Few bands have had good things to say about fired members. But in 1975, one of rock’s biggest acts recorded an album tribute to their departed frontman, Syd Barrett. Whether you chalk up Pink Floyd’s success on Wish You Were Here to their cloying bombast or to their earnest devotion to Barrett’s persona, a “crazy diamond” as they described it, the record went #1, while single-handedly invented brooding, anti-establishment rock.
It was more than 30 years after Wish You Were Here that Barrett died, but in 1975, the man was as good as dead. He founded Pink Floyd in 1965, only to retreat into reclusion with the onset of mental illness, later leading him to be unceremoniously drummed out of the band. After an abortive solo career, he left music, moved in with his mother, shaved his eyebrows, and spend his time painting and biking around Cambridge, all the while dodging fans desiring one look at the once-formidable genius.
Barrett was one of the most important figures in the transition British rock made from R&B into pop psychedelia in the ’60s. Pink Floyd’s debut, the lauded and truly bizarre The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, was perhaps the first record to synthesize bohemian outsider culture with the outsider culture of black musics of the time; it is a record which has rarely failed to affect listeners for nearly 40 years. “Bike” is an out-and-out tribute to the “proper madness” of Lewis Carroll, while “Interstellar Overdrive” is a composition that hints at knowledge of John Coltrane’s “anti-jazz”; a single, driving, descending lick leads into extensive, impenetrable improvisation, only to return with yet greater force
His erratic ways onstage and off lead the band to stop picking him up for gigs and recording sessions, and by 1968 he was no longer a member of the band. He recorded several albums, notably The Madcap Laughs, a minimalist walk through his own brand of creative mania and mental illness, before leaving music altogether in the mid-’70s. Though he spent time in mental institutions during the ’80s, it’s still unclear what mental illness, if any, he suffered from. His prodigious drug use, schizophrenia, Asperger’s Syndrome, and photosensitive epilepsy have all been said to blame by friends and doctors.
In his own time, he was a major influence on Paul McCartney’s interest in psychedelic music (Piper was in fact recorded at the same time as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), with Robyn Hitchcock’s Soft Boys. Even in the ’90s, Pavement’s disjointed slacker-rock, Guided By Voices’ lo-fi indie, and the Elephant 6 collective’s pop psychedelia all openly benefited from Barrett’s brief time as a musician.
Barrett died July 7, reportedly of complications of diabetes. He was 60.