Syd Barrett

Reclusive co-founder of Pink Floyd
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Roger Keith Barrett (Syd Barrett), singer, songwriter and guitarist: born Cambridge 6 January 1946; died Cambridge 7 July 2006.

Syd Barrett's star shone brilliantly but all too briefly. The band he co-founded and named in 1965, Pink Floyd, has become one of the most successful and resilient acts to emerge from the hugely creative period in British rock during the late Sixties. Although he bailed out after their first year of recording, Barrett's influence showed on many Floyd albums in the Seventies, such as the mega-selling Dark Side of the Moon (1973) and, in particular, its follow-up, Wish You Were Here (1975), and his lithe frame cast a shadow over rock music in the decades that followed.

He was born Roger Keith Barrett in Cambridge in 1946 and met his future bandmate Roger Waters at Cambridge High School for Boys. Around this time he acquired the nickname "Syd". He first picked up the ukulele and, when he was 11, his parents bought him a banjo:

A year later, I talked them into buying me a guitar; quite a cheap one; and I learned to play it from tutor books and from friends who could play a little.

At 15 he bought an electric guitar and made his own amplifier, and joined Geoff Mott and the Mottoes playing at Cambridge parties. After a stint with another local group, the Hollering Blues, he moved to London where he hooked up with Waters and two friends, Nick Mason and Richard Wright. Together they formed Pink Floyd, named by Barrett after two blues musicians, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.

Along with the Beatles, Barrett was one of the founding fathers of British psychedelia (he was recording at Abbey Road as the Fab Four were busy in the studio next door, piecing together Sgt Pepper, in the spring of 1967). The songs Barrett composed for his band - notably "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play" - both of which were released as singles in 1967, define an era in British society and gave Pink Floyd their first (and for a decade their only) chart hits.

The Floyd's first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, was largely composed by Barrett and was hailed as a masterpiece on its release the same year. It contains prime nuggets of the genre, notably the spaced-out "Astronomy Domine", the souped-up garage beat of "Matilda Mother" and the wry humour of "Scarecrow" and "Bike".

During his brief spell with Pink Floyd, Barrett pioneered free-form improvisation in rock music and the development of rock as an art form, to be taken seriously - albeit, in Barrett's case, with a childlike sensibility. Although he lacked technical expertise on the guitar, he more than made up for it with a raucous, exciting playing style evident on most of his few recordings.

Barrett found fame an uneasy burden, by most accounts, and dealt with increasing pressure to commercialise Pink Floyd's sound by ingesting huge quantities of LSD. As 1967 progressed, his behaviour became steadily more erratic and eventually, in February 1968, the band brought in their old friend, David Gilmour, as a second guitarist. The five-piece line-up lasted only a few chaotic weeks before Barrett was asked to leave the band. "I suppose it was really just a matter of being a little offhand about things," was how he explained away the band decision shortly afterwards. He contributed just one song to their second album, A Saucerful of Secrets (1968), the typically shambolic but magical "Jugband Blues".

The band's manager, Pete Jenner, followed Barrett through the door and they immediately set to work on Barrett's solo career, recording the tracks "Swan Lee" (also known as "Silas Lang") and "Late Night". Another track, "Lanky", later surfaced on Opel, a collection of outtakes released in 1988. The sessions went badly, however, and eventually the singer took off on a crazy drive-about in his Mini, winding up back in Cambridge and undergoing treatment in a psychiatric hospital.

Back in London the following year, he resumed work on a solo album. Several songs were recorded in April 1969, including the mesmerising "Opel". Gilmour and Waters lent a hand and eventually the album, entitled, with tongue in cheek, The Madcap Laughs, was released in January 1970, following a single, "Octopus" backed with "Golden Hair". It was a champion return, especially on tracks such as "Terrapin" and "Late Night", the latter featuring Barrett on cigarette lighter as guitar slide. Disturbing and at times harrowing to sit through, the album was well received and led to a sequel, the self- titled Barrett, which was out before the end of the same year. For a while it looked like Barrett was back but, finding it increasingly difficult to cope with day-to-day life, he suffered a breakdown and returned to Cambridge.

Barrett had already sessioned for John Peel's Radio 1 show when his first album was released and he was tempted back to the BBC by Bob Harris, who recorded three songs for Sounds of the Seventies in February 1971. The seven minutes he recorded (released officially in 2004) comprise what seem to be the last coherent recordings Barrett made before slipping off the radar altogether. This is Barrett on the cusp of normality. On "Dominoes", he's glancing down the abyss, almost losing his footing. Just keeping his head above his chest, he muffles through a fade-out version of "Love Song", and he's away.

He formed a loose, short-lived jamming outfit called Stars, with the Pink Fairies' Twink. With Barrett ever the unreliable frontman, they played impromptu gigs around Cambridge before fizzling out. Tapes of their recordings have long been rumoured to exist, but none has as yet surfaced.

During recording sessions for Wish You Were Here in 1975, which included a track about the band's departed guitarist, "Shine On You Crazy Diamond", Barrett made an unexpected reappearance in the studio, hovering behind the mixing desk, although it took his former colleagues some while to recognise the balding, overweight figure. It was the last time he and his former band met under the same roof.

Throughout his final years, Barrett maintained a low profile and refused to talk to journalists, thus ensuring his status as rock's primary cult figure. While his fans and former band-mates continued to fuel the myth of Syd Barrett, the man himself offered no clues as to when - if ever - he might return to the public eye. Despite having shown considerable talent in his younger years as a painter, Barrett was never able, or willing, to resurrect or replace his lost career.

Robert Webb

Comments