There are bands who ride waves of popularity, top charts, and tour the world. Then there are bands who define a generation. For the institution known as Pink Floyd, it was not just one generation, but many. To this day, their albums remain ensconced in immortality, the iconic tunes from most of them seeing regular airplay on radio stations the world over. In 1972-73, the band achieved overnight superstardom with Dark Side Of The Moon, and after the resultant touring and hype, an exhausted Pink Floyd returned home to begin work on their follow-up. That album was entitled Wish You Were Here, and despite its mega-popularity through the years, its creation was far from smooth.
For starters, long time producer Alan Parsons departed to further his career with The Alan Parsons Project, leaving Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright to search for a guiding hand in the studio. The man tasked with oversight of the new album was called Brian Humphries. Most producers were probably chomping at the bit to get a chance to work with Pink Floyd, but Humphries inherited a disenfranchised, deluded group who did not even have the same priorities. The internal issues that would eventually fracture the band had their roots in this time period.
Despite the malaise which plagued them, Roger Waters began to develop ideas that would eventually coalesce into Wish You Were Here. Waters’ thoughts might in part have been upon his erstwhile vocalist, the troubled Syd Barrett, whose predilection for LSD and hallucinogenics rendered him incapable of remaining in a cohesive musical unit. So much so that Barrett lost his mind and disappeared. Thus in the lore surrounding this mythical band, it became accepted that the ‘you’ in the title was solely referencing their old friend Syd.
In reality, Waters, Mason, and Wright were so affected by the sudden influx of fame and money and, moreover, the realization that Pink Floyd had become a product, that they literally had nothing to contribute to a new album. Each of them were facing divorce in their personal lives, while Waters was also struggling with his inability to reconcile his new found riches with his deeply held socialist beliefs. Only David Gilmour was free from strife during this time, and in the studio, he wished simply to record “Shine On,” “Raving and Drooling,” and “You Gotta Be Crazy,” three songs the band had already written and rehearsed ad nauseam. Would have been much easier, he figured; but it was not to be. Waters reached deep into the ennui which had been plaguing the band, turning to themes of absence, emptiness, and despair, which had thus far made the conception of their ninth studio album such a perfect disaster. Mason, Wright, and finally Gilmour conceded this to be a good plan, and thus the band wrote and conceived music precisely about their shattered states of mind.
Wish You Were Here eventually saw the light of day in September of 1974, skyrocketing to number one on both the U.S. and U.K. charts, and not without reason. Pink Floyd arguably made some of their best loved music under the mantle of inner turmoil (Waters and Gilmour were not even speaking by the time The Wall came out in 1979). For Wish You Were Here, the combination of long, proggy, psychedelia, and just a touch of balladry was a formula for success.
The iconic cover image of a man shaking another man’s hand on fire is an on-point interpretation of the band’s collective opinion, in regards to both their place in the music world, and their dubious opinion of the deals going down among the industry’s elite. Famous Floyd cover artist Storm Thorgerson spent months formulating the sleeve for the album, ensuring it matched the band’s unflinchingly dogmatic concept of absence, which united Wish You Were Here conceptually.
“Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts 1-5)” harked back to the dizzy Prog runs of Pink Floyd’s early days. A prolonged intro of Richard Wright’s innovative synth drones builds an atmosphere of dreary introspection. Over it, Gilmour’s peerless guitar leads pluck away, floating the listener on beds of cloud to heights of the mind undreamed of, until four minutes in Mason’s drumming introduces new depths to the song. “Remember when you were young,” Waters intones, “you shined like the sun.” The back half’s dreamy, yet biting Art Rock suite includes a sultry saxophone solo, which elevates the song even further, without ever surfacing from the existential dumps the mood encapsulates.
Next comes the oft-covered, inimitable “Welcome To The Machine.” Psychedelic tones of paranoid synth provide the backdrop of Waters’ diatribe against the shallow business end of music, the way in which the media props people up and then tears them down at will, the (in his mind, anyway) sometimes empty devotion of fans, and the overall lack of feeling that exists between people. It ends with the sound of a crowd, but one that does not appear interested in anything other than its own blathering.
“Have A Cigar” features some bluesy, ballsy guitar playing, and an overarching melody provided by Wright’s synths. The normally stoic Waters shows a bit of humor lyrically here, with his scathing rejoinders about P.R. men, A&R’s, and other scheming businessmen who have no real interest in Floyd’s music other than what money they can make from its fame.
For many fans, the title track is the be-all, end-all Pink Floyd ballad. Rife with elegiac beauty, the song became one of the most commonly strummed tunes around campfires the world over, played, sung, and re-sung down through the decades since its creation. The lyrics ask about whether one has been true to oneself in life, laments the absence of the self, a loved one, Syd Barrett, or anybody the listener happens to be missing. This feeling transcends all time frames, and can be applied to any pain of the soul, regardless of location, age, or gender. The simple refrain strums the sorrows in the heart, even as Gilmour strums the tune, touching in its naked honesty. Conceptualized lyrically as far back as the late ’60’s, the song fades into a swirl of blowing wind, ending far too soon.
“Shine on You Crazy Diamond Part 2 (Parts 6-9)” features Gilmour on lap steel guitar, as the song ebbs and flows in a very jam-session format, repeating the chorus from the first song. The song ramps down toward the end, Wright’s synths epitomizing the beloved 1970’s proggy noodling instrumental runs so intrinsic to the era.
Wish You Were Here was born of chaos, disenfranchisement, and a host of personal woes, exhibited by a band who found themselves utterly changed by stardom achieved only a few years prior to its making. It is proof that the tortured artist can always find refuge inside the bubble of the band he is in, where even amid such unpleasantness, the potential for greatness lies in wait. On Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd’s ninth studio album further cemented the band as transcendent artists whose influence and immortality were still only just beginning.