That’s the situation Pink Floyd found themselves in after the unexpected, “overnight” success of Dark Side of the Moon. Although they’d notched a couple of British top 20 singles off their 1967 Syd Barrett created psychedelic debut, Pink Floyd toiled in and out of obscurity over on American shores. That all ended instantly in 1973 with the release of Dark Side, which entered the charts at #95, quickly rose to #1 and established Pink Floyd as world-wide superstars. Amongst it’s themes of fear, alienation and the coldness of modern living, Pink Floyd and primary songwriter Roger Waters managed to scale down the meandering scope of their prior works, like More, into sharper, more consistent songs. Adding to that the top 20 hit, “Money,” there was no stopping the boys on their runaway train of success.
So how do you follow that up? In Pink Floyd’s case the response two years in the making was to create an album arguably even better, more stunning in musicianship and more aggressive in content than Dark Side. Without the benefit of an instantly infectious bass line like the lead in to “Money,” Wish You Were Here still rose to #1 on the charts, revealing David Gilmour to be a guitarist of amazing power and fury, and Waters to be a songwriter of biting wit and sarcasm.
Starting off with the tribute to their rock and roll tragedy leader, Syd Barrett, “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” is a liquid-rock, sprawling, rolling epic. A slow burner, never in a hurry to get to an imaginary finish line, the song tells the story of Barrett’s brush with insanity (“Threatened by shadows in the night”) told through the alternating slow jazz and searing lead guitar lines of Gilmour. A slow burning sax solo, an ambient keyboard scape, a gentle pulsing bass. This is jazz, classical in its composition, rock in its intensity.
Then, without pausing, the dull, ominous keyboard of “Welcome to the Machine,” rises from the underground. Threatening and haunting, the keyboards build amongst a random cacophony of sound effects, a strummed acoustic guitar, finally breaking into a humanly distant vocal. Water’s cynicism is on full display in this mechanized, dehumanizing song. This theme runs throughout the album, a loose concept about the cruelty and greediness of the music industry and its effects on the delicate psych of Syd, leading him deep into his own world of insanity. Understated, Gilmour’s guitar ticks through his notes while Rick Wright’s keyboards lay on the heavy industrially sterile vibe.
“Have a Cigar,” bubbles out next, funky and meaty, Gilmour’s guitar work shines on this epic tale of the greed and duplicity of the music industry, leading us to the classic lyric, “Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink.” To highlight their point, the band turns the vocal over to Roy Harper, a semi-obscure folk/progster for whom the industry machine had always failed. This is the closets thing Wish You Were Here had to “Money,” plying a similar funky vibe, and would eventually become an FM radio staple. “Wish You Were Here,” is a simpler, touching acoustic ode to Barrett before the band launches back into the extended space jazz/rock jam of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” parts 6-9.
Rumor has it that Barrett made a surprise appearance in the studio during the final mixing of “Diamond,” buried in a trenchcoat, overweight, shorn of hair and eyebrows, totally oblivious to the fact that the song playing was an ode to himself.
Buy here: Wish You Were Here