Sunday, 4 March 2012

PINK FLOYD: Wish You Were Here


 (#159: 4 October 1975, 1 week)

Track listing: Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts 1-5)/Welcome To The Machine/Have A Cigar/Wish You Were Here/Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts 6-9)

A drone. E minor. A Moog picking out a single note topline. An electric guitar doing the same before bending down to a heartbreaking move to B minor. Then back. E minor. The last chord of “A Day In The Life” – recorded in the same studio, the chord that is meant to stand for heaven – was E major.

Therefore it can be assumed that E minor is the precise reverse – the chord that represents hell.

But who is in hell, and whose hell?

Shaven headed. Eyebrows shaved also. Sports shirt. Nobody really knew who he was. He could be serving you a bagel in the Bronx. They had an album to do, and it was hard, wrenching work.

In the canteen. There he is, staring at them, maybe smiling. But who the hell is he? Nobody really knew.

Back into the studio, to work on this song, this damnable elegy, that seems to be taking forever.

The same guy pops his head around the door, has a look at some of the equipment.

Nobody knows who this is. One of the Abbey Road technicians – there are so many of them, it must be. Checking for health and safety and efficacy.

No doubt. But he keeps looking at them. And smiling.

Who
is he?

It took them a long time to work out who it was. Most hadn’t seen him for five, six years tops.

Slowly and shockingly they realised that it was the man to whom this song they were working on was dedicated.

Some of them took it better than others. But the other Roger took it worst. There were tears. There was shock. Most of all, there was a baffled numbness.

Who was this Syd anyway?


There’s no such thing as history beyond what each generation decides to make history. Figures of the past are never immobile tableaux. Every new generation discovers its own ghosts and venerates them with a view to recharging them. In the sixties it was Robert Johnson; by the mid-seventies it would have been Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, the great untouchables.

But calling for ghosts, summoning them even, carries its own inbuilt risks. And in the rare event that the ghost you desire is still alive, don’t keep summoning the ghost and then act surprised when the ghost turns up.

Syd was there, that day in June 1975, and he may have been many things, or ended up as many things, but he was not yet a ghost.

Four clear clarion notes on the guitar. Wish. You. Were. Here. Gilmour stumbled upon the motif while idly doodling. The perfect mirror of the arched diver into the Mediterranean pool, so immaculate that you can neither see their shadow nor guess that their body had an upper half.

The sleeve. Hipgnosis, as ever. Businessmen shaking hands, one on fire; the idea being that we hide our burning passions under suits of sobriety, whatever society deems “appropriate.” A swimmer drowning in sand dunes. Huge wafts of cloth, red and white, blowing through a desert. A businessman with bowler and briefcase but no face.

If you tolerate this…but I am moving too fast.

Better to recall that the sleeve was in great part designed by junior Hipgnosis employee Peter Christopherson, about to start Throbbing Gristle, a band, or collective, whose work would poke into extremes even the Floyd would find uncomfortable but whose work, overall, would not be that out of place in the Floyd
oeuvre; one can look on their masterpiece, 1979’s 20 Jazz-Funk Greats, as an example of Floyd’s discoveries, and perhaps even Syd’s discoveries, taken to their logical conclusion. There was always so much of the sixties about TG.

Psychic TV, in which the late Mr Christopherson was also involved, do not have their groundbreaking 1982 work
Force The Hand Of Chance discussed here. That really is too bad..

The full band come in at 4:32 but Gilmour is already lost, mostly in his own history. One of the album’s key words is “shadow,” and although the word is exercised in its Peter Pan/Jungian sense, here it is hard not to think of the Shadows; the guitar wanders dolefully but dutifully through the history of sixties rock guitar, from Hank Marvin to Clapton and Harrison (there’s a fleeting reference to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”), finally settling somewhere between Peter Green and Mike Oldfield. With its patient, submarine-like 6/8 tempo, the song stops just short of being a blues workout.

