1946 – Syd Barrett (Roger Barrett) of Pink Floyd is born. He names the group after bluesmen Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. Chart Toppers ranks the group’s 1973 album “Dark Side of the Moon” as the longest-charting album of all time. It stays on the magazine’s pop album chart for more than 10 years and sells more than 10 million copies.
Syd Barrett (born Roger Keith Barrett; 6 January 1946 – 7 July 2006) was an English singer, songwriter, guitarist and artist. He is most remembered as a founding member of psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd, providing major musical and stylistic direction in their early work, although he left the group in 1968 amidst speculations of mental illness exacerbated by heavy drug use.
He was active as a rock musician for about seven years, recording two albums with Pink Floyd and two solo albums before going into self-imposed seclusion lasting more than thirty years. His post–rock band life was as an artist and keen gardener, ending with his death in 2006, and a number of biographies have been written about him since the 1980s. During his withdrawal from public life there were numerous works about him, most notably his former band Pink Floyd’s 1975 album Wish You Were Here.
Barrett was born in the English city of Cambridge to a middle-class family. His father, Arthur Max Barrett, was a prominent pathologist, and both he and his wife, Winifred, encouraged the young Roger (as he was known then) in his music. When Barrett was three years old, his family moved to 183 Hills Road. After his brothers and sisters left home, his mother rented out rooms to lodgers, including a future Prime Minister of Japan.
Pink Floyd years (1964–1968)
Starting in 1964, the band that would become Pink Floyd underwent various line-up and name changes such as “The Abdabs”, “The Screaming Abdabs”, “Sigma 6″ and “The Meggadeaths”. In 1965, Barrett joined them as “The Tea Set”, and when they found themselves playing a concert with a band of the same name, Barrett came up with the name “The Pink Floyd Sound” (later “The Pink Floyd”). He devised the name “Pink Floyd” by juxtaposing the first names of Pink Anderson and Floyd Council whom he had read about in a sleeve note by Paul Oliver for a 1962 Blind Boy Fuller LP (Philips BBL-7512): “Curley Weaver and Fred McMullen, (…) Pink Anderson or Floyd Council—these were a few amongst the many blues singers that were to be heard in the rolling hills of the Piedmont, or meandering with the streams through the wooded valleys”.
While Pink Floyd began by playing cover versions of American R&B songs (in much the same vein as contemporaries The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and The Kinks), by 1966 they had carved out their own style of improvised rock and roll, which drew as much from improvised jazz as it did from British pop-rock, such as that championed by The Beatles. In that year, a new rock concert venue, the UFO, opened in London and quickly became a haven for British psychedelic music. Pink Floyd, the house band,
By the end of 1966 Pink Floyd had gained a reliable management team in Andrew King and Peter Jenner. The duo soon befriended American expatriate Joe Boyd, who was making a name for himself as one of the more important entrepreneurs on the British music scene. Boyd produced a recording session for the group in January 1967 at Sound Techniques in Chelsea, which resulted in a demo of the single “Arnold Layne”. King and Jenner took the song to the recording behemoth EMI, who were impressed enough to offer the band a contract, under which they would be allowed to record an album. The band accepted. By the time the album was released, “Arnold Layne” had reached number 20 on the British singles charts (despite a ban by Radio London) and a follow-up single, “See Emily Play” had done even better, peaking at number 6.
These first two singles, as well as a third (“Apples and Oranges”), were written by Barrett, who also was the principal visionary/author of their critically acclaimed 1967 debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The album’s title was taken from the mystical “Pan” chapter of The Wind in the Willows. Of the 11 songs on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Barrett wrote eight and co-wrote another two.
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was recorded intermittently between January and July 1967 in Studio 2 at Abbey Road Studios. At that same time at Abbey Road the Beatles were recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in Studio 1 and the Pretty Things were recording S.F. Sorrow. When The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was released in August of that year, it became a smash hit in the UK, hitting #6 on the British album charts (the album was not nearly so successful in the USA). However, as the band began to attract a large fanbase, the pressures on Barrett contributed to his experiencing increasing psychiatric illness.
