The story of Syd Barrett is one that is soaked in tragedy, without him then who knows what would become of Pink Floyd. That said, it’s a safe assumption that their wild career would never have come to fruition if it wasn’t for his brilliance. Barrett was a lost soul who, like so many of us, sought solace in music. Initially, the stage was his vice of preference, but addiction would rear its ugly head and cripple his creativity. It left him a shell of the man who created The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and there was nobody who felt more aggrieved by his decline than his former bandmates.
Band members became distant from Barrett even before he departed from the group. Even by their admissions, Pink Floyd didn’t know how to guide him out of this darkness. “I’m very sad about Syd, [though] I wasn’t for years,” Roger Waters openly said in 1975. “For years, I suppose he was a threat because of all that bollocks written about him and us. Of course, he was very important, and the band would never have fucking started without him because he was writing all the material. It couldn’t have happened without him, but on the other hand, it couldn’t have gone on with him.”
The way in which Pink Floyd dealt with not only the loss of a bandmate and dear friend was through their natural medium of music. The first time that they talked about the deterioration of their relationship with their former brother in arms came in 1973, on ‘Brain Damage’ from The Dark Side Of The Moon. The line in the track, “And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes” is a direct reference to Barrett. During his dying days with the group, his bandmates had reluctantly grown accustomed to him playing the wrong songs during their live shows, and their inability to rely on him led to his departure from the group.
They then turned their attention to Syd once again the following year, on the track ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’. What makes this track the most famous on the list is that Barrett bizarrely visited the band out of the blue whilst they were in the studio working on the song. Syd had left the music industry for good by this point, choosing instead to live out of a London hotel. Having cut out contact with his former bandmates, his arrival at the recording studio left them rippled with shock; the man stood in front of them was a far cry from the Syd they once knew.
The day that Barrett arrived at Floyd’s studio on that June evening he was a completely different entity to the one they had last seen a few years previously. The musician had become bloated and, even though he was physically there in the studio, mentally, he was not.
Pink Floyd was initially bewildered by his arrival, assuming he must be a member of the crew and it took a while before Gilmour eventually identified him as their former bandmate. Waters, it is said, immediately broke down in tears after seeing what Barrett had become. That June morning also happened to be Gilmour’s wedding day, so Barrett wandered into the guitarist’s reception at EMI but then left without telling anyone, disappearing in a similarly strange fashion as he’d arrived.
The final track that Pink Floyd wrote about Barrett was from the post-Waters era of the group and saw Dave Gilmour lay his heart on the line about his former bandmate. ‘High Hopes’ featured on Floyd’s penultimate album, The Division Bell, in 1994. The track sees Gilmour autobiographical reminisce upon the early days of the group and their humble Cambridgeshire beginnings. He poignantly sings: “The grass was greener, the light was brighter, when friends surrounded, the nights of wonder.”
As the years have gone on, the remaining members of Pink Floyd have been openly regretful about their treatment of how they treated Syd following his departure. Nick Mason confessed to Uncut: “I maintain that we looked after Syd very badly – but we didn’t know any better. There’s still the belief that it was LSD damage, but it could have been perfectly straightforward, that he wanted to be an artist and not a pop star.”
The late Syd Barrett remains one of the great travesties of rock music, and, tragically, one of the purest talents who was the mastermind behind the formation of the band never got to have the fruitful career that his talent warranted. Despite how things ended between Floyd and Barrett, these songs show that they did deeply care about him — even if they were unable to help him.