Syd Barrett was the catalyst for Pink Floyd. After giving the band its breakthrough album, he threw himself into 1960s psychedelia (and the drugs which accompanied it) with wild abandon. And like the legendary Icarus, he flew too close to the sun. Within a matter of months, he had lost his mind.
Syd Barett was the driving force behind Pink Floyd
Before his dramatic decline, Barrett was a leader. His atypically English vocals, innovative guitar work, and irregular song structures pushed the pop music of his era in a promising new direction. It was as if he was making form of the chaos The Beatles unleashed with Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Before Barrett could, he imploded. Fuelled by a prodigious LSD intake, his lyrics transformed from innocent nursery rhymes into impenetrable riddles. Onstage he became a vacant and drooling void. To those around him, it was clear he was no longer himself.
After a number of erratic incidents on the band’s 1967 US tour, Pink Floyd began to discuss continuing without Syd Barret. With the band’s frontman unwilling (or unable) to perform onstage, Pink Floyd live shows were failing to sell tickets. What is more, their singles were not topping the charts as they had been with the release of the Barrett-led debut album Piper at the Gates of Dawn. After one especially difficult 1968 rehearsal session, in which Barrett taunted exasperated bandmates with an ever-evolving new song titled ‘Have You Got It Yet?’, the group decided Syd was out.
Piper at the Gates of Dawn was a chart-topping success in the UK
Pink Floyd supported Barrett’s solo career
Evicted from the band, Syd recorded two solo albums. Members of Pink Floyd produced and supported Syd throughout this period. Guitarist Dave Gilmour, who had joined the group as Syd was leaving, and Roger Waters worked on Barrett’s 1970 solo debut The Madcap Laughs. Gilmour and Rick Wright also assisted with follow-up Barrett.
Realizing the cure to Syd’s problem was not a musical one, Pink Floyd became distant. They had no direct contact with Syd again until he arrived at the band’s 1975 Wish You Were Here recording sessions at Abbey Road Studios. Syd had decided to resume his role in the band. But a shaven head and eyebrows, along with a notable weight gain, made him unrecognizable to his former friends. After an incoherent conversation, he left the session, and Pink Floyd, for good.
Syd’s shadowy persona and the mystery of his decline continued to accompany Pink Floyd on their journey to superstardom. While Barrett was little more than a legend to Pink Floyd’s growing international fanbase during the early 1970s, his dramatic implosion and the constant sadness of his absence spurred Roger Waters’s to write many of the lyrics on The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall.
The enduring mystery of Syd Barett
Barrett became influential by his absence. Several journalists and curious fans tracked him down. What they found was a simple man with a mental illness looking to lead a quiet life. At that, one who became easily agitated at the mention of his former band.
At first, Barrett cryptically maintained he had decided to focus on his first love of painting. Later responses became more disjointed. By the time of his last public interview in 1982, he was indecipherable. Many, remaining members of Pink Floyd included, came to believe he suffered from schizophrenia.
“He functions on a totally different plane of logic,” David Gilmour later shared of Syd’s condition, “and some people will claim, ‘Well yeah man he’s on a higher cosmic level’ – but basically there’s something drastically wrong. It wasn’t just the drugs – we’d both done acid before the whole Floyd thing – it’s just a mental foible which grew out of all proportion… We all felt he should have gone to see a psychiatrist, though someone in fact played an interview he did to R.D. Laing, and Laing claimed he was incurable. What can you do, you know?”
Apart from picking up his sizeable royalty cheques, Syd Barrett was content to lead a life away from music. After electrifying British pop culture for two years as the frontman of London’s hottest underground group, he lived out the remainder of his days in obscurity. Barrett died on July 7, 2006, after suffering from diabetes and fighting a losing battle with pancreatic cancer.
While a fractured Pink Floyd reunited for a one-off concert to pay tribute to the distant memory of the man they knew, Waters had all but written Syd’s epitaph in 1975. “Remember when you were young,” he sang in Pink Floyd’s ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’. “You shone like the sun. Now there’s a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky.”
What really happened to Syd Barrett?
In a 2020 radio interview, Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason offered his take on what had happened to the band’s original creative visionary. “I think the jury’s still out,” he shared, “in a way, in terms of what really happened to Syd. I think it’s something that will never really be answered.”
“There are really two schools of thought,” he continued. “One was that it was overdosing on acid, which certainly is quite likely. But, it could also be to do with the fact that he didn’t want to be a rock god. He actually wanted to go back and be a painter, and I think we now feel that we probably – well, we certainly weren’t helpful because we assumed that would mean he was mad.”
With the passing of time, Mason also found himself more sympathetic. “I think,” he added, “in hindsight, one can look at it and go, ‘Actually, maybe that was the way he would have wanted or want to go.‘” He then cited a conversation he and Roger Waters engaged with psychiatrist Ronnie Laing. “Maybe Syd isn’t mad,” Laing had said, “maybe we’re the mad ones.‘”
The Dark Side of the Moon has sold more than 45 million copies
Syd Barrett’s inner struggles embody our own
The stories we come to cherish are the ones that focus on individuals. Not just anyone, people who live through unforgettable series of events, the kind defined by dramatic turns of fortune. These heroes experience captivating highs and devastating lows.
Barrett’s is one such story. He was marked by genius. The kind which came with a heavy cost. After giving into worldly pleasures of drugs and fame, he battled his own psyche and lost, a lasting reminder the spark of genius often leads to bad fortune as much as it does good.
This narrative that defined Barrett’s life in the eyes of the rest of the world happened in a short span of years. During this time the oddness of his music was reflected in his life. Ultimately, his story ended as Pink Floyd’s begun.
No sooner had Syd finished with popular music did the success of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon amplify his myth. The mysterious references to Syd in the band’s lyrics told their own poetical history of his spectacular decline. They did not tell psychological truths. Instead, they told personal ones. Syd’s turmoil and madness, in addition to the pain of his loss, came to dramatize Pink Floyd and their fan’s own inner struggles.
July 7, 2021, is the 15th anniversary of Syd Barrett’s death
“We dreamt the dream,” Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters told the Global Consortium for Sustainable Peace in 2020. “And then we lived it…. for a bit” Barrett exited Pink Floyd in dramatic fashion. More than 50 years later, pop culture remains the beneficiary of his talent and wild mind.
Syd Barrett’s non-sequitur logic and disordered thought patterns appear to have given him prophetic foresight of how his story would unfold. “It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here,” he wrote in the lyrics to his last Pink Floyd-era song ‘Jugband Blues’ in 1968. “And I’m much obliged to you for making it clear. That I’m not here.” In delivering this final remark he promptly exited Pink Floyd. In doing so he created one of the most celebrated rock groups of all time.