He will endure as one of the great pop-music What Ifs. What if Randy Rhoads had lived longer? Or Jimi Hendrix? Or Jim Morrison? Or Eddie Cochran? - what kind of music would they have gone on to create? The same can be asked of Syd Barrett; but instead of dying young, Syd Barrett lived... after a fashion.
Roger Keith 'Syd' Barrett was apparently a fairly normal music-loving kid when he packed off for art school in London in 1965. He had been in a few juvenile bands, playing mostly bass guitar, and made friends with some of the groups knocking around at the time and talking about forming their own outfit. A trio of fellows named Roger Waters, Rick Wright, and Nick Mason were keen to emulate their rhythm and blues heroes, and Barrett joined them; variously calling themselves such names as The Tea Set and the Screaming Abdabs, the group eventually settled on the name Pink Floyd (taking the first names of bluesmen Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, which they took of the liner notes of a Blind Boy Fuller album). The Floyd were similar to a lot of young London bands at that time, emulating their blues heroes and improvising as far as their talents would allow them; but, it being 1966, the musical strains wafting around London were beginning to take the flavor of a new youth sound - psychedelia.
Psychedelia was a fresh musical wave that year. The Beatles' Revolver came out that August, proving to be a turning point for the band away from their previously more bubblegum-pop sound toward something more mature; other groups such as the Grateful Dead in California were beginning to play in a more free-form style with longer instrumental solos and - for the guitarists - the increased use of the new electronic gear such as flangers, chorus pedals, and echo units. The music in part was an attempt to reproduce aurally the high one felt when experiencing the popular drugs of the time, especially LSD; the emergence of psychedelia happenend to coincide nicely with other social trends to become the adopted music of the emerging hippie culture. In America, the artists gathering in San Francisco would spell out the sound for American audiences; in England, the hip place was London, and the group that dripped psychedelia from every fingertip happened to be Pink Floyd.
Befitting the times, the Floyd didn't just make music; they made art, baby. A Pink Floyd show was as much a happening as a concert, a performance art spectacle. The band took extended instrumental solos - more extended than other bands tended to perform - punctuated by the latest in electronic gadgetry. While Pink Floyd had started out primarily as one of dozens of English white-boy blues bands (a milieu that would give rise to the Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, and the Stones, among others), Barrett's songwriting took things in another direction, infusing different sounds as well as a bit of humor. The group became an underground favorite, playing at top London clubs such as the Marquee and the UFO Club. By early 1967, the group managed to get a single on the British charts, "Arnold Layne" (about a transvestite), following this up with "See Emily Play." An appearance on Top of the Pops gave them greater exposure, and the album Piper at the Gates of Dawn was released.
Barrett had written both of the band's first two singles, as well as most of Piper; he was recognized as the band's leader and most creative member, both for his songwriting and his guitar playing (which, while not technically outstanding, was noted for its experimental and free-form nature). When Piper hit #6 on the British album charts, the Floyd found itself in demand, playing to increasingly larger houses and making more expensive business deals.
Unfortunately, Barrett was found to be not quite up to the task. While a lot of people were taking acid at the time - remember, this was 1967, the Summer of Love in the English-speaking world - Barrett was apparently highly susceptible to the drug's mind-altering effects. Whether the young Syd had already possessed a latent mental illness or simply took too much LSD, the young guitarist's behavior started becoming increasingly erratic. In live appearances he became completely withdrawn, strumming one chord throughout an entire song or refusing to lip-synch on television. An American tour was cut short, where the band returned to London and asked pal David Gilmour (who had reportedly taught Barrett to play guitar in the first place) to back-stop his instrumental duties. When it became apparent Syd could no longer be trusted to play onstage at all, they decided to keep him on for his songwriting skills.
After being officially fired from the group in 1968, Barrett went back to a more private life. Two solo albums, Barrett and The Madcap Laughs, were released in the early 1970's, but went nowhere; it is reckoned that much of the albums' material dated from his earlier time with the Floyd. Barrett made a few more public appearances as a musician during this time - accompanied by Gilmour - but soon withrew from the music scene all together. Barrett sold the rights to his solo material to his record companies and went home to live in his mother's basement.
In 1975 the remaining members of Pink Floyd were recording their newest album, Wish You Were Here, at Abbey Road Studios. It was the followup to their 1973 masterpiece Dark Side of the Moon, and continued the band's mature songwriting and experimentation with the soundscape. On a day in June, the group noticed a man with a shaved head (and eyebrows) hanging around the recording sessions, watching the proceedings; it was of course Syd Barrett, and it took the other band members some time to recognize him. (Roger Waters reportedly wept on seeing his friend's state.) It being David Gilmour's wedding day, the group became busy with their own festivities, and Barrett slipped out quietly. The song "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" from Wish You Were Here was, remarkably enough, about Syd and his slide into madness.
Barrett lived the rest of his life quietly at his mother's home in Cambridge, away from any spotlight that might have tried to seek him out. He enjoyed gardening and painting, and from all accounts lived a mildly pleasant existence. He lived on royalties from his earlier musical work, which the band had insisted on providing for him; but this was the only contact he would allow himself with his public past. His health deteriorated over time, however - as early as that day in 1975 he had been described as having gained a lot of weight - and he developed diabetes. He died at home on July 7, 2006.