Syd Barrett: The brilliance and tragedy of Pink Floyd's pioneer

10 June 2024, 16:40

Syd Barrett
Syd Barrett. Picture: Getty

By Tom Owen

Syd Barrett was one of the most influential stars of the 1960s.

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Born Roger Keith Barrett on January 6, 1946, in Cambridge, Syd Barrett is best known as a founding member of Pink Floyd, a band that would go on to become one of the most influential in the genre. Barrett's life and career, marked by brilliance and tragedy, left a lasting legacy on the music world.

Barrett's youth in Cambridge was characterized by a burgeoning interest in the arts. He was a creative child, deeply interested in music, painting, and poetry. He received the nickname 'Syd' as a teenager, a moniker that would stick throughout his life.

Barrett's early musical influences included jazz and blues, and he began playing the guitar at a young age. His artistic inclinations led him to the Cambridgeshire High School for Boys, where he met Roger Waters, who would later become his bandmate in Pink Floyd.

L-R: Syd Barrett, Nick Mason. Front L-R: Roger Waters, Rick Wright
L-R: Syd Barrett, Nick Mason. Front L-R: Roger Waters, Rick Wright. Picture: Getty

Barrett moved to London in the early 1960s to attend the Camberwell College of Arts. During this time, he began playing in various bands and experimenting with different styles of music. His unique approach to the guitar and songwriting started to take shape.

In 1965, along with Roger Waters, Richard Wright, and Nick Mason, Barrett formed Pink Floyd, initially called The Tea Set. It was Barrett who suggested the name Pink Floyd, inspired by two blues musicians, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.

Pink Floyd's early days were characterized by their psychedelic sound, a genre that Barrett helped define with his innovative use of guitar effects and whimsical, often surreal lyrics. He was the primary songwriter for the band's debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, released in 1967.

The album was a critical and commercial success, establishing Pink Floyd as a leading force in the burgeoning psychedelic rock scene. Songs like 'Interstellar Overdrive' and 'Lucifer Sam' showcased Barrett's extraordinary creativity and set the stage for the band's future success.

However, Barrett's time with Pink Floyd was short-lived. By late 1967, his behaviour had become increasingly erratic, a result of his heavy use of psychedelic drugs, particularly LSD. Barrett's mental health began to deteriorate, affecting his ability to perform and collaborate with the band.

Syd Barrett
Syd Barrett. Picture: Getty

In early 1968, David Gilmour was brought in as a fifth member to cover for Barrett during live performances. Eventually, Barrett's condition worsened to the point where he could no longer continue with the band. He officially left Pink Floyd in April 1968.

After leaving Pink Floyd, Barrett attempted to launch a solo career. In 1970, he released two solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, both of which featured contributions from his former bandmates. These albums displayed glimpses of his past genius but were also marked by disjointedness and incoherence, reflecting his ongoing mental health struggles. Despite this, songs like 'Octopus' and 'Effervescing Elephant' remain beloved by fans for their whimsical charm and lyrical ingenuity.

Barrett's attempts at a solo career were sporadic and ultimately unfulfilling. He retreated from the public eye in the mid-1970s, moving back to Cambridge to live a quiet, reclusive life.

Despite his withdrawal from the music industry, his influence continued to be felt. Pink Floyd's subsequent work, particularly the album Wish You Were Here, was deeply influenced by Barrett's legacy and his absence. The song 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' is a tribute to Barrett, capturing both the brilliance and the tragedy of his story.

Barrett never officially rejoined Pink Floyd, but his presence loomed large over the band. There were no formal reunions, but he did have a brief, unannounced visit to the studio in 1975 while Pink Floyd was recording Wish You Were Here. His unexpected appearance, marked by his altered physical appearance and confused demeanour, left a profound impact on his former bandmates.

Music File Photos - The 1960s - by Chris Walter
Music File Photos - The 1960s - by Chris Walter. Picture: Getty

In his personal life, Barrett struggled with mental illness, which has been variously diagnosed as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. His retreat from the music scene was marked by a desire for privacy and normalcy, away from the pressures and scrutiny of fame. He spent his later years painting and gardening, maintaining a low profile in Cambridge.

Syd Barrett passed away on July 7, 2006, from pancreatic cancer. Despite his relatively short career, his impact on music remains significant. Barrett's innovative approach to songwriting and guitar playing helped shape the sound of Pink Floyd and left an unforgettable impact on the psychedelic rock genre.

Barrett's legacy lives on through his music and the ongoing influence he has on artists across genres. His contribution to rock music, though brief, remains a testament to his unique vision and enduring spirit.