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Syd Barrett: Behind The Pink Floyd Co-Founder’s Madcap Genius
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In Depth

Syd Barrett: Behind The Pink Floyd Co-Founder’s Madcap Genius

As the ‘seer of visions’ who summoned forth the acid rock era, Syd Barrett’s LSD-inspired psychedelia proved both a blessing and a curse…

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There have been few rock stars as enigmatic or as captivating as Syd Barrett. With his dark curly hair and his far-off gaze, the Pink Floyd co-founder dressed like a windswept enchanter from the pages of a long-lost fairy tale and wielded his mirrored Fender Esquire like a wand. What set Syd apart from others was that, beneath his paisley shirt, there beat the heart and soul of a poet, beholden to many age-old bohemian ideals – a love of art, beauty and wonder.

As the co-founder of Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett burst onto the 60s music scene, proving himself a highly original songwriter not just playfully adding numerous literary references to Pink Floyd’s songs, but also revolutionising how rock’n’roll could take you on a trip you’ll never forget. In doing so, Syd became an icon who would be similarly unforgettable, long after he’d exited the stage.

The story of Syd Barrett’s life – from his musically-inspired highs to his drug-related lows – has seen him mythologised as one of rock’s most famous acid casualties, alongside the likes of Peter Green and Brian Wilson, which tends to overshadow his achievements as a musician. This is unfortunate, as listening to Syd’s music reveals a truly unorthodox soul who embodied the transcendental power of psychedelic rock more than anybody else.

This “madcap” genius deserves to have the last laugh…

Hanging In My Infant Air: Birth And Childhood

Born in Cambridge, on 6 January 1946, Roger “Syd” Barrett enjoyed most of his childhood years with a love of drawing and poetry, inspired by the English countryside near the Gog Magog Hills – a land full of scarecrows and ancient oak trees. As a child, Barrett would read Cautionary Tales by Hilaire Belloc and Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame, drawn to a fantasy world of magic and anthropomorphic creatures.

Around this time, the young Roger was nicknamed “Syd”, due to a flat cap he wore during his time in the Boy Scouts, as many of his friends made humorous digs at his working-class attire. It wasn’t until Syd got his first guitar at 14 – a Hofner acoustic – that he started to add music to his creative interests. Tragically, his father died of cancer the following year, affecting Syd hugely and hurling him deeper into his own artistic pursuits.

In response to his father’s death, Syd channelled most of his energies into painting, though as a teenager in 1962 he played rhythm guitar in a band called Geoff Mott And Mottoes, performing covers of Bo Diddley and The Shadows songs. Like many 60s rockers, Barrett’s quest really only began after he left home and enrolled at art school, in 1964. Heading to London’s Camberwell College, Syd found himself inspired by artists like Mark Rothko and Robert Rauschenberg, mixing abstract expressionism with his own musical ambitions.

Action Brings Good Fortune: The Pink Floyd Sound

Despite his love of art, Syd continued to find himself drawn to music. He joined a band with his childhood friend Roger Waters, who at the time also happened to be studying in London at Regent Street Polytechnic, along with fellow-bandmates Richard Wright, Nick Mason and Bob Klose (who would eventually leave the group in 1965). Initially called The Tea Set, it was Syd who was credited with coming up with the band’s name – The Pink Floyd Sound – by combining the names of blues singers Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.

Beyond naming them, however, Syd’s musical influence was keenly felt from the offset. As their frontman, Syd’s pioneering use of the Binson Echorec delayed-echo device would eventually find favour in the nascent underground scene in Britain. By 1966, the group, now naming themselves Pink Floyd, began to play free-form jams inspired as much by jazz as they were by R&B and the blues, hosting elaborate light shows at London’s UFO Club and soundtracking them with groundbreaking and exploratory compositions such as Interstellar Overdrive.

