Psychedelics and rock n roll have gone hand in hand for decades. The Beatles enjoyed acid, Hendrix was known to dabble in LSD and Eric Clapton also enjoyed hallucinogens. The question is: do psychedelics cause brilliance? Or does brilliance gravitate towards psychedelics? Today we’re going to be zooming in on psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd and, more specifically, their lead guitarist and lyricist Syd Barrett. His musical career and life is perhaps the perfect example of the highs and lows of LSD.
Did it make him? Or did it break him? That’s up for debate, but an interesting story no less.
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In 2004, the Independent referred to Pink Floyd as ‘the biggest band of all time’
“Now Pink Floyd have received an accolade to match the enormity of their sound and performances – by being named the biggest band of all time, ahead of acts such as Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones.”
But who actually were these guys and why did they leave such a mark on the world? Pink Floyd, previously known as Pink Floyd Sound, were a psychedelic rock band who formed in the 1960s. The main members were Syd Barrett on lead guitar and lyrics, bassist Roger Waters, keyboard player Rick Wright and guitarist David Gilmour. These four made up the original band. It’s important to remember that Pink Floyd still exists today, sort of. Syd Barrett, after struggling with LSD, died in 2004 of Pancreatic Cancer. He was the life and soul of the band, therefore, the group were never really the same again after that. Similar to how Joy Division tried to continue as New Order after the death of the incredible Ian Curtis. It was never really the same.
Pink Floyd boasted 15 studio albums, 4 live albums, 27 singles and 6 number one albums. Their best selling song was Another Brick in the Wall and their number one album was Dark Side of the Moon. The band led the psychedelic rock genre during their time. In fact, their sound was so original, that it’s hard not to know when you’re hearing a Floyd tune. The choral music, reverby guitar and spiritual lyrics are such a symptom of Pink Floyd’s genius and, specifically, the magic of Syd Barrett. He, many believe, was the diamond in the crown. Far Out Magazine goes into depth about why Syd’s writing ability was so unique:
“A true genius pop song economises its use of time. The hardest part of writing a good pop song is crafting that rare gem of a centre – the easy part is creating the shell around it. So when that time comes, the listener will have been entranced in the outer layers of the song. The gem within the middle makes itself known and shines its mystique, blinding the listener just for a few moments, and while it is a short moment at that, it completely changes our understanding and feelings regarding the song – that is the hook…Syd understood how to write this kind of hook.’
Syd Barrett most definitely suffered from mental health issues and his obsession with LSD, many believed, to be worsening his condition. However, this is only speculation. The fact is that in 1968, during a recording of their album A Saucerful of Secrets , David Gilmour began to take more guitar and band responsibilities due to Barrett’s condition. Gilmour joined the band in January of 1968 as the frontman and guitarist and, essentially, replaced Syd who he’d known since their school days. Barrett was reportedly mentally unbalanced and dealing with drug addiction. He was unhinged. In an open and honest interview about his guilt after 1968, Gilmour said:
“I don’t suppose I saw any option, but to just do the best that I could. I’m sure we were all full of some sort of guilt, and remained that way for a long time… I think there were only five gigs, as I remember it, where there was the five of us played together. Then we ceased to go pick him up.”
After this, Pink Floyd were never the same. However, it’s important to note that whilst rock n roll is full of genius artists who can be difficult to work with, the bands who have stood the test of time are the ones who’ve banded together through the bad times. Look at Oasis, their flame burned bright, but for a very short period of time due to the tumultuous relationship between Liam and Noel Gallagher. Alternatively, if you look at the Beatles, they stuck together through thick and thin and only death tore them apart. However, geniuses do exist. And sometimes it takes a bit of mental imbalance to be a real genius. It comes with its highs and lows.
