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Syd Barrett Biography

Barrett was born at 60 Glisson Road in the English city of Cambridge to a middle-class family. His father, Arthur Max Barrett, was a prominent pathologist, and both he and his wife, Winifred, encouraged the young Roger (as he was known then) in his music. When Barrett was three years old, his family moved to 183 Hills Road. After his brothers and sisters left home, his mother rented out rooms to lodgers, including a future Prime Minister of Japan. Barrett acquired the nickname “Syd” at the age of 14, a reference to an old local Cambridge drummer, Sid Barrett. Syd Barrett changed the spelling in order to differentiate himself from his namesake. His father died of cancer on December 11, 1961, less than a month before Barrett’s 16th birthday. He attended Cambridgeshire High School for Boys, now known as Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge and enrolled in Camberwell art school in South London in 1964 before forming his first band in 1965. During this pre-Pink Floyd time he wrote such tunes as “Effervescing Elephant” to play at local parties.

Starting in 1964, the band that would become Pink Floyd underwent various line-up and name changes such as “The Abdabs”, “The Screaming Abdabs”, “Sigma 6” and “The Meggadeaths”. In 1965, Barrett joined them as “The Tea Set”, and when they found themselves playing a concert with a band of the same name, Barrett came up with the name “The Pink Floyd Sound” (later “The Pink Floyd”). He devised the name “Pink Floyd” by juxtaposing the first names of Pink Anderson and Floyd Council whom he had read about in a sleeve note by Paul Oliver for a 1962 Blind Boy Fuller LP (Philips BBL-7512): “Curley Weaver and Fred McMullen, (…) Pink Anderson or Floyd Councilā€”these were a few amongst the many blues singers that were to be heard in the rolling hills of the Piedmont, or meandering with the streams through the wooded valleys”.

While Pink Floyd began by playing cover versions of American R&B songs (in much the same vein as contemporaries The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and The Kinks), by 1966 they had carved out their own style of improvised rock and roll, which drew as much from improvised jazz as it did from British pop-rock, such as that championed by The Beatles. In that year, a new rock concert venue, the UFO, opened in London and quickly became a haven for British psychedelic music. Pink Floyd, the house band, was their most popular attraction, and, after making appearances at the rival Roundhouse, became the most popular musical group of the so-called “London Underground” psychedelic music scene.

By the end of 1966 Pink Floyd had gained a reliable management team in Andrew King and Peter Jenner. The duo soon befriended American expatriate Joe Boyd, who was making a name for himself as one of the more important entrepreneurs on the British music scene. Boyd produced a recording session for the group in January 1967 at Sound Techniques in Chelsea, which resulted in a demo of the single “Arnold Layne”. King and Jenner took the song to the recording behemoth EMI, who were impressed enough to offer the band a contract, under which they would be allowed to record an album. The band accepted. By the time the album was released, “Arnold Layne” had reached number 20 on the British singles charts (despite a ban by the BBC) and a follow-up single, “See Emily Play” had done even better, peaking at number 6.

These first two singles, as well as a third (“Apples and Oranges”), were written by Syd Barrett, who also was the principal visionary/author of their critically acclaimed 1967 debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The album’s title was taken from the mystical “Pan” chapter of The Wind in the Willows. Of the 11 songs on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Barrett wrote eight and co-wrote another two.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was recorded intermittently between January and July 1967 in Studio 2 at Abbey Road Studios. At that same time at Abbey Road the Beatles were recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in Studio 1 and the Pretty Things were recording S.F. Sorrow. When The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was released in August of that year, it became a smash hit in the UK, hitting #6 on the British album charts (the album was not nearly so successful in the USA). However, as the band began to attract a large fanbase, the pressures on Barrett contributed to his experiencing increasing psychiatric illness.

Barrett’s behaviour became increasingly unpredictable, partly as a consequence of frequent experimentation with psychedelic drugs such as LSD. Many report having seen him on stage with the group, strumming on one chord through the entire concert, or not playing at all. At a show at The Fillmore West in San Francisco, during a performance of “Interstellar Overdrive”, Barrett slowly detuned his guitar. The audience seemed to enjoy such antics, unaware of the rest of the band’s consternation. Before a performance in late 1967, Barrett apparently crushed Mandrax and an entire tube of Brylcreem into his hair, which subsequently melted down his face under the heat of the stage lighting, making him look like “a guttered candle”. Nick Mason later disputed the Mandrax portion of this story, stating that “Syd would never waste good mandies”.

