Search This Blog

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here


PINK FLOYD: WISH YOU WERE HERE (1975)

1) Shine On You Crazy Diamond (parts 1-5); 2) Welcome To The Machine; 3) Have A Cigar; 4) Wish You Were Here; 5) Shine On You Crazy Diamond (parts 8-9).

General verdict: The most elaborate and heartfelt funeral for a living friend in rock history.

In almost any account of Pink Floyd history, the genesis of Wish You Were Here is inextricably linked to The Dark Side Of The Moon — usually in the context of a question like «what do you do when you have just released one of the most commercially succesful and critically revered albums of all time?». Somewhat ironically, the original plan could not have been more different from the final results: in 1974, perhaps somewhat confused and dismayed by the enormity of their own success, the band took the decision to go back to their avantgarde-experimental roots and release an album of musique concrète, all of which would be played on various household objects, from wine glasses to hand mixers. Although some of the explored effects made their way onto WYWH in the end, ultimately the idea did not work — and perhaps it could not have worked: after all, once you cross the line that separates esoteric intellectual underground from accessible mass acclaim, going back like nothing happened is not a realistic option. However, the attempt was not totally wasted: it did manage to put them in a special kind of creative-imaginative mood that helped a lot once they started working on the real thing.

Although by 1974-1975 the «progressive» streak in popular music was beginning to wear thin, with critical admiration for bands like Yes and Jethro Tull gradually turning to disappointment, the immense success of Dark Side pretty much guaranteed to make Floyd an exception to the rule — that is, only as long as their epics «made sense», which meant having lyrics that ordinary people could relate to and melodies that would not stray too far away from the basic blues idiom at the heart of the rock culture. So then, what do you do when you have all these invisible constraints imposed on you, including the obligation to prove that your recent masterpiece was not just a happy fluke, but a significant claim for the title of the Best Band of the Decade?

In historical terms, Wish You Were Here and its follow-up, Animals, began at the same time: ʽShine On You Crazy Diamondʼ was premiered live in 1974, along with ʽRaving And Droolingʼ and ʽYou Gotta Be Crazyʼ that would go on to become ʽSheepʼ and ʽDogsʼ in 1977. However, conceptually the three were found not to belong together — the mournful nature of the former did not merge well with the aggressive dynamics of the latter two, and so, over the course of the 1975 sessions, ʽShine Onʼ, written as a tribute to Syd, was incremented by several other new tunes, all of which had to do with either the perils and humiliations of the music business or with nostalgia and sorrow, turning the whole thing into a much tighter conceptual piece than even Dark Side itself. The sessions marked the return of Dick Parry on saxophone, and also featured Roy Harper as guest lead vocalist on ʽHave A Cigarʼ, which somehow neither Waters nor Gilmour decided was suitable for their voices (a strange decision, since there is not a great deal of vocal difference between it and, say, ʽMoneyʼ, but they probably knew better). Alan Parsons was too busy with his new band to engineer the project, but Brian Humphries, his replacement, did a fine enough job. And, of course, one can never write about this album without mentioning the June 5, 1975 visit of the ghost of Syd Barrett into the studio: although they were already finalizing the mix of ʽShine Onʼ at the time, I have no doubt that some of the feelings experienced by everybody on that day must have somehow, in some way rubbed off on at least some parts of the album.

Commercially, the record stood little chance of ever outselling Dark Side Of The Moon — with but five songs on it and a smaller variety of covered topics, its appeal would be less obviously universal. Nevertheless, unlike Dark Side, it actually reached No. 1 both in the UK and in the US, and garnered almost as much praise as its predecessor. Part of this should probably be credited to the mysterious influence of the Hipgnosis album cover, but essentially Wish You Were Here sways us over so much because it is the closest that rock music ever came to producing a meticulously structured and engineered, yet also totally heartfelt requiem mass — and that, I think, is the angle under which one should always judge it.

