Roger Keith Barrett – the nickname “Syd” first appeared when he was around 14 – was one of the true geniuses of British rock music. Born in Cambridge in 1948, he met his future Pink Floyd bandmate Roger Waters while still at primary school, while David Gilmour was a teenage friend. The talented product of a musical family, young Syd – a fan of jazz and obscure blues – was an accomplished piano player, guitarist, artist and poet even before he moved to London to attend Camberwell Art College. When Roger’s band Sigma 6, which already featured Richard Wright and Nick Mason, suddenly lost two members, Syd joined up immediately and by the summer of 1965 they were known as The Pink Floyd, a name conjured up by Syd and inspired by American blues artists Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.
As 1965 became 1966, the fast-developing UK psychedelic music scene gave this new band the chance to develop Syd’s performance-based ideas into something truly unique and by late 1966 Pink Floyd were the biggest underground band in the land. They signed to EMI Records in February 1967 (for an advance of £5000), releasing the brilliant singles Arnold Layne and See Emily Play – both written by Syd – and followed that up with the Piper At The Gates Of Dawn LP – again, mostly composed by Syd – which has long been recognised as one of the greatest ever British psychedelic albums. However, as the band’s fan base grew and grew, it became clear that Syd’s own approach to writing, performing and recording – favouring the spontaneous over the rehearsed – was increasingly at odds with the expectations of a musical scene that was still very conservative, especially outside the Pink Floyd’s London base.
Possibly exacerbated by Syd’s frequent experimentation with psychedelic drugs, his behaviour became more erratic. Pink Floyd decided to add a second guitarist for live performances, the idea was that Syd’s compositional genius would survive in the studio, while David Gilmour would step-up for the live shows – but this well-meaning experiment didn’t work and, in January 1968, after a handful of shows as a five-piece, the band chose not to pick Syd up on the way to a Southampton University show. Two months later, he was no longer a member of Pink Floyd.
In April 1969 EMI’s new Harvest label commissioned a solo Syd LP and The Madcap Laughs, featuring both Gilmour and Waters, was released in January 1970. The album was well received and sold reasonably, so a follow-up was called for straight away and in late February 1970, with David Gilmour as producer, Richard Wright on keyboards and Humble Pie’s Jerry Shirley on drums, the album Barrett was begun. Released in November that year, it would be the last official Syd Barrett album. Both albums were popular on American FM Radio in the mid-70s, but by August 1974 Syd had withdrawn entirely from the music industry and returned home to Cambridge where he spent his time painting, creating large abstract canvases.
Roger “Syd” Barrett died of pancreatic cancer in July 2006 and a tribute concert was held at London’s Barbican Theatre the following summer. Curated by Nick Laird-Clowes it featured Joe Boyd, Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Richard Wright and Nick Mason, Damon Albarn, Captain Sensible, Robyn Hitchcock, Chrissie Hynde, John Paul Jones and more. His endlessly striking creations had, over 40 years, developed a life and a following of their own. As early as 1976, bands like the Sex Pistols and The Damned had been talking about Syd’s influence – indeed, both tried to get him to produce their debut albums. Later David Bowie, R.E.M., Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam and Primal Scream covered his songs, while Echo & the Bunnymen, The Smiths’ Johnny Marr and, most famously, Blur took their love of Syd’s music onwards to whole new generations. And now Syd’s uniquely wonderful music is available on Spotify. Explore it, love it, share it – there’s a whole world to discover here.