Born Roger Keith Barrett on January 6, 1946, in Cambridge, England; died July 7, 2006. Education: Studied art foundation, Cambridge Technical College, c. 1963; studied painting, Camberwell Art School, London, c. 1964-65.
Despite his relatively brief musical career, Syd Barrett was a major catalyst in the development of British psychedelic rock. A founding member of Pink Floyd, his visionary drive took rock from its American R&B origins and propelled it toward a blend of progressive improvisation, innovative theatrical effects, and studio creativity. His subsequent mental breakdown, which occurred at the pinnacle of his songwriting powers, has made Barrett one of rock's most tragic figures. He remained, however, an influence on Pink Floyd's music decades after his departure from the band. His recordings have likewise left an impression upon a generation of musicians. As Cliff Jones noted in Another Brick in the Wall, "Syd's music brought forth a white, middle class, art school agenda, creating an arch, literate style that would be passed down through David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Bryan Ferry, on to modern artists like Blur and Pulp."
Born Roger Keith Barrett on January 6, 1946, Syd grew up in a stable, middle-class family in the university town of Cambridge, England. He began playing ukulele as a young child, then banjo at age eleven. He took up guitar by age 12 and soon began playing with an amplifier he constructed himself. Barrett attended high school with future Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters and studied at the Cambridge Technical College with future Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. During lunchtime breaks, Barrett and Gilmour would practice playing and trade licks.
Pursuing his interest in painting, Barrett moved to London in 1965 to study at the Camberwell School of Art, where he had won a scholarship. He moved in with Waters, who was studying architecture at the Regent Street Polytechnic. Bored with his classes, Waters spent much of his grant money on musical equipment and played with friends in several rock bands. One of those groups, named the Abdabs, included guitarist Bob Close and future Pink Floyd members Rick Wright on keyboards and Nick Mason on drums. Waters invited Barrett to join the band, which led to Close's departure in mid-1965, leaving Barrett as the band's lead singer/guitarist and chief songwriter.
The Birth of Pink Floyd
Barrett rechristened the band the Pink Floyd Sound (the "Sound" was soon dropped) after Georgia bluesmen Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. By late 1965 the band members had abandoned their studies to perform full-time. The group soon began incorporating free-form improvisational freak-outs into its covers of numbers like "Road Runner" and "Louie Louie" by using layers of feedback and distortion. They became the first British band to experiment with light shows, and used back-projected art films and superimposed slide shows in their live performances. Much of this creativity stemmed from Barrett's interest in eastern religions and philosophies, mysticism, ESP, and the mind-altering drug LSD.
By early 1966 Pink Floyd held regular gigs at the Marquee and UFO Clubs in London, where their unique sound and stage presence, complete with paisley shirts, colorful trousers, long hair, and flowing capes came to epitomize the burgeoning underground psychedelic movement. They began to perform Barrett's psychedelic pop songs, pieces containing extended instrumental improvisations that relied heavily on slide and echo effects. These songs began to replace the R&B covers they performed.
In October of 1966 Pink Floyd headlined an all-night show held at the Roundhouse, an abandoned railway shed in London, to promote a new underground publication. As Barry Miles reported in Pink Floyd, the band mesmerized their audience: "It was the first time that most of the audience had seen a light show and many stood gaping for hours ... [the group] were using some very unconventional techniques: playing the guitar with a metal cigarette lighter, rolling ball-bearings down the guitar neck ... and [using] feedback in continuous controlled waves which added up to complex repeating patterns that took ages before coming round again." Nicholas Schaffner quoted Barrett in The British Invasion as saying, after a typical Floyd concert, "In the future, groups are going to have to offer more than just a pop show. They're going to have to offer a well-presented theatre show."
Based on its regular concerts and appearances, Pink Floyd soon became known as the house band of the underground movement. By early 1967 the band had full-time managers and a recording contract with EMI. That April, Pink Floyd hit number 20 on the British charts with its initial release--the Barrett-penned single "Arnold Layne." Pirate station Radio London inadvertently gave the group more publicity by banning the song for its controversial transvestite subject matter. Barrett quickly contributed another single for the band, "See Emily Play," which hit number six in Britain that June.
