Syd Barrett Biography

Roger Keith Barrett, 6 January 1946, Cambridge, England, d. 7 July 2006, Cambridge, England. One of English pop’s most enigmatic talents, Barrett embraced music in the early 60s as a member of Geoff Mutt and the Mottoes, a local group modelled on Cliff Richard And The Shadows. He acquired his ‘Syd’ sobriquet while attending Cambridge High School (a misspelt reference to local drummer Sid Barrett), where his friends included Roger Waters and David Gilmour. Gilmour joined Barrett on a busking tour of Europe where their folk-based repertoire was peppered with songs by the Rolling Stones. Barrett then took up a place at London’s Camberwell School Of Art, alternating his studies with a spell in an aspiring R&B act, the Hollering Blues. Waters, a student of architecture at Regent Street Polytechnic, had meanwhile formed his own group, at that point dubbed the (Screaming) Abdabs. In 1965 he invited Barrett to join his group, which took the name the Pink Floyd Sound, at Syd’s suggestion, from an album featuring Georgia blues musicians Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. Having dropped their now-superfluous suffix, Pink Floyd became a linchpin of London’s nascent ‘underground’ scene. Barrett emerged as their principal songwriter and undisputed leader, composing their early hit singles, ‘Arnold Layne’ and ‘See Emily Play’ (both 1967), as well as the bulk of The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.

Barrett’s child like, often naïve compositional style was offset by his highly original playing style. An impulsive, impressionistic guitarist, his unconventional use of feedback, slide and echo did much to transfer the mystery and imagery of Pink Floyd’s live sound into a studio equivalent. However, the strain of his position proved too great for a psyche dogged by instability and an indulgence in hallucinogenic drugs. The band’s brilliant, but erratic, third single, ‘Apples And Oranges’, reflected Barrett’s disintegrating mental state. During a 1967 US tour he refused to mime on Dick Clark’sinfluential television show, American Bandstand - ‘Syd wasn’t into moving his lips that day’ - and, on a corresponding programme, Pat Boone’s vacuous repartee was greeted by stony silence. Dave Gilmour was drafted into the line-up in February 1968, prompting suggestions that Barrett would retire from live work and concentrate solely on songwriting. This plan did not come to fruition and Barrett’s departure from Pink Floyd was announced the following April. The harrowing ‘Jugband Blues’ on Saucerful Of Secrets was his epitaph to this period.

Within a month Barrett had repaired to the Abbey Road studios to begin a solo album. Work continued apace until July, but sessions were then suspended until April 1969 when, with Malcolm Jones as producer, Barrett opted to begin work anew. Several tracks were completed with the aid of Willie Wilson, former bass player with an early Gilmour group, Joker’s Wild, and Humble Pie drummer, Jerry Shirley. On one selection, ‘No Use Trying’, Barrett was supported by the Soft Machine - Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper and Robert Wyatt. Dave Gilmour had been taking a keen interest in the sessions. In June he suggested that he and Waters should also produce some tracks, and the rest of the album was completed in three days. These particular recordings were left largely unadorned, adding poignancy to already haunting material. The resultant set, The Madcap Laughs, was an artistic triumph, on which Barrett’s fragile vocals and delicate melodies created a hypnotic, ethereal atmosphere. It contained some of his finest performances, notably ‘Octopus’, which was issued as a single, and ‘Golden Hair’, a poem from James Joyce’s Chamber Music set to a moving refrain.

In January 1970, Barrett began recording a second album, again with Gilmour as producer. Sessions continued intermittently until July, wherein the ‘best’ take, featuring Barrett on guitar and vocals, was overdubbed by a combo of Gilmour, Shirley and Pink Floyd keyboard player, Rick Wright. Released in November that year, housed in a sleeve sporting a Barrett painting, Barrett was largely more assertive, but less poignant, than its predecessor. It did include the chilling ‘Rats’, one of the singer’s most vitriolic performances, but Gilmour later recalled that Barrett seemed less prepared for recording than before: ‘He’d search around and eventually work something out.’

Barrett then completed a session for BBC Radio 1’s ‘Sounds Of The Seventies’, but despite declaring himself ‘totally together’ in an interview for Rolling Stone (December 1971), in truth he was slipping into the life of a recluse. The following year he did put together a group with bass player Jack Monk (ex-Delivery) and former Pink Fairies / Pretty Things drummer Twink. They supported Eddie ‘Guitar’ Burns at King’s College Cellar in Cambridge and, although reportedly ‘chaotic’, the same group, now dubbed Stars, subsequently shared a bill with the MC5 at the nearby Corn Exchange. Barrett failed to surface for their next proposed date and ensuing shows were cancelled. He remained the subject of interest and speculation, but a disastrous attempt at recording, undertaken in September 1974, suggested that the artist’s once-bright muse had completely deserted him. He gained a high profile when Pink Floyd included a tribute - ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ on their bestselling Wish You Were Here (1975), but Barrett’s precarious mental state precluded any further involvement in music.

Opel, a 1988 release comprising unissued masters and alternate takes, enhanced his reputation for startling, original work, as evinced by the affecting title track, bafflingly omitted from The Madcap Laughs. Barrett, by now living back in Cambridge with his mother, pronounced his approval of the project. Although he suffered from diabetes, rumours of Barrett’s ill health tended to be exaggerated over the years. He simply lived a quiet life, gardening and painting, and preferred to forget his past musical career. The number of tributes that poured in from fellow performers following Barrett’s passing in July 2006 was a testament to the timeless influence of his songwriting.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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