As in any large, multi-part piece of music, there will be parts that stun you and parts that let you breathe; climactic melodies that hit every nerve and auxiliary melodies that are not so great by themselves, but are content to simply play their bridging roles in the overall story arc. But it really does come across as a single powerful piece — the didactic tale of the rise and fall of a great hero. You can give the great hero a restraining name if you like, such as Syd Barrett, yet I suppose that a huge number of people who cherish and love this album do not even have the faintest idea of who Syd Barrett was (fuck 'em, of course, but ultimately that is irrelevant to our subject matter here). The factual side of the story, like a flashback, is inserted right in the middle of the requiem — ʽWelcome To The Machineʼ, using an industrial factory as an all-too obvious metaphor for the musical business, and ʽHave A Cigarʼ, a sneery-ironic conversation with the Uberboss, take care of that — and the rest takes place in the now, as we pay our last respects to The Piper, whoever he was. A morality play, no less!

None of that would matter per se, of course, if ʽShine On You Crazy Diamondʼ — all the 25 minutes of it, split in two — weren't one of the most quintessential musical pieces of the 20th century.  If I were to compile a personal «Top 10 Most Aching Moments in Pop History» list, that moment in 2:08 where Gilmour's guitar enters stage dramatically to the subdued, respectful tones of the VCS3 and the Hammond organ played in unison would be among the first candidates for inclusion. That first solo, concluding part 1, without a single wasted note, still makes me shiver every time, no matter how much I relisten to it — and it is certainly not just the notes themselves: formally, Gilmour does not seem to be playing anything particularly outside of the standard Claptonesque blues idiom. Rather, it is the fatherly care that goes in each single note — the tone, the duration, the reverb, the relative strength of the pick; this is true mournful bliss that is all built on cliches and overcomes every one of it. The same goes for the famous four-note «Syd theme» that follows. Its timing is perfect — give a little time for the previous solo to soak in and the keyboards to slowly fade out a little, then make a second grand entrance with a laconic musical phrase that sounds like a triumphal fanfare, a warning alarm, and a meditative mantra all at the same time. It is one of those "everybody rise!" moments where a minimal, but genius effort is made to let you know that this is going to be important, as in really important — a tale of something grand and terrifying, even if you are not aware of the factual details.

Some people have complained that the composition is stretched out too much — that the vocals come in much too late, for one thing (a complaint that Gilmour partially recognized by agreeing to delete one of the guitar solos on most of Floyd's post-Waters live shows). Maybe it is, and maybe two similar-sounding guitar solos, interrupted by a keyboard solo, give undue advantage to Gilmour's guitar voice over the rest of the band — but there is not another track in Floyd's entire repertoire that would be comparable in human sentiment and transcendental majesty at the same time (ʽComfortably Numbʼ is, after all, an arena rocker first and foremost, and does not have as much «internalized emotion»). Besides, it's not as if he were noodling all over the place for hours or anything, and both Wright (on keyboards)  and Waters (on vocals) pay their equally comparable share of the tribute, not to mention Parry's sax solo.

The idea to split ʽShine Onʼ in two did not have Gilmour's initial approvement — but in the end, it turned out to be an excellent move, because of the possibility to arrange those following two songs as «flashbacks». ʽWelcome To The Machineʼ, due to the nature of its metaphor, is as close as Floyd ever came to creating an «industrial» piece of music — of course, it uses all of its noisy ideas as a setting for the dark-folksy melody rather than a goal in itself, but isolate the synth loops and all the steamy explosions and you get yourself quite a scary experimental track that could easily hold its ground against any Cabaret Voltaire or Throbbing Gristle track. ʽHave A Cigarʼ, on its own, is not a great song —  it has a fairly common blues-rock riff, Harper's vocals aren't particularly affected by any kind of emotion, and on the whole, this sort of aggressive-frustrated blues railing would only be perfected by the band for Animals. But it is still decent enough, and it obviously works as part of the story — in fact, I like to picture ʽWelcome To The Machineʼ as a long, creepy, but breathtaking elevator journey to the top of The Factory, with the souls of miriads of unfortunate victims trapped on the countless stories; and then, at the very top of it all, you are greeted by the Uberboss, a somewhat ignorant ("by the way, which one's Pink?"), but totally efficient Lucifer model in its own right. (Maybe they should have brought in Alice Cooper to sing the song instead... or Meatloaf?..)

