the iconic force in progressive popular music that it was.

Further listening/watching

A 2010 remix of “Jugband Blues,” with more clarity in the sound than the original mix


“See Emily Play”

“Astronomy Domine”

“Vegetable Man”

My Spotify playlist of all of Barrett’s compositional output with Pink Floyd

2011 BBC Radio broadcast on Barrett’s life, as told by bandmates, Pink Floyd producer Peter Jenner, and Syd’s sister

Composer Samuel Andreyev’s in-depth video analysis of “See-Saw,” another marvelous song from Saucerful of Secrets. “See-Saw” is by Rick Wright, but it really shows Barrett’s influence.

Finally, I have to recommend this early Pink Floyd appearance with Barrett on BBC’s The Look, if only for the presenters hilarious and outrageous condescension toward the band. Notice how he immediately follows his pledge not to prejudice the audience against the music by overtly prejudicing the audience against the music.

If you can offer further insights on “Jugband Blues,” especially some of the more out-of-the-blue lines of lyrics that I didn’t address, please comment!

I’m a writer, musician, and theatre artist from the US, currently located in Norway.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store