Group Recorded First Album
Between March and July of 1967 the band recorded its first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, at Abbey Road Studios in London. The recording was comprised almost entirely of Barrett compositions, ranging from the extended psychedelic instrumental "Interstellar Overdrive" to songs about gnomes, scarecrows, and "Astronomy Domine," an aural replication of an LSD trip. It also represented a wistful remembrance of childhood--Barrett took the album's title from a chapter in Kenneth Grahame's children's novel, The Wind in the Willows.
The psychedelic sensibilities expressed in Piper reflect a mutual exchange of ideas between the Floyd and the Beatles, who were recording Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band at another studio down the hall during the Piper sessions. Barrett himself took part in mixing Piper, a task usually left to studio engineers. As Schaffner quoted Floyd comanager Andrew King in The British Invasion, "[Barrett] was 100 percent creative, and very hard on himself. He wouldn't do anything unless he thought he was doing it in an artistic way. He would throw the levers on the board up and down apparently at random, making pretty pictures with his hands."
Released in August of 1967, Piper was well received by the critics and reached number six on the British charts. But just as the band was tasting its first success, Barrett began to show signs of instability. His use of LSD, coupled with the demands of touring and the pressures of being suddenly thrust onto the pop scene contributed to a breakdown. He would arrive onstage but simply strum a single chord through an entire show, or even refuse to sing or play altogether. On the last of three Floyd appearances on the British television series Top of the Pops, he arrived nicely attired, but changed into rags at the last minute for the cameras. The group's initial American tour was abruptly canceled after he refused to lip-synch "See Emily Play" on American Bandstand and gave mute stares when interviewed on the Pat Boone Show.
As Barrett became increasingly unpredictable, Waters's old friend Gilmour stood in for him during live performances; in January of 1968 Gilmour officially joined the group. The plan was to have Barrett compose new material and work in the studio and use Gilmour for shows, but as Barrett's offerings became more and more bizarre it soon became clear that this strategy would not work.
On the band's second album, A Saucerful of Secrets, Barrett played on just four tracks and sang only on his lone composition, "Jugband Blues." When searching for a follow-up single, the band's management chose not to release Barrett's maniacal "Vegetable Man" or "Scream Thy Last Scream." Instead they opted for "Apples and Oranges," also written and sung by Barrett. Unlike the previous two releases, however, his one failed to chart. "I couldn't care less," Jones quoted Barrett. "All we can do is make records we like. If the kids don't, then they won't buy it."
For all of his mental difficulties, Barrett seemed at times to have a sense of his own mental deterioration, as evidenced by the lyrics for "Jugband Blues:" "I'm most obliged to you for making it clear that I'm not here/And I'm wondering who could be writing this song." On "Vegetable Man" Barrett sang, "I've been looking all over the place for a place for me/it just ain't anywhere/it just ain't anywhere." Very soon, there was no place in Pink Floyd for Barrett. Exasperated, the other band members asked him to leave the group in April of 1968.
Signed as Solo Act
In late 1969 EMI's Harvest label signed Barrett as a solo act. He recorded two albums with the help of Gilmour, Waters, Wright, and members of the British group Soft Machine, but by all accounts remained impossible to work with. Gilmour in particular was disturbed when Barrett failed to recognize him. The Madcap Laughs was released in January of 1970, followed by Barrett in November; neither made an impact on the charts.
Barrett's solo material, although it contained some evidence of his songwriting genius, is a further harrowing depiction of his descent into madness. Much of his singing and playing is off-key and out of tempo. His lyrics for "Octopus" retreat into a childlike fantasy world, yet display the colorful imagery that recalls his best Pink Floyd material: "With a honey plow of yellow prickly seeds/clover honey pots of mystic shining seed." Yet, on "Dark Globe," Barrett shows an acute awareness of his own mental instability: "My head kissed the ground/I was half the way down/Treading the sand/please lift a hand/I'm only a person/With Eskimo chain/I tattooed my brain all the way."
