Graded on a Curve:
Pink Floyd,
Wish You Were Here

Celebrating David Gilmour on his 77th birthday.Ed.

I have a dream. It’s that someone will put out a LP of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here made out of sugar and heavily laced with LSD. That way you could lick it before turning it on, and hear the damn album the way it should be heard, while you’re peaking.

It would be appropriate; has any major band ever been as associated with acid as Pink Floyd? (Yeah. The Grateful Dead, dumbo.) But not even the Dead managed to put out LPs (like 1969’s Ummagumma) that I would ONLY listen to while I was on hallucinogens, because they were unlistenable to anyone on the uninitiated side of the doors of perception. That said, I’ve since put on Ummagumma and found its first side to be bearable and its second side to be complete and unadulterated bullshit (“Several Species of Small Furry Animals” or “The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party (Entertainment),” anyone?). And while my recollections are hazy, I have come to the conclusion that the guy in the dorm who owned it was so far out there he’d only play side two while tripping balls.

The Pink Floyd story is a familiar one. The band was formed in London in 1965 by Syd Barrett, Nick Mason, Roger Waters, and Richard Wright, with David Gilmour coming aboard in 1967, destined to be the substitute for Barrett, who despite the band’s success and his status as the band’s chief songwriter was coming unhinged.

After numerous legendary on-stage fiascos involving increasingly odd behavior on the part of Barrett—he might stand in the hot stage lights, crushed ludes melting in his hair, looking off into the distance with his arms dangling down, declining to play his guitar for the entire set—the band more or less decided to not pick him up for a gig, and just like that he was gone, although his living specter (he showed up, bald and bloated, at the Wish You Were Here sessions, and his evident madness left several of his former band mates in tears) would haunt the band and indeed inspire some of their best work.

As time went on the band moved from challenging works such as Ummagumma towards more commercial LPs, such as 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon, which contained none of their trademark acid jams (“long psychedelic noodling stuff,” as Gilmour dismissively described them) and made them superstars. But I’m partial to its successor, 1974’s Wish You Were Here, in part because I’ve heard “Time” and “Money” so many times I scream in agony when they come on the radio, and I don’t think I could give the landmark LP they’re on an even break.

Wish You Were Here marks a return to the long songs that had been absent on 1972’s Obscured by Clouds and The Dark Side of the Moon. Actually it only contains one long song, but what a song! A little over 26 minutes in length, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” bookends (Waters’ idea) the LP, and inexplicably avoids outstaying its welcome. And not only is it broken in half, each half includes multiple parts, which always scare me; songs with multiple parts tend invariably to be prog monstrosities and a signal of overweening pretentiousness, and should be banned.

But the opening sections (i.e., I-V) of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” cohere, believe it or not. It opens with some synthesizer drone presumably produced by Wright, the band’s chief keyboardist. Then a pastoral, trumpet-like sound (also synth-produced) joins the electronic drone and some gently tinkling percussion until Gilmour enters on guitar. And what tone he produces with that guitar! So bright it could blind you! Individual notes as sharp as acupuncture needles! And he plays a solo for the ages, no shit!

Meanwhile the keyboards grow slightly more baroque until their silence marks the introduction to the second part, which features Gilmour producing a slightly rougher and tougher sound, only to return to producing razor-edged notes in yet another solo, growing more vociferous by the nonce. And then—I’m getting tired here—Waters commences singing his elegy to Barrett: “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.” He goes on, his phrasing punctuated by heavy guitar riffs and a gang singing the title, before concluding, “Come on you raver/You seer of visions/Come on you painter, you piper/You prisoner, shine,” at which point Dick Parry enters on saxophone to take the song out.

“Welcome to the Machine” opens with some odd machine noises—my guess is we’re listening to an alien making bleeping love to a broken clothes dryer—before Gilmour enters on guitar and vocals, singing, “Welcome my son/Welcome to the machine.” This one is mid-tempo and rife with sound effects, and doesn’t really take off until a multitude of voices sings the title. An EMS VCS 3 provides the dramatic swooping synth sounds, and is accompanied by acoustic guitar and a whole bag of studio magic tricks. As the song builds to a climax the EMS VCS 3 really takes off—I would have loved to have heard this one tripping—only to disappear from whence it came, followed by a sports car taking off that turns into a synth noise, which in turn is followed by a chattering and laughing throng at some soiree or other.