Then the voice of Roger Waters comes in, and we are very far from that meaning of the blues (although Gil Evans would have understood; see his astonishing resetting of the Bobby Troup number, featuring George Adams’ tortured tenor, on the same year’s There Comes A Time, if you can find it). It is a love song, there are no two ways about it, pining for the return of…the man in his mirror (if we carry on with the Jung analogy)? Black holes in the sky, threatening shadows at night, the rhetorical triplicates (“You stranger, you legend, you martyr, and SHINE!,” “You painter, you Piper (capital letter is mine), you Prisoner (ditto), and SHINE!” – Waters throws everything he can, mainly himself, at this living ghost, and with an undimmed and unambiguous passion. But why all the throwing? Is he lamenting Syd, wanting him back in his world – or does he envy Syd for having escaped this world?

Because if this album’s predecessor took in about every subject matter imaginable, then this one has just two subjects – Pink Floyd, and Syd Barrett.

Chelsea Cloisters is situated about halfway down Sloane Avenue, one of many anonymous roads linking the Sloane Square end of the King’s Road to the Michelin end of the Fulham Road; in other words, Chelsea to South Kensington. Like most of the buildings and aura in the backlands of South Kensington/Knightsbridge, it is apt to give me the creeps. It’s well advertised; apartments there are always available at knockdown bargain prices, given the area.

But there is something too perfect, too flawless, about the unending parade of Art Deco brownstones down this street, something too strident about their determined anonymity. The shops, too, are present, complete, too good to be true, too comprehensive. If you told me it was an M15 hideout/bugging post I wouldn’t be surprised.

Put it this way; I wouldn’t want to live there because living there wouldn’t feel like living. But if you wanted to hide from everybody, there are few better places to pitch up; nobody would even bother to penetrate the invisible, emotional web. So no wonder Syd decided to base himself at Chelsea Cloisters. From there he could wander the city and come back without any questions asked. Rather like Kenneth Williams’ dusty, and now demolished, Osnaburgh Street apartment, though, it’s not a place where you could imagine much, or anything, in the way of life going on.


After each utterance of “steel breeze,” the music shivers and comes to a considered halt before starting again. Then Waters temporarily leaves the song to saxophonist Dick Parry, first considered and ruminative on baritone, then piercing and tortured – that word again – on tenor (the switch is imperceptible). As the track slowly fades, the saxophone appears to scream.

John Surman had left the Mike Westbrook Concert Band, on less than good terms with its leader, in 1968 to concentrate on his work with Barre Phillips and the late Stu Martin in The Trio. He briefly returned in the spring of 1969 to help out with the recording of Westbrook’s Marching Song, but was not on speaking terms with the composer until 1974, when he was recalled to act as featured soloist on Westbrook’s Citadel/Room 315. Old grievances were laid to rest and the work was recorded in 1975. Undoubtedly its highlight is “View From The Drawbridge,” a slowly unfolding piece where Surman’s meditative bass clarinet is intercepted by the rest of the horns playing, in a different key, the old school song “Fishers Of Men,” as if he had just chanced by them by the riverside. The brass and woodwind figures thicken into impossible complexities before fading out and giving way to a second thematic statement by Kenny Wheeler’s flugelhorn. The harmonic textures become dense again before a calming influence – the trombones? – spreads across the picture like a revelatory sun. Then follows a romantic waltz ballad, a screaming trumpet crescendo – and finally Surman, never better on baritone, with only the rhythm section; one by one each player bows out until Surman is left with his old colleague, on electric piano, and finally on his own. Along with Stan Tracey’s “Starless And Bible Black,” it is one of the great masterpieces of post-war British jazz.

The Machine. Sung as though trapped in a mincer. Gilmour’s acoustic guitar provides the harmonic structure, but Richard Wright’s bank of electronic effects dominates; lyrically we are back in That’ll Be The Day territory (“You bought a guitar to punish your ma/And you didn’t like school”) – and yet, despite the door opening and slamming to bookend the song, the final mutation of speeding car into air raid siren (who said we left The War behind, and who is this record really about, anyway?), it has to be said that one could imagine a kid hearing this – let’s say, for argument’s sake, an eight-year-old boy somewhere in the backwoods of Washington State – and wanting that guitar, that Jaguar, that standing account at the Steak Bar. Which rational boy wouldn’t want that? And does Waters loathe himself for accepting the invitation so easily? Or is it, as he surely already realises, that some are able both to thrive and survive in such an environment, and others don’t make it – or worse, manage to escape it?

