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Syd Barrett - Guiding Light and Music Legend

Syd Barrett captured by © Andrew Whittuck in London in 1967, in one of the band's earliest photoshoots

Syd Barrett is one of the founding members of Pink Floyd. And, in the first few years of the band’s existence, he was one of the defining features of their sound and vision. His idiosyncratic lyrics came to define their early albums, and the new Pink Floyd exhibition at London’s V&A Their Mortal Remains, notes his input and honours his memory.

Not only did Barrett write the lyrics in those early days, he also played guitar and sung lead vocals. But while Nick Mason, Roger Waters, and Richard Wright met in 1962 at the University of Westminster (the part they studied at was called Regent Street Polytechnic back then), Barrett, whose first name is also Roger, didn’t join until 1964. He was an art student also and had known Waters since their childhood back in Cambridge.

Pink Floyd shot by Colin Prime in Ruskin Park, London 1967 - Hand coloured by Melissa Green

Barrett is also responsible for naming the band, taking inspiration from American blues guitarists and singers Pinkney “Pink” Anderson and Floyd “Dipper Boy” Council. He’s also responsible for naming Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell’s design studio—who formed a long-lasting creative partnership with the band—Hipgnosis.

In the early days of the band when they were playing London’s underground scene, Barrett wrote the tracks “Matilda Mother” and “See Emily Play”—the lyrics from both taking inspiration from children’s literature like Cautionary Tales for Children and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And the band’s debut single, “Arnold Layne” released in 1967 was also written by Barrett—who sung it in a very English accent—and who based it on a local news story about a man from Cambridge who stole women’s underwear from washing lines.

Taken in Syd Barrett's flat in Earls Court, London during the photo shoot for his debut album 'The Madcap Laughs'. Photo © Mick Rock 1969

In the early part of 1968 Barrett began performing less with the band and David Gilmour joined. By the end of 1968 Barrett had left and went on to pursue a solo career. However, although he was no longer officially in the band, Pink Floyd’s second studio album A Saucerful of Secrets is their only album to feature work from both Barrett and Gilmour. Barrett’s composition for “Jugband Blues” is on the album, and some of the songs also mirror—to some degree—Barrett’s playful style. It was also the album, however, where Roger Waters and Richard Wright shifted the band thematically and musically in new directions.

After he left the band Barrett’s solo career saw him release his 1969 single "Octopus" from his debut solo album, The Madcap Laughs which came out in 1970. Two months after it came out, Barrett started work on his final album, Barrett, which was produced by David Gilmour.

A couple of years later Barrett left the music business altogether and went back to Cambridge to live a reclusive life out of the limelight. His work with the band and his solo albums, along with his drug-induced breakdown, giving him mythical status which remained throughout his life.

Syd Barrett outside his London flat © Mick Rock 1969

Pink Floyd obviously continued without him, but their album Wish You Were Here pays homage with its theme of absence. And “Shine on Your Crazy Diamond” is their tribute to him. In Their Mortal Remains there’s a polaroid of Barrett, taken when he appeared at Abbey Road Studios when the band were recording that album. His unexpected visit was a complete coincidence, synchronicity if you will—but he had changed so much physically the band didn’t recognise him. A quote from Nick Mason next to the polaroid says, “David asked me if I knew who he was… even then I couldn’t place him, and had to be told. It was Syd.”

Syd Barrett died in his Cambridge home on 7 July 2006, aged 60 years old. After his death Pink Floyd released a statement saying, “The band are naturally very upset and sad to learn of Syd Barrett's death. Syd was the guiding light of the early band line-up and leaves a legacy which continues to inspire."

Barrett died of pancreatic cancer and, according to The Daily Mail, on his death certificate his occupation was noted as "retired musician".

Rockarchive is delighted to be able to offer these iconic images, and more, as limited edition photographic prints which you can buy here. There are also many Pink Floyd images, including the band's first photo shoot in Ruskin Park, available here.

Syd Barret photographed at his flat in Earls Court, 1969. Photo © Mick Rock

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