Pink Floyd had to find its way again after founding singer Syd Barrett had a mental breakdown and left the band in 1968. The new group became introspective, exploring a range of effects and soundscapes that increasingly trended toward (or invented) New Age music. For example the opening instrumental, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Part 1)” from 1975’s Wish You Were Here sounds for all the world like Vangelis. At this point in their career, the band seemed like it would be perfectly at home scoring sci-fi films, which—given the golden age of far out space-glam futurism that was the 1970s—I consider a wonderful thing. What this also means however, is that Wish You Were Here is an album short on songs, featuring only five properly listed, though the first and last tracks are over ten minute long rock operettas.
Musically, it’s a tremendously accomplished piece of work, lush and expansive but curiously restrained. The centerpiece, “Have a Cigar”— surely a precursor of bitter showbiz rant disguised as double concept album, The Wall—is in fact sung by a ringer, Roy Harper. (The only other time the band featured a guest vocalist was on the soaring, wordless “Great Gig in the Sky” from the previous album, Dark Side of the Moon.) Though the collaboration was a fluke—Harper simply happened to be recording in the next studio over—his presence seems essential in hindsight. The band were big fans of Harper’s, an eccentric folk singer who has released 22 albums to date. It’s easy to see why. He’s like a psychedelic British Neil Young, an artist whom, I would argue, sometimes has a lot in common with Pink Floyd, such as a willingness to release albums almost fully composed of extended jams.
Wish You Were Here was written around the song “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” an extended jam broken into two extended sequences that bookend the album. The song is about their tragically befuddled former singer, and the album has some of the saddest lyrics in the band’s oeuvre, which I suppose says quite a lot (I attended many an adolescent party where someone—yes, sometimes that someone was me—picked up the acoustic guitar and led a maudlin singalong of the title track.) Fans of the band will need no further persuading to watch the above documentary about the making of Wish You Were Here, but if my touting doesn’t sway you, consider it then a rare opportunity to see some of the most talented musicians of the twentieth century at work, shining even into their very English older years (though rarely in the same room), with a dignity and dedication that is difficult to find in modern pop music. I say this with full awareness of how cranky it may sound, but so be it. They don’t make bands like this anymore.
People do still occasionally make records like Pink Floyd’s, especially like 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon—which more or less perfected the sound of space rock—but no one has ever made one so perfectly realized. And yet if asked to choose between that album and Wish You Were Here, I could not do it. They are far too different in their approaches. In the Making of Dark Side of the Moon documentary above, Roger Waters characteristically says that Dark Side was made at a time when the band “still had a common goal—that is to become rich and famous.” And for all its acid satire of wealth and fame and its often morbid themes, it’s the sound of a band full of youthful self-confidence and ambition, where the follow-up’s orchestral pieces speak of deeper and sadder realms.
The songs on Dark Side of the Moon were partly finished live as the band debuted experimental versions of the songs in a 1972 tour, and the album’s success the following year saw the band realize their dreams. Pink Floyd became a stadium act overnight. One can imagine the toll the Dark Side of the Moon touring took on the band, who—despite their renown for stage spectacles—have always seemed like very retiring individuals, except for the frequently grandiose Waters.
Waters has taken a lot of flack for his part in the longstanding animosity between himself and co-leader, guitarist David Gilmour, but seeing him mastermind Dark Side of the Moon—through retrospective interviews mainly—reminds us of what an enormous talent he had. Speaking of retiring personalities, Waters, for a time the band’s primary lyricist, penned the unforgettable line, “hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way” from “Time”—a line cribbed from Thoreau but that could have been written by Evelyn Waugh or Somerset Maugham, says guitarist Nigel Williamson. It’s a “description of the English character,” says Williamson, that “permeate[s] the whole record, and indeed the whole of Pink Floyd’s career.”
H/T and thanks goes to @BrainPicker for sending the top film our way.
Syd Barrett: Under Review, a Full Documentary About Pink Floyd’s Brilliant and Troubled Founder
Dark Side of the Rainbow: Pink Floyd Meets The Wizard of Oz in One of the Earliest Mash-Ups
Watch Pink Floyd Play Live in the Ruins of Pompeii (1972)
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
Best band in the world! Brilliant and Timeless… <3
Pink Floyd’s sonic brilliance & musicallity will remain in the annals of rock history till the end of time…..their stage presents was truly sensational.