Dave Gilmour dashed our collective hopes this week by confirming that Pink Floyd will not reform to close the Olympic Games in London this summer. Deep down we always knew it was a long shot. Roger Waters and Gilmour (who have played several charity functions together in recent years) have made it abundantly clear that, while they are willing to occasionally join forces, they wouldn’t feel comfortable reforming the legendary progressive rock outfit without keyboardist Richard Wright, who died in 2008.
Still, as the world continues to dream about what could have been, we can console ourselves with the band’s peerless back catalogue. Luckily enough, Pink Floyd’s entire discography was extensively re-issued in 2011, but three albums in particular were singled out for special treatment; The Wall, Dark Side Of The Moon, and today’s classic album of the month Wish You Were Here.
Pink Floyd were riding high on the success of Dark Side Of The Moon in early 1975, an album that had brought the band unparalleled commercial success. It settled at no.2 in the UK and soared to the top of the US Billboard Chart, where it would stay seemingly forever (741 weeks to be exact). Not to be outdone, British fans would eventually make Dark Side… the sixth biggest selling album in UK chart history.
They were cultural icons, sonic and visual innovators, a group who could stake a legitimate claim to being the biggest band in the world. However, they were soon to find out that with success comes a new level of criticism, cynicism, and expectation.
The band already enjoyed a frosty relationship with the British press, preferring to keep quiet, as critics from Melody Maker and NME suggest the band had taken a blasé turn for the worse since the departure of former frontman Syd Barrett. The reviews were at times scathing labelling Floyd as ponderous, indulgent, and longwinded. Robert Christageau captured the mood, damning the band with feint praise in a typically deceptive and grudging review sharply alluding to the band’s “cliché…delusions of grandeur”.
It shouldn’t have come as any surprise, though Punk was still some years off, that a gradual disdain was building towards the indulgent eccentricity and unironic scope of progressive rock in media circles. A pattern of criticism emerged which Floyd endured in the mid-70s, and that every unashamedly progressive outfit has suffered since, be they Queen, Rush, or even Muse today.
Still Waters, Gilmour and Wright had already learnt to deal with harsh backlash, normally by ignoring the press, refusing interviews and circumventing them all together. The real problem Floyd faced was expectation; both from a ravenous public, but more importantly internally, a self imposed pressure to create something, anything, worthy. Far from having to top the untoppable, the band faced hard choices about where to go next; do we tear it all up and start again? Do we stick to formula? Do we tweak? Will it ultimately matter either way?
Floyd had writer’s block, and according to Richard Wright it was “torturous”. Thankfully, inspiration soon hit Waters however, and he took complete control of the band’s forthcoming LP. The bassist had stumbled upon two precise ideas; the first, a tribute to the band’s former creative leader Syd Barrett who had become lost to drug addiction, the second, a scathing critique of the music industry.
As the “tortuous” sessions finally became productive, and as the band were putting the finishing touches on “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” Syd Barrett, the subject of that eerily epitaphal song, arrived at the studio. Bald, eyebrowless, overweight and practically unrecognizable, Richard Wright and Rogers Waters mistook their former creative leader for a studio hand or some friend of Dave Gilmour’s. Soon enough the band did talk, exchange jokes, and were eventually moved to tears by their former front man. According to legend Syd despite hearing “Shine On” never realized it was about him at all, in fact if Nick Mason is to be believed, the majority of what Syd did say failed to make any sense at all.
Simply put, the entire record came together perfectly. Roger Waters had, perhaps unwittingly, set to work upon two concepts that complimented each other; one eloquent and one sardonic.
“Shine On You Crazy Diamond (pt.1-5)” conveyed deep depths of emotion in the stark isolation of its playing. The shimmering mass of Wright’s synths created a timeless, placeless void for Dave Gilmour’s guitar to rise and fall against. Echo laden, genuinely haunting, and with the feeling of purgatory, the track showcased the guitar’s ability to convey a multitude of contrasting emotions simultaneously. Dislocation, loneliness, depression, rejection, struggle, grandeur, hope, uplift, resolution, and acceptance; it can all be heard in the strained cries of Gilmour’s guitar.
The emotional heavy lifting taken care of, Waters was left to paint in the broadest brushes imaginable. He was free to dive into his box of clichés and deliver the kind of heartbreaking directness that only Pink Floyd could get away with. “Remember When You Were Young, You Shone Like The Sun”, those crushing words set the stage for an exhilarating to-and-thro rush of extremes that so succinctly captures both the fleetingness of drug fuelled joie de vivre, and the sincere wishes of friends who desperately want the young prodigy to pull through, stay strong, fight on, overcome, and shine. Tellingly though, “Shine On…” feels both posthumous and almost delusional in it’s desperation.
Taken on its own merits the track provides the perfect segway into Waters scathing attack on the record industry. On the mechanical “Have A Cigar”, which contrasts the freedom of Gilmour’s guitar with Wright’s insidious keys, Floyd recall the soaring vocal surges of “Shine On”. This time rather capturing the essence of a star who flew too close to the sun, it’s snide advertising jargon that is elevated. A macabre sales pitch which entirely skews “Shine On…” with it’s grand opening gambit: “Your Going To Fly High, You’re Never Going To Die, You’re Gonna Make It If You Try, There Going To Love You”.
“Have A Cigar” and “Welcome To The Machine” allow Waters to do what he does best; write straight faced clichés and speak in grand gestures, using his flair for histrionics to turn an act as minute as signing a record deal into a grandiose pact with the devil. Unlike Dark Side… where the weightiness of his writing was easy to ridicule, here it’s satirical, knowingly clunky and, in the case of “Shine On…”, unquestionably honest.
The Wall may have been Waters first stab at a full-blown rock-opera, but he achieved the same effect far more efficiently on Wish You Were Here. The tale is as timeless and inexorable as that of James Dean. The fresh faced star full of hope and ideas is overwhelmed by drugs and superstar excess, only to be crushed by the rigours of the machine, rendered a hallow whelk of his former self, left to drift away into cosmos while those he left behind can only remember what he once was. Syd Barrett’s demons were his own, but the broader narrative on the record industry, and the sublime playing of Gilmour, Wright and Mason, make Wish You Were A Here an enduring masterpiece in it’s own right.
The sweep from high to low is a complex one, no one obvious sentiment is ever allowed to pervade, but still through the tangled web of conflicting emotions a downtrend emerges, and when listened to as a whole, it’s not “Two Lost Souls Swimming In A Fish Bowl” that forms the album’s poignant crescendo. Instead a far bleaker line prevails, as Gilmour, frustrated almost resentfully, utters the words: “Did You Exchange, A Walk On Part In The War, For A Lead Role In A Cage”.
Few albums convey such a rich depth of anguish and adulation while keeping their simplicity and clarity of thought in tact. Every disparaging adjective thrown at Dark Side Of The Moon had been turned on its head, Floyd proved with Wish You Were Here that their grandiose delusions were capable of conveying a strength of sentiment, depth of subtlety and, of course, a sense of limitless scope that no other band could hope to rival.
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