Some things to consider if you’re coming to this new:
You’ve made an album which has changed the way the world perceives not only your band, but rock music as a whole. What the hell do you do next?
Well, if you’re Pink Floyd, you start to make an album called Household Objects, for which you decided – in apparent seriousness – to make music using no actual instruments at all, just whatever you can find lying around. Work on this continued for a couple of months before everyone involved realised it was a truly shit idea, and went back to writing concept albums. The story goes that the only surviving bits of ‘Household Objects’ which remain were some notes played with a wet finger run round the rim of some wineglases, and that this was treated and mixed into the opening chords, but if they are there, they are very hard to hear.
In truth, the band were more than a little reluctant to go back into the studio. Whatever they produced would inevitably be compared to ‘Dark Side’, and found to be not quite as good, and for the first time in their lives there was no financial pressure to churn out another album to keep the money coming in. On top of that, there were side projects – musical or otherwise – appearing as time and money were suddenly less of a problem than they had ever been before. There had been a tour promoting ‘Dark Side’ which had become more than a little shambolic – the legendary pyramid stage set was almost unmanageable, and the whole thing was getting away from them, as it was all of their peers in the progressive rock field: 1975 marks the beginning of the end for a number of bands, who started taking years instead of months to make albums, lost and replaced members with startling regularity, and found their audiences as keen as ever for new music, but perhaps holding them to a higher standard than before. It’s been said many times before, but nothing stifles creativity quite like success.
While the band figured out how this was going to work from now on, Nick Mason did some session work for the newly wheelchair-bound Robert Wyatt. Pink Floyd had already done benefit gigs for the former Soft Machine drummer and singer (he was paralysed after falling from a fourth floor window during a party), and all sorts of people rallied round to help him get his career back on track. Nick produced and played drums on Wyatt’s album ‘Rock Bottom’. He even turns up on ‘Top of the Pops’ as Wyatt and band performed ‘I’m a Believer’:
You’ll notice that Fred Frith (he of Henry Cow) didn’t make the TV session; the miming around his violin solo is particularly spectacular!
EMI, in search of even more money, re-released the first two albums in a double album package called ‘A Nice Pair’, which at least allowed Hipgnosis to do a whole lot of visual puns, but must have confused some unsuspecting record buyers who didn’t know about Syd.
Eventually, they all went back into Abbey Road and conjured up ‘Wish You Were Here’. It was clearly harder to get right than its predecessor, but they now had a standard to hold themselves to, so – for instance – when neither Gilmour or Waters proclaimed themselves satisfied with their vocal take on ‘Have a Cigar’, they roped in Roy Harper who was not only a friend and labelmate, but was recording his own album next door. Interestingly, I’ve never seen any suggestion that the vocal was ever offered to Rick Wright, who was good enough to sing on ‘Dark Side’.
The cover is another Hipgnosis creation – even more complicated and intriguing than the last one, it reflects the themes of absence and the shark-like nature of the record business. In this age of Photoshop, it’s worth remembering that all the photographs were staged in real life (there is some airbrushing, of course, but they really did set a bloke on fire to do the front cover). It’s also been interesting to me how similar the covers of this and Led Zeppelin’s ‘Presence’ are; they are opposite ideas, but executed in a very similar way.
OK, we need to talk about Syd.
For me, this is the last Pink Floyd album created in the shadow of their former frontman – ‘Shine On’ is explicitly about him, and the title track touches on him, as well as Waters’ other obsession, the loss of his father. You can even read the other two tracks as being about the kind of pressure which got the better of Syd. After this, the lyrics move in other directions as Roger Waters completes his takeover of the band. It is possible that the famous incident with Syd marked the point at which they all realised it was time to move on; to accept that he wasn’t coming back, and that they need to write about other things.
The accepted wisdom is that Syd had been a hermit for years at this point, but that’s not true at all. After the two solo albums, he had done a few solo gigs, and did a few more with the aforementioned Fred Frith, as well as various others, including the drummer from Pink Fairies, the wonderfully named Twink. He was even in an actual, real, band called ‘Stars’ for a while – they never recorded anything, but there were some live performances. You can get an ides of what they all sounded like from this, which is a bootleg of a pre-‘Stars’ perfomance:
Syd even went back into the studio at Abbey Road in the summer of 1974, but nothing came of the recording sessions – I have heard a snippet of it – pretty much all that remains – and it’s just sad and awful. However, according to those who were there, he was still very much recognisable as Syd; he looked not so different from the 1968 version of himself, which is why what happened a year later came as such a shock.
Syd Barrett turned up at Abbey Road on June 5th, 1975. No-one seems to know how he got in, or why he had turned up at all; he was just suddenly there. He was significantly overweight, had shaved off all his hair, including his eyebrows, and appeared to be incapable of conversation beyond talking about how many pork chops he had in the fridge. Legend insists that the band were working on ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’; this may or may not be true, but there is photographic evidence of Syd in his disheveled state looking on in apparent bemusement. He listened to a playback of what they were doing; when asked if he’d like to hear it again, he said he couldn’t see the point. At the end of the day, he wandered off again, with everyone avoiding offering him a lift. As far as I can tell, no-one in the band ever had any contact with him again.
So, is it any good?
It is. Without ‘Dark Side’, this would be generally regarded as Pink Floyd’s masterpiece, I think; but of course, it wouldn’t exist without ‘Dark Side’ – they had to go through the process of making that to get to this.
It has a few more weaknesses than its predecessor; in particular, I’m not sure there was a need for two whole songs about how shit it is to work in the music industry; they both work, but but they cover pretty much the same ground. The sound effects are a little more cheesy than on ‘Dark Side’, and – I’d venture – not quite as necessary. Having said that, there is nothing quite like sitting through a live performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and feeling the hairs on your neck spring to life as it reaches the climax with that snippet you know so well…
Overall, though, it’s another work of genius. The way Pink Floyd worked at this time was that each member kept the others in check; if Waters and Mason were trying to throw in radical ideas, Wright and Gilmour were layering magnificent melodies and inspired soloing all over them; the whole is very much greater than the sum of its parts.
You may quibble about ‘Shine On’ being split in two, but it had to be that way for practical reasons (25 minutes of music on one side of vinyl would lead to some sound quality issues), and because it does emcompass the theme of the album – Syd’s troubles illustrated by what the track brackets. You may grouse (as I have done) at the fact that Stephane Grappelli is buried so deep in the mix on ‘Wish You Were Here’ that you can’t hear him, but you would also have to concede that adding anything more to that song might upset its delicate balance.
In the end, it doesn’t get played quite as often as some others, and I still haven’t got round to replacing my vinyl copy, but it’s a cornerstone of my musical experience. I can’t imagine life without it, and I can still remember with startling clarity the way we would huddle round the record player in the year area and try to figure out how the sound effects had been done. And I think – for all the talk of the words – that it contains the most poignant and lyrical elegy for a lost friendship in all of rock music as the final part of ‘Shine On’ fades out, and Rick Wright improvises sadly over the melody from ‘See Emily Play’, and for that alone it deserves full marks.