January 6, 1946, Cambridge, England
Roger Keith Barrett was born on January 6, 1946 in Cambridge, England. His parents were Max (Dr A M Barrett) and Win. Roger was the fourth of five children, the others being Alan, Don, Ruth and Rosemary. The young Roger was actively encouraged in his music and art by his parents – at the age of seven he won a piano duet competition with his sister – and he was to be successful in poetry contests while at high school.
Max died when Roger was 15 and his diary entry that day consisted of one single line: “Dear Dad died today.” The loss cost him dearly. Three days later he wrote to his girlfriend Libby that “I could write a book about his merits – perhaps I will some time.”
From age 10-16, Roger went to the Cambridgeshire High School for Boys on Hills Road, aka “The County”. The school had its own Scout troop, which Roger attended with great interest. He was a natural mimic and would amuse his friends with impersonations of famous people including comedy actor Sid James. Fellow scout Brian Boydell remembers that this was when he gave Roger the nickname of “Sid”, at an age of twelve. Some 3-4 years later the spelling would change after seeing a bassist in the Riverside Seven, a traditional jazz band, named Sid Barrett. Brian “Freddy” Foskett, formerly a jazz drummer with the Riverside Seven, took Roger to the YMCA in Alexandra Street to hear the band play and Roger decided to put the “y” into his nickname to avoid confusion with the bass player. From then on Sid was Syd – until in the 1970s, when he reverted to his original Roger. “Syd doesn’t live here anymore” is how he answered the door to visiting strangers.
Syd knew Roger Waters from primary school and met David Gilmour as a teenager, so their paths were to cross many times. These three later became the main creative leaders of Pink Floyd, each of them rising to the front during their own era, connected in origin and friendship from the Cambridge days. After a stint at Cambridge School of Art, Syd moved to London to attend Camberwell Art College, and eventually hooked up with Roger Waters, who was attending Regent Street Polytechnic. David Gilmour was asked to join the band at the end of 1967.
Syd was a notable and popular bohemian figure on the Cambridge scene, swapping guitar chords with David Gilmour and avidly enjoying a wide range of musical influences from jazz to obscure blues combos. By the time he moved to London he had already been part of local bands including Geoff Mott and the Mottoes, born out of collaborations at the Barrett family home from 1962 onwards. On return trips to Cambridge he began playing guitar with The Hollerin’ Blues, who by 1965 had turned into Those Without. Meanwhile Roger Waters had formed a band called Sigma 6 with college friends including Richard Wright and Nick Mason. When two of the 6 band members left, there was space for Syd to join, along with Rado “Bob” Klose. Six songs were recorded by this first version of Pink Floyd, and after 50 years they finally received their proper release in November 2015. After some personnel and name changes, the band finally settled down into the Barrett / Mason / Waters / Wright lineup in the summer of 1965 under the name of Pink Floyd, as suggested by Syd. The first mention in press dates to a Melody Maker article in early July 1965.
In a Swedish interview from September 1967, Barrett explained that “the name Pink Floyd comes from two blues singers from Georgia, USA – Pink Anderson and Floyd Council”. Roger Waters at the same time, but in another interview, explained the name as something that “sounds like a nice name to us. It’s really just a registration mark. It’s better than calling ourselves CCE338, or something like that.” The blues singers Syd referenced actually originated from South and North Carolina respectively and the name combination was picked up from the linear notes of a Blind Boy Fuller compilation album.
The Pink Floyd (alternatively known as The Tea Set) was still a part-time band, allowing Syd to take off to France in August 1965 with David Gilmour, visiting the home of Pablo Picasso, whose son was a student in Cambridge. The pair was briefly detained by the St. Tropez police for busking. The band’s music style was based on American blues and r’n’b, but the birth of a UK psychedelic music scene allowed them to develop Syd’s performance-based ideas into something unique. Throughout 1966 they honed their live performance skills, often developing songs into long jamming sequences. A particular mention must be made of the residency they enjoyed at the All Saints Church Hall as part of a series of concerts organized by the budding London Free School in the autumn of 1966. These were called Sound and Light Workshops and advertised light projection slides and ‘liquid movies’. It was here that the band really began to develop a serious following.
