HOW DO YOU SOLVE a problem like The Dark Side of the Moon? Initially, Pink Floyd didn’t want to. Groaning beneath the pressure of their monster masterpiece of an album, Floyd retreated into kitchenware, attempting to revive the ‘Household Objects’ project from the Meddle recording sessions. Defiantly uncommercial, it also swiftly fell apart when they realised that a bass guitar might be better equipped (and less of a hassle) for making bass guitar noises than rubber bands attached to a couple of tables.
But at least this was a conscious decision to shirk the behemoth. It was an unconscious decision, meanwhile, to bid farewell to Syd Barrett. Excised from the band’s line-up in 1968, the intangible absence of Barrett hovered over the band for years afterward, subtly informing the likes of ‘Brain Damage’ and even the desolate musical landscape of ‘Echoes’. When the band finally convened for the Wish You Were Here recording sessions, Barrett’s surreptitious visit to the studio has entered the annals of rock legend. His shabby, bald, overweight appearance, unrecognisable from his previous matinee idol looks, reduced bassist/songwriter Roger Waters to tears.
Barrett failed to recognise himself in ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, the bookends to an album that’s equally as monumental as Dark Side of the Moon. While encompassing Barrett’s legend into a languid, serene and utterly beautiful 25 minutes, ‘Shine On’ is ultimately a part of the whole. Wish You Were Here, right down to its title, is an examination of absence and longing, the desire to reclaim that which has been lost. As much as this extends to Barrett, it is perhaps more close-fitting (and close to the bone) for the band themselves, floundering beneath Dark Side.
That there is darkness within the glory is all the more appropriate. ‘Welcome to the Machine’ is a relentless, organ-driven grind for seven angry minutes, with David Gilmour’s processed vocals soaring above the fittingly industrial murk. Written about an industry that (supposedly) prizes capitalistic success over artistic expression, ‘Machine’ is Waters lashing out at the inhuman, cash-grabbing executives he accused of diminishing the band’s creative artistry, and Waters provides a steady, droning mirror to Gilmour’s vocal line.
‘Have a Cigar’ plums similar depths, albeit with a skipping guitar-bass riff and a more rollicking, traditional rock tone. In one of the two instances of a guest vocalist performing lead on a Floyd track, Roy Harper lends a delicious sneer to lines like, “The band is just fantastic, that is really what I think / Oh, by the way, which one’s pink?” The snark seems more deserved when an outsider delivers it; it’s a little harder to sympathise with the millionaires of Waters and Gilmour railing against the system from within on ‘Machine’.
Nevertheless, both songs are scorching reflections on the same theme and no less sincere for it. These tracks, along with ‘Money’ (to a lesser extent), Floyd laid the template for so many “disgruntled musicians rally against the industry” anthems to follow, but the power of the music is unassailable. Keyboardist Rick Wright, ever undervalued, is in his element here, spinning deathly textures beneath his fingertips, providing subtle synth washes beneath the rage.
‘Wish You Were Here’, the album’s lovely sing-along title track, opens up with a crackling radio, spinning between channels, evoking lost memories and halcyon days. The acoustic instrumentation – including a gorgeous piano from Wright and delicate drumming from Nick Mason – add to this bucolic atmosphere, its lyrics pointing to deep, abandoned hurt: “We’re just two lost souls / Swimming in a fish bowl / Year after year.” Gilmour’s voice is light and husky, and the solos he takes are appropriately frayed. Like the album as a whole, it’s a paean to the earlier, lighter years of Floyd before the band fully realised they were four largely incompatible personalities.
‘Shine On’, then, thrillingly consummates this theme of longing and absence, its nine parts (!) shimmering with aching brilliance. From Waters’ distraught, screaming vocal delivery (“YOU WERE CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE!”) to Gilmour’s iconic four note cadence to Dick Parry’s astonishing saxophone solo to Wright’s gorgeous keys to Mason’s metronomic timekeeping, it’s a solemn, aching, emotionally blistering masterpiece. When Gilmour’s guitar re-enters in full, blistering reverie around the 15:40 mark, it’s a moment of sheer, blissful release that only expands as the track reverts to the verse.
‘Shine On’ is, in all likelihood, the band’s greatest achievement. It runs the entire emotional gamut and sounds fucking incredible 40 years later. Much of that is down to Brian Humphries and Peter James’ sound engineer, the music filling the room with endless depth of aural wonder. Despite its initial mixed reception, Wish You Were Here proved the band could emerge from the Dark Side with aplomb. Little did they know that the real darkness lay ahead.