Following a disastrous abridged tour of the United States, David Gilmour (a school friend of Barrett’s) was asked to join the band as a second guitarist to cover for Barrett as Barrett’s erratic behaviour prevented him from performing. For a handful of shows David played and sang while Barrett wandered around on stage, occasionally deigning to join in playing. The other band members soon tired of Barrett’s antics and, in January 1968, on the way to a show at Southampton University, the band elected not to pick Barrett up: One person in the car said, “Shall we pick Syd up?” and another person said, “Let’s not bother” (Gilmour interview in Guitar World – January 1995). They attempted to retain him in the group as a songwriter, much as The Beach Boys had with Brian Wilson, but this proved impossible.

There are many stories about Barrett’s bizarre and intermittently psychotic behaviour ā€” some are known to be true. According to Roger Waters, Barrett came into what was to be their last practice session with a new song he had dubbed “Have You Got It, Yet?”. The song seemed simple enough when he first presented it to his bandmates, but it soon became impossibly difficult to learn: while they were practising it, Barrett kept changing the arrangement. He would then play it again, with the arbitrary changes, and sing “Have you got it yet?”. Eventually they realised they never would and that they were simply bearing the brunt of Barrett’s idiosyncratic sense of humour.

Barrett did not contribute any material to the band after A Saucerful of Secrets was released in 1968. Of the songs he wrote for Pink Floyd after The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, only one (“Jugband Blues”) made it to the band’s second album; one became a less-than-successful single (“Apples and Oranges”), and two others (“Scream Thy Last Scream” and “Vegetable Man”) were never officially released. Barrett supposedly spent some time outside the recording studio, waiting to be invited in (he also showed up to a few gigs and glared at Gilmour). Barrett played slide guitar on “Remember a Day” (which had been recorded during the The Piper at the Gates of Dawn sessions) and also played on “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”. His main contribution to the album, “Jugband Blues,” is often seen by Pink Floyd fans as Barrett’s admission that his days in the band were probably numbered (“It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here/And I’m most obliged to you for making it clear/that I’m not here”, the song opens). In March 1968 it was officially announced that he was no longer a member of Pink Floyd.

After leaving Pink Floyd, Barrett distanced himself from the public eye. However, at the behest of EMI and Harvest Records, he did have a brief solo career, releasing two solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett. Much of the material on both albums dates from Barrett’s most productive period of songwriting, late 1966 to mid 1967, and it is believed that he wrote few new songs after he left Pink Floyd.

The first album, The Madcap Laughs, was recorded in two distinct sessions, both at Abbey Road Studios: a few tentative sessions took place between May and June 1968 (produced by Peter Jenner), while the bulk of the album was recorded between April and July 1969. The record was produced first by Malcolm Jones, a young EMI executive, and then by David Gilmour and Roger Waters. Jones states in his book “The Making of the Madcap Laughs” that “when Dave came to me and said that Syd wanted him and Roger to do the remaining parts of the album, I acquiesced.” A few tracks on the album feature overdubs by members of the band Soft Machine. Barrett also played guitar on the sessions for Soft Machine founder Kevin Ayers’ debut LP Joy of a Toy, although his performance on “Religious Experience” was not released until the album was reissued in 2003.

The second album, Barrett, was recorded more sporadically than the first, with sessions taking place between February and July 1970. This effort sounds more polished than the first, but Barrett was arguably in a worse state. The album was produced by David Gilmour and featured Gilmour on bass guitar, Rick Wright on keyboard and Humble Pie drummer Jerry Shirley.

Despite the numerous recording dates for his two solo albums, Barrett undertook very little musical activity between 1968 and 1972 outside the studio. On 24 February 1970, he appeared on John Peel’s BBC radio programme Top Gear playing five songs – only one of which had been previously released. Three would be re-recorded for the Barrett album, while the song “Two of a Kind” was a one-off performance (the song appears on the 2001 compilation The Best of Syd Barrett: Wouldn’t You Miss Me?) with the lyrics and composition having since been credited to Richard Wright. Barrett was accompanied on this session by David Gilmour and Jerry Shirley who played bass and percussion, respectively.

Gilmour and Shirley also backed Barrett for his one and only live concert during this period. The gig took place on 6 June 1970 at the Olympia Exhibition Hall, London, and was part of a Music and Fashion Festival. The trio performed four songs, playing for less than half an hour, and because of poor mixing, the vocals were inaudible until part-way through the last number. At the end of the fourth song, Barrett unexpectedly but politely put down his guitar and walked off the stage.