Ideally, the transition from the «flashbacks» back to ʽShine Onʼ, I think, should be made before ʽWish You Were Hereʼ rather than after it — it is just so natural when The Fallen Hero's journey to the top segues right into the chilly wintery winds of Part 6, and how we have that ominous part, highlighted by the reverberating bass and Gilmour's Evil-Joker-style slide solos and representing the devilish fate that awaits The Hero, finally seguing into the last reprise of the vocal section: "Nobody knows where you are, how near or how far...". In my own (if I may be so bold) ideal vision of the album, the title track is the post-scriptum — something to be quietly hummed to the soft strum of the acoustic after the ceremony has ended and the last of the stunned spectators has left the building. Then comes the moment when, out of nowhere (or, to be more precise, out of the lo-fi crackle of a radio transmitter), you get this last bit of homely, cozy, intimate respect for the departed. I guess there must be a certain logic to the sequencing that we have, but I have a harder time perceiving it; not that it's a big problem or anything.

A final special mention should probably be made for the «effects» — in particular, the use of the glass harp on the opening segments of ʽShine Onʼ, which went all the way back to the failed «Household Objects» project, but fit in so wonderfully here: clearly, the tinkling glass effects are in agreement with the «diamond» thing, adding one more sonic allegory on top of everything else. When you listen to those bits in headphones, as loud as possible, you can actually picture yourself in some sort of majestic funeral chamber, with dazzling-sparkling riches everywhere and the proverbial Napoleon's Tomb in the middle. Also, there is no other Floyd album on which they would put the VCS3 to better use — their electronics now are alternately God-like and Devil-like whenever they choose: more generally God-like on ʽShine Onʼ, totally Devil-like on ʽWelcome To The Machineʼ — remember the creepy whizz at the end of the ascending acoustic guitar solo? You're going up there, floor after floor after floor, and then the industrial wind hits you flat in the face at the top, as you get your general view of the grim robotic panorama. Ultimately, all these gimmicks have their proper purpose, and remain inseparable from the melodic base of the album.

Other than the not-too-satisfactory track listing (like I said, I would prefer to see the acoustic title track as a post-scriptum, even at the expense of a slight violation of the symmetry), the only problem with Wish You Were Here is that it is... well, too short. Where their second concept album about the unfortunate fate of a musical loner would arguably suffer from an overabundance of musical ideas, good and bad, this one finds itself obliged to allocate so much space to the proper unfurling and development of its musical themes that, in the end, these musical themes are reduced to but a small handful; and this is also considering that the theme of ʽHave A Cigarʼ, though similar in purpose, structure, and execution to ʽMoneyʼ, does not have that song's immediacy or originality, and that it is all too easy to even not properly notice the theme of ʽWelcome To The Machineʼ behind all the industrial hustle-bustle.

Conceptually, the record also loses to both Dark Side and Animals in terms of scope: where Dark Side was dealing with nothing less than the meaning of human life in general (yay, pretentious!), and Animals laid out a whole socio-political vision (hardly an original one, but very originally encoded in animalistic and musical metaphors), Wish You Were Here relates to a more narrow, specific situation. But then again, so did Citizen Kane, which never prevented it from becoming a masterpiece not only for conceptual reasons — and besides, who'd really want to put down a musical record merely because it is less conceptually ambitious than any of the surrounding pieces?.. Not really. Much more problematic is the fact that the vocals throughout aren't all that good, be it Roy Harper or Roger Waters, yet even that can sometimes turn to the band's advantage (for instance, Waters' somewhat annoying wailing on ʽMachineʼ is perfectly suitable if you imagine that it is being collectively delivered by all the miserable souls trapped in The Factory, communicating with our hero telepathically as he rides up in that goddamn elevator: warning given, but not heeded). 

In the end, there is a very special place for Wish You Were Here in that near-perfect streak of «intelligent art-rock with mass appeal» records that Floyd delivered throughout the 1970s. Dark Side Of The Moon had its share of tragic notes, but it was not a tragic album as a whole; Wish You Were Here marked the band's transition into the bleakest, most cynical period of their creativity. Stunned horror, cruel cynical irony, and deep, incurable sorrow are the record's chief, if not only emotions — the last verse of ʽShine Onʼ, with its "pile on many more layers and I'll be joining you there" bit shows that bliss and rest exist only beyond this world, never within it. At the same time, though, it is relatively free of anger as a basic emotion: many people tend to turn away from Animals and The Wall simply because they find it hard to stand Waters' never-ending streams of bile and poisoned spit (and let us not even begin talking about his post-Floyd career). Sorrow is the base word here, not anger; and the music uses stateliness and solemnity to convey that sorrow, with such finesse and delicacy that I really cannot think of anything comparable. (Much later on, in The Division Bell, Gilmour and Wright tried to recapture some of that magic — but it was already too intentional, too manipulative, too nostalgic, too predictable to work with the same efficiency). Overall, I would say, this is an album that every one of us wishes (or should wish) he/she could have it played in its entirety at our funeral ceremony — but then most of us probably have to deserve that right, and if the necessary pre-requisite is getting a welcome from The Machine and a cigar from Roy Harper, then maybe we'd rather not.

