Pink Floyd started out in the mid-'60s as The Tea Set, mostly playing R&B. The precursor of its eventually famous name originated when the band found itself on a bill with another band also named The Tea Set and leader Syd Barrett had to spontaneously come up with and alternative: The Pink Floyd Sound, inspired by the names of two old-time Piedmont style blues men, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.
A decade on, the band that convened at Abbey Road Studios in January 1975 had drastically altered in many ways. Long jams on their material had moved their style from R&B to psychedelia. Barrett had been become mentally afflicted, whether through neurological disorder or LSD or a combination thereof, and the band had brought on guitarist David Gilmour in 1968, just a year after their debut album. Initially he just augmented the band and filled a bigger role whenever Barrett spaced out onstage, but his presence soon allowed the band to cut its ties with the increasingly non-functional Barrett. With the loss of their main songwriter, bassist Roger Waters came to the fore as lyricist and vocalist, and Barrett's whimsy was replaced by more serious themes and more extensive musical psychedelia and progressive rock. They'd also gone from bewildered reactions (Mason recalled a gig in the early days when they weren't paid and a judge ruled against them, saying what they did “wasn't music”) to the top of the U.S. LP chart for the first time with their 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon. It and the concurrent tours made the band members rich, but also exhausted them; creative conflicts and personal problems arose.
When they started trying to follow up the biggest success of their career so far, they had a few new songs they'd started playing on tour, but work proceeded slowly, interrupted by further touring. Then Waters found a Gilmour lick reminded him of Barrett; Waters's dissatisfaction with the fruits of fame and the memory of what its first stirrings had wrought on Barrett combined in a new album concept that resulted in most of the already written new songs being ditched. That Gilmour lick sparked the heart of the album, a lengthy tribute to Barrett entitled "Shine on You Crazy Diamond." The vast majority of this nine-movement piece's sections are purely instrumental, with some of David Gilmour's most inspired guitar solos and Rick Wright's spaciest keyboard effects. There are some funky moments, but mostly it's reflective, with bittersweet nostalgia the dominant mood. Gilmour didn't want it to be split up the way it was, with parts 1-5 opening the album and 6-9 concluding it, preferring it to run continuously on one LP side the way “Echoes” had on Meddle, but he was outvoted.
On June 5 came one of the spookiest coincidences in music history. While the band was finishing up "Shine on You Crazy Diamond," a fat man with a completely shaved head (including no eyebrows) wandered into the studio. Although he went unrecognized at first, so changed was his appearance (and so warped his communication), the band members eventually realized with shock that it was Syd Barrett. Waters was so disturbed by his former colleague's physical and mental deterioration that he cried. Barrett heard a playback of "Shine On," showed no reaction indicating that he had any idea that its lyrics were about him, and later left without saying goodbye. It was the last time Gilmour, Wright, drummer Nick Mason, and Waters saw the man who soon become a hermit living with his mother. Gilmour was careful to make sure that Barrett got all recording and publishing royalties, and Barrett died a millionaire.
The second track on the album, "Welcome to the Machine," is also largely instrumental, but more menacing in its vision of enforced automation, with Waters's singing oozing desperation and despair. "Have a Cigar" displays Waters's cynicism about the music business in its sardonic caricature of a label executive's schmoozing pep talk/patter, with Roy Harper singing the lead vocal (he was recording his album HQ at Abbey Road at the time, and after Waters had worn out his voice singing “Shine On,” and Gilmour demurred, the invitation was extended to their pal Harper and he was happy to help; Waters later said he should have sung it himself, but really it works better conceptually having a non-bandmember in the role of industry ignoramus).
The title track, the shortest on the disc, is a complete change of pace. It starts out dimly, as if heard over a lo-fi radio, then goes into an acoustic guitar solo that recalls the band's early interest in the blues. Even after the volume goes up and the electric instruments join, acoustic riffing continues as the basis of the song. If the lyrics are not obviously about Barrett, the mood they create speaks to his memory nonetheless.
Over the course of Pink Floyd's next three albums, Waters would increasingly dominate. On Wish You Were Here, however, the balance between musical and lyrical concerns is ideal. Perhaps that contributed to it becoming their first album to top the album charts in both their native England and in the U.S. Wright and Gilmour both proclaimed it their favorite album by the group. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who splits his time between editing Culturecatch.com, working at the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix, and editing cognitive neuroscience books for Oxford University Press. No prizes for guessing which pays best.