Yesterday marked the 10th anniversary since the death of the legendary former Pink Floyd singer and guitarist Syd Barrett. Barrett fronted Pink Floyd from their inception in 1965 but left the band just three years later after battling severe drug and mental health issues. The singer would then go on to record two startling solo albums, before he turned his back on music for good. The subject of Pink Floyd’s 1975 record Wish You Were Here then became a recluse and a part-time painter until he died at the age of 60 years old. Despite what was a relatively short career though, Barrett is still discussed and viewed today as a major influence on what would follow on from the 60s psychedelic explosion. We delve into ten tracks that may be the greatest the tortured songwriter ever created.
See Emily Play
The second ever single to be released by Pink Floyd saw Barrett trading in relatively straightforward soundscapes and lyrics compared to what was to come later. It featured an upbeat pop chorus, fuzzed out guitar and plenty of opportunities to hear Barrett’s rather warped songwriting first hand.
The opening track of Pink Floyd’s debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn saw Barrett listing the planets as a plodding rhythm section and spiralling guitars all whirled around him. The expansive and eerie track acted as a blueprint for what was to come on the band’s debut that captured Barrett at his best. The track remains a personal live favourite for David Gilmour to play to this day.
The hypnotic guitar twangs away while Barrett sings about “Lucifer Sam”. Exactly who that was is anyone’s guess, but it takes nothing away from one of the most popular early Pink Floyd cuts that flies along at a menacing pace.
By the time Pink Floyd came to record their second album, A Saucerful of Secrets, Barrett was already in the middle of a rapid decline. He went MIA during gigs, proved impossible to work with in the studio and his productivity had all but ground to a halt. His last song for the band came in the form of Jugband Blues, which is one of the most honest and heartbreaking of his career. “It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here, and I’m most obliged to you for making it clear, that I’m not here,” he begins with as he reflects on both his departure from his band and his mind.
Barrett left Pink Floyd and continued to struggle with the same issues that had plagued him during his time in the band, while he made his debut solo album. The Madcap Laughs, which was recently named the number one most drug addled album in music history, was simply the sound of a man withdrawing into his own fractured mind. Gliding along on a hypnotic melody and the lackadaisical strumming of an acoustic guitar, it introduced us to a lonely Syd Barrett.
Simply, the pained expression of an artist who has at least in some way come to accept his decline. “Wouldn’t you miss me at all?” he wails with a voice that can barely reach the notes that he is striving for as it draws to its sad conclusion.
The only single Barrett released from the album, and the only single Barrett released throughout the rest of his career. Octopus is his greatest song in terms of accessibility and is often cited as Barrett’s best song too. Dragons are mentioned, along with needles, honeypots, and of course octopuses. It’s the culmination of all that is great about a Barrett song; psychedelic imagery, gorgeous melodies, and the sound of a band desperately trying to keep up with him as he tackles whatever it is that’s going on in his brain.
No Man’s Land
Barrett backed by a fuzzed out and dirty guitar riff? No Man’s Land offered a rare chance for the singer to indulge in a heavier sound, as his usually whimsical and abstract soundscapes were replaced with a searing guitar and heavy rolling drums.
Despite leaving the group two years earlier, initially Barrett remained close to his Pink Floyd bandmates. His eventual replacement, David Gilmour, even helped produce his second and final self-titled solo album amongst much struggle. “Syd was one of the great rock and roll tragedies,” Gilmour said. “He was one of the most talented people and could have given a fantastic amount.”
“Despite some incredible song writing, complicated structures and stunning sonic and verbal images, there’s no way to avoid feeling that the two solo albums are the portrait of a breakdown,” Kris Di Lorenzo wrote in his profile of Barrett. The tortured singer delved into the surreal, utilising abstract concepts, offbeat time signatures and a love for child-like melodies, to help create his songs. On the surface they displayed the power of imagination in all its wonder and colour, but sadly at the same time they showcased a man who struggled with his own mind and who could never quite come to terms with his own problems. These contrasts consistently produced hauntingly magical but also fragile songs that continue to influence today.