“Have a Cigar” is a scathing indictment of the music industry (as is “Welcome to the Machine”), which raises an interesting point; to wit, Wish You Were Here is a concept album with two completely different concepts, which to my way of thinking is just wrong, wrong, wrong. One concept, sure. No concept, ditto. But two? That’s gilding the lily, my friends. That said, “Have a Cigar” is a great tune, from its opening guitar riff and funky organ to its synth highlights.

In short, the song is groovy, man, thanks in part to the band’s decision to let eccentric English folk rock legend Roy Harper (he’s the subject of Led Zeppelin’s “Hats Off to Roy Harper”) sing the lyrics, which are basically a soliloquy by a callous and obviously insincere record label exec spouting bromides and bullshit. His clueless comment, “By the way, which one’s pink?” has become a part of every stoner’s lexicon, and Gilmour’s guitar gets better and better, with Harper singing, “If we tell you the name of the game, boy/It’s called riding the gravy train.” This is followed by a great alternately chugging and laser-sharp guitar solo by Gilmour that is accompanied at least part of the time by the synthesizers. Then a wash of sound obliterates everything but Gilmour’s guitar, which plays like a stereo locked in a box.

From there the band segues into the great title track, with its acoustic guitar opening and beautiful melody. It’s a touching tribute to Barrett, and eschews studio gimmickry; Gilmour sings in a naked voice, and plays great guitar backed by some simple synthesizers. And there’s no escaping the power of the tune when the whole band comes in, most notably Wright on the piano. Meanwhile Gilmour sings, “How I wish/How I wish you were here/We’re two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl/Year after year,” then ends the song singing nonsense syllables as the synthesizers imitate horns and a cold wind blows somewhere from Barrett’s cracked mind.

Closer “Shine on You Crazy Diamond (Parts VI-IX)” emerges from that wind, and boasts a throbbing bass that leads to some synthesizer and guitar riffs that come from here, there, and everywhere. The melody is lovely, and segues into a hard rock passage with Gilmour’s guitar running roughshod over the proceedings, and one other reason I prefer this LP over The Dark Side of the Moon is that it better showcases Gilmour’s mastery of the guitar. It goes on and on, his solo, zigzagging until it segues into a passage the opening of which reminds me of David Bowie. Then the band comes in to once again sing the song’s title in tandem, although Waters handles lead vocals.

From there the song segues into a jazzier construct, with lots of funky organ and a great guitar solo and lots more swooping and soaring synthesizers. Usually this wouldn’t be my cup of tea, but that’s what I love most about this LP—how it explodes my preconceptions and prejudices. The section that follows, for example, is pure prog, with that synthesized trumpet making a comeback, but far from turning up my nose in disgust, I rather like it. It’s slow and doleful, and a perfect memoriam for a lost comrade, a friend who has slipped on the banana peel of his own mind, and it takes the LP out on exactly the right elegiac note.

There’s a darkness at the core of all of us, ready to swallow us whole. This is what became of Barrett, poor soul, and if I were a religious man I’d send him a prayer. But it would never be as arresting and heartfelt as “Wish You Were Here” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” which I consider the rock equivalents of W.H. Auden’s poem in memory of W.B. Yeats. Auden wrote, “Follow, poet, follow right/To the bottom of the night/With your unconstraining voice/Still persuade us to rejoice.” Barrett’s sad fate haunted Pink Floyd into greatness, if not into rejoicing, and God only knows whether to think of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” as an elegy or an exorcism.

It doesn’t really matter, in the end. Pink Floyd could not untangle itself from the chords of memory that bound it to its former front man, who slipped out a side door of sanity and was gone forever, less a lost soul swimming in a fish bowl than a man sinking, deeper and deeper, into the unfathomable depths of his own dark fate.


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