Roger Keith Barrett was the quintessential figure of British 1960s psychedelia. Born in Cambridge, he attended an art school near Homerton College. Barrett was the co-founder and creative impetus behind Pink Floyd and their first album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967). Leaving the band, Barrett then produced his legendary solo album The Madcap Laughs (1970). Now, fifty years since the album’s release, let’s dive into this trippy and kaleidoscopic rabbit-hole.

Madman or madcap?

Fierce debate around Barrett being an ‘acid casualty’ has ensued since his infamous fall from the Floyd. The dominant narrative is simple: too much LSD, then madness, which at times fuelled his creativity, but eventually broke him. Vignettes of Barrett in the Underground of the late 60s filter through like photos processing; producer Peter Jenner was told of acid-laced morning coffees, online threads whisper of a state-conspired lobotomy. For others, only schizophrenia can explain the story. Barrett’s band members see acid as instrumental and that Barrett was sadly, yet inevitably, broken by it.

Mick Rock, who produced the iconic photographs for Madcap in 1969, in contrast claims: “People think he went mad, but I never did. He was a total original … I saw him like a soft poet, like a Baudelaire or Rimbaud.” Mick Rock would remain intimate with Barrett even after his ‘breakdown’. Similarly, biographer Rob Chapman aims to demythologise the madness narrative, seeing Barrett instead as one eccentric among many in the psychedelic scene.

“People think he went mad, but I never did. He was a total original … I saw him like a soft poet, like a Baudelaire or Rimbaud”

There was an infamous moment at the Abbey Road recording studio in 1975. Barrett had departed from the band around 1968. The new Floyd were producing “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”, a song about Barrett, his crazy genius, and his legacy. In baffling synchronicity, Barrett turned up to the studio unannounced. None recognised him at first. All his hair was shaven, including his eyebrows. Slowly there was a pitiful recognition: this strange man was indeed their original founder.

Considering Barrett’s own words, he quips in an interview of 1971: “I’m really totally together, I even think I should be.” It’s a line which provides a rare insight into his self-conscious wicked wit around his notoriety as the head madcap of psychedelia.

Barrett the Artist

Barrett was an avant-garde innovator in both his abstract paintings and his musical style. Barrett’s musical experimentation is felt most in “Interstellar Overdrive”, the psychedelic centrepiece of Pink Floyd’s first album. A bewitching, stark riff opens this instrumental which descends into ten minutes of free-form, anarchic chaos. Barrett employed radical techniques of feedback, dissonance and distortion, which would become instrumental to later generations of musicians. This track is the best reflection of what the early Underground-era Floyd were playing at the UFO Club, an epicentre of the British counterculture.

At the UFO, the Floyd would be accompanied by trippy light shows. Barrett viewed this as interconnected: “we have only just started to scrape the surface of effects and ideas of lights and music combined; we think that the music and the lights are part of the same scene, one enhances and adds to the other. In the future, groups [will] have to offer a well-presented theatre show.” This is exemplified in the rendition of the reverberating ‘Astronomy Dominie’ on the BBC in 1967, another brilliant Piper track.

The 1997 BBC performance of 'Astronomy Dominie' is a perfect example of Pink Floyd's use of music and lights to complement and amplify one anotherYouTube/ChromeMagnum

Barrett’s subject matter was radically unconventional too, compared to the love-dribble which dominated 60s pop music. “Arnold Layne”, for example, is a brilliantly campy narrative of a Cambridge crossdresser nicking knickers off washing-lines! “They suit him fine”, Barrett playfully concludes.

As a creative individual, Barrett seems to have struggled with the Floyd’s early rise to fame following their hit-single “See Emily Play”, a Summer of Love masterpiece written by Barrett. Their producer Peter Jenner notes that after the single’s release “suddenly everything had to be seen in commercial terms … [pressuring Barrett] into a state of paranoia about having to come up with another hit single.” Commercial pressures had as much to do with Barrett’s fall as his use of psychedelic substances.

