This is an extract from Mick Wall's THE ENDLESS JOURNEY: FIFTY YEARS of PINK FLOYD. Buy the Kindle book here.
Wish You Were Here, the album that would follow Dark Side to the top of the world’s charts in 1975, would represent Rick Wright’s last meaningful contribution to Pink Floyd for many years. That, paradoxically, an album whose dominant theme would be one of absence, would mark the beginning of the slamming shut of a series of doors, beginning with Nick Mason, before continuing swiftly on through Rick Wright, and even, eventually, that of David Gilmour, until the only pig left flying above the factory below was Roger Waters. Before finally closing the door on himself, leaving everyone else, including perhaps most of all Waters, to later wonder why.
At the time of its release in September 1975, though, Wish You Were Here had seemed to represent just the latest step up for a band that was now approaching its towering best. Despite its emphasis on the now recurring themes of madness and alienation – as evidenced in its two cornerstone moments, ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ and the superb title track, both movingly poignant monuments to Syd and, in a broader context, to their own lost innocence – there was something triumphal about its majestic eminence. Two months earlier, Pink Floyd had solidified their position at the very top of the British rock totem pole by headlining a huge outdoor show at Knebworth Park before 100,000 people, topping a bill that included Captain Beefheart, Monty Python and the Steve Miller Band, amongst others.
The show itself was sketchy but the event was considered a milestone. Now, as though impervious to criticism, surviving some very mixed initial reviews to climb to No. 1 in both Britain and America, before repeating the feat across the globe, Wish You Were Here immediately claimed its place amongst other quintessentially seventies’ masterpieces released that same year as Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, David Bowie’s Young Americans and Fleetwood Mac’s eponymous debut with Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham.
Despite the insistent strangeness of tracks like ‘Welcome To The Machine’ – a synthesiser-heavy symbol of disillusion, specifically with the ‘machine’ of the music business – and the almost proto-punk sarcasm of ‘Have A Cigar’ – another biting-the-hand-that-feeds-you satire on shallow record company executives, one of which asks, ‘Which one’s Pink?” –Wish You Were Here was easy to listen to, good to lay back and chill out to, trippy but not excessively so, layered like fluffy pillows, so that even when the guitars and vocals seem to virtually arch their backs with antagonism they never really spoil the overall mood of blissful, night sky swooning.
Like its predecessor the music on Wish You Were Here seems to glide seamlessly together, making a whole of some very edgy disparate parts. Unlike Dark Side, the lead vocals are evenly shared between Waters and Gilmour, with the exception of ‘Have A Cigar’, which they brought in maverick folk-rock visionary and all-round hangout artist to Zeppelin, Floyd, Jethro Tull and others, Roy Harper to sing.
The steak on the plate, though were the stately title track and the positively glacial ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’. Syd Barrett actually wandered into the studio during a playback of ‘Shine On’, as Waters was trying to do his lead vocal, but that nobody recognised him at first. The waiflike Syd with the curly permed hair and patterned satin attire had been replaced by a rotund, stranger in a long black coat, his head and eyebrows shaved bald.
“This guy kept on getting up and brushing his teeth and then sitting,” Wright recalled. “Doing really weird things, but keeping quiet. And I said to Roger, ‘Who is he? And Roger said, ‘I don’t know’. I said, ‘Well, I assumed he was a friend of yours’, and he said, ‘No, I don’t know who he is’.”