Friday, October 26, 2007

No. 209: Wish You Were Here

(original paper covering -- complete with robot handshake sticker -- that the record was wrapped in)
Band: Pink Floyd
Album: Wish You Were Here
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Floyd member's favorite album, "Wish You Were Here," while timeless for fans, is a very specific place and time in the band's evolution. Jaded by success and saddened by the downfall of their former frontman, the record retells the tragedy of both record companies and detaching from the world. Four songs total make up the record, with two doting on Syd Barrett ("Shine On You Crazy Diamond" and the title track) and the other two lamenting the band's corporate masters.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'm biased (this was one of the albums that introduced me to Floyd), but I think "Wish You Were Here" should be considerably higher. It's a fantastic album.
Best song: The album works as a whole, so picking one song or another is useless. "Wish You Were Here" has had the most radio success, for what that's worth.
Worst song: Um, none.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

This is totally off-the-wall, but you know what Pink Floyd reminds me of? Apple Computers.

Hear me out. Admittedly, it's a small scope, but the marriage of a superior product and excellent use of the image are what the two have in common. So, maybe they're not like one another, but each is downplayed by haters -- yes, I've met people who hate Floyd, mostly on the fact that stupid hippies love "Dark Side" -- who say each is all style, no substance.

Apple gets that often; I used to be one of the people who felt that way. They market their products largely on the image; striking advertisements using the all-white iPod as a centerpiece.

Floyd also has a striking command of the iconic. Each of their most famous records is such largely on the album cover, from the bricks and marching hammers of "The Wall" to the "Atom Heart Mother" cow to the "Animals" pig to probably the most identifiably album cover of all time, the "Dark Side" prism.

"Wish You Were Here" is similar. The burning man album cover -- concealed by a black wrapper on early releases showing a sticker of two robot hand shaking -- has appeared on countless t-shirts and posters adorning dorm rooms in colleges across the United States.


But, what of the music?

It's no secret that I adore Floyd. "Wish You Were Here," oddly enough, is the first Floyd album I ever owned. My copy of the CD is scratched to hell, because I have inserted and taken that thing out of CD players for 15 years now. The title track was the first non-"Another Brick In The Wall" song I'd known by Floyd and its sentimental pop stylings ("two lost souls living in a fishbowl") still tug at me.

But, the album is not just the title track. The preceding song, "Welcome To The Machine" is a slam on the music industry. At the time of the recording, the band was riding high on "Dark Side Of The Moon" and had been unhappy with the spoils of success. Meetings with record companies proved combative. The song's narrator is seemingly speaking to a new artist, sarcastically typecasting him, saying "You bought a guitar to punish your mum, you didn't like school, and you know you're nobody's fool" and "What did you dream? It's alright we told you what to dream." The second bit is telling about the band's feelings on an industrialized society; Each job is something of a machine and those who work within that structure (in Floyd's case, the music industry) lose their identity and simply become cogs in the machine.

The song's synthesizer-heavy production fit into this. The guitars fit in the song less than normal and the Gilmour/Waters vocals are more shrill than normal.

"Welcome To The Machine" segues into the dynamic "Have A Cigar," another anti-industry song. Possibly known most famously for its guitar riff (a bluesy line echoes by Richard Wright's deep organ) and the filtered synthesizer used as a lead line in the beginning of the song. The constant "gravy train" references aren't subtle, nor is the now-famous "Which one's Pink?" line that the band heard by executives while the band was shopping for labels in the 1960s.

"Have A Cigar" is notable in that the vocals are not done by anyone in the band. During the recording session, Roger Waters hurt his voice and was not able to record the song and David Gilmour opted not to sing. In the next studio, singer/songwriter Roy Harper was recording an album and offered to do lead vocals on the song. He did and the record was a hit.

"Shine On You Crazy Diamond" is epic. Like "Wish You Were Here," the song is a tribute to Syd Barrett, the band's mentally ill former lead man. broken up into two tracks bookending the album, the song actually consists -- in true progressive rock fashion -- of nine different "parts," with parts 1-5 on the first track. Each portion has its own feel, from the funeral march-like final segment to the vocal positions in the third part. The riff comes in and out, and the band even inserts one of Barret's signature melodies (from "See Emily Play") as a tribute.

It's a wonderful composition, if nothing. Despite each track's length (Parts i-V comes in at 13 and a half minutes while Parts V-IX come in at over 12 minutes), the epic song deserves more scrutiny.


One of the famous stories of the recording of "Wish You Were Here" involves Barrett himself. Our good friend Wikipedia puts it as such:

In another incident, a heavyset man with a completely shaved head and eyebrows wandered into the studio while the band was recording "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," although Nick Mason has since stated that he's not entirely certain whether this was the particular song being recorded when the man was in the studio. The band could not recognise him for some time, when suddenly one of them realised it was Syd Barrett. At that time, Barrett had gained a lot of weight and had shaved off all of his hair, including his eyebrows, and the seven-year gap meant that it took sometime for his ex-band mates to identify him.

When they eventually recognised Barrett, Waters was so distressed he was reduced to tears. Someone asked to play the song again and Barrett said a second playback wasn't needed when they'd just heard it. Apparently, when "Wish You Were Here" was played, "He [Barrett] stood up and said, 'Right, when do I put my guitar on?'" keyboardist Rick Wright recalled. "And of course, he didn't have a guitar with him. And we said, 'Sorry, Syd, the guitar's all done.'"[1]

When asked what he thought of Wish You Were Here, Barrett said it sounded a "bit old". He was greeted enthusiastically by the band but subsequently slipped away during the impromptu party for Gilmour's wedding (which was, coincidentally, also on that day.)[2] It was the last time any of the other band members saw him.[3]

Wow. Just. Wow.


"Wish You Were Here" has time changes, satire and some of Gilmour's best guitar work. On the strength of the singles ("Have A Cigar" and the title track) and Waters' tribute to Barrett, it's one of the big three Floyd albums.

It's a must-have.

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