Pink Floyd, for a large proportion of their meteoric rise, were somewhat driven by the spirit of their brilliant ex-frontman, Syd Barrett. He was the first chapter of the band’s creative director, a visionary, and an incredible songwriter and guitarist whose fantastic imagination created a type of psychedelia that so many have tried and failed to imitate.
Although he passed away largely in recluse in 2006, Barrett’s life and short musical career is one of the most captivating to have ever occurred within the world of music.
One would argue that his work with Pink Floyd, namely the debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, is the most psychedelic record ever released. Funny, scary, surreal and fantastical, the genius of that record is that listening to it is akin to being on an actual hallucinogenic trip. Grandiose and meandering, it’s a journey full of many twists and turns. Its 41-minute run time is quite the experience, to say the least.
There’s no surprise why, as an audio experience, it is hailed as one of the most memorable ever released. Barrett’s artistry and clear genius were compounded by his overuse and experimentation with hallucinogens, and they doused his nursery rhyme like tales with a heavy load of lysergic acid akin to modern Lewis Carroll.
Although his drug use helped to create one of the most pivotal albums ever recorded, it also led to the swift decline in his mental health.
It was the ’60s, and the dangers of excess and what extensive LSD use could do to your brain were largely unknown. Nowadays, it’s a story we’re all too familiar with, but it wasn’t always the case. By the dawn of the ’70s, the danger a hedonistic lifestyle poses to health was heard loud and clear, even if many of the premier rockstars carried on.
By the end of 1970, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones and Janis Joplin had all passed away via misadventure, three of the counterculture’s biggest stars. Furthermore, the decline in mental states of Syd Barrett and Fleetwood Mac’s founder, Peter Green, had shown to audiences that one too many trips to the other dimension could leave an indelible imprint on the brain — and not a good one.
Barrett officially departed from Pink Floyd on April 6th, 1968. After he was ousted from the Floyd, he released a duo of underrated but nonetheless madcap solo albums in 1970 with Madcap Laughs and Barrett. Afterwards, he would then slowly embark on his trajectory to relative obscurity.
After stints in London hotels and fancy apartment blocks, Barrett ran out of money. From there, he retreated to his native Cambridge, where he shut himself off from his career as a musician and the outside world. Barrett would watch the band recording ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ – a song which happened to be about him – when he attendend Abbey Road Studios in 1975, and, apart from a brief encounter with Roger Waters a couple of years later at Harrods, that would be the last time any of the other Pink Floyd members ever saw of him.
Understandably, Barrett made a massive impact on Pink Floyd, which is why his spirit permeates all of their best work. A lot of their most celebrated creations from the ’70s are tributes to him; in fact, 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon and its follow up, 1975’s Wish You Were Here, arguably the band’s two best outings, explicitly discuss themes relating to Barrett.
One of the most notable instances is ‘Brain Damage’ from The Dark Side of the Moon. The song discusses the effects of mental illness and the way it can arise from elevating fame and all its trappings above the basic needs of the self. The line “and if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes” is a clear nod to Barrett’s mental breakdown.
It also alludes to the way that as he became increasingly distant, he’d play the wrong song on stage during his ‘episodes’ in his final days with the band. It was occurrences like this that led to his dismissal. The line, “You raise the blade / you make the change”, is also a direct reference to the ghastly concept of a lobotomy.
Drenched in the feelings relating to mental illness, lines such as “And if your head explodes with dark forebodings too / I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon” and “There’s someone in my head but it’s not me”, could not have been more autobiographical if they tried.
It’s iconic moments like this that show how Syd Barrett never truly left Pink Floyd, and without his influence, they wouldn’t have penned many of their most important songs.