I learnt this LP by heart (and soul) lying on my bedroom floor, with the headphones plugged into the puny box of fuseboards which just about passed for a record player when I was fourteen.
Thirty years on, it remains one of the, if not the finest phones albums to have ever existed. In subjecting yourself to Wish You Were Here, you willingly abandon any connection with your bedroom floor, your sofa, or wherever you wish to experience it. Neither your annoying little brother nor your mum calling you for tea even exist anymore, nor does being 14 or 45 years old. It’s a thousand percent fusion of you and the music, the sounds, the feelings. Its three-quarters of an hour are a hundred thousand lifetimes.
It was amongst the first components of my transition to CD, having not long before laughingly dismissed the format as a hi-tech fad. (Still miss the familiar crackles of my dearly departed vinyl copy, which was duly recorded onto cassette for my Uni days. Come to think of it, maybe my annoying little brother still has the LP!) Thirty years of listening; each word and note, each sound effect and channel-switch etched into your being; yet there’s still something new every time.
The year 1975 was a weird time for the Floyd. The Dark Side of the Moon (‘73) had made them into monsters. They were one of the biggest-earning rock bands in the world, and a household name. The underground days of space-rock were well behind them, and they certainly weren’t playing with Emily anymore.
Always pioneers in performance, they had certainly not failed their audiences in presenting Dark Side’s enormity and depth on stage, further consolidating their reputation. Just as they should have been “riding the gravy train”, they found themselves feeling hopelessly drained and completely lacking in any kind of direction or motivation. Just how the hell do you attempt to follow up Dark Side of the Moon?!!
The original plan was to record three tracks that they’d been developing live the previous year. Of these, only “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” actually made it onto the album, though split into two parts. (No matter how great the band’s command of recording technologies, not even they could increase the playing time of a single side of vinyl!) The other two compositions eventually evolved into “Dogs” and “Sheep” on the subsequent Animals LP.
The changes were Roger Waters’ vision and decision (all of the album’s lyrics are credited to him). While Rick Wright and Nick Mason were largely in agreement, David Gilmour was less enthusiastic about the amendments, though he has since cited “Wish You Were Here” as his favourite work by the band. In many ways, this was the beginning of the rift between Gilmour and Waters which would slowly, painfully, yet inevitably lead to their “final cut”: Waters’ departure a decade later.
Recording sessions at Abbey Road stretched out through the first seven months of 1975, with two U.S. tours in between (premiering some of the new material). “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” was dedicated to the rise and fall of former Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett, and “Wish You Were Here” was written to extend the tribute. The other two tracks composed for the revised project were open attacks on “the Biz”: “Welcome to the Machine” and “Have a Cigar”.
The whole opus has an underlying sense of loss, of lack, of longing: there are bursts of anger, sighs of remorse; bitter resignation and flashes of enlightenment: a record which serves as a record of the group’s state(s) of being at the time. And yet, because these feelings are so timeless and universal, it also manages to touch the essence of the human condition. Wish You Were Here gets you every time.
Pink Floyd — Wish You Were Here: Track-by-track review
1. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V)”
The vast, majestic desolation of the bleak opening sequence is overwhelming. I’m not a synthesiser man — couldn’t tell a minimoog from a mellotron — but the soundscape painted here is so utterly immense it defies classification. You could be soaring over the Himalaya, the Gobi, or the Arctic; diving the depths of the Pacific; preparing your spaceship to land god-knows-where. Only one thing is certain: you are very, very alone. Listen to those fizzling sounds over the ethereal introductory wash. Are they fading memories, or crumbling dreams?
The original sleeve concept of the Wish You Were Here album was to wrap the LP in plain black paper, concealing the burning businessman cover, further underlining the theme of ‘absence’ which pervades the album. Clearly, the Music Machine rejected this blatant absence of product information outright, and so the mechanical handshake logo was added as a sticker. The background segments and the other Hipgnosis images included represent the four elements, emphasising the universal sense of “perfect isolation” which the electronic textures weave.
Over two minutes into the journey and Gilmour’s first guitar notes thread a new motif into the tapestry. He isn’t playing with his fingers, but with his soul. The solo has nothing at all — yet absolutely everything- to do with the synthesised backscreen. The fragile beauty of his guitar at times gently weeps, at times primally screams his sense of solitude.
The third part of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” seems to begin with the four repeated echoing guitar notes which the ring the change, unfurling the drums and the bass and later organ onto the track. Its full enormity floods in: the horizons rolled back to reveal the true extent of the void, an imposing infinity of emptiness; a silence so excruciatingly loud that it deafens.
The eight lines of vocal take up just 2 1/2 mins of the total thirteen and a half.
Remember when you were young?
You shone like the sun!
Waters sings an emotional tribute to their former frontman and friend, Syd Barrett, backed by Wright and Gilmour, with female harmonies. Syd had left the band, by mutual consent, after the release of their first album. Never blessed with the soundest of mental health, copious consumption of assorted recreational pharmaceuticals had left “the madcap” completely incapable of functioning as part of the group.
