Who Was Syd Barrett? Biography Of Pink Floyd's Mad Genius
Roger Waters and Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd pose for a portrait in 1967 in London, England (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Once upon a time, Pink Floyd was Syd Barrett's band. It was Barrett who defined the group's sound, preserved on The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. Over the band's 50 year career, Pink Floyd mutated a few different times; they've been experimenters, prog rock icons and the crafters of concept albums (like Dark Side Of The Moon) and rock operas (The Wall). But it's their early psychedelic period that's their most important, and at that time the band was fronted by Syd Barret, an artist bursting with talent and madness.
With a head full of ideas and LSD, Barrett guided Pink Floyd through their debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn before devolving from one of the most creative minds in rock n roll to a casualty of mental illness and psychedelics.
After breaking away from Pink Floyd, Barrett became a mythic figure in the history of rock, a psychedelic hermit who seemed to dissolve with the spirit of the '60s. Absent his influence, Pink Floyd became a different band entirely as the '70s dragged on. It's hard not to wonder what they would have become had Barrett been able to keep it together.
From Roger to Syd
Syd Barrett wasn't always "Syd;" he began his life as Roger Barrett, born into a large middle class family in Cambridge. He was the fourth of five children and while he enjoyed playing piano it was writing and drawing that he was really attracted to. He started playing guitar when he was 14, and a year later he was able to get his hands on an electric guitar and played through an amp that he built himself.
It's not entirely clear where the nickname "Syd" came from. Some stories say that he was given the name in honor of a jazz bassist named Sid "The Beat" Barrett, while another origin story says that his school chums started calling him "Syd" after he showed up at school wearing a flat cap, something they felt was more becoming of a "working class" boy named "Syd."
The madcap writer
Barret began studying art at the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology in 1962, and while there two things happened: he met David Gilmour and he heard the Beatles. After hearing the Fab Four, Barrett started writing his own songs and representing them through various paintings. During this era Barrett wrote many of the songs that made up Piper at the Gates of Dawn and his two solo albums.
The prevailing theory about Barrett is that he succumbed to mental illness at some point into Floyd's first American tour -- but that's not so, says the band's first manager, Peter Jenner. He says that Barrett was always manic, but in his early songwriting days his behavior led him to write tons of songs and not freak out in front of a bunch of people. He explained:
The strongest image I have of Syd is of him sitting in his flat with a guitar and his book of songs, which he represented by paintings with different colored circles. You'd go round to Syd's and you'd see him write a song. It just poured out. The acid brought out his latent madness. I'm sure it was his latent madness which gave him his creativity. The acid brought out the creativity, but more importantly, it brought out the madness. The creativity was there - dope was enough to get it going. He wrote all his songs, including the ones on his solo LP's, in an eighteen month period.
The brief, yet bright times of Pink Floyd
Barrett's time in art school brought him into the orbit of Nick Mason and Rick Wright, two of his future bandmates in Pink Floyd. Mason and Wright were both studying architecture at the London Polytechnic at Regent Street and by 1965 Barrett was the frontman of a version of Pink Floyd featuring Mason, Wright, and Roger Waters. Taking the name from the bluesmen Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, the band began gigging around and expanding their sound.
Initially a blues band, the group started to change as they followed Barrett's mercurial time changes, and created their own mind bending sound effects. Following Barrett's lead, Pink Floyd established the basis for early psychedelia, building off of standard blues structures and getting weird with it. Sonically, the band was ahead of its time, and for a brief period of time they were a one of a kind group of weirdos.
Syd the piper
After signing with EMI in 1967, Pink Floyd's singles "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play" popped into the British charts, and they recorded their debut album at Abbey Road Studios at the same time that the Beatles were recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Life was coming full circle for Barrett. He was working next to the very people who inspired him to start seriously writing music.
Unlike any other Pink Floyd album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn has a childlike playfulness and has catchy wordplay. Not just a collection of psychedelic tracks, the songs explode at the choruses showing just how much of a pop genius Barrett was in his prime.
Live, the songs were nothing like the record. Chaotic and freeform, Barrett seemed to go out of his way to make each show completely different from the last, and to destroy any momentum that the band seemed to gain.
Acid in the reservoir
Syd Barrett wasn't trying to destroy Pink Floyd; he wanted to push them to new realms of artistry and musical exploration. He was also out of his mind on LSD, acid, and whatever prescription medication he could get his hands on. By the time the band went out on their first American tour in 1967, Barrett's mind was already blown. He went everywhere with a blank stare, he forgot his guitar from town to town, and there were some days when he just didn't get on stage.
