AKA Roger Keith Barrett
Birthplace: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England
Location of death: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England
Cause of death: Diabetes complications
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Executive summary: Pink Floyd
A key figure in the development of London's underground music scene during the late 1960s and -- despite his rather brief period of activity -- a continuing influence on popular (and unpopular) music onward into the 21st century, Syd Barrett also has the unfortunate distinction of being one of rock music's early drug casualties. His combined talents for eccentric pop songwriting and bold sonic exploration insured his rapid rise to fame and enduring legacy, but the equally rapid decent into chemically-induced mental illness sadly leaves us with the never-to-be-answered question of what Barrett would have accomplished had circumstances allowed him to achieve his full potential as a musician.
Roger Keith Barrett was born in the university town of Cambridge at the start of 1946, the fifth and youngest child of pathologist Arthur Barrett and his wife Winifred. Roger displayed a talent for music early in his life, and with the encouragement of both of his parents was already playing ukulele, piano and banjo by the time he took up the guitar in his early teens. The death of his father when Roger was only 12 traumatized him profoundly, yet he remained a creative and energetic child, exploring not only music but writing, acting and painting as well. At the age of 15 he earned the nickname "Syd", just one year prior to joining his first band Geoff Mott & The Mottoes in 1962. Involvement with the band Those Without as well as an irregular membership in Chris Ian & The Newcomers followed the next year -- the latter being the first occasion that Syd would share guitar duties with schoolmate David Gilmour.
More serious about pursuing a career as a painter than as a musician during this early period, Barrett enrolled at Camberwell Art School in 1964, eventually moving into a flat in London owned by architect and sound/lighting technician Mike Leonard which he shared with childhood friend Roger Waters and fellow aspiring musicians Nick Mason and Bob Klose. His musical activity continued throughout his art studies, however, and after a brief stint with The Hollin' Blues he was brought into his flatmates' band The T-Set (also including keyboard player Rick Wright) later on in the year. Previously known as The Abdabs and a variety of other names, the band then became The Pink Floyd Sound, a name Syd had concocted by combining the names of obscure country blues singers Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. This was eventually shortened to The Pink Floyd, and later simply Pink Floyd.
Although Pink Floyd began its existence as just another straightforward blues band, following the departure of Klose in 1965 the group moved in a more adventurous direction, Syd's fanciful lyrics and unconventional guitar technique placing them at the front of the burgeoning psychedelic music scene. At this time Syd found himself in the role of lead vocalist, lead guitarist and primary songwriter, and for the next several years he served as the focal point for the band's activities. Peformances at the UFO Club, the Roundhouse and the Marquee Club quickly established a large following for the Floyd in London, as well as attracting the interest of underground music organizers Peter Jenner and Andrew King; the two signed on as managers immediately after witnessing one of the band's early London performances, and arranged a record deal with EMI soon afterwards.
Pink Floyd's first release on the label was the Barrett-penned single Arnold Layne b/w Candy and a Currant Bun, the A-side having been recorded with producer Joe Boyd a month prior to their signing. Released in early 1967, the song found its way up to the #20 position on the British charts, earning the band a pop audience entirely separate from the crowds that been coming to watch the less-accessible, free-form explorations of their live shows. A regular schedule of performances and television appearances in support of record continued into the summer months, punctuated by large-scale events such as The 14 Hour Technicolour Dream (staged at the Alexandra Palace on April 29th to benefit the underground paper The International Times) and Games For May (staged at the Queen Elizabeth hall on May 12th, featuring multiple projections and a rudimentary form of quadraphonic sound). The second single See Emily Play b/w Scarecrow (both sides again written by Barrett) was released in June and made an even stronger showing, climbing as high as #6 and remaining in the charts for a longer period.
In the midst of this growing success Syd's behavior had already become problematic, leaving his bandmates unsure of how (or even if) their lead performer would participate in live or television appearances. His comsumption of LSD (and Mandrax and whatever other mind-altering substances he could obtain) had reached alarming proportions by this time, resulting in a mental breakdown sometime in May of 1967. The most dramatic change in his personality became evident after the guitarist failed to arrived at a Radio 1 recording session: located several days later, the usually energetic performer had become withdrawn and unresponsive. During the Floyd's next appearance at the UFO Club, Barrett remained immobile for most of the show, occasionally strumming his guitar at random intervals.
Pink Floyd's first full-length album arrived in August of 1967, 10 of its 12 tracks either written or co-written by Barrett. The material struck a balance somewhere between the abstractions of their live act (Astronomy Domine) and the pop sensibilities of their singles (Bike), while still proving accessible enough to find a place at the #6 chart position. This would be the last album involving Syd's full participation. The critical point was reached in October during the band's first tour of the States: the guitarist's behavior was so erratic that the tour had to be cancelled after only days. Mimed appearances on American Bandstand and The Pat Boone Show were given the full "vegetable man" unresponsive treatment, while a performance at the Fillmore West featured Barrett arrhythmically strumming his detuned guitar. A third Barrett-written single Apples and Oranges was issued in November but not at all well-received, giving the band the first of its releases that failed entirely to chart; the track originally intended for use, Scream Your Last Scream, was rejected by EMI and subsequently shelved.