Barrett made one last appearance on BBC Radio, recording three songs at their studios on 16 February 1971. All three came from the Barrett album, and were presumably aired to encourage people to buy the record. After this session, he would take a hiatus from his music career that lasted more than a year, although in an extensive interview with Mick Rock and Rolling Stone in December, he discussed himself at length, showed off his new 12-string guitar, talked about his American tour with Jimi Hendrix, and stated that he was frustrated in terms of his musical work because of his inability to find anyone good to play with.

In 1972, Barrett formed a short-lived band called Stars with ex-Pink Fairies member Twink on drums and Jack Monck on bass. Though the band was initially well received, one of their gigs at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge proved to be disastrous (Monck describes just how disastrous it was in a TV interview in 2001 for the BBC Omnibus series documentary ‘Crazy Diamond’). A few days after this final show, Twink recalled that Barrett stopped him on the street, showed him a scathing review of the gig they had played, and quit on the spot.

In August 1974, Peter Jenner convinced Barrett to return to Abbey Road Studios in hope of recording another album. However, little became of the sessions, which lasted three days and consisted of blues rhythm tracks with tentative and disjointed guitar overdubs (the only titled track is “If You Go, Don’t Be Slow”). Once again, Barrett withdrew from the music industry. He sold the rights to his solo albums back to the record label, moved into a London hotel and when the money ran out he walked back to Cambridge to live in his mother’s basement. Further attempts to bring him back (including one endeavour by The Damned who wanted him to produce their second album) were all fruitless. Until his death, Barrett still received royalties from his work with Pink Floyd from each compilation and some of the live albums and singles that had featured his songs; Gilmour has commented that he (Gilmour) “[made] sure the money [got] to him all right”.

According to a 2005 profile by a recent biographer Tim Willis, Barrett, who had reverted to using his original name of Roger, continued to live in his late mother’s semi-detached home in Cambridge, and had returned to his original art-form of painting, creating large abstract canvases. He was also said to have been an avid gardener. His main point of contact with the outside world was his sister, Rosemary, who lived nearby. While reclusive, it was his physical health that prompted most concern, being afflicted with stomach ulcers and type 2 diabetes.

Although Barrett had not appeared or spoken in public since the mid-1970s, time did little to diminish interest in his life and work; reporters and fans still travelled to Cambridge to seek him out, despite his attempts to live a quiet life. Many photos of Barrett being annoyed by paparazzi when walking or biking, from the 1980s until his death in 2006, had been published in various media.

Apparently, Barrett was not happy being reminded about his past as a musician and the other members of Pink Floyd had no direct contact with him. However, he did go to his sister’s house in November 2001 to watch the BBC Omnibus documentary made about him ā€“ reportedly he found some of it “too noisy”, enjoyed seeing Mike Leonard (of Leonard’s Lodgers) again (who he called his ‘teacher’), and enjoyed hearing “See Emily Play” again.

His sister, Rosemary Breen, insists that Barrett neither suffered from mental illness nor received treatment for it at any time since they resumed regular contact in the 1980s. She allowed that he did spend some time in a private “home for lost souls” ā€” Greenwoods in Essex ā€” but claimed there was no formal therapy programme there. Some years later, Barrett apparently agreed to sessions with a psychiatrist at Fulbourn psychiatric hospital in Cambridge, but Breen claimed that neither medication nor therapy was considered appropriate in her brother’s case.

Barrett died on Friday 7 July 2006 at his home in Cambridge. He died of pancreatic cancer, but this was usually reported as “complications from diabetes.” The occupation on his death certificate was given as “retired musician.”

In 2006, his home, located in St. Margaret’s Square, was placed on the market and reportedly attracted considerable interest. After over 100 viewings, many by fans, his house was sold to a French couple who bought the house simply because they liked itā€”reportedly they knew nothing about Barrett. His other possessions were auctioned for Ā£120,000. NME produced a tribute issue to Barrett the week after with a photo of the songwriter on the cover.

According to a local Cambridge newspaper, Barrett left approximately Ā£1.25 million to his two brothers and two sisters. This income was apparently largely acquired via royalties from Pink Floyd compilations and live recordings to feature songs he had written whilst with the band.

A tribute concert was held at the Barbican Centre, London on 10 May 2007 with Robyn Hitchcock, Captain Sensible, Damon Albarn, Chrissie Hynde, Kevin Ayers and his Pink Floyd bandmates performing (albeit not on stage at the same time for the last).

The above article is courtesy of Wikipedia.

2 comments on the “Syd Barrett Biography” page

  1. September 7th, 2012 at 7:13 pm


    Eddie Arredondo

    Syd barrett amazing guy without him no pink floyd no dark side of the moon no wish yo
    u were here no pink floyd

  2. October 23rd, 2012 at 12:53 pm


    Austin Staab

    Shine on Syd.

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