The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Pink Floyd

After forming in the 1960s and releasing some albums as a joyfully and lightly psychedelic pop-rock band, Pink Floyd took a turn to the transcendent, evolving into one of the most adventurous and introspective bands of all time. The group made progressive rock palatable for the masses, who responded by keeping '70s masterpieces like The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall on the charts for years. More than 50 years after their formation, millions of teens still have a Pink Floyd phase, which involves their albums, beanbags, a basement, headphones, and probably a trip to the planetarium for a laser light show.

But the band's story is shrouded in both mystery and tragedy. A current of darkness and sadness runs through a lot of Pink Floyd's music, which can be explained by the many awful things that have happened to its members over the years. Here, then, are the roughest events in the life of Pink Floyd.

Mental illness forced Syd Barrett to retire young

Syd Barrett was the original creative mind behind Pink Floyd, singing, playing guitar, and writing most of the songs on the band's 1967 debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn as well as its first hit singles, "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play." His life was marked by tragedy early — Barrett's father died when he was just a boy, leaving his mother to raise five children on her own. Barrett poured himself into visual art and playing the classical piano, but by his teen years, he was all about rock music — and the strange new places he could take it.

In 1968, the band hired singer and guitarist David Gilmour to supplement Barrett, whose onstage behavior had grown increasingly unpredictable. His mental health began to decline, thanks in part, according to Rolling Stone, to prolific use of LSD. He was out of the band by 1968, no longer able to cope with the pressures of fame and creating music while also managing a purported diagnosis of schizophrenia.

How Pink Floyd wished Syd Barrett was there

In June 1975, Pink Floyd was deep into the recording sessions for its ninth studio album, Wish You Were Here. It featured two centerpieces, the soaring title track and the epic nine-part suite "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," both written, at least in part, in tribute to former band member Syd Barrett, who had left the band in the late '60s due to mental illness and drug issues and faded into obscurity and private life in the early '70s, according to Ultimate Classic Rock.

One day, an interesting character showed up uninvited to a mixing session. Nobody in the band could identify this quiet, confused, heavyset guy with a shaved head and no eyebrows. Pink Floyd's David Gilmour was the first to figure it out: It was Barrett, subject of the song the band was working on, and he had appeared as if by magic. Then, he slipped out without telling anyone.

That would mark the last time the core five members of Pink Floyd would ever occupy the same space. However, bassist Roger Waters spotted Barrett a couple of years later. "I bumped into him in Harrods where he used to go to buy sweets, but we didn't speak," Waters told the Mirror. "He sort of scuttled away."

Syd Barrett died of cancer

After leaving Pink Floyd in 1968, Syd Barrett didn't disappear right away. In 1970, he released two solo albums — his only two solo albums – The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, consisting of material written during an earlier, more productive time. He played one solo show, which ended after just five songs. In 1971, Barrett told Rolling Stone, "I'm disappearing, avoiding most things," and, "Mostly I just waste my time." It was around that time that he sold off the rights to his music and retreated to the basement of his mother's home in Cambridge, England, where he lived for the rest of his life.

While Barrett appeared somewhat unhealthy and troubled to other members of Pink Floyd during his drop-in on a Wish You Were Here mixing session in 1975, he quietly soldiered on, privately, for more than 30 years, taking up gardening and painting, although never holding an exhibition or event. Amid reports that his health had improved in the early 2000s, Barrett passed away in Cambridge in July 2006 at the age of 60. While initial reports suggested complications from diabetes as the cause of death, the musician actually passed away from the effects of pancreatic cancer.

Pink Floyd's original lead singer ditched the band

There's just something tragic — or at least unfortunate, or regrettable — about those individuals who leave a band just before it goes on to unbelievable fame and fortune. A musician who helped form a band, or find its sound, gets left out of the glory and credit, not to mention the spoils, of making art for a living — it all seems like a cruel twist of fate.

In 1963, a Royal Air Force technician working in London named Chris Dennis met Roger Waters, looking for a singer for his newly formed and as-yet unnamed band. Dennis said he was present when Syd Barrett came up with the moniker "Pink Floyd" and sang for the group's first few official gigs, which consisted primarily of blues songs and covers. Scarcely a year after joining up, Dennis left Pink Floyd. Why? He told the Daily Mail in 2012 that he felt the band didn't have a future, and he'd also been offered an RAF post in Bahrain. When he returned to the UK, he spotted Pink Floyd's debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, in a record store.

Dennis eventually got married, had some kids, and settled in Wales. "I've no regrets. I helped start the biggest rock band in the world..." he said. "That's enough for me." Okay, but ... really?

Bob Klose's harrowing childhood

Bob Klose, also known as Rado Klose, was only briefly a member of Pink Floyd, playing guitar in a very early version of the group, and he was out by 1965. "He was really a far better musician than any of the rest of us," Roger Waters said on "Shades of Pink — The Definitive Pink Floyd Profile." Klose was a student at the time, and he "had some exam problems and really felt that he had to apply himself to work, whereas the rest of us were not that conscientious." Klose unfortunately ditched Pink Floyd before it became successful, but he went on to enjoy a long career as a photographer. No matter which path he took to the future, though, he had to rise up from a stressful past. According to his website bio, Klose's father "was a refugee from Nazi Germany" who had also fought in the particularly bloody Spanish Civil War.

Klose was born in Cambridge and spent his first couple of years on Earth in less-than-ideal living conditions. His father had landed a job as a farm worker, and, unable to land other housing options, the family lived in a tent pitched on the property where Klose's father worked.

