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The critical influence of Syd Barrett on David Bowie

Few musicians leave behind a legacy that is as influential and mysterious as the late Syd Barrett. Born in Cambridge, England in 1946 to a comfortable middle-class background, he was the youngest of five children, and his artistic output was always encouraged by his parents. This would stand him in good stead, as the future frontman of Pink Floyd would go on to define psychedelic rock through the mediums of LSD, science fiction and fantasy. 

A complex individual, Barrett departed from Pink Floyd in April 1968 following a deterioration in his mental state, something that had increasingly isolated the frontman from the band members and impeded their live performances. He would be replaced by old friend David Gilmour, who was initially hired as an emergency backup in the case that Barrett’s decline continued. David Gilmour’s accession in the band would truly set them on their way to becoming the cerebral pioneers that we all know today.

However, the departure of Barrett, his retreat into almost solitary confinement, and the quality of his work in the early stages of Pink Floyd’s career etched him into music history forever, whether he was fully aware of it or not. He embodied duality. Madcap but brilliant, Barrett became one of the earliest examples of the dangers of drug abuse and the need for discussion of and support for mental health. Back then, the dangers of repeated LSD use were largely unknown, and mental health struggles were oft brushed under the carpet.

So in this sense, Barrett was as much a product of his background as he was his time. However, the most significant point of his life was his artistic quality. This is – and should be – the first and foremost point that is considered when discussing Pink Floyd’s first frontman. His artistic output was incredible, particularly given that it was over such a short time. He practically wrote Pink Floyd’s 1967 debut on his own, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Even today, the album is a magnificent journey through space and time – an enduring psychedelic testament to his genius.

Given his declining mental and physical state, his contribution to the follow up was less pronounced. 1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets, a fantastic sonic adventure in its own right, is now characterised as the album that marked the end of the Syd Barrett era. Closing track ‘Jugband Blues’ has widely been marked out as a valedictory offering from Barrett to the band and their fans.

His work wouldn’t completely stop after his departure. He embarked on a brief solo career, marked with the release of ‘Octopus’ in 1969. Although a little unhinged and thematically darker than his Pink Floyd work, which is understandable, Barrett followed suit with two albums in 1970, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett. Recorded with the aid of Floyd’s David Gilmour and Roger Waters, it is clear that Barrett’s wellness would continue to be at the forefront of Pink Floyd’s collective imagination long after he left the band. 

Barrett had a huge influence on many artists. (Credit: Syd Barrett)

Barrett influenced many of the themes inherent to the band’s 1973 magnum opus, The Dark Side of the Moon. Famously, it is an album concerned with mental health suffering owing to the many pressures of life. Much of this was inspired by Barrett’s decline, as in 1972, he left the music industry altogether and retired from public life. He was rarely seen again up until his death in 2006.

Barrett would continue with art, just on a personal level. He dedicated himself to painting, photography and gardening. His most famous venture into the outside world came in 1975 when he visited the band at Abbey Road Studios during the sessions for Wish You Were Here. The irony was that the band didn’t even recognise their old friend as he had put on considerable weight and shaven his hair and eyebrows off. Furthermore, this visit came when the band were working on ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, a song about the man himself. When asked by Waters what he thought of the song, Barrett opined that it sounded “a bit old”.

However, it wasn’t just his old peers that Barrett had an indelible mark on. Countless musicians have discussed their love for Barrett, during his life and after his passing. These include the likes of Kevin Ayers, Marc Bolan, Brian Eno, and Blur, to name but a few of a quite frankly dizzying list. 

However, there was another who Syd Barret left a critical mark on. Who else, but the equally as madcap and cerebral, David Bowie? In 2006, following Barrett’s death, Bowie told Uncut of the mark that witnessing him perform had on left. Bowie admitted: “I can’t tell you how sad I feel. Syd was a major inspiration for me. The few times I saw him perform in London at UFO and the Marquee clubs during the ’60s will forever be etched in my mind.”

The late starman continued: “He was so charismatic and such a startlingly original songwriter. Also, along with Anthony Newley, he was the first guy I’d heard to sing pop or rock with a British accent. His impact on my thinking was enormous. A major regret is that I never got to know him. A diamond indeed.” 

Who’d have thought it that the snotty British accent that Bowie sang with during the 1960s and ’70s would be inspired by Syd Barrett? Given that by 1973, Bowie’s career would briefly go off in an equally as complex subconscious journey, examining the effects of drug use and fame on his mental health on Aladdin Sane, it comes as no surprise that Barrett permeated Bowie’s work. A true maverick in life and death, Barrett will continue to live on in the works of others. The same can be said for David Bowie.

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