After a frustrating tour back in the UK on a bill that also included Jimi Hendrix, Amen Corner and The Move, Waters invited old Cambridge schoolmate David Gilmour to assume guitar duties in January of 1968; Barrett was not immediately ejected from the line-up, however, and so for a brief time Pink Floyd endured as a quintet. His inclusion in the band finally came to an end partway into the recording of their second album A Saucerful of Secrets (1968), only three of whose seven tracks featured Barrett's input and only one of which (Jugband Blues) had been written by him. His stubborn lack of participation during live shows ultimately exasporated his bandmates, prompting the spontaneous decision on the way to a mid-January show that they should simply not bring him along. Thus ended Syd's membership in the band he had named and led to national success.
The remainder of the year was aimless and mostly unproductive for Barrett. Meanwhile, Pink Floyd's performance schedule continued without his participation -- sometimes with their former bandleader in attendance, and on one occasion with him even turning up with his guitar and expecting to play. He meandered back and forth between his mother's home in Cambridge and various temporary residences in London before settling for a while into an apartment in Earl's Court with pop artist Dougie Fields, his possessions limited to a shabby mattress, a stereo, his guitar and pile of his old paintings. Recordings for a solo album were undertaken at Abbey Road in May of 1968 at the urging of manager Peter Jenner, with Jenner himself acting as producer; the sessions were abandoned after a second attempt in June, however, and the album remained in limbo for nearly a year. New sessions were launched with some success under the direction of Malcolm Jones in April 1969, but it was not until after Gilmour and Waters stepped in as producers the following month that the project was completed -- Syd's solo debut The Madcap Laughs finally materializing in January of 1970, two full years after his parting of ways with Pink Floyd.
Work on Barrett's second solo effort was initiated at the end of February, a few days after recording a Top Gear radio session showcasing some of his new material; this time Gilmour and Wright assumed production duties, as well as serving as his backing band along with Humble Pie drummer Jerry Shirley. Progress on the album was made in sporadic fits over the next five months. A relatively productive environment was maintained despite the continuing unpredictability of Barrett's behavior, however, and by November the album Barrett had been completed and released. That June, a month prior to the end of the recording sessions, the sole Syd Barrett live set was arranged at the Olympia Exhibition Hall in London: backed by Gilmour and Shirley, the singer only performed four songs before calmly setting down his guitar and making an unexpected exit from the stage.
Public response was considerably more restrained for Barrett than had been the case for the previous album, and Syd himself seemed no longer to have much interest in continuing his music career. After recording a three-song BBC Radio session in February 1971, he distanced himself from the industry for the remainder of the year, taking up residence for a time in his mother's basement back in Cambridge. In 1972 a half-hearted effort was made to launch the new group Stars with The Pink Fairies' former drummer Twink and ex-Delivery bassist Jack Monck, but this yielded only one live performance (once again cut short by one of Barrett's premature exits); with the exception of a brief attempt to record some new material in 1974, this incomplete performance would be the final public musical statement of Syd Barrett.
The last direct contact Barrett would have with the other members of Pink Floyd took place in June of 1975 -- ironically, during a recording session for Shine On You Crazy Diamond, a song whose lyrics were specifically about his mental collapse. Now considerably overweight, with head and eyebrows shaven (and apparently jumping up and down while brushing his teeth), Syd had turned up at the studio unannounced, his altered appearance initially preventing his former bandmates from recognizing him. The eventual realization of his identity came as a profound shock, bringing Waters in particular to tears. A return to Cambridge was made not long after this incident, where he discontinued use of the nickname "Syd" and deliberately isolated himself from any reminders of his life as a pop star. Attempts by the punk bands The Sex Pistols and The Damned to lure him back into action as a producer in 1977 were ignored.
For the majority of the next two decades Barrett remained in the care of his mother, moving back to London for only a few weeks in 1982 before once again returning home. He later submitted to treatment at Fulbourne psychiatric hospital at the urging of his family, continuing for a while as an outpatient after a short period of institutionalization. Following the death of his mother in 1991 he kept himself secluded in her house, pursuing his interests in painting and gardening and eschewing the company of anyone except his sister Rosemary. His own death from complications arising from type-II diabetes took place in July of 2006 at the age of 60.
Father: Arthur Max Barrett (d. 1958)
Mother: Winifred Flack-Barrett (d. 1991)
Sister: Rosemary Breen
Girlfriend: Libby Chisman (ex)
Girlfriend: Lindsay Corner (ex)
Girlfriend: Gala Pinion (ex)
High School: Cambridge High School For Boys
University: Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology
University: Camberwell Art School (1964)
Pink Floyd Guitarist/Vocalist (1965-68)
Nervous Breakdown May-1967
Risk Factors: Diabetes, Schizophrenia, Obesity, LSD
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