September 5, 2016

…It was a very difficult period I have to say. All your childhood dreams had been sort of realized and we had the biggest selling records in the world and all the things you got into it for. The girls and the money and the fame and all that stuff it was all … everything had sort of come our way and you had to reassess what you were in it for thereafter, and it was a pretty confusing and sort of empty time for a while … – David Gilmour, recalling “Wish You Were Here.

What is an artist to do when a work they produce not just becomes wildly successful, but a phenomenon that surpasses anything they could have ever imagined in their wildest dreams? The Beatles, after the release of Sgt. Pepper, dutifully headed back into the studio to start working on Magical Mystery Tour, only to discover they were slowly disintegrating as a cohesive, working unit. Michael Jackson, following the success of Thriller, descended into a period of ever-increasing weirdness that he never emerged from. Fleetwood Mac, following Rumours, resisted the urge to tow the company line and instead, at Lindsay Buckingham’s urging, undertake an alternative, experimental approach with Tusk. The Eagles’ Don Henley and Glenn Frey readily admitted that, following the overwhelming success of Hotel California, they were physically, mentally, and artistically spent; it took all the strength and creativity they could muster to carve together the group’s swan song (at that time) The Long Run.

Such was the situation Pink Floyd found themselves in when, in 1974, following nearly two years of astronomic success touring The Dark Side Of The Moon, they found themselves faced with the awful and odd question, “OK, what do we do next?”. They had achieved success beyond their wildest dreams, but for artists at that time there was always the record company itching for new product. In those pre-internet, pre-music download days where artists could assert their own career direction and timeframe for producing and controlling new product, while the industry had gradually moved away from the expectation that artists produce new material once or twice a year, they were still expected to release product in a timely fashion. In addition, there are the demands that overwhelming success brings with it: bigger lifestyles, bigger financial obligations, a bigger circle of folks newly-dependent on your success. In short, the artist is no longer a “progressive rock band”, as the Floyd had come to be known, it had become a machine, and a machine that needed to be fed.

Rather than me blathering on in my own typical way, Wikipedia pretty much nails it as far as the so-called “theme” of the album goes:

Wish You Were Here is the second Pink Floyd album to use a conceptual theme written entirely by Roger Waters. It reflects his feeling that the camaraderie that had served the band was, by then, largely absent. The album begins with a long instrumental preamble and segues into the lyrics for “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”, a tribute to Syd Barrett, whose mental breakdown had forced him to leave the group seven years earlier. Barrett is fondly recalled with lines such as “Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun” and “You reached for the secret too soon, you cried for the moon”.

Wish You Were Here is also a critique of the music business. “Shine On” crosses seamlessly into “Welcome to the Machine”, a song that begins with an opening door (described by Waters as a symbol of musical discovery and progress betrayed by a music industry more interested in greed and success) and ends with a party, the latter epitomizing “the lack of contact and real feelings between people”. Similarly, “Have a Cigar” scorns record industry “fat cats” with the lyrics repeating a stream of cliches heard by rising new-comers in the industry, and including the question “by the way, which one’s Pink?” asked of the band on at least one occasion. The lyrics of the next song, “Wish You Were Here”, relate both to Barrett’s condition, and to the dichotomy of Waters’ character, with greed and ambition battling with compassion and idealism. The album closes with a reprise of “Shine On” and further instrumental excursions.

Here is a fascinating interview with Floyd guitarist David Gilmour that not just reinforces the above, but is illuminative of the circumstances from which the album evolved. (Not to mention how those four notes served to recall the sense of absence (in this case, that of founding member and creative muse Syd Barrett, who had left the band just after the release of their first album following a mental breakdown resulting from massive hallucinogen drug intake), and melancholy – if not outright disdain – at the machine Pink Floyd as four individual members had created, and the industry they were now responsible for feeding.

The album’s opening track, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”, appears from out of almost nowhere – the strains of Richard Wright’s VCS3 synthesizer slowly emerging out of something akin to a desert shimmering in the midday heat (not unlike the start of Clint Eastwood’s “High Plains Drifter”). Then you have those four somber notes, and the song takes off as a lament to their departed bandmate…

Remember when you were young
You shone like the sun
Shine on you crazy diamond

Now there’s a look in your eyes
Like black holes in the sky
Shine on, you crazy diamond

You were caught in the crossfire
Of childhood and stardom,
Blown on the steel breeze
Come on you target for faraway laughter
Come on you stranger, you legend,
You martyr, and shine

Taken together, all nine parts of “Shine On” could have easily fit on a single side, like earlier tracks such as “Atom Heart Mother” (from the album of the same name), and “Echoes”, from Meddle. But here the band has chosen to show, perhaps in an allegorical statement, a) where the band originated, b) where the band finds itself presently, and c) returning to where they had come from to compare the two. It doesn’t matter, really: “Shine On” is at times dreamy, melancholy, and bluesy in its presentation. More importantly, between the lyrics and the music, each member of the band – most especially Gilmour and Wright (who, between synthesizer, piano, organ, and Fender Rhodes piano, never sounded better) gets to display their individual roles in a cohesiveness they would never achieve again.

But in between, the three other songs, “Welcome To The Machine”, “Have A Cigar” (two scathing, angry indictments of the music industry and the soulless “fat cats” who run it), and “Wish You Were Here”, a melancholy lament about the two-edged sword wild success brings, introduced with yet another memorable guitar piece, and featuring some of Roger Waters’ finest lyrics ever penned…

So, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell, blue skies from pain.
Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?

Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?

How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have we found?
The same old fears.
Wish you were here.

…serve as the ground that the band is really trying to ply here. Success is great, something that you’ve worked incredibly hard to achieve, but once you’ve made it to the top, what then? How much of your soul – and yourself – have you given up to achieve it, and how much of both are you willing to give up to sustain it? And, more importantly, for the benefit of whom?

In my mind, what makes Wish You Were Here so good (and in my view, a better piece of work than Dark Side Of The Moon) is that the band brings to it a most balanced approach, lyrically and musically, to a height it would rarely (“Sheep” from Animals and “Comfortably Numb”, from The Wall come to mind) achieve again. It’s rare that you find a great guitar riff from an artist on a single album (let alone a career), but on Wish You Were Here you get two of the best ever. The musicianship on the album is top-notch, and Waters’ lyrics, at times cutting, venomous, and acerbic, at other times intimate, longing, and melancholy never cross over the line into vitriol and anger almost to the point of parody that they would increasingly in the band’s follow-up releases.

The Dark Side Of The Moon will always be Pink Floyd’s most popular album, but I’m not alone in my assessment that its successor is the band’s overall finest work, for it achieves the perfect blend of individual musicianship with a lyrical content that is, for lack of a better term, most “Floydian”. Band members Wright and Gilmour often cited the album as their favorite Floyd album, and many critics and fans alike think along those same lines.

Filed in: Uncategorized by The Great White Shank at 01:28 | Comments Off on The Great White Shank’s Top Ten: #5: Pink Floyd “Wish You Were Here”
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