”We told you what to dream.” Robert Wyatt – there’s somebody whose dreams in and around 1975 I wouldn’t have minded analysing. His main release that year was the album Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard - the two sides are named thusly – and as a follow-up to the titanic Rock Bottom it didn’t meet with quite as good a reception. Side Richard is mostly based around the “Muddy Mouth” sequence of shaggy dog piano-and-voice tales, interrupted only by two contemplative instrumentals, one of which (“5 Black Notes And 1 White Note”) uses the same slice of Offenbach purloined for Donald Peers’ 1968 weepie “Please Don’t Go” rather more inventively; whereas Side Ruth is jazz-based – “Team Spirit,” where Wyatt sings from the perspective of an underloved football, is the peak; Brian Eno is credited with “direct inject anti-jazz ray gun” and does his best to disrupt both Gary Windo and George Khan’s tenor solos (Windo plays it straight but Khan and Eno go into simultaneous freakout orbit). The side, and according to the CD sequencing, the album, end with the group’s reading of Charlie Haden’s “Song For Che.” Again this is played straight, except for Laurie Allan, whose drums thrash and scream and roar (if drumkits can do such things) from start to finish, giving its own unmediated lament.

One track on Side Ruth was produced by Nick Mason; Mongezi Feza’s “Sonia” featuring the great South African pocket trumpeter himself. Before 1975 ended, Feza, a man of the same generation as Pink Floyd – and, perhaps more relevantly, Steve Biko – would be gone. Committed to a mental institution to the southwest of London, the people there took one look at his case notes and reason for admission, lazily concluded “Crazy Black Guy” and left him sedated. While under sedation he developed double pneumonia; fluid built up, unresolved, in his lungs and finally killed him. He was only thirty, and his passing tore a gaping hole in the South African/British improv/jazz community. Rather than being a documentary celebration of their group of musicians, the releases on Harry and Hazel Miller’s Ogun label soon became predominantly sombre affairs, heavy albums laden with tributes to Mongs. Listen to
Blue Notes For Mongezi, recorded by his erstwhile bandmates on the way home from Feza’s wake – preferably the full, unabridged 2CD version – and understand what a “tribute” is.

As for Wyatt and Mason, they worked again on Michael Mantler’s
The Hapless Child And Other Inscrutable Stories album, his adaptation of the creepily humorous amorality tales of Edward Gorey. The songs’ subject matters are mostly horrific – innocent children, or childlike figures, compelled to go through every imaginable and unimaginable humiliation – yet the band Mantler assembled was one of his best (and although I largely find Mantler’s work gloomy and impenetrable, it is a tribute to his skills and powers of persuasion that his albums have constantly featured musicians of the first order); Carla Bley on keyboards, mostly a Korg string synthesiser, which does bring a proto-New Romantic feel to the tracks, Terje Rypdal, passionate and heartfelt (and not unlike Dave Gilmour) on guitar, Steve Swallow on bass, and a positively demonic Jack DeJohnette at the drums (hear him particularly on “The Insect God”; it is as if at times his drums threaten to burst through the speakers and throttle you). Wyatt sings throughout, in increasingly disorientated and disturbing fashion; Mason helped out with the mixing and can be heard indulging in a little small talk with Alfreda Benge and Bertie Caulder at the beginning of “The Sinking Spell.” This music I will always identify with the dank, rain-swept, wind-blown post-industrial landscapes of northwest England and the Midlands which I passed through, on my way by train to my interview at Oxford University; its radiant bleakness tied in with things like the Specials’ 45 mix of “Do Nothing” (featuring the “Ice Rink String Sounds”), UB40’s “The Earth Dies Screaming” and even “Runaway Boys” by the Stray Cats. How apprehensive, yet how hopeful, I was, travelling to Oxford for the first time, on that cold Monday, 8 December, 1980.

