Syd Barrett

From Academic Kids

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Syd Barrett in concert

Roger Keith Barrett (born January 6, 1946 in Cambridge, England), known as Syd, was one of the founding members of the psychedelic/progressive rock group Pink Floyd.

Although his activity in pop music was short, his influence on 1960s artists (and those of successive generations), especially Pink Floyd, has been profound. Through his acoustic solo albums, he is cited as the first psych folk artist by many.



(1964–1968) Band years

The Pink Floyd was formed in 1964. Barrett named the band, following a succession of titles(including "The Screaming Ab-Dabs" and "The Tea Set") after two obscure blues artists, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council (some time after his departure, the definite article was dropped). Syd's leadership was evident on their first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967). He also almost all the tracks on the LP, as well as the band's first two hit singles "See Emily Play" and "Arnold Layne" (the latter of which was banned by the BBC). He contributed one track to the second Pink Floyd album and produced two highly regarded (if idiosyncratic) solo albums following his departure from the group. Syd was one of the most original lyricists of his day and was also an innovative guitarist, being one of the first to fully explore the sonic possibilities of distortion and especially the recently-developed echo machine.

A fine example of Syd's unique musical approach is the album track "Interstallar Overdrive". It believed that this track originated with Syd's attempt to learn the chords to the Burt Bacharach / Hal David song "My Little Red Book" (which had recently been covered by the American band Love), but Barrett adapted this basic structure into a driving 10-minute space-guitar workout that is uniquely of his making.

There has been considerable speculation that Barrett may have had pre-existing mental problems that were merely exacerbated by drug use, but as Pink Floyd's popularity grew and Syd's consumption of psychotropic drugs (especially LSD) increased, his concert performances became more and more unpredictable, and his general behavior became a hindrance to the success of the band. Matters came to a head during the group's first tour of the United States in late 1967. Syd became extremely difficult and increasingly withdrawn, and his odd behaviour and frequent non-appearances began to cause problems for the group.

There are many stories about Syd's bizarre and unpredictable behaviour, some of them undoubtedly apocryphal although some are known to be true. On one famous occasion, he refused to mime his performance for an appearance on the Pat Boone TV show, and stood stock still, his arms limp by his sides, staring fixedly into the camera. In another well-known incident, shortly before going on stage, Syd crushed up the entire contents of a bottle of Mandrax tranquilizer tablets, mixing them with a large quantity of Brylcreem hair cream; he then placed the mixture on top of his head and as he played under the hot stage lights, the viscous mixture softened and began to ooze down his head, giving the appearance that his face was melting. Another oft-repeated tale is that of Syd appearing at the recording studio one day with a new song which he called "Have You Got It Yet". As he taught the group the song, it soon became obvious that he was changing the chords each time he played it through (hence the title) making it virtually impossible for them to learn it.

It has also frequently been claimed that his drug problems may not have been entirely of his own making, and that he was regularly 'dosed' (i.e. given LSD without his knowledge) by so-called friends and was being given LSD on a daily basis, although comments by former friends of Barrett's in a 2002 article about Barrett in The Observer dispute this.

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Syd Barrett (1969)

Whatever the ultimate causes, within two years of founding Pink Floyd, Syd had left the group. After recording some parts for Pink Floyd's second album, A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)—including the poignant "Jugband Blues," which makes obvious reference to his growing estrangement from the band—Barrett was eased out of the group.

The original intention was that Syd would continue to contribute to the group's writing and recording, and because he was the main songwriter, it was hoped that he would play a similar role to the Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson, who had also withdrawn from live performances but had continued to write for the group. However, Syd made less and less of a contribution, and his behaviour grew ever more erratic. The other members gradually stopped picking him up for concerts and recording sessions.

The band hired an old Cambridge friend, guitarist David Gilmour, first to augment and then to replace Syd for concerts, but it quickly became obvious that Syd would not be returning. The transition was eased by the fact that Gilmour was more than able to fill Syd's shoes (Gilmour had in fact taught Barrett to play guitar), and although Gilmour's performance might have lacked some of the daring experimentalism that Syd was renowned for, he was a talented singer and songwriter and a gifted lead guitarist. So Gilmour became a permanent member, with bassist Roger Waters taking over de facto leadership of the band.

