Album Analysis | Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here
How do you follow an album like The Dark Side of the Moon? Wish You Were Here is the answer to that question.
Wish You Were Here is the enigmatic Pink Floyd album. In the wake of the release of the album which changed the face of rock music forever, The Dark Side of the Moon, the four members of Pink Floyd were left asking the terrifying question, “what next?”. The answer was, eventually, a concept album about the superficiality of the industry into which Pink Floyd had just broken. Wish You Were Here is about power and its corruption, superficiality and unease. Predominantly, though, it is about absence. Let’s take a closer look at one of the most astute explorations of show business, as observed from the inside.
Wish You Were Here actually originated as a rebooting of Pink Floyd’s ongoing Household Objects project, which was, predictably, using commonly found household objects to make music. Very few elements of this project actually made it into the finished album - one which did was the eerie sounds of a finger being dragged along the rim of a wine glass (in ‘Shine on you Crazy Diamond’). But this was mostly just a delay tactic, something which Wright, Gilmour, Waters and Mason could waste time on exploring, without actually ever finishing anything.
It seems like Pink Floyd had no idea how to continue once they had reached the dizzying heights of which they’d been dreaming for so long. There was pressure from studio executives and industry moguls to be sociable and play the game without actually giving a damn about the music they were making. It’s this sort of emotional absence which informed Waters’ lyrics as he began to explore the concept through the lens of the superficiality of the music industry, as well as the emotional absence of his estranged bandmates.
This album also marks the beginning of the destruction of the Pink Floyd beast, as their working relationship began to implode. Waters has admitted in a rare moment of vulnerability that he felt like they were all mentally ill in the wake following the release of Dark Side. Gilmour once said that Dark Side “trapped us creatively”, and it’s easy to see why. How do you follow the release of an album which literally changed the world? Wright jokes about the time of recording that the album may as well have been called “wish you weren’t here”, but simultaneously names it as his favourite Pink Floyd album. And Mason expressed surprise at how much he enjoyed the finished product once recording was over, so emotionally absent had he been during the making of it that he also ended up being physically absent as well (both in body and in name - he has absolutely no writing credits and his name appears nowhere on the album). So what makes the music on this album stand the test of time despite all the bitterness it holds within itself and the context surrounding it?
‘Welcome to the Machine’ is perhaps the bleakest song on the album, with Waters spitting out cynical estimations of the industry in which he works. The song might have fallen into a category too cynical to be relatable and turned people off completely were it not for the saving grace of Wright’s synthesiser, the eerie touch the song needed for us to look beyond Waters’ ego and his increasingly tense relationship with Gilmour, and give us an insight into what it was really like playing in, and writing for what had just become the biggest band in the world.
The third track on the album, ‘Have a Cigar’ is a much more upbeat, lilting song sung from the perspective of one of these massive industry moguls with dollar signs in his eyes and the most superficial of priorities. “By the way, which one’s Pink?” was based on an actual encounter the band had with a record company worker. It’s more sarcastic than ‘Welcome…’, and pokes fun at the industry, but speaks from the same position as someone who is completely disenfranchised with the whole affair. It was sung by Roy Harper in the end, who was recording at the same time in the same studio. Waters’ vocals were not up to scratch and Gilmour felt that he would struggle to get across the amount of venom and cynicism that Waters had when writing the lyrics. Legend has it that he originally agreed to it in exchange for a season ticket at Lord’s Cricket ground, but eventually ended up having to prompt Waters for payment several decades later. The differing vocalist, although by complete chance, is yet another way in which absence is felt on this album.