Syd was an innovator and a true original. Though he lacked the virtuosity of other guitarists, he helped forge a new sound unlike anything heard before: a whirling cacophony of mesmerising noise which went down a storm with London’s counterculture movement. Pink Floyd’s impact was seismic – their visually dynamic light-box displays were unprecedented for their time, and their lengthy, noisy instrumentals struck a chord with gig-goers who were no strangers to tuning in and dropping out.

Distorted View: Pink Floyd’s Breakthrough

It wasn’t long before the mainstream caught on. Pink Floyd’s debut single, Arnold Layne, was released in March 1967 – a strange slice of English psychedelic pop about a man stealing women’s clothes from washing lines. The song peaked at No.20 in the UK, but at the time it was seen as a big departure from the band’s more abstract noodlings at The UFO Club. Nevertheless, it paved the way for Syd’s further ventures into absurdity and surrealism.

By mid-1967, inspired by his own experiments with LSD, Syd Barrett’s lyrical genius had already begun to blossom. Drawing upon his childhood fondness for literature and fairy tales, it was as if Syd was trying to hark back to when he would read bedtime stories to shield himself from the horrors of the world. Through his songs, he sought refuge in Edward Lear’s nonsense poetry; Lewis Carroll’s tales of Alice in Wonderland; the cautionary morality tales of Hilaire Belloc; and, of course, the antics of Mr Toad, of Toad Hall.

Like a gallop through the Beechwoods of his youth, the band’s next single, See Emily Play, was a feverish, otherworldly shanty for acid-trippers – a journey down a rabbit hole of Syd’s own making. Released in June 1967, it reached No.6 in the UK chart and led to Pink Floyd performing on Top Of The Pops for the first time. It’s hard to deny the song’s obvious LSD inspiration, with bizarre sound effects zipping their way through a whirlwind of hallucinogenic soundscapes. As experimental pop songs go, it remains a seminal oddity.

Lose Your Mind And Play: Finding Success

Cementing his role as the early Pink Floyd’s creative visionary, Syd Barrett named their debut album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, after a chapter in The Wind In The Willows. Released in August 1967, the album kicked off with Astronomy Domine, a fairly uncharacteristic foray into space-rock. Partly inspired by astronomy and the Dan Dare science fiction comics which inspired Syd as a youth, it also referenced William Shakespeare and Percy Bysse Shelly’s 1820 poem Prometheus Unbound, giving us a taste of Syd’s eclectic literary influences.

Taken as a whole, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn was a lyrical tour de force celebrating Syd Barrett’s regression into a world of child-like imagination. Lucifer Sam recalls Dick Whittington with his cat by his side – a paranoiac ditty alluding to a bad trip. The song Matilda Mother, once again, begins with nursery rhymes as its foundation, telling the story of a majestic king who once ruled the land. Meanwhile, the instrumental Pow R. Toc H. almost sounds like being lost in the dark unseen of a forbidden forest.

Time and time again, the fantastical stories Syd read as a young boy bubble to the surface in his lyrics, such as in Flaming, where he sings of sitting on a unicorn, or sleeping on a dandelion. And then, as if plucked from the pages of Denys Watkins-Pitchford’s The Little Grey Men, Syd tells the magical story of a gnome named Grimble Grumble, a song as evocative as JRR Tolkien’s peek into the Hobbit holes of Middle Earth.

Showcasing Syd at his most whimsical, Bike is a jolly homage to the time when he rode bicycles in Cambridge as a child, with the only difference being that in this song he is accompanied by an old mouse named Gerald and a clan of gingerbread men. The rural idyll of Syd’s upbringing is also evoked in The Scarecrow, who is brought to life but doomed to be tethered to a stick in the middle of the English countryside forevermore.

Lost In The Wood: The Mind Unravels

Syd Barrett wasn’t able to sustain this creative momentum for long. It’s been speculated his intake of LSD quickly evolved from providing him with inspiration to throwing his mind into complete disarray. While in Los Angeles during Pink Floyd’s tiresome first tour of the US, which took place in early November 1967, a vacant-eyed Syd detuned his guitar and rattled the strings noisily, staring blankly at his audience. To outside observers, it appeared as if Barrett was starting to go through a nervous breakdown.