When it came to writing this next pop-hit Barrett, with cynical brilliance, wrote his darkest song yet: “Vegetable Man”. The lyrics are viewed as the culmination of his personal and artistic breakdown. It was considered too dark to be included on the second album. By “Jugband Blues”, the only song to feature Barrett on the Floyd’s second album, he is emotionless, with a façade-like dead stare in the music video. By then, Barrett was being elbowed out of his own band to be replaced by the more punctual David Gilmour. Barrett was respected as a musical genius but his inability to play the part of ‘pop star’ threatened the Floyd’s rising commercial success.

Drummer Jerry Shirley, who worked with Barrett on his later solo albums, remembers “Syd turn[ing] up at London gigs and stand[ing] in front of the stage looking up at Dave; That’s my band.” Even if Barrett’s departure was not openly antagonistic, it seemed to have affected him deeply. In an interview with Melody Maker in 1971, Barrett would see it diplomatically: “[Not] really a war… just a matter of being a little offhand about things.” His final lyrics with Floyd would be some of his most poetic, such as the doubting, probing, end lines of “Jugband Blues”:

And what exactly is a dream?

And what exactly is a joke?

Departure would be, however, the start of Barrett’s fruitful solo career, producing two albums in 1970: The Madcap Laughs and Barrett. Madcap is a brilliant collection of Barrett’s influences and interests, ranging from the folkish “Terrapin”, to the mystical reading of James Joyce’s “Golden Hair”, and finally his magnum opus, “Octopus”, a fantastically trippy song-poem.

Biographer Julian Palacios argues that Barrett had a unique legacy for a 60s musician. Arguably, his greatest impression is felt in David Bowie, whose lyrics share both Barrett’s whimsicality and his moments of penetrating angst. Fascinated with Barrett’s distinctive English-accented singing, his androgynous look, and his sporting of makeup on stage, Bowie, with a grin, confesses: “I was passionately in love with the writing of Syd Barrett… there’s something slightly not quite with us about Syd that really appealed to me strongly. There was a Peter Pan quality about him.” Certainly, Peter Pan comes to mind. Barrett seems to stay forever young as after these albums, and the failure of his next band called Stars — with a car-crash performance at Cambridge’s Corn Exchange — Barrett would drop out of both music and society.

Barrett the Dandy

Julian Palacios’ biography paints the psychedelic fashion scene vividly: “With Lindsay [Barrett’s girlfriend], Barrett made the scene dressed in silk and velvet, in pied patches like medieval minstrels. Walking on King’s Road on Saturdays, dressed in all their finery, the couple were splendid peacocks on parade. In a luminous dash, they prowled boutiques, piecing a unisex wardrobe mix of gypsy, aristocrat, harlequin and harlot.”

“What was seen as “strange” then is fascinatingly transgressive now, an extension of Barrett’s creativity and genius”

With Barrett’s androgynous appearance and interest in cross-dressing, Mick Rock’s photos for Madcap look dazzlingly modern. They are a rare insight into the decadence of the counterculture fashion scene. Barrett also anticipates a goth, even post-punk look, flaunting black eyeliner. As Rob Chapman argues, Barrett was a feminised rockstar. At the time this epicene fashion was seen at best an eccentricity, at worst a marker of insanity. David Gilmour remembers “all sorts of strange things happening — at one point he was wearing lipstick, dressing in high heels, and believing he had homosexual tendencies.”’ What was seen as “strange” then is fascinatingly transgressive now, an extension of Barrett’s creativity and genius. The cliché rings poignantly clear: the madcap, an outrageous dandy of the Underground, was too ahead of his time.


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Barrett would die in 2006 in Cambridge. A last ‘ambush’ interview from a Guardian journalist saw Barrett refuse to acknowledge his own stage name. His last words to “Are you Syd Barrett?” would be a banal “Leave me alone. I’ve got to get some coleslaw”. Reclusiveness has only enhanced Barrett’s mysterious allure. Barrett’s sister Rosemary saw the end of his life as “boringly normal” and believed Barrett to be content with that. But it is hard not to see the tragedy in the fall of such a personality and career as Barrett’s into mundanity.

“I’ve got a very irregular head”, Barrett declares in a late interview, “And I’m not anything you think I am anyway.” Barrett is thus a character impossible to pin down, but he has been – and always will be – respected as a musician, painter, and dandy of the psychedelia zeitgeist. The madcap lives on.