Syd's decline was to have a profound effect on Gilmour and Waters' songwriting, and the theme of mental illness and the shadow of Syd's disintegration permeate all three of Pink Floyd's most successful albums, Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall. Wish You Were Here (1975) was a tribute to Syd (who was reported to have turned up unannounced at one session, claiming to be ready to work again - another version of this fact is that he showed up at the studio, bald and fat, going unnoticed, and only later the band members realized Syd had been there); the song "Shine On You Crazy Diamond", which opens and closes the album, has been acknowledged by Floyd members to be explicitly about their former frontman. Roger Waters drew on Syd's departure and condition as a major inspiration for Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (1973). He also based some of the behavior and personality of Pink, his main character from The Wall (album 1979, film 1981) on Barrett.

(1968–1973) Solo years

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The Madcap Laughs


Syd increasingly withdrew from the world of music, although he did have a brief solo career, releasing two idiosyncratic but highly-regarded solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett (both released in 1970). Most of the material on both albums dates from Syd's most productive period of songwriting in late 1966 and early 1967, and it is believed that he wrote few new songs after he left Pink Floyd.

The first album is an often stark insight into Syd's fragile state of mind, with tracks like "Dark Globe" clearly showing that, while he still had some fine material to draw on, he was evidently barely able to perform on some sessions. The second album is a more polished effort. On both albums, he worked together with Pink Floyd manager Peter Jenner, with Waters and Gilmour, and with members of Soft Machine. Barrett also contributed to a session during the recording of the Kevin Ayers album Joy Of A Toy, although the track on which Syd played guitar, "Religious Experience (Singing A Song In The Morning)," was not issued commercially until 2003.

Sessions were continually aborted for a third Barrett album. According to legend, they were terminated after Syd attacked a studio staffer: when presented with lyrics written out in red pen, Syd reportedly presumed the piece of paper to be a bill of some kind and promptly bit the hand that held it. Syd spent many of the subsequent years painting. The few pictures which he has either sold or given away are highly sought after. He continues to paint and often listens to music, with The Rolling Stones, Booker T and the MGs and classical composers among his favourites; he reportedly paid no attention whatsover to a Pink Floyd compilation that was given to him.

(1973—) Later years

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Barrett (circa 1970)

Syd Barrett has continued to suffer mental illness, as well as physical problems stemming from a peptic ulcer; more recently he has been diagnosed as suffering from diabetes. He has had occasional hospitalisation, and much speculation as to its causes and nature in the press and among his fans. According a 2002 article in The Observer, Syd does not take regular medication. The article speculated that he might in fact be suffering from a severe form of Asperger's Syndrome. Although he has not appeared or spoken in public since 1973, time has done little to diminish interest in Syd's life and work (and the media's fascination with his story); reporters and fans still travel to Cambridge to seek him out.

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In 1988, EMI Records released Opel, an album of Barrett's studio outtakes and previously unreleased material recorded in 1970. EMI also released The Best of Syd Barrett - Wouldn't You Miss Me? in the UK on April 16, 2001, and in the United States on September 11, 2001. Also worthy of mention is the immense bootleg collection Have You Got It Yet?, a 19-disc audio/visual compilation composed of several live performances of both Barrett solo and with the Pink Floyd, with some of the versions (mostly from BBC and live gigs) being considered far superior than those in the official albums. One of the main attractions of the collection are some of the tracks for the never-released third album. There are also interviews with other Pink Floyd members, video footage and covers from other artists.

Many artists have recorded tributes to Syd throughout the decades, including R.E.M.'s cover of "Dark Globe". The Television Personalities track "I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives" is another well-known tribute, apparently based on fact.


Band discography

Solo discography


  • Julian Palacios, Lost In The Woods: Syd Barrett and The Pink Floyd (Boxtree, 1997) ISBN 0752223283
  • Mike Watkinson and Pete Anderson, Crazy Diamond: Syd Barrett and the Dawn of "Pink Floyd" ISBN 0711988358 (includes some of Barrett's paintings).

External links


General links

Fansite links

  • Syd ( - The Syd Barrett Archives (fansite)
  • Syd ( - Astral Piper, the Syd Barrett Apreciation Society (fansite)
  • ( - in English (fansite)
  • Dolly Rocker ( - The legend of Syd Barrett (fansite)

Discussion groups links

  • LaughingMadcaps ( - (Yahoo discussion group)
  • VegetableFriends ( - The Robyn Hitchcock & Syd Barrett oasis (Yahoo discussion group)

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