Barrett’s behaviour became increasingly unpredictable, partly as a consequence of frequent experimentation with psychedelic drugs such as LSD.
Following a disastrous abridged tour of the United States, David Gilmour (a school friend of Barrett’s) was asked to join the band as a second guitarist to cover for Barrett as Barrett’s erratic behaviour prevented him from performing. For a handful of shows David played and sang while Barrett wandered around on stage, occasionally deigning to join in playing. The other band members soon tired of Barrett’s antics and, in January 1968, on the way to a show at Southampton University, the band elected not to pick Barrett up: One person in the car said, “Shall we pick Syd up?” and another person said, “Let’s not bother” (Gilmour interview in Guitar World – January 1995). They attempted to retain him in the group as a songwriter.
There are many stories about Barrett’s bizarre and intermittently psychotic behaviour — some are known to be true. According to Roger Waters, Barrett came into what was to be their last practice session with a new song he had dubbed “Have You Got It, Yet?”. The song seemed simple enough when he first presented it to his bandmates, but it soon became impossibly difficult to learn: while they were practising it, Barrett kept changing the arrangement. He would then play it again, with the arbitrary changes, and sing “Have you got it yet?”. Eventually they realised they never would and that they were simply bearing the brunt of Barrett’s idiosyncratic sense of humour.
Barrett did not contribute any material to the band after A Saucerful of Secrets was released in 1968. Of the songs he wrote for Pink Floyd after The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, only one (“Jugband Blues”) made it to the band’s second album; one became a less-than-successful single (“Apples and Oranges”), and two others (“Scream Thy Last Scream” and “Vegetable Man”) were never officially released. Barrett supposedly spent some time outside the recording studio, waiting to be invited in (he also showed up to a few gigs and glared at Gilmour). Barrett played slide guitar on “Remember a Day” (which had been first attempted during the The Piper at the Gates of Dawn sessions) and also played on “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”. His main contribution to the album, “Jugband Blues,” is often seen by Pink Floyd fans as Barrett’s admission that his days in the band were probably numbered (“It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here/And I’m most obliged to you for making it clear/that I’m not here”, the song opens). In March 1968 it was officially announced that he was no longer a member of Pink Floyd.
Solo years (1968–1972)
After leaving Pink Floyd, Barrett distanced himself from the public eye. However, at the behest of EMI and Harvest Records, he did have a brief solo career, releasing two solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett. Most of the compositions on both albums date from Barrett’s most productive period of songwriting, late 1966 to mid 1967, and it is believed that he wrote few new songs after he left Pink Floyd.
The first album, The Madcap Laughs, was recorded in two distinct sessions, both at Abbey Road Studios: a few tentative sessions took place between May and June 1968 (produced by Peter Jenner), while the bulk of the album was recorded between April and July 1969. The record was produced first by Malcolm Jones, a young EMI executive, and then by David Gilmour and Roger Waters. Jones states in his book “The Making of the Madcap Laughs” that “when Dave came to me and said that Syd wanted him and Roger to do the remaining parts of the album, I acquiesced.” A few tracks on the album feature overdubs by members of the band Soft Machine. Barrett also played guitar on the sessions for Soft Machine founder Kevin Ayers’ debut LP Joy of a Toy, although his performance on “Religious Experience” was not released until the album was reissued in 2003.
The second album, Barrett, was recorded more sporadically than the first, with sessions taking place between February and July 1970. This effort sounds more polished than the first, but Barrett was arguably in a worse state. The album was produced by David Gilmour and Rick Wright, featured Gilmour on bass guitar, Rick Wright on keyboard and Humble Pie drummer Jerry Shirley.
