Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Death of a Mad Genius--Syd Barrett

Syd Barrett died at age 60 many days ago from complicatons associated with diabetes. In 1965 Barrett co-founded the band Pink Floyd with Nick Mason, Roger Waters, and Richard Wright. Barrett was the band's guitarist in its early days. He also wrote much of the band's material.

Barrett was Roger Keith Barrett born in Cambridge on January 6, 1946 to pathologist Arthur Barrett and his wife Winifred. He attended the Cambridge County School for Boys (now called Hills Road Sixth Form College). His nickname "Syd" was taken from a local drummer named "Sid Barrett." Barrett changed the spelling, but took the nickname as his own.

In 1965 Pink Floyd was founded as "The Tea Set." It eventually became "the Pink Floyd Sound (the name possibly deriving from two blues singers from Piedmont--Pink Anderson and Floyd Council), later shortened to "Pink Floyd." They began with covers of American rhythm and blues before plunging into psychedelia. Establishing their own sound, they became one of the most successful bands in London.

This led to the single "Arnold Layne," which made the British top 20 despite being banned by the BBC. The sucess of the single led to a recording contract with EMI . Two follow up singles ("See Emily Play" and "Apples and Oranges") were released, as well as the classic album Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Barrett not only wrote "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play," but also eight out of the eleven songs on the album. As a guitarist, Barrett ventured where only a few at the time (such as Jimi Hendrix) dared to go. He experimented with distorition, feedback, and dissonance. He was one of the earliest artists to use an echo machine (a device with which musicians could produce an artifical echo).

Piper at the Gates of Dawn proved to be very successful. It reached #6 on the British charts. It did not do nearly as well in America, reaching only #131 on the Billboard album charts, although it did establish a cult following for Pink Floyd in the Untied States. To this day it still makes lists of the greatest rock albums of all time. Sadly, with the band's success came a deterioration in Barrett's mental state. His behaviour became increasingly erratic. Eventually David Gilmour (like the rest of the band, he was from Cambridge) was hired as a second guitarist to cover for Barrett. In January 1968 Gilmour officially replaced Barrett as guitarist and leader of Pink Floyd. Barrett did contribute "Jugband Blues" to their second album, A Saucerful of Secrets, but his participation in Pink Floyd was effectively over.

Barrett attempted a solo career, releasing two albums (The Madcap Laughs and Barrett in 1970). Unfortunately, his mental state effectively prevented him from furthering his musical career. He appeared on the BBC radio show Top Gear in 1970 and gave his only live solo concert at the the Olympia Exhibition Hall in London that same year. In 1972 Barrett formed the band Stars, but left not long after tthe group was formed. He made a failed attempt to record another album in 1974. This marked the end of Barrett's music career. Barrett retired to Cambridge where he lived out his life with his mother. He spent his time painting and working on his garden.

A compliation of Barrett's work would, Opel, would be released in 1988. His work would also be featured on several compilatons of Pink Floyd material.

The precise nature of Barrett's mental illness has always been a bit of a mystery. It is uncertain that whether he was schizophrenic or suffered from some other mental disorder. Earlier this year David Gilmour theorised that Barrett would have probably suffered a nervous breakdown even if he had not used such psychodelic drugs as LSD, but that the drugs probably accelerated his decline.

Despite his short career, Barrett would prove to have a lasting influence on rock music. David Bowie has admitted that Syd Barrett was a big influence on his work. Indeed, he even covered "See Emily Play" on his 1973 album Pin Ups. In addition, Barrett's work has been covered by Placebo, R.E.M., The Smashing Pumpkins, and Soundgarden. Marc Bolan (of T. Rex), The Jesus and Mary Chain, Pearl Jam, and Voivod have all cited Barrett as an influence. Barrett's various techniques, such as free form playing, distortion, and the use of the echo machine would prove to have a lasting influence on rock music in the Seventies and Eighties, not only upon pscyedelia but upon punk and post-punk as well. Among perhaps Barrett's most lasting influence was the impact he would have on his own band, Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd recorded the album Wish You Were Here (1975) as a tribute to their former leader. It must also be pointed out that mental illness recurs as a theme in Pink Floyd's music, partiuclarly in their two greatest albums Dark Side of the Moon (1973) and The Wall (1979).

Despite his madness, I think there is little doubt that Syd Barrett was a genius. His songs, particularly "See Emily Play," "Dark Globe," and "Astronomy Domine," remain listenable to this day. There are those who even believe Pink Floyd was at its best as their front man, surpassing even such later successes as Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. While I am not sure I would go that far (there are very few albums that can best Dark Side of the Moon, in my opinion), I will say that Barrett's work with Pink Floyd is among the band's best and Piper at the Gates of Dawn still numbers among their greatest albums. It is sad that Barrett's mental illness prevented him from having more of a music career. It is sadder still that his death now prevents him from making further music. Barrett is as much of a legend in rock music as he was a man, but he was also one of the few men in the genre who deserved to be a legend.

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