You reached for the secret too soon
You cried for the moon
Shine on you crazy diamond!
Having withdrawn from the music world — and the world in general — after a pair of solo albums at the turn of the decade, Syd hadn’t been seen by anyone in the rest of the band for over five years. His unannounced arrival at the studios during the recording of “Shine On”, not to mention his ravaged physical appearance, had Waters in tears, the other three unsure what to say.
Come on you raver
You seer of visions
Come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner
The saxophone of guest artist Dick Parry carries us through to end of the track, by turns mournful and jubilant, a perfect accompaniment to the band’s overlapping, intertwining and constantly shifting nuances. The percussion and bass mark an understated stop, the sax disintegrates into some jazz-style scale improvisations, guitar and keyboards softly fade away. An ominous mechanical pulse begins to throb…
2. “Welcome To The Machine”
The booming of the factory presses rises relentlessly. Brash electric buzzers, clanking gear-shifts and hissing discharges of sulpuric steam echo from these dark, Satanic mills. Metalicised acoustic guitar chords are shadowed by the synths to introduce Gilmour’s asphyxiated vocal:
Welcome my son
Welcome to the machine
The “Machine” is the music industry. Production, Packaging, Publicity and Profit: all taken care of. Look no further than the faceless Magritte-esque executive in the photograph enclosed. The indignant irony of Roger Waters’ lyric anticipates the flavour of his subsequent writing, though here he manages to stay just this side of the maudlinness of The Final Cut, or certain bricks from The Wall.
The throbbing bassline and Nick Mason’s timpani subtly resist being moulded completely by the plant machinery, although at times they are almost swamped, indistinguishable. The insistent strumming of the twelve-string and Wright’s surging synthesisers keep the conveyor belt running.
The monotony of the mechanical monster and the bitter anguish of the vocal carry the product interminably through the process. A new, more insistent machine is switched in, a steel door slams out the fading traces of music, the final scant remnants of humanity. We are trapped in a madly accelarating elevator which, perversely, drops us into a party. Plenty of self-congratulory laughter — maybe a record launch.
“Welcome To The Machine” was the end of the original LP’s side one.
Whether or not Dark Side of the Moon was made to accompany The Wizard of Oz, this song is the soundtrack for scenes from Chaplin’s Modern Times, or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
3. “Have A Cigar”
The lurching riff cuts right in at the end of the previous track’s cocktail party sounds on CD; on the original LP it opened the second side. The spluttering distortion of the fat bass and indignant guitar suggest yet another machine struggling to crank into life. Rick and Nick come in to get it running at least a little more smoothly.
We’re whisked into the inner sanctum, the private office of the big boss himself. The smooth-talking mogul handing out the Havanas is given life (or at least voice) by guest singer Roy Harper.
Harper was recording in the next studio, and offered to help out when Waters was rendered aphonic by a cold. Amazing character, Roy Harper: he’s been singer-songwriting since the mid 60s, usually labelled — rather limitingly — as ‘Folk’. He’s made an album with Jimmy Page* and jammed onstage with him and Plant dozens of times. He’s duetted with Kate Bush** and has played the Glastonbury Mainstage and the Royal Albert Hall, and yet he has always successfully managed to evade the bigtime, to stay clear of the cogs of The Machine. He’s still a cult troubadour, a “One Man Rock ‘n’ Roll Band” in the smoky student bars of Britain. The smokier the better for Royboy!
He does a great job with the vocal here, catching the twisted insinuations of the creep in the suit to a tee. If his ‘walk on part’ was unplanned, it still works very nicely having a non-Floyd singer to distance themselves further from the sycophantic schemer. So many words, so little understanding:
The band is just fantastic
That is really what I think
Oh, by the way, which one’s ‘Pink’?
It was the first appearance of the personification of Pink around whom The Wall would be constructed, the character later played by Bob Geldof in the film version. It wasn’t, however, the first time the band had been asked the question!
The insistent duelling chacka-wacka of guitar and bass reiterate the double-talking insincerity of the lyric, while the shifting drum fills and seductive synth waves stay with the silver-tongued smarm. It’s been awfully nice talking to you, chaps… the party’s suddenly over… off you go now, back to work.
Whoooooosssssssssh!!! The whole band is sucked back into the pipeline and forced to finish the playout through a crackling radio speaker.
* Whatever Happened to Jugula? (1984)
** “Breathing” (Kate Bush single from Never Forever), “You” on Roy Harper The Unknown Soldier (both 1980)
4. “Wish You Were Here”
Bored with the last song, someone rolls the tuning dial on their tinny old tranny: whitenoise static, politics, a play, a snatch of classical music. It’s still not fully tuned-in as the subdued twelve-string intro begins. The cough.
