Syd Barrett, founding member of Pink Floyd, would have been 65 today. Nearly five years after his death, we revisit his life and legend.
Born Roger Keith Barrett, he was already an artistic polymath as a teenager growing up in Cambridge, writing and acting in plays, painting and playing music with his friends Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Richard Wright. He took on the name Syd Barrett as a performer and came up with the band’s name by combining those of two bluesmen – Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. By 1966, Pink Floyd found themselves at the center of the underground psychedelic scene in full swing in London. As house band the famous UFO Club, Pink Floyd was renowned not only for its loud, unconventional music, but for using then revolutionary lighting effects during its live shows. Syd Barrett wrote nearly all their material at this point, penning alternately whimsical and creepy lyrics about scarecrows, gnomes and bicycles, and was behind sonic experiments with feedback, found sound and unusual song structures.
By the time Pink Floyd released their debut album Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Syd Barrett’s mental state – almost certainly worsened by his heavy use of LSD and other drugs – was already in freefall. He began missing gigs and when he did show, often stood catatonic onstage, strumming a single chord and mumbling into the microphone. Their American tour was curtailed, and the band considered employing another guitarist while keeping Barrett on as a non-touring member (as the Beach Boys would do with Brian Wilson). The next Barrett compositions, “Vegetable Man” and “Scream Thy Last Scream”, mirrored his precarious mental condition and were rejected by EMI. The band tried getting help for their singer and songwriter, but he was unwilling to submit to medical or psychological evaluation. Guitarist David Gilmour was added as a full-time member, and Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett reluctantly if inevitably parted ways in January 1968. There were no fireworks – en route to pick up Barrett for a gig, his bandmates simply decided not to bother.
Barrett made a brief stab at a solo career, teaming up with members of The Soft Machine and Humble Pie to record an album that mostly consisted of old material he’d written during his 66-67 heyday with Pink Floyd. The sessions were abandoned but resumed again a year later. Former bandmates David Gilmour and Roger Waters dropped by to help him finish the album, but it was evident Barrett had already lost interest by the time Madcap Laughs was finally released in 1970.
He didn’t resurface live again until 1971, playing a concert he abandoned after only a few songs, and his music career was effectively over at the age of 25. Barrett moved back to his family house in Cambridge, and aside from a brief stint in Chelsea, would remain there for the rest of his life.
Pink Floyd, meanwhile, went on to become the biggest band on the planet. But they never forgot their inspirational early leader and the grief and confusion brought on by losing him to mental illness. The songs “Wish You Were Here” and “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” were direct tributes to Barrett, the latter recording session providing an eerie moment when Barrett showed up in the studio unannounced, hair and eyebrows shaved, and having gained so much weight that none of his former friends and bandmates at first recognized him. Floyd again invoked his memory in their 1980 film The Wall, with the character played by Bob Geldof largely based on Barrett during his breakdown.
The success of Pink Floyd, and their frequent invocations of Barrett, only served to heighten his legend. In the wake of his physical presence in the music scene, rumor and myth kept his reputation alive while people struggled to diagnose just what had gone so wrong so fast. Was he an acid casualty, was it schizophrenia or some other DSM-level mental affliction, or was it simply that Barrett had no interest in being a rock star? Obsessives made pilgrimages to Cambridge and reporters camped outside his home, hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary Syd Barrett. But Syd Barrett had long since ceased to exist – he’d instead become simply Roger again, a man who enjoyed gardening, painting and the occasional pint at the local pub.
When he died of cancer in 2006, there was little new to say about his sad life as the rock community had been eulogizing him for nearly three decades. Nearly five years after his passing, they’re still doing it through re-releases of early Pink Floyd and Madcap Laughs-era material and biographies like last year’s A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett.
Though his musical output was limited to less than half a decade, the crazy diamond seems set to shine on well into the future.