The Wall is about Roger Waters' mental illness and abusive childhood

The Wall is among the most iconic albums in rock history. The 1979 double-LP by Pink Floyd is the sixth-best-selling album in US history, ranks among Rolling Stone's top 100 records ever made, and is one of the few pieces of rock music to be adapted into a film, the trippy 1982 cult classic Pink Floyd: The Wall. That's a harrowing movie about a rock star named Pink who falls into the twin voids of solitude and mental illness. Unfortunately, it's partly autobiographical, thematically speaking.

Pink is based on both Syd Barrett and Roger Waters, who wrote the vast majority of the album by himself. Barrett battled mental health issues, just like Pink, whose problems begin when his father dies in a war — similarly, Waters' dad died in World War II. Those are the first "bricks" in the metaphorical wall Pink builds up around himself, soon followed by various other traumas, including abusive schoolteachers, highlighted on the famous standout track "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)." "The education I went through in boys' grammar school in the '50s was very controlling and demanded rebellion," Waters told Mojo (via SongFacts). "The song is meant to be a rebellion against errant government, against people who have power over you, who are wrong."

Richard Wright made a concept album about depression

Pink Floyd is one of the few bands in which all of its core members released solo albums, either as side projects while still in the group or after leaving the fold. Keyboardist Richard Wright made three albums on his own: Wet Dream in 1978, Identity in 1984, and Broken China in 1996. The latter, like several of Pink Floyd's LPs, is a concept album, with every song revolving around a common theme. Sadly, that theme is the clinical depression suffered for years by Wright's wife, Millie. "It was, of course, a very frightening and very emotional time, to witness this happening," the musician told the Boston Globe. Initially, he planned on an instrumental project but realized that his songs had an air of sadness to them. "A lot of the things I write would be melancholic, and melancholic is an emotion that is certainly about sadness."

Psychology Today called the album "a portrait of despair and recovery" and "surprisingly frank" in its depiction of Millie Wright's battle, which included lots of therapy and a hospitalization. And ensuring authenticity and accuracy, Millie's therapist wrote some of the lyrics on Broken China.

Richard Wright died of cancer

Pink Floyd would've been nothing — or at least just a standard, run-of-the-mill, guitar/bass/drums rock band — if not for Richard Wright. On every Pink Floyd album except for The Final Cut, Wright provided the soaring, haunting, spacey keyboard sounds that were the backbone of the band and which elevated the group to its status as the kings and guardians of prog rock. He also sang backup on countless Floyd tunes and occasionally penned something, notably co-writing the sweeping "The Great Gig in Sky" on The Dark Side of the Moon.

His work in Pink Floyd ended with a whimper as well as a bang. In 1996, according to The New York Times, Wright hadn't spoken with bandmate Roger Waters in 14 years, although the band did reunite (sans Syd Barrett) for a one-off performance at the Live 8 London charity concert in 2005. Just three years later, Wright died of cancer, according to his publicist. He was 65 years old.

Richard Wright treated his wives poorly

The love life of Pink Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright proved as dramatic and chaotic as the man's keyboard work. In 1964, he married Juliette Gale, a singer from an early incarnation of Pink Floyd. They had two children together, only for him to leave her in 1982 for the future Franka Wright, who was also married at the time. Franka told the Daily Mail that her husband frequently cheated on her with groupies and backup singers, but she couldn't forgive him one final indiscretion. She surprised him on his boat in Athens one day in 1992, where Wright was accompanied by his young mistress, who was also pregnant. That was especially tough for Franka Wright, as she'd suffered through four unsuccessful pregnancies. "Rick never visited me in the hospital," for those, she claimed. After a contentious divorce, Wright moved on to this third wife, the former Millie Hobbs. According to The Telegraph, they married in 1995 and separated in 2007, about a year before Richard Wright died from cancer.

The musician left behind an estate worth about $30 million and provided for his children. What did he leave for the wives he put through so much turmoil and heartbreak? Nothing.

Roger Waters broke up the band and then sued

It's actually quite sad when the members and chief creative forces in a band don't get along. Once young people with dreams of bringing their art to the masses, they wind up bitter and old, squaring off in the press and in courtrooms, their connection ruined by the very things they set out to achieve. Pink Floyd's bassist Roger Waters brought the hostility toward his bandmates for years.

First, he was angry that keyboardist Richard Wright didn't write enough material during the recording of The Wall, and he managed to fire the guy. Wright played on the tour in support of The Wall, as a hired backing musician. Creative tensions between Waters and David Gilmour boiled over during the recording of The Final Cut, and Waters quit the band, telling the public that Pink Floyd was summarily over without his presence. The rest of the band disagreed, and Waters sued – unsuccessfully — to prevent them from using the Pink Floyd name.

The band continued to record and tour to much success into the '90s and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. Waters didn't attend. In 2013, he expressed regret for the mid-'80s lawsuit. "I was wrong," he told the BBC. "Of course I was. Who cares?"

David Gilmour's guitars were stolen

While it's not as tragic as death or a devastating mental illness, a large-scale theft can be a crushing and unfortunate event to those who experience one. Pink Floyd's David Gilmour is one of the world's most famous, successful, and talented guitarists, so he treasures his instrument greatly. That's why it was so awful when a bunch of his guitars were stolen right out from underneath him. 

"I lived out in the countryside somewhere and I had a little studio room. My brother had a band; he was in there working, rehearsing with his band quite a bit, and these guitars were in that studio room," Gilmour said on The David Gilmour Podcast miniseries in 2019 (via Ultimate Guitar). "One night, it got broken into and the guitars went, and it turned out to be one of the musicians who were in my brother's band at the time." One of those guitars wound up in a studio owned by a Gilmour associate, who recognized the instrument and returned it. "We got most of them back," the guitarist said. "A couple I never got back."

That's not even the first time Gilmour experienced grand theft music — in 1970, Pink Floyd called off its American tour after thieves absconded with the group's equipment.