The titular track, ‘Wish You Were Here’ is the most uplifting song on the album. It was in part inspired by Waters’ failing marriage, but also on the emotional absence of his bandmates. Nevertheless, it was co-written by him and Gilmour together, proving that, despite it all, their working relationship was still somewhat productive at this point. It’s a sad song but in a sweeter way than the previous two discussed, more forlorn and even slightly hopeful at points, and with less of the bleakness present in ‘Welcome…’
Finally, we come to the odyssey of the album, and one of the defining songs of Pink Floyd’s entire career, the infamous ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’. Clocking in at 26 minutes in total, it’s up there with ‘Echoes’ and ‘Atom Heart Mother’ as one of the longest Pink Floyd compositions, but is even more embedded into Pink Floyd lore because of the history surrounding it. “I’ve never read an intelligent article about Syd [Barrett]” said Waters. This was his chance to set the record straight on the life and legend of Syd Barrett, former bandmate and best friend who was ousted from the band at the very beginning of their career, following drug abuse and mental health issues. I could write a whole other article or a series of articles (or an entire book) about Barrett’s story and the legends surrounding his decline, but for now, all you need to know was that he went down in history as one of the most famous acid casualties of the sixties. During the time of writing the album, Barrett was beginning to be seen more and more often around Cambridge, leading the band to be asked more questions about him. Instead of continually answering questions about someone whom they never saw anymore, Waters began to pen lyrics about Barrett. Soon enough, Gilmour came up with the now-renowned four-note riff which he felt summed up the wasted potential and tragedy which encompasses Syd’s life.
What really set this story spinning into the annals of rock and roll legend, however, is the fact that Syd was there when they were recording it. There seem to be a few different versions of this story, like a game of psychedelic Chinese Whispers. But what we do know is that one day a fat, bald man wandered into in the studio on the 5th June 1975. Wright says that Waters was the one who alerted him to the fact, “you know who that is, don’t you? It’s Syd.” Syd, many years into his acid-induced mental illness and loss of touch on reality, kept standing up, getting his toothbrush out of the plastic bag he carried with him, brushing his teeth and sitting down again. At one point, allegedly, Barrett stood up and asked: “Right, when do I put the guitar on?” - and in response, the band said to the guitar-less Syd Barrett, “Sorry, Syd, the guitar’s all done.” It’s a truly bizarre coincidence which has never been fully explained and only served to make this enigmatic and mysterious album all the more full of intrigue.
The song itself is the perfect eulogy to a lost creative spirit who flew too close to the sun and was burned, or who, in Waters’ disarmingly astute lyrics, “reached for the secret too soon,” The piece was eventually split into two halves, bookending the album and cementing Pink Floyd’s place in the halls of rock and roll history as one of the greatest prog-rock bands to have ever lived.
No discussion of Wish You Were Here would be complete without mention of the album artwork. Less instantly recognisable and iconic than the prism of Dark Side of the Moon, Hipgnosis nevertheless outdid themselves creating the ultimate depiction of a business deal - two men in suits shaking hands, and one of them getting “burned”. This was the literal case in this instance, as stuntman Ronnie Rondell was actually set on fire in order to achieve this picture. The back cover also deserves a mention, as it depicts a man diving into a pool without any ripples (achieved by a diver/yoga instructor doing a handstand on a chair underwater and holding his breath until all the air bubbles disappeared). As Storm Thorgerson of Hipgnosis puts it, “A dive without a splash? An action without its trace? Is it present or absent?” This brilliant interpretation of the album’s meditations on absence renders the cover work incredibly unsettling and bleak, a perfect reflection of the music held within.
Overall, critical reception at the time the album was released was mixed. The negative views, however, were still completely on the money. They criticised the album for being too bleak and pessimistic, criticised Waters’ lyrical content for speaking too harshly about the industry in which he made his living - but all the reviews seemed to grasp the point. It’s not supposed to be an enjoyable album to listen to. Even to this day, as the slow 4/4 funereal march-like closing to "Shine On..." is played out with Wright’s well-placed synths and the album finishes, I feel forced to take stock of what is around me and ground myself back in reality, having just witnessed as near to perfection as music can get. It’s not all a pleasant experience though. It’s bleak and cynical and sarcastic, but it’s genius. It’s the understated Pink Floyd album which is all too often overshadowed by the monstrous Dark Side which preceded it. And in a way, they work in tandem together, illustrating both what it takes to reach the dizzying heights of fame, and the emptiness felt when you have finally achieved all you’ve ever wanted.