Chatter and laughter, suddenly silenced, usher in “Have A Cigar.” Were it not for Wright’s keyboards, this could pass for swamp rock (Gilmour is in particularly maneating form on guitar). Waters tried out on vocals, but was dissatisfied – his best try can be heard amid the bonus tracks on the second CD of 2011’s “Experience” reissue, along with live Wembley tryouts of “Diamond” and the songs which didn’t make it to the final record, “Raving And Drooling” and “You’ve Got To Be Crazy,” a version of the title track featuring Stéphane Grappelli on violin (the band stumbled upon Grappelli in Abbey Road as he was recording one of his “jazz” albums with Yehudi Menuhin) which accents the craving for Rod Stewart to start singing, and the inconclusive “Wine Glasses” from the Household Objects album they originally planned to make (until Waters realised that it was pretty pointless twanging rubber bands to create a bass effect when an actual bass guitar was present). Dissatisfied, Waters turned to Roy Harper, busy recording his own album in the next studio, and asked him to sing the lead. Harper obliged and his two long verses are characteristic (again, this is a song about the badness of the music business); he seizes on the “Train” of the chorus’ “Gravy Train” and makes it unmistakeably his, and his squeal of “green” (“Everybody else is just GREEN!”) could only have come from him. It’s one of the record’s most human moments.

Harper had worked with Gilmour over the summer of ’75; the guitarist appeared on stage with Harper’s band and contributed considerably to Harper’s H.Q. album, a record containing some of the singer’s bluntest and yet most penetrating work – few records from any era burn with the immolating intensity of “Hallucinating Light” and the five-part “The Game.” And, ending the record (or its vinyl version anyway), its most eloquent moment, “When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease.” I’ve written about this song in detail elsewhere, and have no intention of doing so again here, yet it seems to me that this song is Wish You Were Here’s missing piece, a memorial to sportsmen of old, for sure, but also an elongating meditation on transience and legacy which could be applied to Syd as equally as to old Geoff Boycott. Harper is one of those spirits who tends to pop up on Then Play Long exactly when he’s needed, and he’ll be back again, helping out a girl who in 1975 is still an impressionable teenager, under Gilmour’s tutelage, and taking everybody’s lessons to her heart.

The thing is, with the title track, you do expect Rod to start singing any second; those “Gasoline Alley” guitar lines, the two lost souls swimming in a goldfish bowl, so it’s a little startling (even if it’s on a Pink Floyd album) when Waters begins to sing. But the title track, even above everything else on this album, is where this Roger stops beating about the bush and addresses his subject – his shadow - directly in the eye. It consists largely of a series of self-answering questions (“Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?,” “Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?”), practically begging for an answer of any kind. “Year after year/Running over the same old ground/What have we found?/The same old fears/Wish you were here.” The track fades, gently – it never raises its voice above a whisper – with Waters doing some scat singing, and sounding not unlike a deeper Robert Wyatt. It is one of the most humane things he has ever recorded; and if the other Roger was indeed the mislaid “soul” of Pink Floyd, it is this same soul which lends belief and authority to the album as a whole – a belief and authority not always present in its predecessor.

People still ask me how it feels not to get to write about Dark Side Of The Moon directly. It’s true that there are, as the KLF once put it, great, unhealing gashes across the spine of Then Play Long, and DSOTM is one of them; it’s a ghost which has cast its own shadow across so much which surrounded it, and came after it, that it’s difficult even to attempt objectivity – as though the object of this blog were “objectivity”! I did write about it indirectly – I channelled its fugitive, lunatic spirit down the avenues and alleyways of the K-Tel sixties compilation which held it at number two, and – early warning – am not averse to doing so again with other worthy candidates. If, as Lena puts it, DSOTM is like one of these big, colourful children’s encyclopaedias which contains Everything, Wish You Were Here is a smaller, darker, more serious and more concentrated book, yet ultimately reaps the greater emotional reward. Certainly the music of Pink Floyd is so fundamentally part and parcel of my own history that I can’t tear myself away from what I know and feel about it. But one has to try. Whereas Waters was previously singing about “the lunatic” being “in my head” without any clear idea of who this lunatic might be, here he is able to identify and face the lunacy, which fits so neatly with his own (Robert Wyatt just gets everywhere).

But the thing is, if Waters is singing about Barrett, why the reference to The War (“Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war/For a lead role in a cage”)? Does he imagine Syd to be the Number 1 to his own Number 6?