His most famous breakdown occurred on stage at the Fillmore West in San Francisco when he detuned his guitar while the band played around him and strummed as if he was in a catatonic state. Pink Floyd's lighting tech, John Marsh, said that Barrett's drug intake changed him from someone with a mental illness into a blank slate of a human being:
Syd was one of the earliest acid casualties. He lived in a flat in the Cromwell Road with various characters, among whom was a psychotic kind of character called Scotty. He was one of the original acid-in-the-reservoir, change-the-face-of-the-world missionaries. He was also a desperately twisted freak and really malevolent crazy. Everyone knew that if you went round to see Syd never have a cup of tea, never take a glass of water unless you got it yourself from the tap and even then be desperately worried, because Scotty's thing was spiking everything. By this time, Syd was living on a diet that must have been comprised of 80% acid. Poor old Syd was really in the poo.
Stoned and dethroned
How do you replace your lead singer? That's the question that Pink Floyd faced when they returned from America and entered the studio to record their second album, A Saucerful of Secrets. Barrett didn't just write most of the songs on their first album, he was responsible for their entire sound. Barrett felt the pressure of following up the musical success of Piper at the Gates of Dawn, something that cranked up his anxiety and pushed him deeper into his drugged out psychosis. Duggie Fields, an artist and Barrett's flatmate for years, said that being a rock star never sat well with the singer:
It must have been very difficult for him. I think the pressures on Syd before that time must have upset him very much, the kind of pressure where it takes off very fast, which Pink Floyd did - certainly in terms of the way people behaved towards them. I used to be speechless at the number of people who would invade our flat, and how they would behave towards anyone who was in the group; especially girls. I'd never seen anything like it. Some of the girls were stunning, and they would literally throw themselves at Syd. He was the most attractive one; Syd was a very physically attractive person - I think he had problems with that.
As things grew increasingly erratic with Barrett, the band brought in their friend David Gilmour to play guitar and give Barrett space to just be a singer. They hoped that Gilmour would iron out some of Barrett's more eccentric behavior and help him free up artistic space in his head. In the end, Barrett only provided one song for the group's second album, which is hardly what anyone expected. David Gilmour explained:
Yeah, it was fairly obvious that I was brought in to take over from him, at least on stage ... It was impossible to gauge his feelings about it. I don't think Syd has opinions as such. The first plan was that I would join and make it a five piece so it would make it easier so that Syd could still be strange but the band would still function. And then the next idea was that Syd would stay home and do writing and be the Brian Wilson elusive character that didn't actually perform with us and the third plan was the he wouldn't do nothing at all. And it quickly changed 'round, and it was just... it was obviously impossible to carry on working that way so we basically ditched Syd, stopped picking him up for gigs.
Wish you were here
When Pink Floyd dropped Barrett they dropped him all the way. It's clear from the albums released directly after Saucerful of Secrets that they were looking for a new sound and a more serious presentation. Barrett became a recluse, and his work with Floyd served as a what-might-have-been, had he stayed with the group and continued playing psychedelic pop music.
Barrett didn't disappear from Pink Floyd completely, not initially anyway. While living in his mother's detached home he popped in on the recording sessions of Wish You Were Here in 1975. The album may have been directly inspired by Barrett, specifically "Shine on You Crazy Diamond," but when he arrived it was clear that the band hadn't kept up with him for years.
The former frontman was no longer the stunning young man of the late '60s. He had shaved his head and eyebrows bald, he had a paunch, and he was back to going by Roger. No one really knew why he was there, and initially the band thought he was someone from the crew. When Roger Waters realized that the guy he was looking at was Barrett he broke down in tears. In a mental fog, Barrett left quietly without so much as a word to anyone from his former life. In 1975, Waters said of the split with Barrett:
I'm very sad about Syd, [though] I wasn't for years. For years, I suppose he was a threat because of all that bollocks written about him and us. Of course, he was very important and the band would never have f**king started without him, because he was writing all the material. It couldn't have happened without him, but on the other hand, it couldn't have gone on with him. He may or may not be important in rock 'n' roll anthology terms, but he's certainly not nearly as important as people say in terms of Pink Floyd. So, I think I was threatened by him.
Wouldn't you miss me?
Roger Waters' dismissal of Syd Barrett as "not nearly as important as people say" is frankly just not true. Without Barrett, Pink Floyd never would have been given the artistic propulsion they needed to experiment with their sound and get weird. Without Barrett there would be no "See Emily Play," and their would be no EMI contract. He set the template for everything that followed.
As Pink Floyd ascended to the heights of stadium rock heaven, Barrett moved back to Cambridge and lived with his mother until his death in 2006. He continued to receive royalties from Pink Floyd from compilations and live releases featuring music that he wrote, with David Gilmour stating that he "made sure" Barrett was paid.
In 1996, when Barrett was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Pink Floyd, he didn't attend the ceremony. After his time in Pink Floyd Barrett recorded two solo albums, but spent most of time painting large abstract pieces and gardening. Apparently he had quite the green thumb. He passed away in his home on July 7, 2006, from pancreatic cancer. Speaking about her brother with the Sunday Times, Rosemary Breen (formerly Barrett) said that Syd, "simply couldn’t understand” why anyone cared about his work with Pink Floyd, and that he was, "too absorbed in his own thoughts to spare time for his fans... He found his own mind so absorbing that he didn't want to be distracted."
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