The exact nature of Syd Barrett’s departure from Pink Floyd is ensconced in mystery. While the principal parties recall there being a specific time when they were supposed to pick Barrett up for a gig before deciding not to, the exact people who decided to leave Barrett hanging are unclear. Barrett was said to have left of his own volition, but it’s also true that the other band members wanted him out. The particulars aren’t as important as the effect that his departure had on the band.
For nearly half a decade, Pink Floyd took an experimental and relatively directionless approach to writing and recording without Barrett. It wouldn’t be until 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon that the Floyd would find their voice without their former leader. In the meantime, Barrett recorded two solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, with the assistance of his former bandmates before permanently secluding himself away from the music industry.
Pink Floyd went on to eulogize Barrett, in part or fully, on albums like Wish You Were Here and The Wall. The band’s inability to get Barrett the help he needed weighed heavily on their minds, and their solution was to channel their guilt into art. In a 2020 radio interview, drummer Nick Mason acknowledged the fault he felt for not being able to help Barrett when he was at a breaking point.
“I think we’re still very sort of conscious of that and of the past,” Mason explained. “I think, looking back now, what’s rather sad is how little we understood or knew how to deal with it. And it’s not that we were unsympathetic, but I just don’t think we had a clue as to what was happening or why it was happening.”
Barrett’s sudden transformation from a gregarious and artistic soul to a nearly-catatonic introvert was usually blamed on either overconsumption of LSD or the creeping onset of the mental illness schizophrenia. Often, the two explanations get linked together, but Mason himself remained unsure of what exactly happened to his former bandmate.
“The fact of the matter is, we still don’t truly know whether Syd had a breakdown anyway or whether there was some LSD involvement in his collapse or whatever,” Mason explained. “But I think now we’d probably, well, I think everyone would now, take a very different view or at least find other ways of doing something about it. Mental health is something that was almost – I won’t say untreatable, but it’s only in the last hundred years, I think, that there have really been the beginnings of an understanding and acceptance.”
After largely shutting himself off from the outside world, Barrett only revisited his former band once. While recording for 1975’s Wish You Were Here, Barrett returned to Abbey Road Studios looking drastically different than he had years prior. After exhibiting some strange behaviour and being shown some of the songs the band was working on, Barrett left before saying goodbye, never again reaching out to his bandmates.