Review Summary: Sadness, alienation, and melancholic longing conveyed perfectly.
Survivor's guilt is a thing. You can go through an ordeal and come out of the other side and be alive, but you will always remember the people who didn't. It will weigh on your mind until the end of time, and sometimes it might have been your fault that they're not there in the first place. Indeed, you might start insisting it should have been you who went under the bus, and not your friend. You'd do anything to see them again, even if for five minutes. Those five minutes would be the most satisfying you will ever have, the most comforting in a long time, and you will be at peace.
Pink Floyd survived the turmoil of the end of the Sixties, and became invigorated once more in the beginning of the new decade. They had released a series of albums that represented a strong artistic shift and leap in quality from their patchy period, starting from Atom Heart Mother, continuing into the classic Meddle, taking a detour with Obscured by Clouds, and finally acquiring the fame and fortune they had desired since the very beginning with their magnum opus, The Dark Side of the Moon. A concept album about the inevitability of death and the insanity of modern life, the album became a massive seller in spite of - or maybe because of - its universally applicable misery. It was adventurous and mind-altering without ever seeming to be doing anything. It's a very easy album to listen to, but quite difficult to understand why it has the pull and the dynamism it does.
So, the band got rich. They bought houses, cars. They rode the gravy train. David Gilmour, Richard Wright and Nick Mason saw this as the end of the road. They had done it. Pink Floyd were now superstars. And there was nothing else they could do. Laziness festered. Drug addictions began in earnest. Divorces occurred. For the man who acquired the reins for the group, Roger Waters, this was not the time for complacency. As much as you might think the guy is a total megalomaniac, you could never have accused him of being a sell out. Instead of using Dark Side's success as a narcotic against creativity, he used it as a means of reflection on the band and its legacy hitherto.
There was a vital member of Pink Floyd who did not experience the worldwide popularity during their Seventies heyday. His name was Syd Barrett, the brilliant songwriter and guitarist who went mad due to either a family history of mental illness, excessive LSD use, or a deadly concoction of the two. He did not survive the Sixties - his body and his heart still beating, but his mind frazzled, unable to perform or record music anymore, becoming a recluse. He gained weight. He shaved all of his hair, eyebrows included. He was a far cry from the dashing pretty-boy traipsing up and down Carnaby Street. He was, effectively, dead to the band, and they abandoned him. They abandoned him else they would have gone insane just like him. Mind you, come 1974/5, the music industry was driving the band insane, anyway. Then, they knew why Barrett didn't make it: he could not cope with the business.
The result of Waters' internal struggles and guilt, along with hard task-mastering on his part, and the further musical dialogue between Wright's keyboards & Gilmour's guitars, was Wish You Were Here. The saddest and most gut-wrenching album of the Seventies, it not only mourns the mental death of the man who led the band in the beginning, but it serves as an epitaph to the spirit of the Sixties. Its pessimism and cynicism is matched only by its bittersweet tributes to Floyd's fallen creator. It also seems to signpost at self-criticism and fear about the future, wishing Barrett were here to knock some sense into the increasingly drifting quartet.
Yet, along with its follow-up Animals, Wish You Were Here find Floyd as a unified group, in sync with one another despite, and because of, the tension. The wine glass twinkles signal the beginning of the album, with Wright's synth drone, decorating with his right hand a musical movement not unlike something you'd hear on a flute. After about three minutes of establishing the theme, David Gilmour enters with pure blues guitar, achieving double and even triple bends on the pentatonic scale. His tone is warm, his playing sad and melancholic. Wright's synth bring it down a little bit, signalling the second part of the piece.
Then, Syd's theme. Arpeggios. More twinkles. Nick Mason's thumping drums rise out of the ether. Waters' bass warms up. And then, Shine On You Crazy Diamond - Pink Floyd's greatest achievement - kicks into gear with a musical backing not unlike what you'd hear on the predecessor, but conveying personal sadness rather than lethargic insanity. Gilmour plays in answer to the rising keyboard, the rhythm section anchoring through tentatively from one passage to the next - check out Mason's simple tom fills in the descent between bass and guitar - before Gilmour switches to the bridge pickup for unison bends. More descents into the next part, which starts off with lumbering bass and another solo from Wright, a beautifully abrasive rhythm guitar entering. After a pause, Gilmour is backing, this time more passionate and forceful than before, the sound of distressed crying emanating from his axe, before another rise courtesy of the ride cymbals and organ. Another pause, and then further into the piece.
