(above: Syd Barrett and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd on BBC TV’s ‘The Look of the Week’, May 1967)
The story of Pink Floyd is that of one of the biggest names in the history of rock music. It’s also the story of a group of young friends from Cambridge, and Queen Edith’s in particular.
Our tale begins in June 1944, when Mary Waters moved with her two young sons from Surrey to start a new life at 42 Rock Road, here in Queen Edith’s. Her husband Eric had been killed a few months before at the Battle of Anzio when their youngest son, Roger, was just five months old.
By 1951, Roger Waters was in his third year at Morley Memorial School in Blinco Grove, where Mary had become a teacher. One of the new intake at the school that year was Roger (later known as ‘Syd’) Barrett.
Barrett’s family lived around the corner at 183 Hills Road. Morley teacher Mike Bowyer recalls: “Roger (Waters) I remember as quite tall and thin, rather quiet and clearly very able. Syd was a little chap, a bundle of fun and forever laughing. He always liked painting and drawing and I can still remember a beautiful tree and landscape.
“Roger Waters’ Mum, Mary, was a brilliant teacher – especially able teaching slow readers. She left Morley to be Deputy Head at Cherry Hinton, from where she retired. At her funeral in 2009, Roger told me that when he revealed his musical intent his Mum most forcefully told him he’d be an architect. But she told me once she was mighty proud of him …as a ‘sort of’ musician!”
Two years below Waters, local resident Ursula Stubbings was in the same class as Roger Barrett. She says: “I remember him as bright, good looking, creative and always fun to be with. When he visited our house he impressed my father by picking out a tune on the piano, never having had any lessons.
“I had a long absence from school with scarlet fever. All the class were asked to write letters to the invalid and many of them enclosed pictures. Roger’s was most unusual, being an abstract design in bright colours based on the shape of a hand, orange and blue being predominant. Not a normal 8 year old’s artistic offering!”
On Saturday mornings Barrett would attend art classes at what was then Homerton Teacher Training College opposite, where he befriended another six year-old, David Gilmour, whose family lived in Newnham. Waters went to the class too, and would also see Barrett when visiting an aunt who lived two doors down from him at 187 Hills Road. Barrett would continue to attend the art class well into his teenage years.
Although the three boys would grow up to become worldwide rock music stars, they would constantly acknowledge their Cambridge roots. Their early recordings include songs like Grantchester Meadows and Into The Beechwoods, while the final track on Pink Floyd’s last album, over 25 years later, would contain the lyrics:
Along the Long Road and on down the Causeway
Do they still meet there by the Cut?
Roger Waters progressed to the Cambridgeshire High School for Boys on Hills Road (now the home of Hills Road Sixth Form College) but did not enjoy the academic life, describing the school as ‘a battery farm’. Watch the famous music video for Another Brick in the Wall Part 2 and the Gerald Scarfe cartoon of a school being operated as a meat mincer is almost certainly based on the Hills Road building, and the headmaster Arthur Eagling.
Waters played in school sports teams with others who would feature in the Pink Floyd story. Rado ‘Bob’ Klose was an early member of the band, and Storm Thorgerson was the creator of its iconic artwork.
Roger Barrett would follow Waters to ‘the County’, but David Gilmour was sent to the even stricter Perse School for Boys, then in the city centre but soon to move to Hills Road. Like Waters, Gilmour does not seem to have enjoyed his education, but he would meet Barrett outside school, and it’s said that the two are said to have eventually played music together for the first time at the Scout Hut in Perne Road. The younger Roger became ‘Syd’ during his teenage years, getting his nickname from a bassist in a jazz band at the Riverside Jazz Club, Sid Barrett.
By this time, the younger boys were old enough for Waters to want to socialise with them, and it’s said that it was after a trip to see Gene Vincent at Kilburn in 1961 that Waters and Barrett planned the band that they were going to form.
Syd had grown into a quite beautiful person, admired by girls and boys alike. He was a creator, first and foremost. Much later, Gilmour would say of Barrett: “Syd’s guitar playing wasn’t his strongest feature. But he was very clever, very intelligent, an artist in every way. And he was a frightening talent when it came to words and lyrics. They just used to pour out”.
Waters went to Regent Street Polytechnic in 1962 to study architecture. He would soon meet Nick Mason and Rick Wright, later to become the rest of Pink Floyd.
Back in Cambridge, both Barrett and Gilmour attended Cambridge College of Arts and Technology in Collier Road. Gilmour – always the best musician of the three – joined a band called The Newcomers. Barrett would hang around and join in with various acts, including Those Without and, in 1962, Geoff Mott & The Mottoes, at the United Reformed Church Hall on Hartington Grove.
At the age of 18, Barrett made the move to London, to take up a place at Camberwell Art College. He was offered a place in a shared house with Roger Waters and two other Cambridge friends, Dave Gilbert and Bob Klose. That autumn, Mason and Wright joined Waters, Barrett, Klose and (for a while) yet another Cambridge friend, Chris Dennis, to form a band which over the next few years would be known variously as The Tea Set, The Pink Floyd Sound, The Pink Floyd and just Pink Floyd.
In May 1965, the group made the trip home to play (as Pink Floyd) at the Homerton College Summer Dance, with the Boston Crabs and Unit 4+2. Klose left soon afterwards.
