Pink Floyd was such a dysfunctional band it’s a wonder they ever managed to record a note. This was particularly true during the period of Wish You Were Here, with Roger Waters in full domination mode, David Gilmour and Nick Mason in conflict and everyone burned out and snitty from the overwhelming success of Dark Side of the Moon. Recording was interrupted by tours, delayed by arguments and hampered by an engineer who managed to ruin some backing tracks, requiring hours of tedious re-recording (see the Wikipedia article for more details). The album itself is a tribute to the group’s difficult history, as it deals with the downsides of musical success and the mental collapse of their original frontman, Syd Barrett.
It is therefore fortunate for the listening public that the band’s members seem to have a genetic disposition that enables them to shine brighter when facing adversity. Wish You Were Here is a remarkable piece of work, one I prefer over both Dark Side of the Moon (a bit too obvious a choice) and Animals (a bit too uneven).
In case you’re wondering, I didn’t think much of The Wall and I’ve never found their early stuff particularly compelling.
“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is the long musical piece that unites the work and establishes the major musical and lyrical themes. The piece is divided on the album into two tracks (I-V and VI-IX), a brilliant decision that unites the entire work (believe it or not, the band had to vote on whether or not to make the split). The first of the two “Diamond” tracks is more of a classical tone poem; the second more progressive rock opus with a little bit of funk.
The first track subtly grabs your attention, immersing you in slow build of organ and synth and wet fingers playing with the edges of wine glasses. When I listen to Part I, I can’t help but compare it to the then-contemporary work of the Electric Light Orchestra, who were in the process of abandoning the original goal of giving their music a more classical sound. Even in their best work, ELO never approached the pure orchestral beauty that Pink Floyd created here.
Gilmour’s guitar establishes the bridge between I and II, beginning the second part with the memorable four-note theme (simple, but terribly effective; what I’ve referred to as “The Count Basie Effect”). Gilmore has multiple attention-grabbing solos throughout the piece, but never overpowers the fundamental theme. Part III continues the theme with synth and only in Part IV do we hear the sound of vocals. The words, the harmonies and the laughter produce a rather chilling effect, echoing the theme of mental disturbance. The centerpiece of Part V is the introduction of baritone and tenor saxes, a beautiful example of layering and differentiation that makes “Diamond” such a satisfying experience.
We then hear the sounds of industry in the intro for “Welcome to the Machine.” I have always found this song disturbing because it asks the question, “Are our passions and dreams merely the product of mass manipulation?” Pete Townshend had already dismissed the notion of true rebellion with the line, “Meet the new boss/same as the old boss,” and Ian Anderson described an endless cycle of the young battling the old in Thick as a Brick. How much of who we are is core and how much is just following the script? The multiple time signatures here call up images of self-confusion, reinforcing the song’s meaning.
The Wikipedia article referenced above mentioned that Roger Waters believed he had made a mistake enlisting Roy Harper to do the lead vocal on “Have a Cigar.” He didn’t. This song really needed to be performed by an outsider for maximum effect, and Harper does an outstanding job in the character of boorish music mogul.
An even more exceptional vocal awaits us in one of my favorite songs of all time, “Wish You Were Here.” David Gilmour simply nails this beautiful and haunting song. The contrast between the low-fi and hi-fi acoustic guitar makes the higher fidelity notes jump out at you. The song’s final despairing line, “What have we found: the same old fear,” is a brilliant if uncomfortable revelation that gives one pause for thought.
We then return to the beginning, with parts VI-IX of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” This section is more contemporary-sounding than the first track, with more bass and an urban feel. Richard White’s keyboard work is also prominent in Part VIII and provides for a solid segue into the “funeral march” of Part XI. The fadeout is sprinkled with bits of tunes from the Syd Barrett era, but even if you were ignorant of the connection, the soundscape is still very appealing.
The essence of Wish You Were Here is tension. There is tension in the music and tension in the lyrics, and very little in the way of resolution. There is no happy ending; things are what they are; the situation has been presented. You hear the contradictions in the lyrics to “Diamond”—“random precision,” “you painter, you piper, you prisoner,” and “you miner for truth and delusion.” As much as we hate to admit it to the world, we are all brimming with these contradictions, these tensions. We hang on to our facades knowing that the construction that keeps them together is as fragile as can be. Wish You Were Here allows those contradictions to exist without attempt at correction, an artistic decision that better reflects the human experience than the happy ending.
Of course, the ultimate contradiction is that there is wisdom in the vision of the madman, in that “miner for truth and delusion.” In that sense, Wish You Were Here is the musical equivalent of “Jubilate Agno,” the work of the insane genius Christopher Smart. When you read that poem, you know two things: one, that you are dealing with someone “not in his right mind”; and two, that those “not in their right minds” often have greater insight than the rest of us. Wish You Were Here allows that uncomfortable possibility to exist.