Even though Syd Barrett’s time in the spotlight was limited, he left a huge legacy. He served as Pink Floyd’s lead singer and guitarist throughout their formative years, when they were one of the most interesting psychedelic bands around.
His ethereal songs expertly straddled the line between hippiedom’s heady inclinations and the movement’s darker underbelly, which was beginning to emerge as its numerous traps became apparent.
Syd Barrett’s life story is well known. He was the band’s leader when Pink Floyd first gained popularity, but he left the group in 1968 owing to mental health problems that are thought to be caused by biological reasons and heavy drug usage.
Pink Floyd had only put out two albums up to this time, 1967’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and 1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets.
Barrett issued a pair of classic solo albums in 1970, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, which were supported by his old friends and former Floyd colleagues David Gilmour and Roger Waters.
After quitting the group, his mental health continued to deteriorate. Soon after releasing these two albums, Barrett retreated from the public eye and lived a solitary existence until his death at the age of 60 in 2006.
Despite the tragedy of Syd Barrett’s life, his musical accomplishments stand on their own as testaments to his undeniable talent and, in certain cases, the seriousness of the deterioration that led to his status as one of rock’s most mythologized figures.
The final song he wrote for Pink Floyd, “Jugband Blues,” is one of his most important works.
Barrett’s mental health was fast failing at the time of writing “Jugband Blues” in late 1967, and it was thought that the song represented his schizophrenia musically.
The song was made available in 1968 as part of Pink Floyd’s second album, A Saucerful of Secrets. It was the only song Barrett wrote for the album, making it his last publicly released work with the band.
The band as a whole and producer Norman Smith reportedly objected to Barrett and Floyd’s management’s request to have the song published as a single.
Peter Jenner, one of Pink Floyd’s managers, offered his thoughts on “Jugband Blues” in Rob Chapman’s Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head book.
He called “Scream Thy Last Scream” and “Vegetable Man,” two other songs Barrett wrote around the same time and his final Pink Floyd contribution, “amazing songs.”
He stated they reminded him of “Bike” and “The Scarecrow” from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. “You think, ‘Well, OK, those are all right, but these are powerful disturbing art.’ I wouldn’t want anyone to have to go as mad and disturbed as Syd did to get that, but if you are going to go that disturbed give me something like that. That’s great art.”
‘Jugband Blues’ is another name for Jenner, “an extraordinary song, the ultimate self-diagnosis on a state of schizophrenia, [and] the portrait of a nervous breakdown.”