Waters steps up to the microphone, his imperfect vocals cracking with every syllable, and asks a simple question: "remember when you were young"/you shone like the sun". The sound of laughter. Then, a rise in volume and a melodic uplift - the band, in unison, are further backed by Venetta Fields and Carlena Williams, urging Syd to shine. Waters' lyrics don't aim for the pomp he'd end up doing years down the line, instead describing his eyes like "black holes in the sky" as he croons the absence of his friend. Waters' voice further breaks as he reaches the higher registers - "you were caught in the crossfire of childhood and stardom" - before further references to the past ("you piper" being one of them") and to the present ("you cried for the moon").
Oh, and, did I mention it contains another mini solo from Gilmour that shreds through human emotion and a great closing two minutes with Dick Parry on saxophone" And I used to say the Seventies sucked.
Speaking of suckage, everyone's favourite spanking child is up next. Welcome to the Machine, in which the major theme of alienation from the music industry is introduced. Weird printing noises, bubbling bass, echoing synths, the strum of an acoustic guitar. The familiar and warm voice of David Gilmour assumes the role of the industry itself, with two vocals an octave apart. Authoritarian stances. Sound effects throughout. This is, more than anything, Richard Wright's track. He is all over this thing. In between the verses, we get these starry interludes with his Minimoog running miles around the composition (the closing two or so minutes are a great example of this).
Lyrically, you could indeed accuse the song of being heavy-handed, but this is Roger Waters we are talking about. At least this one doesn't quite have the same egotism behind it compared to later down the line. They are simple, almost child-like in their expressions, but its simplicity is where the danger and fear of the lyrics are most pronounced. To the machine, manipulation is easy. It wouldn't need poncy language to control.
"You dreamed of a big star
He played a mean guitar
He always ate in the Steak Bar
He loved to drive in his Jaguar"
A haunting song whose repetitious nature doesn't bother me. And this is what I don't get about how maligned the song is. It's only seven and a half minutes long. To Pink Floyd, this is only an interlude. The same people who decry this for being too long are usually the same who praise Echoes or Dogs or even Diamond for its length.
Floyd don't stop there with digging right into the music industry. At this stage, you could very well accuse the band of hypocrisy, or at the very least biting the hand that feeds. Oh, for sure, there is that element there, but it is at least understandable why they began to feel trapped and cornered by the very thing that propelled them to success. So, they take the next step, partly out of creative consideration but also because Gilmour and Waters could not get a decent vocal take. They brought in Roy Harper, and he lays down the perfect vocals for the kind of song that appears next: Have a Cigar, a sleazy and laid back parody of AOR and also a jab at the band itself, in an alternate universe where they'd rewrite Money for the rest of their career. The fact its sung by an outsider to the band only conveys the song's message more. The A&R man brown noses the group over the hedonistic synths and funky guitars, the bass smooth and springy. All the while, Gilmour's guitar actually laughs at this guy's BS. And they say Pink Floyd didn't have a sense of humour.
Oh, by the way, the "which one's pink" line conveys both self-awareness and annoyance because - if Rogers is to be believed - this actually happened. The next section is more bum licking, with greater focus on where the band were at post-DSoTM and where the industry wanted them to go. The vocal inflections and wobbles on "team" indicate the irony of the narrator's want for collaboration, when really it's just to make more and more money. After one final ride on the gravy train, Gilmour delivers one of his most biting and cutting solos, over gradually increasing synths. Mason even resorts to hi-hat triplets, which is advanced for him (both a dig and a compliment). Then, the music sounds as if played on a radio, the irony of course being the fact that despite the band's protests, they will still be popular and their message lost to their audience and to their label.