Such things, alas, have to remain within the realms of conjecture, for here come the wind effects, and we are back to the blues workout section of “Diamond,” Wright this time taking the lead with an extended Moog solo. This slows down to a more blues-workable tempo, and Gilmour takes over with some of his most eloquent (and also most patient) playing on the record. Eventually this gives way to Waters’ last verse (“We’ll bask in the shadow of yesterday’s triumph,” he sings sardonically, and then, later, “Come on you boy-child, you winner and loser” – but who has won and who has lost? Who, indeed, is who?) and then a slow-burning funk groove with Wright mostly on clavinet. Soon this fades to reveal the original drone, and Wright’s Moog returns to centre stage, but this time the whole band are there; Wright solos thoughtfully over the emotionally moving chord changes, and the thing ends – as, deep down, we always knew it would – in the major key. E major, the chord of heaven. And, as the chord fades, Wright continues to play – and right before the music disappears, he begins to play the melody of “See Emily Play.” Farewell, you uncatchable ghost.

Syd listened to the playback of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” He liked the song but thought it “a bit old” and by all accounts had no idea of the song’s subject matter. He stayed around for Gilmour’s wedding reception and then wandered off into the night. None of the band members ever saw him again.

And, although Chelsea Cloisters was among the most reliable of hideaways, Syd’s continued residence there depended on the not insubstantial income he received from royalty cheques. But the seventies drew to a close, and times changed, as did allegiances, whims and tastes. His royalties diminished quite sharply, and he concluded that it was best to return home to Cambridge. This downturn was only temporary, however – from the eighties onward, the royalties again began to accumulate – and Syd briefly returned to Chelsea Cloisters a couple of years later. But the noise of London now disturbed him, and he hot-footed it – some say literally – back to Cambridge and stayed there for the rest of his days. Not yet a ghost.

Meanwhile, there are two ways in which I can order the curtain down. One is to consider a teenager, then living in a squat in Gunter Grove, a mere five-minute bus ride from Chelsea Cloisters, who one day wanders into his local fashion store with a partly self-written T-shirt which declares “I HATE PINK FLOYD.” I don’t believe he ever did, apart from the grounds that, if you hate something with a passion, you must love it with at least equal passion.

Secondly – and this is all Lena’s idea – it’s important to remember that
Wish You Were Here is a record which both laments and pokes fun at the notion of success. At many points it is like listening to a religious service (if not quite a requiem). But, if Roger Waters is above all singing to himself – doesn’t he himself more or less admit on the title track that he and Barrett, born Roger Barrett, are the same man staring at himself in the mirror? – then he must also be aware, as I said, that some people are better equipped to handle huge success than others. Think of that eight-year-old boy I mentioned in Washington State, who almost certainly heard and absorbed this record at a crucial time in his life, who went on to record an album – and it’s an album I get to write about in this tale, many years from now – where he talks about the exact same problems. Only he didn’t have the thick skin, the nous, to survive.

Wish you were here, Kurt, with all apologies.

3 comments:

Jeremy said...

Wow, great write -up. It's hard to write about works of art that are so well known. Can't believe it was only number one for one week though?

Ed said...

Fantastic post; I had to go and buy the album as soon as I'd read it.

It is the greatest of all Floyd records, isn't it? As you say, it's sharper than 'Dark Side of the Moon', but more humane (exactly the right word) than 'Animals or 'The Wall'.

I think Ian MacDonald was on to something with his assessment of Pink Floyd, as he was with Nick Drake. But this album transcends that.

I had never thought about the Cobain connection, but that is brilliant, too: unexpected but wholly fitting.

david said...

Not sure if WYWH is the greatest Pink Floyd album as Ed says, but fantastic post. Title track apart, I was disappointed by WYWH at the time, though I can't fully recall why. I did see them on the 74 tour, when they previewed Diamond and two other songs that ended up on Animals. After the show, I managed to get three of the band's autographs. I asked Roger if he'd seen Syd lately. He didn't reply. Btw, I think Dave G did try to stay in touch with Syd and certainly the release of A Nice Pair around this time was partly designed to keep Syd supplied with a decent income.