1946 – 2006
Roger Waters and David Gilmour are two of the most talented musicians of all time and each has a valid point in their argument about who is more responsible for Pink Floyd’s success. But there is another person, largely unknown, who just might beat them both of them.
While Roger ‘Syd’ Barret only wrote their first album, ‘Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’, his spectre haunts Pink Floyd’s career. Ontop of naming the band, building their original audience and aesthetic, Barret is partly responsible for the hits he had no hand in physically writing. In fact, most of Pink Floyd’s most popular recordings are inspired by their original leader. ‘Wish You Were Here’, ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, the entire ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ concept album that topped Billboard’s charts for 15 years straight and follow up ‘The Wall’ (album and movie) are all inspired by Syd Barret.
Syd’s shadow can even be spotted in Roger Water’s post-Pink Floyd solo career, particularly his ‘Radio K.H.A.O.S‘ album. In fact, as Waters became more and more isolated from the world, his bond with Barret only seemed to strengthen.
In the early-late sixties, Syd Barret was living the life most people can only dream of. Young, original, talented and popular, he was one of the London Underground’s biggest rock stars. Put cliché-y, women wanted him and men wanted to be him. Barret made every gig unique, going off into some psychedelic guitar solo or experimenting how and with what a guitar could be played. However, while the band were immensely popular in the London Underground, they were met with hostility anytime they toured beyond.
It was after Barret’s first acid trip where things begun to unravel. Barret was like a God of the counter culture. Everywhere he went, everyone around him gave him more LSD. Fans, girlfriends, friends. Barret couldn’t even escape it as his home, which had become a party house full of adoring supporters who, supposedly, even spiked Barret’s water in order to keep him high.
Eventually, the rampant drug use (and what many claim was an undiagnosed mental ailment), caught up. Barret’s behaviour started to change drastically. Gone was the energetic and charismatic guitarist and singer, now the other members were happy just to see Barret play more than one chord (if any) or even show up to gigs at all. Barret became so erratic – detuning his guitar mid song and answering interview’s question with blank stares – that other people had to be brought in to compensate. David Gilmour was one of those people. Barret actually had to teach Gilmour, the man who would replace him, how to play Barret’s song.
Things finally reached a boiling point and Pink Floyd kicked Barret out. This was unthinkable to friends and fans, people simply thought of Barret as Pink Floyd, there was absolutely no way the others could go without him. Yet Roger Waters took over and pulled the band through it, doing exactly what he would criticise his band mates for doing when he left Pink Floyd years later.
While Pink Floyd pushed forward, Barret sunk backwards. He released two more solo albums yet snippets of the sessions and multiple versions of the same song prove just how difficult that was, as Barret switches between songs at a whim. They weren’t the revolutionary and interstellar tracks he was writing in Pink Floyd but much more melancholy and introspective tunes, but they did still housed musical genius.
David Gilmour, who produced Barret’s second solo album, recounts Barret going in to the studio to record a solo for the song ‘Dominos’. Gilmour was surprised by just how awful the piece was. Barret told Gilmour to play it in reverse and Gilmour was amazed by how apt the solo was for the song.
After a failed attempt at starting another band, Barret simply built a wall between himself and society and became a hermit. This was how he lived the rest of his life. A young man who only recently was on top of the world, alone, psychotic and in self imposed exile.
At the bottom of a page of hand-written notes examining different psychologist’s works on the nature of sanity, Barret wrote a haunting sentence that paints a very dreary picture for the 30 plus years he spent trying to diagnose and treat himself:
All manic depressives therefore recover.
There is a story of Barret abruptly showing up at the studio when Pink Floyd were recording Wish You Were Here and Shine On You Crazy Diamond, both of which happen to be about Barret. At first, the band didn’t even recognise him. Barret was only 29 but looked 40. He was overweight and had shaved his head and eyebrows. It was a stark contrast from the sex symbol they used to know.
A few years later, Waters run into Barret buying junk food at a shopping centre. Barret dropped the bag and run out of the store. No one from Pink Floyd ever saw him again.
Despite been active within music for less than a decade, Barret’s work has influenced a number of other artists including Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Peter Townsed, Jimmy Page, Brian Eno, Blur and the Sex Pistols.