What I’ve Been Listening to: Pink Floyd/Wish You Were Here

I could have titled this post “What I’ve Been Listening to For the Past 40-Plus Years.” Wish You Were Here not only marked the start of my long Pink Floyd journey but also was an essential part of my early discovery of music. This album was one of various gems my sister had on vinyl as a 16-year-old or so. I was ten years old at the time and essentially didn’t understand a word of English. It didn’t matter. The music bug had infected me forever. It’s the most beautiful infection I can think of!

Of course, I also explored the other 14 studio albums Pink Floyd released between 1967 and 2014. That was many moons ago as well. And I realized records like The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Meddle or The Dark Side of the Moon match or even exceed the mighty of Wish You Were Here. Still, Floyd’s masterpiece from September 1975 will forever keep a special place in my heart. Always.

I know it may seem to be weird to tout what I believe is perfect music as a natural sleeping aid. Wish You Were Here is great for that! In fact, I started using the record for that purpose when I had my first stereo and first set of headphones. I still love listening to the album at night in bed, nowadays using my smartphone and earbuds, which I have to admit is a less than perfect way to enjoy music. I’m happy to report I also keep listening to Pink Floyd during the daytime while I’m wide awake! 🙂

Pink Floyd in 1975 (from left: Nick Mason David Gilmor, Roger Waters & Richard Wright

Recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London between January and July 1975, Wish You Were Here is Floyd’s ninth studio album. It’s the band’s second record after The Dark Side of the Moon, which was based on a conceptual theme that was entirely written by Roger Waters. In this case, the topics include biting criticism of the music business and alienation. And, of course not to forget, a tribute to founding member Syd Barrett who had been instrumental to the band’s early phase until his ouster in April 1968 due to mental illness and the use of psychedelic drugs.

In fact, on June 5, 1975, the day when Pink Floyd were completing the mix of Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Syd Barrett showed up at the studio out of the blue. Being overweight with shaven head and eyebrows, he barely resembled the 22-year-old man back in 1968. Waters and Nick Mason didn’t recognize him, while David Gilmour first thought he was an EMI staff member. Richard Wright first realized it was Barrett who reportedly said he was happy to help with the recording. But according to Mason’s Pink Floyd memoir Inside Out, Barrett “sat round and talked for a bit but he wasn’t really there.”

Apparently, Barrett also joined a wedding reception in the canteen at EMI for David Gilmour who a month later got married to his first wife, American artist, sculptor, author and former model Ginger Gilmour. He left the festivities quietly without saying goodbye to anybody. It was the last time the band members had seen Barrett who passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2006 – what an incredibly sad story!

Syd Barrett at Abbey Road Studios, June 5, 1975

Wikipedia includes this quote from Roger Waters, taken from Crazy Diamond: Syd Barrett and the Dawn of Pink Floyd, a 2001 Barrett biography written by Mike Watkinson and Pete Anderson: I’m very sad about Syd. Of course he was important and the band would never have fucking started without him because he was writing all the material. It couldn’t have happened without him but on the other hand it couldn’t have gone on with him. “Shine On” is not really about Syd—he’s just a symbol for all the extremes of absence some people have to indulge in because it’s the only way they can cope with how fucking sad it is, modern life, to withdraw completely. I found that terribly sad.

Interestingly, Alan Parsons, who still was a staff engineer at EMI and had played a key role in shaping the sound of Pink Floyd’s previous album The Dark Side of the Moon, declined to continue working with the band. While I couldn’t find any specific explanatory accounts, Wikipedia’s entry for Dark Side notes the members of the band had some disagreements over the style of the mix. Ultimately, they decided to bring in producer Chris Thomas to provide “a fresh pair of ears.” Perhaps that didn’t sit well with Parsons. Instead of him, Brian Humphries served as recording engineer for Wish You Were Here. The band had previously worked with him on the More soundtrack album from June 1969 and again in 1974. Time for some music.

While it’s a long track (not a rarity when it comes to Pink Floyd!), I just couldn’t skip the magnificent opener Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V). Of course, this is the tune that even if it’s not an outright tribute to Syd Barrett as the above quote by Waters seems to suggest, at a bare minimum is inspired by him. Especially, the instrumental intro makes me feel like floating in space – which is why the tune is perfect to relax and fall asleep! 🙂 The music is credited to Gilmour, Wright and Waters.

Next up: Have a Cigar, which on the vinyl edition is the first track of the B-side. An excerpt from the lyrics leaves on doubt what Waters was writing about. I just wonder how the executives at the record company felt when they heard the tune for the first time. I guess somebody there was smart enough to realize that while the words weren’t exactly flattering, they had a masterpiece on their hands that would sell many copies. They call it riding the gravy train!

Come in here, dear boy, have a cigar,
You’re gonna go far,

You’re gonna fly high,
You’re never gonna die,

You’re gonna make it if you try,
They’re gonna love you.
I’ve always had a deep respect and I mean that most sincere;
The band is just fantastic, that is really what I think,
Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink?

Both the tune’s lyrics and music were credited to Waters. English folk singer Roy Harper sang on the tune, making Have a Cigar only one of two Floyd songs that featured a guest singer on lead vocals. The other one was The Great Gig in the Sky from Dark Side with the amazing Clare Torry.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is the album’s title track – undoubtedly one of Pink Floyd’s best-known songs. Interestingly, Wish You Were Here wasn’t released as a single at the time, though the tune quickly became a staple on the radio in Germany and elsewhere. Eventually, a live version of the song from the band’s third live album Pulse appeared as a single in September 1994. Gilmour and Waters co-wrote the music. Together with Welcome to the Machine, it is one of two tunes on the album featuring Gilmour on lead vocals.

According to Wikipedia, the song’s distinct intro was recorded from Gilmour’s car radio. His guitar intro, played on a 12-string, was processed to sound as if it was playing through an AM radio, and then overdubbed a fuller-sounding acoustic guitar solo. This passage was mixed to sound as though a guitarist were listening to the radio and playing along. As the acoustic part becomes more complex, the ‘radio broadcast’ fades away and Gilmour’s voice enters, while the rest of the band joins in. What a brilliant concept!

Upon its release, Wish You Were Here received a mixed reception from music critics. For example, Rolling Stone cleverly noted the band’s”lackadaisical demeanor”, leaving the subject of Barrett “unrealised; they give such a matter-of-fact reading of the goddamn thing that they might as well be singing about Roger Waters’s brother-in-law getting a parking ticket.” The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau, on the other hand, was shockingly positive: “The music is not only simple and attractive, with the synthesizer used mostly for texture and the guitar breaks for comment, but it actually achieves some of the symphonic dignity (and cross-referencing) that The Dark Side of the Moon simulated so ponderously.”

Of course, Wish You Were Here has since been frequently regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time. In fact, it is ranked at no. 211 in Rolling Stone’s 2012 list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time – way too low, in my humble and completely unbiased opinion! In the magazine’s 50 Greatest Prog Rock Albums of All Time from June 2015, it came in at no. 4. This sounds more acceptable to me!

No matter how you feel about Wish You Were Here, one thing is undisputed: The album became one of Pink Floyd’s most successful records topping the charts in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and various European countries including the UK, France, The Netherlands and Switzerland. It has sold an estimated 13 million copies, compared to more than 45 million for Dark Side, Floyd’s best-seller. Gilmour and Wright have called Wish You Were Here their favorite Pink Floyd album.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; YouTube