To this day, it is by no means clear whether it was entirely the drugs that could be blamed for sending Syd tumbling over the edge. It is equally probable he was growing uncomfortable with the pressures of fame and behaved erratically as a result. In any case, as his psychological struggles threatened to wrench him further from his day-to-day reality, Syd’s interest in pop stardom started to wane.

Following Syd’s last single with the band, Apples And Oranges, the other members of Pink Floyd were understandably growing concerned about his mental well-being, recognising his unreliability and lack of focus. Syd’s songwriting contributions had begun to dwindle drastically, a situation the group attempted to remedy by inviting Barrett’s old schoolmate David Gilmour to join the band as a second guitarist.

By the end of 1967, perhaps aware his time with Pink Floyd was coming to an end, Syd Barrett recorded his last video with the group – a performance of Jugband Blues, the only song he wrote for their second album, 1968’s A Saucerful Of Secrets. As a window into Syd’s fragile psyche, Jugband Blues is a fascinating expression of a songwriting talent on the brink of collapse; a poetic musing of being painfully aware of one’s own mental fragility.

After Syd Barrett’s departure from the band was officially announced, in April 1968, his future as a songwriter looked extremely uncertain. Pink Floyd had gone on without him, and the former golden boy of psychedelia was cast adrift and unsure of his place in the music business. He made several half-hearted attempts to record demos without much success, but somehow, by the close of the decade, he had mustered enough songs to record a new album of his own. A Syd Barrett solo album was now on the cards.

Treading The Sand: The Solo Comeback

Heading to Abbey Road Studios with the production help of David Gilmour – the same man who had replaced him in Pink Floyd – Syd was coaxed into recording The Madcap Laughs, which was eventually released in January 1970. Gone was the airy-fairy psychedelia and production magic of The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, replaced instead with a more homespun, ramshackle brand of lo-fi folksiness. Despite some occasionally shambolic arrangements, many flashes of Syd’s lyrical genius can be heard throughout the album.

The Madcap Laughs’ lead single, Octopus, is Syd Barrett at his most lyrically ambitious. Taking its starting point from an octopus ride at an amusement park, the song is a helter-skelter of surrealism, with lyrical nods to everything from Mother Goose to John Clare’s poem Fairy Things. The rhythm on Octopus is also delightfully lopsided, twisting and turning throughout, matching Syd’s knack for clever wordplay.

Critical response to The Madcap Laughs was mixed. Today, many regard it as a minor masterpiece and the work of one of Britain’s true eccentric visionaries. Musically, however, Syd’s songs were brittle and at risk of collapsing in on themselves, largely due to his inability to keep in time with the rest of his backing band. It was during the making of this album that the cracks truly started to appear in Syd’s frame of mind.

Barrett’s creative insecurities and apparent lack of self-discipline meant that sessions for the album dragged on for many months. By recording fragments of material rather than fully-fledged songs, it left studio engineers with the difficult task of picking up the pieces, particularly as Syd was reluctant to repeat himself. Against all odds, however, once The Madcap Laughs was finished, Syd’s talent still shone.

The wonky music-hall of Love You and Here I Go showed the debt Syd Barrett owed to a peculiarly British sensibility. Golden Hair found him setting a piece of poetry by James Joyce to music: an achingly melancholic and sullen acoustic hymn containing all the unrequited love of Romeo pining for Juliet outside her window, or a handsome prince hoping Rapunzel throws down her hair. Perhaps most poignant is the song Dark Globe, which offers a prophetic vision of Syd’s self-imposed exile in later life, wondering if things would really be any different if he was gone for good (“Won’t you miss me?/Wouldn’t you miss me at all?”).