Talent Limited by Mental Illness
Throughout the 1970s Barrett lived in seclusion, alternating between London and his mother's cellar in Cambridge. He emerged again in 1972 with a short-lived band called Stars, which included Jack Monck on bass and a man called "Twink" on drums. They played three disastrous gigs in Cambridge before folding. In his last public performance, Barrett abruptly left the stage and his bandmates after three numbers with no explanation. Barrett attempted to record again in 1974, but the sessions were quickly aborted when it became clear he was incapable of producing any new material.
Though Pink Floyd's members had ousted Barrett, they were concerned and saddened by his mental illness. Waters wrote "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" as a tribute to Barrett for the 1975 Pink Floyd release Wish You Were Here. During the final mix of this track, Barrett ironically appeared at the studio--with no forewarning or explanation--fat, bald, and strangely attired. "I've got a very large fridge and it has a lot of pork chops in it," Jones quoted Barrett as saying before he disappeared into the night. None of the band members have seen him since.
Barrett's cult following grew over the years due to fanzines and covers of his songs by various performers. Opel, a collection of outtakes from his solo work, was released in 1988, followed by the box set Syd Barrett--Crazy Diamond, which contained both solo albums, bonus tracks, and alternate takes. In 2001 EMI released a compilation album titled Wouldn't You Miss Me? containing the unissued track "Bob Dylan Blues." That November the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) presented a documentary on Barrett's life.
Barrett moved back to his mother's home once again in the early 1980s, living with her until her death in 1991. He rarely ventured outside, and stopped playing and writing music altogether. His exact condition remains unknown; one rumor places him in a Cambridge hospital ward, nearly blind from diabetes; another describes him as a reclusive gardener who lives off the royalties from Pink Floyd albums.
by Jeff Samoray
Syd Barrett's Career
First appeared with Pink Floyd at the Marquee Club in London, 1966; wrote and recorded "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play" with Pink Floyd, February-May 1967; recorded The Piper at the Gates of Dawn with Pink Floyd, April-July 1967; returned to England after American tour was abruptly canceled, c. October 1967; recorded A Saucerful of Secrets with Pink Floyd, January-March 1968; asked to leave Pink Floyd, April 1968; released solo albums The Madcap Laughs, 1969, and Barrett, 1970; performed in Cambridge with Stars, January-February 1972; attempted to record third solo album, November 1974; appeared at Abbey Road studios during final mixing of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here," June 1975; moved back to Cambridge to live in seclusion, c. 1980; released Opel (archival recordings), 1988; Crazy Diamond box set released, 1994; Wouldn't You Miss Me: Best of Syd Barrett released, 2001.
- Selected discography
- Barrett , Harvest, 1970.
- The Madcap Laughs , Harvest, 1970.
- The Peel Sessions , Dutch East, 1987.
- Opel , Harvest, 1988.
- Syd Barrett--Crazy Diamond (box set), Harvest, 1994.
- Wouldn't You Miss Me: The Best of Syd Barrett , Harvest, 2001.
- With Pink Floyd
- The Piper at the Gates of Dawn , Tower, 1967.
- A Saucerful of Secrets , Tower, 1968.
- Tonite Let's All Make Love in London , Instant, 1968; reissued, Pink Floyd London 66-67 , See for Miles, 1995.
- Relics , Harvest, 1971.
- A Nice Pair (repackaging of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and A Saucerful of Secrets) , EMI Harvest, 1974.
- Shine On (box set), EMI, 1995.
- Echoes--The Best of Pink Floyd (box set), EMI, 2001.
July 7, 2006: Barrett died on July 7, 2006, at his home in Cambridgeshire, England. He was 60. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com/aponline/arts/AP-Obit-Barrett.html?_r=1&oref=slogin, July 23, 2006.
- Contemporary Musicians, Volume 2, Gale Research, 1989.
- Jones, Cliff, Another Brick in the Wall: The Stories Behind Every Pink Floyd Song, Carlton, 1999.
- Miles, Barry, Pink Floyd, Delilah/Putnam, 1980.
- Schaffner, Nicholas, The British Invasion, McGraw-Hill, 1982.
- Schaffner, Nicholas, Saucerful of Secrets: Pink Floyd Odyssey, Delta, 1991.
- Times (London, England), November 23, 2001, p. 2-3.
- "Syd Barrett," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 11, 2002).