Roger Keith, later known as Syd Barrett, was the lead singer and guitarist of Pink Floyd before Gilmour took his place in 1968. He has been championed for his stream-of-consciousness writing, where it feels like he’s literally just allowing his mind to do dances on the page. This kind of writing freedom and imagination is hard to come by and, perhaps, it will never be matched again. In the first song of Dark Side of the Moon, Speak To Me, Barrett wrote:
“I’ve been mad for f*cking years, absolutely years, been
over the edge for yonks, been working me buns off for bands…
I’ve always been mad, I know I’ve been mad, like the
most of us…very hard to explain why you’re mad, even
if you’re not mad…”
This is perhaps a perfect summary of his mental state at that point in his life. But, his and Pink Floyd’s best piece of work was probably that album. Dark Side of the Moon has a case to being the best music album ever written. The entire album plays through smoothly and is a spiritual experience. The incredible vocal explosion during Great Gig in the Sky is one of the major highlights. Some have likened the album to an LSD trip due to its ebbs and flows and beautiful journey.
LSD and Barrett
It was in the 60s that Barrett began to delve into the world of psychedelics. Whilst mental health issues did not have the voiced platform that they do now, many professionals have theorised that Barett did have pre-existing mental health conditions; perhaps even schizophrenia. However, whilst many would like to label Barett’s experience with LSD as a tragedy, that would be a huge waste. Barrett evidently saw the world differently, in a way that the majority of the world does not. Syd Barrett said about himself:
“I don’t think I’m easy to talk about. I’ve got a very irregular head. And I’m not anything that you think I am anyway.”
Society is too quick to demonize people like Syd Barrett. They loved him when he was writing incredible lyrics, but hated him when he was mentally imbalanced. Both sides to Syd were intrinsically him. The truth is that his brain and turn to psychedelics actually benefited Pink Floyd in a wonderful way.
“Pink Floyd began doing away with the R&B covers that were being imitated by countless other bands from the era and embracing original sounds. And the highly intelligent Barrett, already known for marching to his own peculiar beat, began heavily ingesting LSD and producing song lyrics that were seemingly pulled from unknown realms of the cosmos.”
He was a genius already, but LSD’s mind-opening capabilities was allowing him to go that step further in his music. Just as the Beatles had done, Pink Floyd’s music was becoming unpredictable and incredibly original. This was Barett at his best.
However, Syd Barrett was most definitely unwell. Whilst he passed in 2004 due to Pancreatic Cancer, many believed he’d died long before that. Whether this was due to LSD, pre existing mental health conditions, or the stress of fame, no one will ever truly know. People will frame it the way they want to fit their narrative. In 1968, Syd officially left the band and Gilmour replaced him. The bassist of Pink Floyd, Roger Waters, said:
“It felt to me at the time that Syd was kind of drifting off the rails, and when you’re drifting off the rails the worst thing you can do is start messing around with hallucinogens … It definitely exacerbated the symptoms that, loosely strung together, you and I might call schizophrenia. He heard voices. He became incommunicative. He turned into a different person; [his eyes] were black holes in the sky.”
Gilmour, who was a school friend of Barret, also highlighted how this new persona was out of character for him:
“Syd didn’t seem to recognize me and just stared back… I got to know that look pretty well and I’ll go on record as saying that was when he changed. It was a shock. He was a different person.”
Barrett’s genius flame shon extremely brightly, but not for very long. The band went on without him out of professionalism, but the real soul and magic was now gone. This wasn’t the first time an artist had suffered from similar conditions and it definitely won’t be the last. Does music breed this type of person? Does LSD breed this type of person? Does fame create this type of person? Or is true genius actually something that is unattainable? Perhaps the cost of thinking so incredibly differently and magically, is that there will inevitably be a downfall. That was the case with Barrett. Syd gravitated towards psychedelics because they matched him as a substance, the rest of the world didn’t come close. He will go down as another young person who suffered from mental illness in unforgiving London during his 20s.
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Disclaimer: Hi, I’m a researcher and writer. I’m not a doctor, lawyer, or businessperson. All information in my articles is sourced and referenced, and all opinions stated are mine. I am not giving anyone advice, and though I am more than happy to discuss topics, should someone have a further question or concern, they should seek guidance from a relevant professional.