Pink Floyd’s 1967 debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a cornerstone of sixties psychedelia. At its helm was the band’s co-founder, the mercurial Syd Barrett, who led the four-piece into unpredictable and frequently ingenious sonic territory, and even into the mainstream consciousness with two charting singles.
By the time The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was released in August of 1967, Pink Floyd were already at the forefront of the psychedelic rock movement. Still, the album consolidated the talents of Roger Waters, Nick Mason, Rick Wright, and Syd – their performative theatricality, their penchant for winding instrumental jams, and their attachment to whimsical British culture. It solidified Pink Floyd – and predominantly Syd – as generational talents.
Yet less than a year later, Syd was virtually ousted from the band, a decision made by the collective to protect the trajectory of Pink Floyd.
It’s doubtful they would have even been on that trajectory if it weren’t for Syd and his exploration of LSD. Ironically, it was LSD that both created and dismantled Syd’s career in music, and was the root of the severe decline in his mental health and ultimate self-destruction.
One of the first significant “acid casualties” of the era, Syd began experimenting with LSD heavily during the recording of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. By December of that same year, his behaviour became so erratic that the band brought in old friend David Gilmour for live performances for some much needed reliability.
Gilmour noticed a difference in Syd much earlier however, as he recalled in the 1991 biography, Crazy Diamond: Syd Barrett and the Dawn of Pink Floyd: “Syd didn’t seem to recognize me and just stared back,” he remembered after dropping in to the recording sessions for ‘See Emily Play’ in May. “I got to know that look pretty well and I’ll go on record as saying that was when he changed. It was a shock. He was a different person.”
Syd’s initial inspiration from LSD soon became an affliction. Gigs were cancelled citing his “nervous exhaustion”, he’d frequently detune his guitar on stage derailing live performances, and his catatonic staring at the hosts during appearances on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and The Pat Boone Show caused alarm. His public veneer was cracking.
Reaching crisis point, the band even suggested keeping Syd on as a non-performing member, in an attempt to continue harnessing his creativity. The result of which was ‘Have You Got It Yet?’, a song he intentionally fractured and disjointed throughout rehearsals to frustrate his perceived mutineers. For a gig in Southampton shortly after, the band didn’t bother picking him up.
Months later Syd was forced out of Pink Floyd. He went on to record his solo album, The Madcap Laughs, in 1970 with the help of his former bandmates. The album dazzled at times – notably the woozy ‘Terrapin’, a treacle-paced rock ‘n’ roll number muttered by someone foreshadowed by a strait-jacket – and there was clamour for his second album Barrett, though it took the best part of a year to pull together.
Legendary photographer Mick Rock befriended Syd around that time, becoming flatmates and creative collaborators. Rock would shoot the album artwork for The Madcap Laughs, and even interview Barrett for Rolling Stone magazine after his eventual return to his mum’s house in Cambridge.
There, after receiving a scathing review for his then-project Stars in 1972, Syd quit music entirely and went into a self-imposed exile. He became rock music’s most notorious and fabled recluse, spending the remainder of his life away from public life quietly tending to his garden, despite various photographers’ attempts to shame him on his doorstep.
His former Pink Floyd bandmates would see Syd again, though wouldn’t recognise him at first. He appeared at Abbey Road during the recording of 1975’s Wish You Were Here with a completely shaved head and several stone heavier than when they last saw him. Roger Waters reportedly cried once he identified who it was.
Syd died at his home on 7th July 2006 after battling pancreatic cancer.
Soon after, close friend Mick Rock discussed his prodigious talent and fragility with Entertainment Weekly: “He looked like a rock star and he had all the trimmings, but that isn’t really what he wanted to be. Syd turned into a ghost, which is a sad thing. But, on the other hand, if he hadn’t gotten out of the game, he almost certainly would have died, because he couldn’t deal with it.”
Countless icons like Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Blur, Marc Bolan, Pete Townshend, and Tangerine Dream have cited Syd as an influence in the years after his disappearance. Arguably his greatest influence of all was Pink Floyd’s ambitious progressive rock phenomenon The Dark Side Of The Moon and its follow-up Wish You Were Here, inspiring them both thematically, with both albums serving as his greatest tribute.
Syd’s crazy diamond shone brightly, and sadly faded far too soon. But his legacy in psychedelic music will forever remain at its fringes.