Pink Floyd

The song Pink Floyd wrote about a crossdresser

The colourful explosion of Pink Floyd heralded the dawning of a kaleidoscopic new era. Aside from the paisley swirls and wild flowery sound, their bohemian revolution was a cornerstone of the counterculture movement and the liberation that came along with it. Only a few years earlier, singing about a crossdresser would’ve represented a step too far. However, in 1967 Syd Barrett explored the subject in such a way that it helped to launch the band.

Growing up in Cambridge, Barrett became aware of a character who stole panties and bras from unsuspecting washing lines all around town. His mother was a victim of this mystery thief, as was Roger Waters’ mother too. The garment-snatcher in question was given the name Arnold Layne by Barrett, and the rest is history. “I thought ‘Arnold Layne’ was a nice name and fitted well into the music I had already composed. Then I thought, ‘Arnold must have a hobby’.” fortunately, Barrett already knew of a local character with a quirky behavioural pattern, and the song simply fell into place from there.

So, although Barrett may well have changed the name, the tale of ‘Arnold Layne’ is derived from charms of characterful Blighty. “Both my mother and Syd’s mother had students as lodgers because there was a girls’ college up the road, so there were constantly great lines of bras and knickers on our washing lines and ‘Arnold’ or whoever he was, had bits off our washing lines,” Waters once recalled.

Layne’s motive apparently derived from the fact that he enjoyed dressing as a woman but found it hard to purchase female clothes in shops given the conservative era at the time. In some ways, Pink Floyd would help to usher in some sexual liberation with the song itself. Albeit even this progressive move hit hurdles as Radio London outright banned the track due to its provocative content.

However, Barrett was steadfast in his championing of liberation and sensibly opined: “Arnold Layne just happens to dog dressing up in women’s clothing. A lot of people do, so let’s face up to reality.” In some ways, the pursuit of aspirational individualism is what fuelled Barrett’s initial barnstorming songwriting spree. He saw this spirit in a fellow songsmith too. “[Jimi] Hendrix was a perfect guitarist. And that’s all I wanted to do as a kid—play a guitar properly and jump around.”

Thanks, in part, to ‘Arnold Layne’ itself, Barrett was able to do this. The song had a radio-friendly hook, and it most importantly, it was a suitable length in an era where DJs wanted to the talking between quickfire records. As Nick Mason explained: “We knew we wanted to be rock’n’roll stars, and we wanted to make singles, so it seemed the most suitable song to condense into 3 minutes without losing too much.”

With a colourful anthem of liberation, the band achieved this and heralded in a sense of progression both musically and spiritually. The song remains one of the finest that they offered up in their early era and a defining calling card for a band who were diving down a rabbit hole and hauling the world along with them.

Pink Floyd - Arnold Layne (Official Music Video)

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