Syd Barrett’s famous mirrored guitar was created at this time by modifying his original white Fender Esquire with adhesive plastic to give it a new silver coloured body, and then mounting 15 reflecting discs on it. The mirror disc guitar was probably premiered at the All Saints Church Hall concert on October 14 – a “POP DANCE featuring London’s farthest out group“. Julian Palacios paints this picture in his book Dark Globe: “Sketching circles of infinity with his glissandi, Syd brought out his modified silver Esquire for the first time – a readymade psychedelic revelation. As the crude light show hit the discs and shone light back at the audience, Syd used the guitar as a visual prop to “shower silver on the people” like a magic sceptre. The light show hit the silver discs and a star was born.”
Pink Floyd quickly became the pre-eminent ‘underground’ band, fuelled by audience and supporters close to the London Free School. Pink Floyd played at the launch party for the International Times, and became a first houseband at the UFO club. On Halloween 1966, the band formed Blackhill Enterprises with managers Peter Jenner and Andrew King. They also went into a studio that same day and recorded a first version of ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, used as music for the experimental film San Francisco by Anthony Stern. This was a band composition, but most of the other early recordings were songs by Syd, who had established himself as the band’s creative innovator.
Pink Floyd signed to EMI Records in 1967, releasing the singles ‘Arnold Layne’ and ‘See Emily Play’, both written by Syd, in the first half of that year. Soon they were at work on their debut album the Piper at the Gates of Dawn in the Abbey Road Studios, next to The Beatles who were recording their Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at the same time. In the end of April, Pink Floyd was the closing act at the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream festival at Alexandra Palace, and left an ever-lasting impression on those in attendance, as the sun rose and streamed in through the windows, casting reflections in Syd’s mirrored guitar. In mid May, the band was invited to play a proper concert to a seated audience at the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Hall on South Bank in London. On this occasion they introduced many new aspects of a concert experience, including sound effects, a 360 degree sound system and onscreen films that they played in sync with – all trademarks of the future Pink Floyd.
During July, See Emily Play was high in the charts and Pink Floyd guested the popular TV show Top Of The Pops on three occasions. It was at the time of the final such appearance that Syd rather suddenly started to exhibit serious issues, likely as a result of psychedelic drugs. Roger Waters recalls: “It actually happened very fast with Syd, I have to say, right around the time of ‘See Emily Play’. You know, he got very weird very quickly.” Letters of apologies had to be written and a number of important performances were cancelled. The band went on a forced break among headlines of “flake out”. This coincided with the release of their debut album in early August and cast a dark shadow on what really should have been a moment of triumph. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, mostly composed by Syd, is considered to be one of the greatest British psychedelic albums.
Syd started to develop a more troubled personality, as if he had gone through a watershed of some kind. Two proposed singles were recorded but shelved, due to their dark nature and non-commercial potential: ‘Scream Thy Last Scream (Old Woman With A Casket)’ and ‘Vegetable Man’. While performed live in concert and on radio, they remain to this day officially unreleased. Instead, the sunnier single’Apples and Oranges’ was released in November 1967, but did not chart.
Early Pink Floyd worked harder than most as a touring band. In their live performances, due to the quality of the sound equipment in those days, and the risk for microphone feedback, the vocals were hard to hear and the band relied heavily on instrumental and rather loud and hard driving numbers. Syd’s behaviour became more erratic during a stretch of troublesome performances in USA and the Jimi Hendrix UK package tour, to the point that the band decided to add a second guitarist. David Gilmour was approached in early December and they had hoped to call on Syd’s compositional abilities for studio work, similar to Brian Wilson’s role in the Beach Boys, while Gilmour would bolster the band in live shows. It is at this point that Syd brought a new song to band rehearsals, only to change it with every take, before bringing the band back to the chorus “have you got it yet?”. This was his last rehearsal with Pink Floyd and on January 25 1968, after only a handful of shows as a 5-piece, the band elected not to pick Syd up on the way to Southampton.
Solo artist, 1968
Syd and Pink Floyd officially parted company in March 1968, with the band’s management Blackhill Enterprises deciding to stick with Syd as a solo artist. EMI’s new Harvest label committed to a Barrett solo project, and over the course of a year Syd recorded The Madcap Laughs. Started briefly with Blackhill’s Peter Jenner, recording commenced in earnest in April 1969 with EMI’s Malcolm Jones, and at the final stretch involved David Gilmour and Roger Waters. Gilmour attended three session dates and Waters only the last one, July 26, which was a sprint that generated four unembellished songs for the haunting second side of Syd’s debut album, named The Madcap Laughs after a line in the song ‘Octopus” and suggested by David Gilmour.
