Syd Barrett, a Founder of Pink Floyd, Dies at 60
Syd Barrett, a Founder of Pink Floyd, Dies at 60
By JON PARELES – Published: July 12, 2006 – NY Times
Syd Barrett, the erratically brilliant songwriter and singer who created the psychedelic rock of Pink Floyd only to leave the band in 1968 with mental problems, died on July 7 at his home in Cambridgeshire, England. He was 60.
A statement from Mr. Wright said: “The band are very naturally upset and sad to hear of Syd Barrett’s death. Syd was the guiding light of the early band lineup and leaves a legacy which continues to inspire.”
With Pink Floyd, and on two haunting solo albums, Mr. Barrett became a touchstone for experimental pop musicians. He was also renowned both as an LSD casualty and as a symbol of how close creativity can be to madness.
Mr. Barrett wrote most of the songs on Pink Floyd’s debut album, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” In Mr. Barrett’s songs like “Astronomy Domine,” whimsy and wordplay merged with a playful sense of structure and sound. “Let’s try it another way/You’ll lose your mind and play,” he wrote in “See Emily Play.”
He also helped to conceive the band’s performances as spectacles. “We have only just started to scrape the surface of effects and ideas of lights and music combined,” Mr. Barrett told the trade newspaper Melody Maker in 1967.
But under the pressures of rock stardom and after frequent use of LSD, Mr. Barrett had a breakdown in the late 1960’s and spent most of his life as a recluse. Pink Floyd, with its bassist, Roger Waters, taking over as songwriter, went on to become a multimillion-selling arena-rock band in the 1970’s. Pink Floyd sang about Mr. Barrett in one of its hits, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.”
Roger Keith Barrett, nicknamed Syd as a teenager, was born in Cambridge, England, on Jan. 6, 1946. He played the piano as a child and then took up the guitar, joining his first band at 16.
Pink Floyd began with boyhood friendships. Mr. Barrett attended the same elementary school as Mr. Waters. David Gilmour, who eventually replaced him as Pink Floyd’s guitarist, was another teenage friend.
In 1965, while Mr. Barrett studied painting and fine art at Camberwell art school in South London, Mr. Waters, the drummer Nick Mason and the keyboardist Rick Wright were studying architecture at Regent Street Polytechnic. They recruited Mr. Barrett to join their blues band. Mr. Barrett combined the first names of two bluesmen, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, to name the group Pink Floyd.
Blues-rock soon receded in Pink Floyd’s music, giving way to songs that built on the Beatles’ pop innovations and the expanded perceptions of the 1960’s. The music followed Mr. Barrett’s lyrics through meter changes, improbable interludes and the otherworldly sound effects the band was generating onstage at London clubs like UFO, a bastion of psychedelia. Mr. Barrett used an echo machine and slid a Zippo lighter along his guitar strings to create one of Pink Floyd’s sonic signatures.
In early 1967, Pink Floyd signed to EMI Records. Its first two singles — “Arnold Layne,” a fond song about a transvestite, and “See Emily Play” — reached the British Top 20. Pink Floyd made its debut album at Abbey Road Studios, as the Beatles worked on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” next door. “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” was a definitive psychedelic album. Its songs mixed childlike wonder with portents of disaster, and its music veered off on exuberant tangents before returning to pop choruses.
Onstage, the music was more free-form and anarchic. Band members have said Mr. Barrett was unstable even before he began extensive drug use, and he developed a reputation for odd behavior. For one show, he tried to slick down his hair with a combination of Brylcreem and crushed Mandrax tranquilizer pills, which were melted by stage lights and started to ooze down his face as he played. Playing the Fillmore West on Pink Floyd’s 1967 American tour, Mr. Barrett stood staring into space and detuning the strings on his guitar. The band cut short its American tour.
During 1967, Mr. Barrett was taking LSD every day, and that often left him incapable of performing. Mr. Gilmour joined Pink Floyd late in 1967, and by the spring of 1968, Mr. Barrett was out of the band. He wrote the song that closes “A Saucerful of Secrets,” Pink Floyd’s second album: “Jugband Blues,” which includes a Salvation Army band playing on one section. “It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here,” he sang, “and I’m most obliged to you for making it clear/that I’m not here.”
Without Mr. Barrett, Pink Floyd’s music changed. Whimsy gave way to majestic anthems on best-selling albums like “Dark Side of the Moon,” a concept album about insanity.
Mr. Barrett was treated in psychiatric hospitals and quietly began recording songs and fragments of songs. Some were solo recordings with an acoustic guitar that other musicians were brought in to accompany; others were recorded with fellow musicians in the studio, or with Mr. Barrett working over finished backup tracks. The irregular structures of Mr. Barrett’s songs frustrated studio musicians and various producers, but Mr. Waters and Mr. Gilmour eventually took over production and completed “The Madcap Laughs,” released in January 1970.
Mr. Gilmour and Mr. Barrett returned to the studio to make “Barrett,” released in November 1970. On both albums, Mr. Barrett sounds fragile but oddly serene, following his rhymes whether they lead to nonsense or revelation.
Mr. Barrett appeared on BBC Radio and played one brief show at the London Olympia in 1970 (accompanied by Mr. Gilmour), walking offstage after four songs. In 1972, he made a last attempt to lead a band, Stars, which played a half-dozen shows in England before disbanding. Recording sessions in 1974 were unproductive.
Since then, Mr. Barrett lived quietly, spending some of his time painting. He showed up at unlikely moments: he appeared unannounced, for instance, at a 1975 Pink Floyd session as the band recorded “Shine On, You Crazy Diamond.” A British magazine reported that he was institutionalized for two years in the early 1980’s. Outtakes from his solo albums were released in 1988 as “Opel,” and a boxed set collecting all three solo albums, “Crazy Diamond,” was released in 1993. He learned he had Type II diabetes in 1998.
Mr. Barrett’s survivors include a brother, Alan, and a sister, Rosemary.
For someone with such a brief career, Mr. Barrett has never been forgotten. Indie-rockers have long tried to emulate his twisted craftsmanship, paying tribute in songs like Television Personalities’ “I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives.” Sir Tom Stoppard’s new play, “Rock ’n’ Roll,” invokes him as a lost free spirit.