Barrett began playing guitar in 1961, at the age of 15, and, by 1965, had formed The Pink Floyd (later shortened to just Pink Floyd) with bassist Roger Waters, drummer Nick Mason, and keyboardist Rick Wright. The band played its first shows—mostly consisting of R&B workouts—in late 1965. But Barrett soon began substituting originals for covers. He’d been amassing journals since the early ’60s, honing his skill for ingenious wordplay inspired by English writers such as Lewis Carroll, Aldous Huxley, and Kenneth Grahame—whose The Wind in the Willows contained within its pages the title of Pink Floyd’s 1966 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. A masterpiece of psychedelic rock, Piper shows Barrett buttressing his songs brilliantly with a guitar style that drew on everything from John Coltrane’s free jazz to Steve Cropper to Bo Diddley to a performance of Handel’s Messiah that Barrett had witnessed while screaming-high on LSD.
Armed with a Fender Esquire, a Danelectro 3021, a Binson Echorec, a Selmer Treble N’ Bass 50 head, and a Watkins Dominator (a 2x10, 17-watt combo), Barrett unleashed furious, jarring blurs of chordal shrapnel on Piper’s “Astronomy Domine,” and delivered proto-metal palm-muted chunks, and loopy, string-mashed-on-polepiece skronk for the psychedelic tour de force, “Interstellar Overdrive.” One of Barrett’s main tricks was using a Zippo lighter as a slide to create whooping, seagull-like cries, or pure noise with a heavy dose of echo—both techniques creating the beds of swirling cacophony that distinguish the album.
But soon after Piper’s release, Barrett’s increasingly erratic behavior began impacting the group’s live show, and by late 1967, guitarist David Gilmour was called in to pick up the 6-string slack. Barrett and Gilmour had been friends since they were 14 years old. In fact, the two went busking together in San Tropez over a holiday in 1964, trading licks and playing Beatles covers. The group remained a five-piece for little more than a month, when, one day, the other members of Pink Floyd simply didn’t pick Barrett up for a gig.
Barrett eventually released two solo albums, 1970’s The Madcap Laughs and 1971’s Barrett—both featuring production assistance from his former bandmates (Gilmour and Waters on Madcap, and Gilmour and Wright for Barrett). Hugely influential to a generation of musicians—Robyn Hitchcock, R.E.M., Placebo, Phish, and Blur to name a few—the two albums provide some head-scratching moments, but they’re also replete with beautiful guitar work. Madcap’s “No Good Trying” is bathed in lovely backwards guitar textures, and “No Man’s Land” sports a sputtering, strangled fuzz tone. “Late Night” features Barrett’s slide technique, which is simultaneously dissonant and bed-of-clouds beautiful.
On Barrett, the intro to “Baby Lemonade” features a jaunty, unaccompanied intro that demonstrates Barrett’s guitar skills were still together at this point. “Gigolo Aunt” finds him playing extended solos that are gruff and torturous, unnervingly innocent, and raga-inspired. Backwards guitar permeates the plodding, mixed-up shuffle of “Domino,” where the outro vamp wouldn’t sound out of place during Floyd’s Meddle period. This is not surprising, considering that Gilmour and Wright allegedly gussied-up the tracks without Barrett’s knowledge.
Barrett was in and out of music during the early ’70s, and eventually abandoned it completely. After his death, his sister, Rosemary, stated that her brother didn’t suffer from any mental illness, and he happily passed his time at home tending to his garden, and listening to Django, Miles, and Monk while indulging his number one passion—painting. Hopefully, the image of Barrett as a tragic lost cause will give way to his all-too-brief, but highly inspired musical legacy.