The Madcap Laughs would not be released until January 1970, but was well received and sold reasonably by the standards of the time, so EMI decided to record a follow-up straight away. The sessions for the album Barrett started on February 26, 1970, with David Gilmour as producer and on bass guitar, Richard Wright on keyboards and Humble Pie’s Jerry Shirley on drums. Sessions in April and July followed, and the album was released in November 1970, the last official Syd Barrett album, bar compilations.
Syd undertook very little musical activity between 1968 and 1972 outside the studio. On February 24, 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’ (possibly penned by Richard Wright) was a one-off. David Gilmour and Jerry Shirley also backed Syd for his one and only live concert during this period, on June 6, 1970. The trio played four songs at the Olympia Exhibition Hall, London, as part of a Music and Fashion Festival. Syd made one last appearance on BBC Radio, recording three songs from Barrett on February 16, 1971.
In the end of January 1972, Syd 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 was disastrous, following the hard rocking MC5 on stage a late Thursday night, February 24. The final gig took place two days later, less than a month after the band had been started. Syd quit the band a few days later after a scathing review. The collapse of Stars coincided in time with the rise of the Dark Side of the Moon, which had been performed in London just days before and gained massive praise in the press. A song suite, conceptualized from experiences gained during the time with Syd, and ending truly with an eclipse. Syd had one final and noted reunion with the members of Pink Floyd on June 5, 1975. This was during the recording sessions for Wish You Were Here, when he turned up at Abbey Road unannounced and in a strange case of “random precision” as the band was working on Shine On You Crazy Diamond, their tribute song to him.
In August 1974, Peter Jenner had convinced Syd to return to Abbey Road Studios in hope of recording another album, but little came of the sessions. Syd withdrew from the music industry and eventually chose Cambridge and a life of painting, creating large abstract canvases and many other forms of paintings.
In 1988, EMI Records released an album of Syd’s studio out-takes and previously unreleased material recorded from 1968 to 1970 under the title of Opel, a highly-regarded track omitted from The Madcap Laughs. 1993’s Crazy Diamond is a box set of all three albums, each loaded with further out-takes from his solo sessions. The Best Of Syd Barrett: Wouldn’t You Miss Me? was released by EMI in 2001.
“I’m full of dust and guitars.”
Syd Barrett, Rolling Stone, December 1971
July 7, 2006
Roger “Syd” Barrett died of pancreatic cancer on July 7, 2006 at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, but his legacy lives on in the acknowledgement of his increasing influence over scores of musicians. A tribute concert was held at London’s Barbican Theatre in 2007, curated by Nick Laird-Clowes and Joe Boyd. David Gilmour, Richard Wright and Nick Mason performed Arnold Layne. Other musicians paying tribute included Roger Waters, Damon Albarn, Kevin Ayers, Captain Sensible, Mike Heron, Robyn Hitchcock, Chrissie Hynde, John Paul Jones, Kate McGarrigle, and Martha Wainwright.
In 2010, EMI Records released An Introduction To Syd Barrett, a new collection that brought together for the first time tracks from Syd’s Pink Floyd and solo work on one album, including some brand-new remixes. David Gilmour was executive producer of the album, overseeing remixes and improvements of five tracks, including’Octopus’, ‘She Took A Long Cool Look’, ‘Dominoes’, and ‘Here I Go’. Pink Floyd’s ‘Matilda Mother’ also received a fresh 2010 mix with its original lyrics restored. Artwork was provided by long time Pink Floyd associate and friend of Syd, Storm Thorgerson and his Hipgnosis studio.
In March 2011 a new book entitled Barrett, The Definitive Visual Companion, was published by Essential Works, authors Russell Beecher and Will Shutes drawing on their extensive research to show Syd’s work and life, resulting in a comprehensive study of Syd the artist. Containing the largest collection of Syd Barrett-related images ever assembled, the book includes hundreds of unseen and rare photographs of Syd and Pink Floyd, some of Syd’s personal love letters and all of Syd’s remaining original artworks.
The legacy continues to live on. More and more people are discovering the unique music, art and life of Syd Barrett, which fascinates and resonates with so many. In the end he was more than an artist defined by his pieces of work. It is his multi-facetted life story that to many people provides the basis for appreciating his art.