When Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett died of complications from diabetes aged 60 on 7 July 2006, he had been out of the public eye for 35 years. But during his dramatically brief career with Pink Floyd he forged a legend as one of the few authentic geniuses of British rock.
Born Roger Keith Barrett in Cambridge in 1946 into a comfortable middle-class household, he became one of the first artists to bridge rock and the avant-garde with Floyd’s debut album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.
David Bowie, who sang 1967 Floyd single Arnold Layne during David Gilmour’s 2006 London shows, was an admirer. “He was so charismatic and such a startlingly original songwriter,” says Bowie. “His impact on my thinking was enormous”.
It was while Syd was at school in Cambridge that he started learning the guitar. He played in a number of groups in that area from the age of 16 onwards, doing Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed numbers especially.
“Then I had to come up to London,” he said. “I didn’t mean to play forever; it was painting that brought me here to art school. I always enjoyed that much more than school, although it had nothing to do with the music. After three years in London, I started playing with the Pink Floyd.”
The group secured a recording contract with EMI and found chart success with their first two releases Arnold Layne and See Emily Play, both of them written by Barrett.
And it was at London’s first ‘psychedelic dungeon’ – a club called UFO – that the Floyd found their initial following among the early freaks when flower power was something very real to a lot of people.
However, the Floyd moved away from their starting place to tour Britain in the usual rounds of clubs and ballrooms. After their first album, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, and their third single, Apples And Oranges, had been released, the group made the now-customary trek around the United States.
Barrett’s whimsical, deliberately child-like songs hinted at the darkness behind the psychedelic dream. His increasingly bizarre behaviour soon showed signs of psychological disturbance, heightened by his heavy LSD intake.
Incapable of dealing with fame or touring commitments, he slipped quietly out of the band in 1968. He subsequently recorded two unsettlingly strange albums, The Madcap Laughs (1970) and Barrett .
During this period Syd lived quietly in his sparsely-furnished London flat among his stereo equipment, piles of paintings and a heap of battered LPs. He took things easily, composing, writing and painting as inspiration came, and making some plans for the future.
Recorded over just a few days, Madcap sounds hastily prepared, as implied on the false start to If It’s In You. Barrett’s guitar playing is patchy, and his voice often a tuneless wail. You can hear the rustle of lyric sheets being turned mid-song.
Yet the album’s Eastern-tinged melodies and eccentric English pop inspired a host of rock mystics, including Julian Cope.
There are moments of genius, naturally. Dark Globe, with its fabulous lyric and hammered waltz chords, is gripping, and Late Night, where gentle percussion checks Barrett’s excesses, features lovely slide guitar – played with a cigarette lighter. Elsewhere there is an eerie setting of excerpts of James Joyce’s poetry in Golden Hair, and the spontaneously catchy Here I Go.
Syd was pleasantly surprised to find The Madcap Laughs had sold well, especially as there was no great hype involved. “Yes, it’s quite nice,” he said in his soft-spoken manner that sometimes became so soft that he wasn’t talking to anything but his chin. “But I’d be very surprised if it did anything if I were to drop dead. I don’t think it would stand to be accepted as my last statement. I want to record my next LP before I go on to anything else and I’m writing for that at the moment.”
After 1974 Barrett became a recluse, returning to his Cambridge family home to paint pictures that nobody would ever see. In his absence, Barrett became a symbol of tortured brilliance cut short in his prime.
Pink Floyd repaid their debt in 1975’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond , a sentiment that Roger Waters reinforced in his tribute: “He leaves behind a body of work that is both very touching and very deep, and which will shine on forever”.
Depression, schizophrenia and other forms of mental trauma are forever misunderstood and misdiagnosed. Syd Barrett only gave us a few hours of intensely recorded creativity, but history affords him the contentment of a man who left his mark.