Syd Barrett: January 6, 1946 to July 7, 2006
Syd Barrett, the brilliant singer, songwriter, and guitarist whose creative vision gave birth to the psychedelic sound of Pink Floyd, died on July 7 at his home in Cambridgeshire, England. No cause was specified, but Barrett had suffered from type-2 diabetes for several years. He was 60 years old.
Barrett’s story constitutes one of the saddest and most poignant episodes in rock history. Prior to the onset of psychological problems in 1967, Barrett was Pink Floyd’s guiding spirit, charismatic frontman, and primary composer. Barrett-penned singles such as “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play” — and the entirety of Floyd’s debut album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn — introduced an innovative artist who merged childlike whimsy with compositional substance in a way that was strikingly original. Songwriters as diverse as David Bowie, Robyn Hitchcock, and Graham Coxon have acknowledged the enormous impact Barrett had on their work.
Born Roger Keith Barrett on January 6, 1946, and nicknamed Syd as a teenager, Barrett took up the guitar at 14 and formed his first band a couple years later. While studying painting at Camberwell Art School in South London, he was recruited by Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Rick Wright to join their fledgling band. Barrett himself christened the group Pink Floyd by combining the names of two obscure bluesmen, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. Soon, however, the band’s predilection for blues and R&B gave way to Barrett’s increasingly experimental approach to rhyme, meter, and melody.
Released in August 1967, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn remains a touchstone of the psychedelic era. Recorded at Abbey Road Studios at the same time the Beatles were making Sgt. Pepper’s, the album was critically acclaimed and went on to reach #6 on the British charts. In the months after its release, however, Barrett’s behavior became increasingly erratic, and in early 1968 his bandmates reluctantly asked him to leave the group. By that time David Gilmour, a longtime friend of Barrett, had taken over primary duties on guitar.
Through the years, speculation about Barrett’s psychological difficulties has centered mostly on his heavy use of LSD. Others have suggested he was unable to cope with the pressures of burgeoning stardom and the responsibilities that attended his role as Floyd’s main songwriter. The other members of Pink Floyd (especially Gilmour) helped Barrett craft two post-Floyd solo albums — The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, both released in 1970. Each contains flashes of brilliance, but by then Barrett’s characteristic whimsy had become shrouded in despair.
For the remainder of his life, Barrett lived mostly in Cambridge, under the care of relatives. Sporadic attempts at a music comeback were over by the mid ’70s, and purportedly he spent much of his time painting and tending to his garden.
Barrett’s small body of work has attained legendary status and had far-flung impact. Scores of indie artists have long tried to unlock the secrets to Barrett’s imagination. His staunchest champions have been his former bandmates. Post-Barrett Pink Floyd songs such as “Wish You Were Here” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” address Barrett directly, but more importantly, the themes of alienation and dysfunction that course through Floyd’s work have their origins in Barrett’s fractured sensibilities.
“Just listen to Syd’s songs, the imagination he had,” Rick Wright told Musician in 1988. “If he hadn’t had this complete breakdown, he could easily be one of the greatest songwriters today. I think it’s one of the saddest stories in rock ‘n’ roll, what happened to Syd. He was brilliant — and such a nice guy.”