Saturday, September 12, 2015

Like black holes in the sky - Wish You Were Here turns 40

One of the breakthrough moments of my youth would be considered by others as nothing particularly remarkable. Listening to a “borrowed” (i.e. stolen from my brother) copy of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were, I discovered that I could, sort of, emulate on my little, nylon-stringed Spanish acoustic guitar, the bluesy fluidity of David Gilmour throughout the record - which was released 40 years ago today, and remains my favourite Floyd album by far.

From the haunting, echoey “jing-jing-jing-jang” motif at the beginning of Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V), to Gilmour's Stratocaster run that comes a few moments later, I discovered that my apparent ear for mimicry had more meaningful purpose than simply annoying family members with impersonations of Muppets.

So, the more I listened to Wish You Were Here - usually again and again and again - the more my confidence with that Spanish guitar grew. I learned the slowed-down funk of Have A Cigar and the lucid chords accompanying Welcome To The Machine. And, of course, like all would-be buskers and student party strummers, I learned how to play the Wish You Were Here title track, inside and out. However, as much as I appreciated the album for its musical qualities, it would be a long time before I would appreciate what the album was actually about.

Wish You Were Here marked a turning point in Pink Floyd’s career. When recording began in the first week of January 1975, the band had emerged from The Dark Side Of The Moon becoming their creative and commercial zenith. Touring for the album had gone on long into 1974, during which Floyd had tried out new material, including Shine On You Crazy Diamond, and a couple of extended tracks that would eventually end up on 1977’s Animals.

Early Wish You Were Here sessions were notably jaded. The band was physically exhausted from both touring Dark Side and coming to terms with its success. And with it was a creeping cynicism towards the music business itself, along with the alienation that came from playing to bigger and less intimate audiences on the road (a theme that would build further with Roger Waters’ infamous spitting incident during the Animals tour, culminating in one of the core themes of The Wall).

To all intents and purposes, The Wall marked the formal demise of the ‘classic’ Floyd line-up - Waters, Gilmour, Rick Wright and Nick Mason - but all four of them have, at some point in time, acknowledged that the beginning of the end began with Dark Side and its success.

“We were at a watershed,” Waters told film maker John Edginton in his excellent 2012 documentary Pink Floyd: The Story of Wish You Were Here.

“I think it could have been easy to have spilt up [after DSOTM], but we didn't because we were frightened of what was out there in the great beyond and outside this incredibly valuable trade name, Pink Floyd."

“However," Waters said in the earlier Edginton documentary, The Pink Floyd & Syd Barrett Story, “we were over, as far as the band of brothers notion is concerned.” The band had become somewhat disconnected with each other. The creative process - and pressure - to come up with a successor to Dark Side also lead to days of complete inertia at Abbey Road.

Waters, as he increasingly asserted himself as the band’s creative force (several years after principle songwriter and founder member Syd Barrett had been eased out as his acid-fired eccentricities rendered him unreliable), came up with Shine On You Crazy Diamond as a long, nine-part suite broken into two sequences that would bookend the album, with three shorter songs in between. Although creative tensions between Waters and Gilmour, in particular, were already evident at this point, the band went on with the idea.

Though the album wasn’t intended to be particularly about absence, Shine On You Crazy Diamond was, beyond any doubt, a love letter to Barrett, a childhood friend of both Waters and Gilmour. His escape from reality brought about, on Wish You Were Here, some of Waters’ best writing on any Floyd album, especially Shine On, with lines like “Now there's a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky.”, “You were caught in the crossfire of childhood and stardom, blown on the steel breeze.” and “You wore out your welcome with random precision, rode on the steel breeze.”

The melancholy nature of Waters’ words - and melancholy is one of his go-to states - were matched by an epic sweep of music, beginning with the ‘dawn of time’ keyboards, a G-Minor chord inspired by experimentation with wine glasses. Gilmour’s famous guitar motif had “popped out” one day on an acoustic guitar. To commit it to record, he decamped to Abbey Road's cavernous orchestral studio to set his guitar and amp up with the room's enormous acoustics.

My first encounter with Shine On You Crazy Diamond had actually occurred earlier at school, when an English teacher played us a BBC Radio production of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rhyme Of The Ancient Mariner, narrated by Richard Burton. Brilliantly, the BBC prefaced the first line with that opening section of Shine On. I was hooked. Especially on that echoey, haunting guitar riff.

“Somehow those notes evoked Syd and his disappearance and absence, especially in Roger,” Gilmour explained in Edginton’s film, but also pointed out that absence and disengagement were also increasing in the band itself.