Technical post-scriptum: predictably, the album has been re-released in various anniversary editions, and in 2011, like Dark Side, it also received the expanded treatment with a 2-CD «Experience» package and a huge «Immersion» box set. Compared to Dark Side, however, these packages offer comparatively less material — if you are a potential buyer, I would probably advise hunting for the Experience set, which adds an enjoyable and historically significant live sub-set from the 1974 Wembley concert (with the three abovementioned early tracks performed in a row); an excerpt from the Household Objects project, which will help you see how the wine glass experiment was eventually woven into the textures of ʽShine Onʼ; a Waters/Gilmour sung version of ʽHave A Cigarʼ; and a ʽWish You Were Hereʼ with none other than Stephane Grappelli himself guest-playing a violin part that they later erased because it did not fit in with the overall mood of the song. (Amusingly, Grappelli was recording with Yehudi Menuhin in an adjacent studio on that day, but when challenged to improvise, Yehudi declined — classical players are such party poopers next to jazzmen, right?).

5 comments:

  1. In the original review http://starling.rinet.ru/music/pink.htm#Here you've rated WYWH significantly lower than DSotM — I wonder how that changed since now "the only problem with Wish You Were Here is that it is... well, too short". How did it grow on you?

    From my side I'd say that I learnt to appreciate a general album integrity and in the end it doesn't matter that WYWH is less stuffed with hits than DSotM. It's a great tale, anyway — "requiem mass", yes, a complete work in its' own world. It's sincere yet artful and tuneful. I don't think it needs to be compared with anything at all.

    But how I used to hate this record. This was the second CD to appear in our house back in 1999 (the first one being 'Momentary Lapse of Reason'), my father got hooked up on it quick and played it over and over again while smoking and drinking. I must have heard this record around several hundred times, 3-5 times a day for half a year. I hated 'Welcome to Machine' and 'Have a Cigar' — both sounded very cruel to me, don't know why, really. And the main themes played bad tricks with my imagination, too. The record cover was alternative one with two robots shakings hands http://www.nuclearblast.de/static/articles/193/193863.jpg/1000x1000.jpg (the CD was made in Bulgaria — weird) and at that point it really painted Pink Floyd as some soulless band full of human-like machines. I hated the band, hated it with all my guts until I learnt about Syd Barrett-period and that this album was dedicated to him.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "The idea to split ʽShine Onʼ in two did not have Gilmour's initial approvement"

    I believe you meant to say "approval" here?

    "I would prefer to see the acoustic title track as a post-scriptum, even at the expense of a slight violation of the symmetry"

    The broken symmetry was hardly a problem for the Beatles on Sgt. Pepper. Definitely like this idea of WYWH at the end of the LP.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Still only two comments on this one? Very strange.

    I don't really have a whole lot to add myself, which is why I didn't commment either, but I do love how airy and open this album is. It's a bit too slight and meandering for me to prefer it over those before and after, but it complements them beautifully as part of a kind of trilogy: After the prologue of Meddle, the '70s band's dark drama is focused to microscopic precision on The Dark Side of the Moon, then pushed to extremes, split into the lightness of Wish You Were Here and the heaviness of Animals. It's fascinating to hear such a uniquely constructed musical world explored so cohesively on ostensibly unrelated albums.

    I guess I had something to say after all.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Please give the new Roger Waters record a whirl. It's Nigel Godrich trying to recreate Dark Side's production while Roger tries to use his old man voice to merge the venom of Animals with late period Leonard Cohen. It's interesting stuff

    ReplyDelete
  5. One thing I don't like about this record is, in the second half of "Shine On...", towards the end, there is a keyboard solo, I think it is played on a clavinet. It just sounds kind of cheesy and dated in my opinion. Other than that it's a great record.

    ReplyDelete