How many apprentice guitarist friends have I known, trying to capture the dreamlike fragility of these chords? Listening to the song I can be with all of them again, be they lost for good or just lost touch with. When I e-mailed someone to say I’d undertaken this review, she replied to say she’d played the album the previous night! Waters may have been missing Syd Barrett when he wrote the lyric, but ‘wish you were here’ can be projected to anybody who anyone would like to be with.
Another more distinct guitar line is layered over the faraway strumming; more earnest, yet equally detached, then both ring out to open the vocal. The quaint conditional structure of the title is a throwaway from countless picture postcards but in this case it’s definitely not preceded by ‘having a lovely time.’ It’s a postcard from the edge.
David Gilmour’s delicate delivery underpins the sense of loneliness to perfection, backed by the mournful sighs of his lap steel guitar. Hope you think you’ve made the right choices, ‘cos I’m not sure I have.
Mason’s drums roll lazily in and the whole song bursts into bloom for the second verse. Who chose better, you or me? Sentimental touches of tinkling piano. The guitar solo is duetted by a synthesised vocal ad-lib. Voice-like guitars and guitar-like voices: nothing’s really clear, especially the decisions we’ve all had to make.
The final verse unfolds with a new, emphatic realisation. Right here, right now there is only one thing that’s really certain:
How I wish you were here!!!
Backed by Rick Wright and Nick Mason, Waters and Gilmour duetted “Wish You Were Here” at the Live 8 Benefit in 2005, after more than twenty years of virtually constant bitching (public and private), mudslinging and legal wrangling. Both played acoustic: Gilmour enraptured, radiant; Waters almost too choked to sing. “Two lost souls, swimming in a fish bowl.” Look no further than that event to truly understand the transcendental healing qualities of this song.
There’s a long playout, returning to the reflective feel of the intro, but considerably more ‘up’. More of that playful doo-diddy synth-singing, remembering the good times.
Isn’t that the point? In simply wishing someone were here, you can always have them with you whenever you need them. It’s okay to laugh, it’s okay to cry. Cherish those memories.
But don’t smile too soon, there’s a cold wind getting up.
5. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts VI-IX)”
From the icy gale which obliterates the previous track grows an ominous bass pulse. The full nine-part suite was usually perfomed live either in its entirety, or with “Have a Cigar” passing it from the cool sax to the steel breeze. On the 2001 Echoes compilation, the alpha and omega of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” (parts I-VII, at least) were mixed into a majestic 17 1/2 min near-whole. Funny, that… I remember clumsily trying to accomplish it on cassette about thirty years earlier!
On the album, the sixth movement begins to pick up momentum: a second hypnotic bassline and electronic drone. Gilmour cranks the starting handle, but the motor won’t kick in: it takes Mason’s assistance to jumpstart it. With the engines idling on the rhythm section, a stately synth and sedate slide calmly carry out the cockpit check, revving guitar clanking impatiently. Ladies and gentlemen, please fasten you safety belts, we are ready for launch!
The track takes off on the swooping and soaring of Gilmour’s pedal-steel solo, but the flight plan is executed by the incredible fusion of sounds and feelings provided by all the members of the band. It’s like riding some monstrous theme park attraction: white knuckles, clenched teeth, churning guts, spinning head, wondering just why you got on in the first place.
Then just when you think you can’t take it anymore, a strident electric guitar reintroduces the “Shine On” melody refrain from Part One.
Nobody knows where you are
How near or how far
Nobody had clapped eyes on Syd Barrett in more than half a decade. And no one recognised him to begin with when he ambled into the studio during sessions for the song written to him. He’d piled on weight and shaved his head (and the rest of his facial hair) and he clearly wasn’t on the same planet as anyone else.
The band were distraught, but none more than Roger Waters, who was only too aware of the delicate state of his own mental and emotional health.
Pile on many more layers
And I’ll be joining you there
The final six minutes or so, Parts VIII and IX, are in contemplative mode. Moments of poignant introspection, waves of overwhelming self-realisation. You can ponder what you like. The latter history of Pink Floyd, for example. The gloomy grandeur of The Wall, ‘Pink’ Geldof hacking at his eyebrows with a razor in the movie, the lasers and lightshows, the bitter acrimony of the breakup and its aftermath.
Only the combined talents of the band could really be the real thing: the way they interweave in this passage is a sublime example. The Live 8 reconciliation. Shine on!
Thudding drums announce a solemn synthesiser solo. Don’t forget Syd: the burnt out supernova of a former Floyd. He died in 2006, having sought no further contact with his former bandmates and little with the world outside his head. A childlike spirit, shattered by reality. “Winner, loser, miner for truth and delusion.” Shine on!
Crashing piano and that soul-tingling steel guitar again. Think some more about anyone and everyone you’re wishing were here. We’re all crazy diamonds. Float away on the fade-out (if you listen very carefully you can hear Emily playing again). Meditate your past, your present, your future, your universal uniqueness. And SHINE!!!
Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd
“Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V)”
“Welcome To The Machine”
“Have A Cigar”
“Wish You Were Here”
“Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts VI-IX)”