Despite the numerous recording dates for his two solo albums, Barrett undertook very little musical activity between 1968 and 1972 outside the studio. On 24 February 1970, he appeared on John Peel’s BBC radio programme Top Gear playing five songs—only one of which had been previously released. Three would be re-recorded for the Barrett album, while the song “Two of a Kind” was a one-off performance (the song appears on the 2001 compilation The Best of Syd Barrett: Wouldn’t You Miss Me?) with the lyrics and composition having since been credited to Richard Wright. Barrett was accompanied on this session by David Gilmour and Jerry Shirley who played bass and percussion, respectively.
Gilmour and Shirley also backed Barrett for his one and only live concert during this period. The gig took place on 6 June 1970 at the Olympia Exhibition Hall, London, and was part of a Music and Fashion Festival. The trio performed four songs, playing for less than half an hour, and because of poor mixing, the vocals were inaudible until part-way through the last number. At the end of the fourth song, Barrett unexpectedly but politely put down his guitar and walked off the stage.
Barrett made one last appearance on BBC Radio, recording three songs at their studios on 16 February 1971. All three came from the Barrett album, and were presumably aired to encourage people to buy the record. After this session, he would take a hiatus from his music career that lasted more than a year, although in an extensive interview with Mick Rock and Rolling Stone in December, he discussed himself at length, showed off his new 12-string guitar, talked about his American tour with Jimi Hendrix, and stated that he was frustrated in terms of his musical work because of his inability to find anyone good to play with.
Later years (1972–2006)
In 1972, Barrett formed a short-lived band called Stars with ex–Pink Fairies member Twink on drums and Jack Monck on bass. Though the band was initially well received, one of their gigs at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge proved to be disastrous (Monck describes just how disastrous it was in a TV interview in 2001 for the BBC Omnibus series documentary ‘Crazy Diamond’). A few days after this final show, Twink recalled that Barrett stopped him on the street, showed him a scathing review of the gig they had played, and quit on the spot.
In August 1974, Peter Jenner convinced Barrett to return to Abbey Road Studios in hope of recording another album. However, little became of the sessions, which lasted three days and consisted of blues rhythm tracks with tentative and disjointed guitar overdubs (the only titled track is “If You Go, Don’t Be Slow”). Once again, Barrett withdrew from the music industry. He sold the rights to his solo albums back to the record label and moved into a London hotel. During this period, several attempts to employ him as a record producer (including one by Jamie Reid on behalf of the Sex Pistols, and another by The Damned, who wanted him to produce their second album), were all fruitless. to him all right”.
Withdrawal to Cambridge
According to a 2005 profile by a recent biographer Tim Willis, Barrett, who had reverted to using his original name of Roger, continued to live in his late mother’s semi-detached home in Cambridge, and had returned to his original art-form of painting, creating large abstract canvases. He was also said to have been an avid gardener. His main point of contact with the outside world was his sister, Rosemary, who lived nearby. While reclusive, it was his physical health that prompted most concern, being afflicted with stomach ulcers and type 2 diabetes.
Although Barrett had not appeared or spoken in public since the mid-1970s, time did little to diminish interest in his life and work; reporters and fans still travelled to Cambridge to seek him out, despite his attempts to live a quiet life. Many photos of Barrett being annoyed by paparazzi when walking or biking, from the 1980s until his death in 2006, had been published in various media.
Apparently, Barrett was not happy being reminded about his past as a musician and the other members of Pink Floyd had no direct contact with him. However, he did go to his sister’s house in November 2001 to watch the BBC Omnibus documentary made about him – reportedly he found some of it “too noisy”, enjoyed seeing Mike Leonard (of Leonard’s Lodgers) again (whom he called his ‘teacher’), and enjoyed hearing “See Emily Play” again.
Death and aftermath
Barrett died on Friday 7 July 2006 at his home in Cambridge.
In 2006, his home, located in St. Margaret’s Square, was placed on the market and reportedly attracted considerable interest.