Radio tunings, and the channel switches. It is an elegant twelve-string guitar, strumming away. It's the main chord sequence of one of Pink Floyd's most simplistic yet emotionally resonant songs, Wish You Were Here, one of the finest songs in the band's entire oeuvre. Gilmour joins in over the strumming with some neat guitar playing on an acoustic. It's essentially a country rock song, but this doesn't matter. To me, it's some of Roger Waters' finest lyrics he ever wrote, and proof that his worthwhile and fruitful collaboration with David Gilmour, and also Gilmour and Wright's collaborations, was the glue to the band. If taken as it was intended, calling out to Syd and wishing he was there physically and mentally, it's a touching and bittersweet number. After a contemplative opening verse, the drums kick in. The guitars don't change, not even in volume, yet the song is heightened by Wright's piano and Waters' bass. Gilmour's vocals are resonant and yet also resigned to inevitability. Afterward, there is a short interlude where the main guitar comes back in. Wright occasionally decorates with the Minimoog, and Gilmour scat sings over his guitar leads, and then back into the main body of the song. The final lines of the song are some of the most beautiful ever written.
"How I wish, how I wish you were here
We're just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl
Year after year
Runnin' over the same old ground
What have we found"
The same old fears
Wish you were here"
The above is so true it actually hurts me, especially given all of the (not so many) friends I've made over the years that I no longer contact. We're still in the same place, somewhat, but we've changed as people. That saddens me. I can't begin to imagine how much it saddened the band to know that Syd wasn't even there mentally anymore. He had lost his mystique, his looks, but most importantly his mind and his musical chops. This song conveys that perfectly and yet feels weightless, almost effortless, as if Gilmour picked up the guitar and Waters already envisioned the lyrics like the palm of his hand.
Whoever decided to book-end the album with Diamond is a genius. Twenty-five minutes would have been too long for the piece. It needed the context in between - the music industry, the lies of A&R, fame, Barrett's mental deterioration - to close the gaps. The last parts of Diamond begin with a much more aggressive, ominous vibe. Gone are the blues for the most part - part VI is all about the looping bass guitars, the increasingly erratic synths by Wright, and Gilmour's insane slide guitars. Mason's drums also get more intense and build up to a crescendo, before a reprise of the main verse of the song, with everything slowly down ever so subtly as Gilmour recalls his solo. When Waters come back, he picks up where he left off. After further reprises of the main vocal passage - "we'll bask I nthe glory of yesterday's triumph" - the delicious arpeggios come in, before the funkiest moment of the song kicks in. A reprise, almost, of the sleaze of Have a Cigar yet there is a groove that conveys sorrow, kind of like dancing with tears in your eyes. And then, finally, the closing movement, a one-at-a-time drum groove with Wright closing the album with a repetition and call back of the melody of See Emily Play, one of the band's early singles and one which Syd Barrett sung. Far from speculation, the sentiment is obvious: this album is for Syd, wherever he was near or far.
Syd Barrett popped in to pay the band a visit. He was bald, fat, and erratic. No-one recognised him. Once the penny dropped, and once the band paused mixing Diamond - which is, in itself, one of life's great coincidences, almost as if Barrett knew - they saw how far he had fallen. Both Gilmour and Waters cried. Their friend was gone. Their friend was no longer here.
Bitterness also comes from survivor's guilt. Following the realisation that Syd had gotten worse and not better, Roger Waters took further control of the band to prevent himself going mad, resulting in even more barbed and cynical music on albums such as Animals and especially The Wall. In taking control of the lyrical themes and content, he ended up taking over the music side of things as well - not on Animals, which was actually mostly written before WYWH - and thus in my opinion the band suffered as a result. In that sense, the trilogy of albums that began with Dark Side and ended with Animals represents the band at its musical and emotional peak.
And that's exactly it: emotional peak. There's no attempt at a grand statement, a la Dark Side or The Wall. There's no running narrative and story, a la Animals. Wish You Were Here is Pink Floyd being themselves, playing music for them and their fallen friend because they want to. At the time, the album got a mixed reception for this very reason, but there's no reason for Floyd to care about this. After all that happened to the band, self-reflection and actualisation was the prevailing mood.
Yes, it's sad, and yes the band do feel sorry for themselves. It's pretty damn lonely at the top; that's the price you pay for fronting a band that rivals The Beatles in terms of popularity and cultural relevance, and that's the price Barrett paid early on in the band's career. Consider this album the band paying him back - with interest, of course.
Wish You Were Here is Pink Floyd's best album, the best album of the Seventies, and easily top 10 of the best albums of all time. R.I.P. to both Syd Barrett & Richard Wright. Shine on forever more.