The sound of Pink Floyd, we all know it. Those sweeping instrumentations of highs and lows, those hypnotic and haunting vocals; the sound that truly epitomizes psychedelic rock.
It was the sound of Syd Barrett, the voice of arguably one of the most influential rock bands. Syd Barrett was born Roger Keith Barrett on Jan. 6, 1946 in Cambridge, England. In 1965, Barrett, along with Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Richard Wright, formed the band Pink Floyd. In 1967, the band released their first album, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” of which Barrett wrote nine of the 11 songs and was the lead singer.
After their first official release, the band continued to grow in popularity and they made their first tour of the U.S. in 1967. In late 1967 and early 1968, Barrett’s actions began to grow erratic and disruptive. While the band tried to accommodate his behavior—at the end of 1967 the group added David Gilmore to help play guitar and hoped Barrett could focus solely on singing—his actions began to impact the band during TV appearances and concerts. Their ability to even record in the studio also became difficult as Barrett played songs differently each time.
According to an article on Shizophrenia.com published following his death, one music magazine reported that he once stood on stage and played the same note for the entirety of the concert. Consequently, he was kicked out of the band. If the band wanted to move forward they would have to cut ties with one of their founding members. Barrett contributed to their second album, “A Saucerful of Secrets,” and few more singles, but that was it for the former frontman. Although he was only with the band for three years, his influence on the band would endure. Simply put, without him there would be no Pink Floyd.
At the time, his exit from the band, and soon thereafter, his exit from the music world on the whole, was labeled an “acid casualty.” Subsequently though, it has been largely agreed upon that Barrett actually began to exhibit the signs of mental illness, most likely schizophrenia. The use of drugs, however, could have played a role, as he may have had a genetic predisposition to mental illness and the heavy abuse of drugs, such as acid and cannabis, may have contributed to the onset of his illness.
Like most men who develop schizophrenia, Barrett began to exhibit symptoms, such as odd thoughts, bizarre actions, social withdrawal and ultimately psychosis, in his late teens and early 20s. On stage, Barrett may have exhibited symptoms including catatonia (e.g., such as playing one note for the entire concert).
While Roger Waters took over lead singing and songwriting duties for the band, they did not forget their founding member; the band’s 1975 album “Wish You Were Here,” paid tribute to Barrett. Specifically, the song “Shine On You Crazy Diamond:”
Remember when you were young,
you shone like the sun.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
Now there's a look in your eyes
like black holes in the sky.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
You were caught on the crossfire of
childhood and stardom,
blown on the steel breeze.
Come on you target for far away laughter,
come on you stranger, you legend, you martyr and shine!
Barrett’s musical career lasted barely seven years, but his influence on his band, and other bands, endured. His long lasting influence on musicians and artists continue to this day. His use of dissonance, distortion and other effects were incredibly innovative and influential. Artists such as Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend and David Bowie have all stated they were influenced by his work. As described in an article in the Guardian in 2006 shortly after his death, “[Syd Barrett] was the golden boy of the mind-melting late-60s psychedelic era, its brightest star and ultimately it’s most tragic victim.”