Minds Shot Together: The Follow-Up

In an effort to establish Syd Barrett as a folk singer-songwriter, he was invited back into the studio to record his second solo album, Barrett. Again produced by Dave Gilmour, this was a more polished effort, created with more focus and consideration than The Madcap Laughs. Released in November 1970, Barrett contained the likes of Baby Lemonade, a carnival-esque dose of longing like a lost soul at the circus (“In the sad town/Cold iron hands/Clap the party of clowns outside”).

Then there was the eerie Dominoes, a hauntingly plodding reflection in which Syd draws an analogy between playing dominoes on a rainy day with the idea of how people can be toppled by circumstance (“You and I are dominoes”). Finally, in a song that recalled Syd’s earlier 60s output, Effervescing Elephant was a funny Belloc pastiche with an odd brass arrangement demonstrating Syd’s darkly comic sense of humour.

As 1970 drew to a close, things took a tragic turn for Syd. He began to withdraw into himself once again, eventually giving a final interview in 1971 with Mick Rock for Rolling Stone magazine, saying: “I’m disappearing, avoiding most things. I’m treading the backward path.” That path ultimately led him back to his mother’s home in Cambridge, which is where – for the most part – Syd Barrett stayed for the rest of his life.

Make Your Name Like A Ghost: Syd Barrett Exits

Whilst in exile, Syd seemed reluctant to rekindle his interest in music. He did join a local band called Stars in 1972 but, following a negative gig review by Roy Hollingsworth in Melody Maker, Syd got cold feet and suddenly quit the group. Two years later, Syd returned to the studio and made a dispassionate attempt to record new material. After a few days, it became apparent he had written no lyrics, so he abruptly quit the recording sessions. He never made music again.

Around this time, the Pink Floyd founder reverted back to using his birth name, Roger, and returned to his first love of painting. Tragically, however, the psychological fallout of Barrett’s brush with celebrity cast a long shadow. He spent a period of time in a mental-health facility and was diagnosed with a personality disorder, suggesting schizophrenia was the root cause of Barrett’s troubles. With or without the effects of LSD, it is perhaps likely his nervous breakdown might have been unavoidable, no matter what career path he pursued.

As Pink Floyd went on to become hugely successful in their own right, David Gilmour ensured Barrett continued to receive royalties for the rest of his days. Despite cutting ties with the music business, Barrett continued to find himself harassed by fans and tabloid journalists at his home address. Preferring to live a solitary existence, his close family took care of him as he spent his time painting and making DIY furniture. On 7 July 2006, a year after Pink Floyd gave a touching tribute to their ex-frontman during their Live 8 reunion, Syd Barrett died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 60. It’s a shame he couldn’t have been afforded a more fairy tale ending.

You Shone Like The Sun: Syd’s Legacy

With Syd disappearing from the limelight in the early 70s, the music world lost a peerless talent. Not only could his influence be heard in many British musicians in his wake, but his absence also loomed large over the career of his former band. Roger Waters has continued to reference their lost frontman on iconic albums The Dark Side Of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, famously describing on the latter as a “crazy diamond” with eyes “like black holes in the sky”.

Interestingly, the last time Barrett’s former bandmates saw him was in 1975, when they were recording Wish You Were Here. For reasons unknown, Syd decided to drop in and visit them at Abbey Road. At first, they did not recognise him, as he had shaved his head and was now overweight. Ironically enough, that same album ended up being Pink Floyd’s tribute to Syd, prompted by how distraught they were by his slide into mental illness. Speaking of its title track, David Gilmour would later say: “I can’t sing it without thinking about Syd.”

Too much time has been wasted on speculating whether it was the drugs that led to Syd Barrett’s downfall. It’s the music that matters most, and whether you wish to see Syd’s decline as a cautionary tale or not, the songs he left behind are a time capsule of mind-mangling originality, and music fans owe much to his unique contributions. Syd Barrett might have shone brightly and briefly, but, through his songs, we can only hope the crazy diamond’s musical legacy will shine on forever.

Find out which decade-defining Pink Floyd album cover made out list of the ten best 70s album covers

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