The band was still just a bit of a hobby, however. In the summer of 1965 Barrett drove to the south of France with friends, where they were joined by Gilmour (who’d been in a band called Jokers Wild in Cambridge) and they could be found busking Beatles songs. It was not for another year until things got serious.
With Barrett having become increasingly confident as a front man, the now four-piece band got themselves their first contract towards the end of 1966, and turned professional a few months later. There’s another Cambridge curiosity from around this time, however. On YouTube you can now see a bizarre home movie showing Barrett and others in the Cherry Hinton Chalk Pits (certainly the East and Pit and possibly the West Pit too). It’s a sign of things that were to come.
In February 1967, Pink Floyd recorded their first album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. It’s hard to grasp how revolutionary this album was at the time, but suffice to say that in September 2020, it still managed to appear in Rolling Stone magazine’s ‘500 Greatest Albums of All Time’. With their innovative music, unique live performances and a willingly experimental late sixties audience, the band were set to be huge.
Local resident Margaret Dickerson went with her boyfriend to one of the early shows, in Malvern in 1967. She says: “Psychedelic patterns were projected on to the walls and the sound was loud and exciting. Once seen, never forgotten.”
There was a problem, however. Barrett was not coping with events. Whether it was the drugs that were so prevalent at the time, an underlying mental health condition, the effects of the sound and light show or a combination, we shall never know. He became increasingly distracted and unreliable, and the other band members decided to call up their old friend David Gilmour to join them and help out.
In the end, a US tour was cut short, and Barrett’s last major gig with the band was in December 1967, at Olympia, London. The amazing bill included Jimi Hendrix, The Move, Eric Burdon and the Animals, and Soft Machine. The band tried to play as a five-piece, but in January 1968, the end came when the rest of the band simply decided not to pick Barrett up on the way to a gig. It had all become too much for him.
Gilmour said later: “(Roger Waters) was the one who had the courage to drive Syd out, because he realised that as long as Syd was in the band, they wouldn’t keep it together. Roger looked up to Syd and he always felt very guilty about the fact that he’d blown out his mate.”
In April 1968 Gilmour added to an unfinished recording of the track Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun, which appeared on the band’s second album and is probably the only Pink Floyd track featuring all five members.
Although Gilmour had replaced Barrett, the two remained close. By the next year, Barrett’s state of mind had improved enough for him to be encouraged to make a solo album, and the members of Pink Floyd helped in the making of this. However, the final recording sessions saw a different side to Barrett. These faltering performances were included on the album, leading one writer to describe The Madcap Laughs as ‘a portrait of a breakdown’.
The following year Barrett recorded enough material for a follow-up album, again with Gilmour’s help. But he was still in bad shape, and told friends that he was going to quit music and become a doctor. At the end of 1970, he locked the door to his room in London, leaving all his possessions, and returned to his mother’s house at 183 Hills Road.
During 1971, myths started to grow about the formerly glamorous recluse now quietly living in a basement. A cult began to grow that Barrett could never shake off. In 1972, almost as if to prove he was his own man, Barrett formed a three-piece band called Stars, and played a few gigs around Cambridge, including one in the Market Square. Eventually they were offered a support slot at Cambridge Corn Exchange, but the gig was a disaster. Apart from one final unplanned appearance at a small show in 1973, he never performed in public again.
Meanwhile, led by Waters and Gilmour, Pink Floyd found a new direction over several albums. In 1973 they released their masterpiece, The Dark Side of the Moon. This went on to sell an estimated 45 million copies and is in the top 10 best selling records of all time. Roger Waters’ insanity-themed lyrics to the song Brain Damage are thought of as being a reference to Barrett, with the line “And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes…” describing Barrett’s last performances in Pink Floyd.
Two years later, the band released the album Wish You Were Here, which continued to celebrate Barrett with the track Shine On You Crazy Diamond, recalling their friend with lines such as “Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun”.
Roger Waters left the band in 1985 and began his own solo career. Now under the direction of David Gilmour, Pink Floyd recorded two more albums in 1987 and 1994, as well as releasing a number of compilations and unreleased material. Both acts would stage huge live gigs for many more years, and in 2019 Roger Waters was listed as one of the top ten highest grossing acts of the decade.
Barrett spent the rest of his life in Cambridge, pursuing his ‘thinking, writing and painting’ and trying to avoid any fuss. In later years he lived locally at 6 St Margaret’s Square, which became a point of pilgrimage for fans from all over the world, although Barrett was not interested in them. Although often spotted by local residents walking around the neighbourhood, he was not the recluse of myth – his sister Rosemary said that he would often make trips to London on his own.
In 2006, a few months after his 60th birthday, Barrett was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After a stay at Addenbrooke’s, he returned home quietly and passed away on 7 July, one of Queen Edith’s most artistically talented and famous sons. Now in their seventies, Gilmour and Waters remain creative to this day.
- This article was first published in Queen Edith’s magazine, November 2020
Thanks for the memories to:
- Mike Bowyer
- Margaret Dickerson
- Warren Dosanjh
- Malcolm Douse
- Libby Peachey
- Ursula Stubbings
- Prof Geoff Ward, Homerton College
Videos, radio programmes and publications about Pink Floyd in Cambridge:
“Story of Pink Floyd” video (2010)