According to a local Cambridge newspaper, Barrett left approximately £1.25 million to his two brothers and two sisters. This income was apparently largely acquired via royalties from Pink Floyd compilations and live recordings which featured songs he had written while with the band.
A tribute concert was held at the Barbican Centre, London on 10 May 2007 with Robyn Hitchcock, Captain Sensible, Damon Albarn, Chrissie Hynde, Kevin Ayers and his Pink Floyd bandmates performing (albeit not on stage at the same time for the last).
Wish You Were Here sessions
Barrett had one noted reunion with the members of Pink Floyd, which occurred in 1975 during the recording sessions for Wish You Were Here. Barrett attended the Abbey Road session unannounced, and watched the band record “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” — as it happened, a song about him. By that time, Barrett had become quite overweight, had shaved off all of his hair, including his eyebrows, and his ex-bandmates did not at first recognise him (one of the photographs in Nick Mason’s book Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd appears to have been taken that day (page 211); it is captioned: Syd Barrett at Abbey Road Studios, 5th June 1975). Eventually, they realised who he was and Roger Waters was so distressed that he was brought to tears. A reference to this reunion appears in the film Pink Floyd The Wall (1982), where the character ‘Pink,’ played by Bob Geldof, shaves off his eyebrows (and body hair) after succumbing to the pressures of life and fame.
In an interview for the 2001 BBC Omnibus documentary Syd Barrett: Crazy Diamond (later released on DVD as The Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett Story), the story is told in full. Rick Wright spoke about the session, saying: “One thing that really stands out in my mind, that I’ll never forget; I was going in to the “Shine On” sessions. I went in the studio and I saw this guy sitting at the back of the studio, he was only as far away as you are from me. And I didn’t recognize him. I said, ‘Who’s that guy behind you?’ ‘That’s Syd’. And I just cracked up, I couldn’t believe it… he had shaven all his hair off… I mean, his eyebrows, everything… he was jumping up and down brushing his teeth, it was awful. And, uh, I was in, I mean Roger was in tears, I think I was; we were both in tears. It was very shocking… seven years of no contact and then to walk in while we’re actually doing that particular track. I don’t know – coincidence, karma, fate, who knows? But it was very, very, very powerful”. In the same documentary, Nick Mason stated: “When I think about it, I can still see his eyes, but… it was everything else that was different”. In that same interview, Roger Waters has said: “I had no idea who he was for a very long time”. David Gilmour stated : “None of us recognised him. Shaved…shaved bald head and very plump”.
In 1988, EMI Records released an album of Barrett’s studio outtakes and previously unreleased material recorded from 1968 to 1970 under the title Opel. The disc was originally set to include the unreleased Barrett Pink Floyd songs “Scream Thy Last Scream” and “Vegetable Man”, which had been remixed for the album by Malcolm Jones. However, the two songs were pulled (reportedly by the remaining members of Pink Floyd) before Opel was finalized.
In 1993 EMI issued another release, Crazy Diamond, a box set of all three albums, each loaded with further out-takes from his solo sessions that illustrated vividly Barrett’s inability or refusal to play a song the same way twice.
EMI also released The Best of Syd Barrett: Wouldn’t You Miss Me? in the UK on April 16, 2001, and in the US on September 11, 2001. This was the first time his song “Bob Dylan Blues” was ever officially released, taken from a demo tape that David Gilmour had kept after an early 1970s recording session. Gilmour still has the tape, which also contains the unreleased “Living Alone” from the Barrett sessions.
A number of bootleg LPs, CDs and other recordings of Barrett’s live and solo material exist.
For years the “off air” recordings of the BBC sessions with Barrett’s Pink Floyd circulated, until an engineer who had taken a tape of the early Pink Floyd gave it back to the BBC—who played it during a tribute to John Peel on their website. During this tribute, the first Peel programme (Top Gear) was aired in its entirety. This show featured 1967 live versions of “Flaming”, “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”, and a brief 90-second snippet of the instrumental “Reaction in G”.