“After Dark Side Of The Moon we had to assess what we were in this for - were we artists or businessmen? - and why we would want to continue doing it. Roger has said that we may have been finished at that point. He may have been right.”

The band’s own absence, and the loss of Barrett, are rarely far away on any of Wish You Were Here’s songs. Have A Cigar, for example, swipes at the music industry and its affect on the band, and indeed the pressure on Barrett in the early days to deliver hits.

Ironically, Have A Cigar became a minor hit, with its cynicism accentuated by the guest vocal performance of Roy Harper, brought in since Gilmour’s falsetto didn’t seem right for the track, and Waters' own vocals weren’t cutting it. Harper virtually acted his way through the song, adding theatrical spite to the self-reverential quip, “Oh by the way, which one’s Pink?” - a famous reference to the industry ‘suits’ who’d never understood that Pink Floyd wasn’t a single person, but a portmanteau of southern bluesmen Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.

Waters explored the hand that was feeding him further on Welcome To The Machine, with its vituperative reflections on record industry manipulation (“What did you dream? It's alright, we told you what to dream”) and the angry, throbbing VCS3 synth representing, in Waters’ own words, “that monstrous grinding thing that chews us up and spits us out”.

At the heart of the album is what will always be for me one of the most eloquent, direct and, indeed, perfect songs ever written, the title track, Wish You Were Here. It’s country-blues simplicity - there’s no wonder it has become a staple of amateur guitarists everywhere - backdrops the angst of its words:  “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?”.

Again, there are the complications of fame: “Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts? Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? Cold comfort for change?”, with Waters ending the section with a dig at his own situation: “Did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?”.

By Floyd standards, the song Wish You Were Here is short at just five minutes and forty seconds. But in that relatively brief interlude, it perhaps contains more emotion than the traditionally middle-class Englishmen that Pink Floyd were would normally expose themselves to. It is a song that can reduce grown men to tears through its beauty and simplicity, and mournful blues that adds flourish to the overall theme of loss and sadness that Wish You Were Here as an album concerns itself with.

Famously, eerily and, to this day, largely unexplainedly, Syd Barrett appeared at Abbey Road while Floyd were coming to the end of making the album. On June 5, 1975, they noticed a clinically obese man, with a shaven head and shaved eyebrows, standing at the back of the studio.

At first, Waters, Gilmour, Wright and Mason couldn’t recognise who it was and, frankly,  how such an eccentric-looking individual had been allowed past the Abbey Road commissionaire.

Gradually it dawned on them. Tears rolled down cheeks. The once handsome, lithe, buoyant individual with a magnetic personality now had a look in his eyes "like black holes in the sky”, as Waters would write in Shine On You Crazy Diamond.

Wish You Were Here was released on September 12, 1975 with the themes of absence, loss and the music business machine enigmatically captured by the artwork of Storm Thorgerson, the band’s Cambridge schoolfriend, who had designed the famous ‘prism’ cover of The Dark Side Of The Moon.

Recognising that his artistry was limited to photography, he interpreted Wish You Were Here’s agenda very literally, with pictures such as that of two men shaking hands on a Hollywood studio lot, with one of the men on fire (no visual effect - stuntman Ronnie Rondell really was set on fire for the picture).

Another featured a diver arrowing into Mono Lake, the eerie salt water expanse near the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park in California. Although Thorgerson’s choice of location was for artistic impact, he couldn’t have picked a better place for thematic resonance, being a six-hour drive up Highway 395 from Los Angeles and the entertainment industry madness therein.

13-minute, synthesiser and guitar-based, quasi-orchestral songs may not be your cup of tea, then or now, but for an album recorded in the phlegm-free two years before punk, Wish You Were Here  sought somewhat quiet reflection on many of the symptoms of rock music that had appeared in the post-pop period.

The “crossfire of childhood and stardom” spat out casualties and broke up friendships, and started to poison the creative structure of bands like Pink Floyd which had emerged during that incredible, remarkable period in musical creativity that began with Elvis Presley and became “progressive” with The Beatles in the decade that followed.

The perfect combination of music, the words, and even the artwork, makes Wish You Were Here an album which, forty years on, peerless. It may not be The Dark Side Of The Moon - and that’s a good thing, since that album should be regarded distinctly in its own right - and it may well have been the start of Pink Floyd’s precipitous slide into dysfunction, ego battles and Waters’ own increasing inability to reconcile with his own demons (particularly the wartime death of his father),

It is no surprise, then, that Wish You Were Here has been described by various members of the Floyd as the favourite of their canon, one of “grief and anger, but also love” in Waters’ words, “the most complete album”, in Gilmour’s.

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