Personalities | Syd Barrett | Floyd’s Destructive Genius | Guitar Heroes

Legendary ‘lost’ psychedelic genius Syd Barrett was born Roger Keith Barrett in Cambridge in 1946. He learned to play guitar at the age of 14 and formed his first band in 1965. While attending art college in London, he joined the embryonic Pink Floyd.

Floyd began by playing blues and rhythm and blues covers, but soon developed the improvisational style that made them the premier band of London’s underground scene. In January 1967, their debut single ‘Arnold Layne’ was a minor hit and was followed by the Top 10 success ‘See Emily Play’. Barrett penned both, but neither was truly representative of the band in concert. Similarly, Barrett’s short whimsical songs dominate Piper At The Gates Of Dawn (1967), although ‘Astronomy Dominé’ and the free-form ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ were more representative of the band’s live sound.

By the time of Piper’s release, Barrett’s behaviour had become increasingly unpredictable. He was often unable to function onstage and, ultimately, too difficult to work with. His breakdown was caused by a combination of deep unease with the trappings of fame and an excessive intake of LSD. Barrett’s old Cambridge friend David Gilmour was drafted at first to cover for him, replacing him altogether early in 1968. Barrett was an innovative guitarist who was influenced by the improvisatory technique of Keith Rowe of underground band AMM. Although no virtuoso, Barrett achieved unique effects by playing through a Binson echo unit and employing a Zippo lighter or plastic ruler as bottlenecks. This experimental approach heralded new ways of playing rock guitar. His favoured instrument was a Telecaster Esquire decorated with mirrors.

Barrett’s solo career was short, consisting of The Madcap Laughs and Barrett (both 1970), and Opel (1988), a collection of outtakes and unreleased material. After some ill-fated live outings as a member of Stars in 1972 and an abortive return to the studio in 1974, Barrett gave up music and retreated to Cambridge, where he spent his time painting and gardening. His reclusiveness fuelled the legend, and successive generations of musicians from David Bowie to The Damned to Kasabian have cited his influence. Barrett died in July 2006 of pancreatic cancer.

Essential Recordings

Pink Floyd: Piper At The Gates Of Dawn

Solo: The Madcap Laughs

Solo: Barrett

Solo: Opel

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