Creative impact and technical innovation
Barrett’s first acoustic guitar
Barrett wrote most of the Pink Floyd’s early material. He was also an innovative guitarist, using extended techniques and exploring the musical and sonic possibilities of dissonance, distortion, feedback, the echo machine, tapes and other effects; his experimentation was partly inspired by free improvisation guitarist Keith Rowe. One of Barrett’s trademarks was playing his guitar through an old echo box while sliding a Zippo lighter up and down the fret-board to create the mysterious, otherworldly sounds that became associated with the group. Barrett was known to have used Binson delay units to achieve his trademark echo sounds.
Barrett brought the guitar in a new direction. His free-form sequences of sonic carpets pioneered a new way to play the rock guitar.
Musical and pop culture influence
Many artists have acknowledged Barrett’s influence on their work. Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, Marc Bolan, and David Bowie were early fans; Jimmy Page, Brian Eno, and The Damned all expressed interest in working with him at some point during the 1970s. Bowie recorded a cover of “See Emily Play” on his 1973 album Pin Ups. Townshend called Barrett legendary.
Barrett’s decline had a profound effect on Roger Waters’s songwriting, and the theme of mental illness would permeate Pink Floyd’s later albums, particularly 1973′s The Dark Side of the Moon and 1975′s Wish You Were Here which was a deliberate and affectionate tribute to Barrett, the songs “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” and the title track being specifically about him. The title track borrows imagery of a “steel rail” from Barrett’s solo song, “If It’s In You,” from The Madcap Laughs album.
In 1987, an album of Barrett cover songs called Beyond the Wildwood was released. The album collected songs from Barrett’s Pink Floyd albums and his solo albums. Artists appearing were UK and USA indie bands including The Shamen, Opal, The Soup Dragons, and Plasticland.
Other artists that have written tributes to Barrett include his contemporary Kevin Ayers, who wrote “Oh Wot a Dream” in his honour (Barrett provided guitar to an early version of Ayers’ song “Religious Experience: Singing a Song in the Morning”). Barrett fan Robyn Hitchcock has covered many of his songs live and on record, and has paid homage to his forebear with the songs “The Man Who Invented Himself” and “(Feels Like) 1974″. The Television Personalities’ track “I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives” from their 1981 album And Don’t the Kids Love It is another tribute. (The Television Personalities became the subject of controversy and derision when, as they had been selected as the opening act on David Gilmour’s About Face tour in the early 1980s, lead singer Dan Treacy decided to read aloud Barrett’s real home address to the audience of thousands. Gilmour removed them from the tour immediately afterwards.)
Johnny Depp has shown interest in a biographical film based on Barrett’s life.
Barrett is also portrayed briefly in the opening scene of Tom Stoppard’s play Rock ‘n’ Roll (2006), performing “Golden Hair”. His life and music, including the disastrous Cambridge Corn Exchange concert and his later reclusive lifestyle, are a recurring motif in the work. Barrett died during the play’s run in London.
There has been much speculation concerning Barrett’s psychological well-being. Many believe he suffered from schizophrenia.
Barrett’s use of psychedelic drugs, especially LSD, during the 1960s is well documented. However, in an article published in 2006, in response to notions that Barrett’s issues were the result of such, Gilmour was quoted as saying: “In my opinion, his 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.”
Many stories of Barrett’s erratic behaviour off stage as well as on are also well-documented. In Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey, author Nicholas Schaffner interviewed a number of people who knew Barrett before and during his Pink Floyd days. These included friends Peter and Susan Wynne-Wilson, artist Duggie Fields (with whom Barrett shared a flat during the late 1960s), June Bolan and Storm Thorgerson, among others.
“For June Bolan, the alarm bells began to sound only when Syd kept his girlfriend under lock and key for three days, occasionally shoving a ration of biscuits under the door.”
