Born Roger Keith Barrett in Cambridge, the son of a renowned pathologist, Barrett changed his name to Syd at age fifteen in honor of local drummer Sid Barrett. In 1965 he joined up with bassist Roger Waters, drummer Nick Mason and keyboardist Richard Wright in a new band Barrett dubbed Pink Floyd — in honor of blues artists Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. Barrett quickly became the group’s primary songwriter and guitarist, composing their breakthrough singles “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play.”
In 1967, the band released its first LP, the psychedelic masterpiece The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Ten out of the eleven songs were written by Barrett.
The next year, following a highly successful tour with Jimi Hendrix, Barrett’s mental state began to deteriorate, most likely related to his heavy LSD intake. Guitarist David Gilmour was brought in to aid the band as Barrett became increasingly unreliable. Gilmour and Barrett both played in the group for a few months, but Barrett’s onstage behavior became so erratic he was forced to leave the band.
Amid reports that he was suffering from schizophrenia, Barrett managed to release two solo albums in 1970, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett. The bulk of the material from these albums, which have gained a huge cult following over the years, was written during Barrett’s brief productive period of 1967-68. An independent career proved impossible: His one live solo gig was aborted after five songs.
In 1971, Barrett spoke to Rolling Stone about his absence from the music scene. “I’m disappearing, avoiding most things,” he said. “Mostly I just waste my time . . . I’ve got a very irregular head.” Around the time of this interview, he sold the rights to his solo music and moved into his mother’s basement in Cambridge, where he lived out the rest of his life.
Short of a brief appearance at Abbey Road Studios in 1975 as his former bandmates were recording Wish You Were Here (a tribute to Barrett), he hasn’t had any contact with Pink Floyd in recent decades. Barrett’s mental health had reportedly improved in recent years, and he spent a good deal of time painting and gardening.