Syd Barret died in 2006 at the age of 60. By that time, he’d been living in anonymity for decades in Cambridge, England. Upon his death, the other members of Pink Floyd released a group statement: “Syd was the guiding light of the early band lineup and leaves a legacy which continues to inspire.” There’s no question that Barrett was the initial creative force behind Pink Floyd’s unique 60’s sound. Barrett was not only the band’s original frontman and songwriter but its pioneering spirit. But Barrett was forcibly ousted from Pink Floyd in 1968. He was excluded from their international meteoric rise, and played no part in albums like The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall.
Why? What went wrong for the Pink Floyd visionary?
The Early Life of Syd Barrett
Roger Keith Barrett was born in 1946 in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England to a middle-class family. He picked up the nickname Syd as a teen, drawing from a local jazz legend called Sid “The Beat” Barrett. (A similar tactic would provide Pink Floyd with its name origin as well; Barrett combined the first names of blues musicians Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.) When Barrett was just shy of 16, his father died of cancer. Barrett was inconsolable, and his mother encouraged him to keep at music. By that time, Barrett played casually in bands with childhood friends.
In 1962, Syd Barrett began as an art student at the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology where he met the future Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. Around the same time, Barrett was influenced by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan and started writing new songs of his own. However, his focus remained on visual art and in 1964, Barrett left for the Camberwell College of Arts in London to study painting. It was there that Barrett reunited with (future Pink Floyd co-founder) Roger Waters, an old acquaintance from Cambridge, and started playing in Waters’ band called the Tea Set, alongside drummer Nick Mason and keyboardist Richard Wright. Mason wrote about meeting Barrett in his 2004 memoir, Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd:
“In a period when everyone was being cool in a very adolescent, self-conscious way, Syd was unfashionably outgoing; my enduring memory of our first encounter is the fact that he bothered to come up and introduce himself to me.”
As other bandmates revolved in and out of the Tea Set, Barrett became the band’s official frontman in 1965. It was then that Syd Barrett renamed the Tea Set Pink Floyd and spearheaded their increasingly experimental repertoire. In the Barrett biography, Saucerful of Secrets, Nicholas Schaffner wrote that public performances were marked by Barrett’s individual “leaping around,” “madness,” and “improvisation.” Making a name for themselves around London, Pink Floyd signed with EMI in 1967 and received a whopping advance for their first single, “Arnold Layne.” The narrative song tells the story of a cross-dresser, sung through the Barrett’s highly discernible British accent that colored the early Pink Floyd albums. (David Bowie also has a famous cover of “Arnold Layne.”) The controversial subject matter was boycotted by several radio stations but their second single, “See Emily Play” peaked at No. 6 in the UK.
“See Emily Play”
Syd Barrett’s Drug Use
“Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play” were an appropriately trippy introduction to the early Pink Floyd discography. Their debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, was characterized by Syd Barrett’s colorful, literary lyrics infused with wordplay. These goofy lines were backed by free-form instrumentation and overall sonic distortion: dissonance, echo, and other employed studio effects. The 9 minute and 40-second behemoth of an instrumental, “Interstellar Overdrive,” fully flourishes those edgy Pink Floyd techniques. Unsurprisingly, Barrett’s inventive methods on this first album were driven by his experiences with LSD and other psychedelic drugs. The influence of drugs feels front and center on those preliminary tracks. And while Barrett’s adventures on acid certainly led to some creative bursts, it wasn’t long before the artsy devotion became a dependence that crippled Barrett’s ability to communicate and perform with the band.
Over the next two years, Syd Barrett became erratic to the point of despondence. The once described joyful extrovert was now clearly depressed, withdrawn, and suffered from the various effects of doing too many drugs: flashback hallucinations, messy speech, mood swings, missing memories, and even full-on catatonia. Barrett developed a blank, dead-eyed stare that troubled his friends. He often did not recognize his collaborators or even seem to know where he was. While performing “Interstellar Overdrive” in San Francisco, Barrett slowly detuned his guitar. The audience went wild for the apparent stunt, but of course, Barrett’s bandmates knew something was deeply wrong. The members of Pink Floyd still maintain their own theories.
Roger Waters contends, undoubtedly, that Syd Barrett was schizophrenic. However, Rick Wright, who lived with Barrett at the time, insists that a massive acid overdose is what triggered the sudden onslaught of problems. David Gilmour, Barrett’s friend who eventually replaced him as lead guitarist, told The Independent “In my opinion, his nervous breakdown would have happened anyway. It was a deep-rooted thing. But I’ll say the psychedelic experience might well have acted as a catalyst. Still, I just don’t think he could deal with the vision of success and all the things that went with it.”
So was it drugs, disease, or emotional turmoil? Fans still wonder. Barrett’s sister Rosemary Breen has publicly addressed the speculation, saying that while Barrett might have been “on the spectrum,” he did not suffer from any mental illness that necessitated treatment. Though her brother spent time in psychiatric hospitals, medication and therapy were not prescribed. Then again, mental health awareness and treatment were not as advanced when Barrett lost his grip on reality. With little available treatment, the rocker’s condition worsened and he was unable to contribute much to Pink Floyd’s second album. Barrett’s only song on A Saucerful of Secrets was “Jugband Blues.”
Wish You Were Here
With Syd Barrett’s departure from Pink Floyd, bassist Roger Waters became the de-facto frontman. Their friend David Gilmour was added on guitar. Years passed, and the Pink Floyd sound matured. Moving away from the deeply psychedelic rock that Barrett had envisioned, Pink Floyd gained an international audience with their renowned, poetic album The Dark Side of the Moon. Coming off that newfound fame, Pink Floyd returned to the studio in 1975 to record Wish You Were Here, the understated and emotional follow-up record. During one of those recording sessions, a mysterious man showed up at the Abbey Road studio in London. The run-in was described in detail by Pink Floyd in the documentary, The Story of Wish you Were Here.
The day was June 5, 1975. Pink Floyd was laying down the final mix for “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” the epic nine-part suite woven throughout Wish You Were Here which was dedicated to their old friend Syd Barrett. By complete coincidence, Barrett showed up to the studio that day. He appeared overweight and wearing a raincoat. Nobody recognized him at first. ‘This slim elegant person… had turned rather balloon-shaped,” David Gilmour recalls. A photo taken of Barrett at the studio that day marks Barrett’s extreme physical transition: his head and eyebrows were shaved and the former rock star appeared in a total daze. Barrett event spent part of the session, reportedly, brushing his teeth. Nick Mason remembers Roger Waters and David Gilmour crying during the unconventional and sad reunion.
Syd Barrett’s appearance at Abbey Road studios both cemented his place as a Pink Floyd outsider and served as further inspiration to his former bandmates. Barrett’s mental decline had already driven the lunacy lurking within The Dark Side of the Moon. Wish You Were Here was planned as the more official tribute. But it was Barrett’s striking, a hairless look that inspired the manic shaving scene in The Wall movie.
Syd Barrett Post-Pink Floyd
When Syd Barrett’s unpredictable behavior pushed him away from Pink Floyd, Barrett embarked on a brief solo career. He released the single “Octopus” in 1969. In 1970, he released two solo albums: The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, which included “Gigolo Aunt.” But in 1972, Barrett retired from public life for good. He lived privately in his hometown of Cambridge, England. During those many decades, Barrett continued to paint and loved to garden. In 1988, EMI released Opel, a studio album comprised of Barrett’s unreleased tracks and outtakes. This would be his final contribution to the music industry. In 2006, Syd Barrett died of pancreatic cancer.