However, in the book Crazy Diamond: Syd Barrett and the Dawn of Pink Floyd, authors Mike Watkinson and Pete Anderson included quotes from a story told to them by Thorgerson that underscored how volatile Barrett could be. “On one occasion, I had to pull him off Lynsey (Barrett’s girlfriend at the time) because he was beating her over the head with a mandolin.”
According to Gilmour in an interview with Nick Kent, the other members of Pink Floyd approached psychiatrist R.D. Laing with the ‘Barrett problem’. After hearing a tape of a Barrett conversation, Laing declared him incurable.
Gilmour also proposed, in an interview with the National Post’s John Geiger, that the stroboscopic lights used in their shows combined with the drugs could have had a seriously detrimental effect on Barrett’s mental health if he was a photo-epileptic who suffered partial seizures. When partial seizures occur in the temporal lobes patients are often misdiagnosed with schizophrenia or psychosis.
After Barrett died, his sister, Rosemary Breen, spoke to biographer Tim Willis for The Sunday Times. She insisted that Barrett neither suffered from mental illness nor received treatment for it at any time since they resumed regular contact in the 1980s.
His sister denied he was a recluse or that he was vague about his past: “Roger may have been a bit selfish — or rather self-absorbed — but when people called him a recluse they were really only projecting their own disappointment. He knew what they wanted but he wasn’t willing to give it to them.” Barrett, she said, took up photography, and sometimes they went to the seaside together. “Quite often he took the train on his own to London to look at the major art collections — and he loved flowers. He made regular trips to the Botanic Gardens and to the dahlias at Anglesey Abbey, near Lode. But of course, his passion was his painting”, she said.
A series of events, called The City Wakes
Singles with Pink Floyd
* “Arnold Layne”/”Candy and a Currant Bun” (1967) (#20 UK)
* “See Emily Play”/”The Scarecrow” (1967) (#6 UK, #134 U.S.)
* “Apples and Oranges”/”Paint Box” (1967) (Rick Wright)
Albums with Pink Floyd
* The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (5 August 1967) #6 UK, #131 U.S.
* A Saucerful of Secrets (29 June 1968) #9 UK
* London 1966/1967 2005
Compilations with Pink Floyd (featuring his work)
* The Best of the Pink Floyd (1970)
* Relics (14 May 1971) #34 UK, #152 U.S.
* A Nice Pair (1974)
* Masters of Rock (1974, Europe)
* Works (1983)
* Shine On (1992)
* Echoes: The Best of Pink Floyd (5 November 2001) #2 UK, #2 U.S.
* Oh, by the Way (2007)
* The Madcap Laughs – (3 January 1970) #40 UK
* Barrett – (14 November 1970)
* Joy of a Toy by Kevin Ayers (November 1969) Plays guitar on “Religious Experience: Singing a Song in the Morning” – bonus track on remastered 2003 CD.
* Syd Barrett (November 1974) U.S. #163: The Madcap Laughs and Barrett packaged together
* Opel – (17 October 1988)
* Octopus: The Best of Syd Barrett (29 May 1992): Greatest hits album issued on the Cleopatra label.
* Crazy Diamond (April 1993): Boxed set with all three studio albums with bonus tracks
* The Best of Syd Barrett: Wouldn’t You Miss Me? (16 April 2001): Contains one previously unreleased track (“Bob Dylan Blues”)
Solo radio session recordings
* The Peel Session (1 July, 1991): Recorded for John Peel’s BBC radio show “Top Gear” with David Gilmour and Jerry Shirley backing. Contains the otherwise unrecorded “Two of a Kind”.
* The Radio One Sessions (March, 2004): The album contains the five songs of from The Peel Session and bootleg-quality recordings of three songs broadcast on the Bob Harris radio show in 1971.
* “Octopus”/”Golden Hair” (15 November 1969)
* Syd’s First Trip (1966)
* Pink Floyd London ’66–’67 (1967)
* Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (1967)
* The Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett Story (2003)