Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here: Experience Edition
Any modern-day appreciation of Pink Floyd's ninth album, 1975's Wish You Were Here, must start by putting the album into its proper temporal context. In that pre-iPhone, pre-internet, pre-You Tube era, fans weren't able to hear works-in-progress the moment they were presented live; the only way to experience a band's latest, yet-to-be-released music was to hear it either in concert or by scoring a freshly minted bootleg. Those of a certain age will recall, then, that Floyd was, at that time, confronted with the difficult proposition of following up one of the biggest-selling albums of all time—Dark Side of the Moon, obviously—and somehow surviving all of the artistic expectations and pressure that went along with it. This Experience Edition includes the original, remastered studio version of Wish You Were Here, a second disc of previously unreleased live and studio recordings, and a booklet. Given that the tracks were laid down at Abbey Road studios between January-July 1975 and the bonus disc's live versions were recorded at Wembley in November 1974, the latter disc therefore offers a snapshot of what listeners were presented with prior to the album's release as the band road-tested the material before hitting the studio.
Wish You Were Here explores multiple topics, the one relating to the mental, perhaps drug-influenced decline of one-time band member Syd Barrett the most well-known, of course, but the album explores other aspects of the music business, too. In fact, the June 1975 recording sessions brought about a surprising visit to the studio by Barrett, though the band was startled to discover that his appearance had undergone a drastic change in just a few years time. Barrett, overweight and with a shaven head and eyebrows, wasn't at first recognized by any of the band members, and the identification, when it did kick in, was a shock; it would also turn out to be the last time they would see him (Barrett died in 2006).
The album's plaintive character is established at the start of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V)” in the mournfulness of Richard Wright's synthesizer and keyboards and especially in the understated quality of David Gilmour's opening solo statement. The familiar four-note theme follows in repeated voicings as the music, now raw, swells in volume and intensity with the full band present, led by the careful pacing and dynamic contrasts of the guitarist's bluesy attack. Almost nine minutes pass before the vocals enter but when they do, the music rises gloriously during the title's refrain (the group's singing accompanied by Venetta Fields and Carlena Williams). The lyrics confirm that the piece is fundamentally a lament, not just for Barrett but for anyone who's been beaten down by life circumstances (“Remember when you were young you shone like the sun / Shine on you crazy diamond / Now there's a look in your eyes like black holes in the sky / Shine on you crazy diamond”). A brief saxophone spotlight by Dick Parry (also a guest on Dark Side of the Moon) segues into the dramatic “Welcome To The Machine,” whose factory machine noises and synthesizer emphasis render it the album track most suggestive of prog-rock (the party sounds near its end also perhaps symbolize the superficial conviviality that accompanies fame and celebrity).
“Have A Cigar,” with Roy Harper on vocals, is one of the most scathing attacks on the music industry ever recorded, with the group taking on promoters, publicists, managers (“The band is just fantastic / That is what I really think / Oh, by the way, which one's Pink?”)—virtually anyone and everyone intent on “Riding the Gravy Train” and “so happy [they] can hardly count” (dollars, not numbers). Though sparsely arranged, the title track is the album's most directly affecting, especially when its country-blues arrangement is powerfully elevated by the song's wistful tone and heartfelt lyrics. Raw guitar stabs and ominous synthesizer atmospherics inaugurate “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts VI-IX)” before Gilmour takes flight with a searing solo that smoothly leads into the album's final vocal episode and a subsequent, jam-styled outro featuring some funky clavinet by Wright playing.
Compared to the studio version, the live, twenty-minute presentation of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” moves at a faster pace (immediately apparent in the four-note motif with which the piece gets underway). Naturally, the live take is rawer than the polished studio version and the vocals a tad ragged by comparison, though otherwise the group's live treatment hews closely to the album version, notwithstanding the fact that the live track's an uninterrupted though abbreviated run-through (not all of the album's nine parts appear). Not surprisingly, it becomes as much a Gilmour showcase as anything else, with the guitarist soloing for long stretches at a time. It's followed by a half-hour of non-Wish You Were Here tracks that later appeared on 1977's Animals, “Raving & Drooling” (eventually titled “Sheep”) and “You've Got To Be Crazy” (an early version of “Dogs”), the two tracks originally considered possible candidates for inclusion on Wish You Were Here but tabled for not fitting into its concept (though the “Dogs” image, supposedly a metaphor for ruthless businessmen singularly focused on their careers to the detriment of all else certainly sounds like a comfortable match for “Have A Cigar,” while the madness associated with “raving and drooling” also aligns with “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”). During the group's 1974 concerts, the three pieces were performed in the opening half, with Dark Side of the Moon presented in full during the second.
Three shorter tracks close out the bonus album. Now familiar as the opening part of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” “Wine Glasses” came into being as part of an unreleased Household Objects project, with in this case the material originating from recordings made of fingers circling the edges of wine glasses and the resultant sounds multi-tracked to become chords. The alternative version of “Have A Cigar” is notable for featuring Gilmour and Roger Waters on vocals instead of Harper, while the most curious piece features jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli playing on a version of “Wish You Were Here.” Grappelli's warm and sweetly singing tone makes for an arresting addition to the group's sound, but the group for whatever reason decided that a Grappeli-less take more suited its needs.
Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here are, among other things, impeccably sequenced, though the twenty-minute live presentation of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” reminds us that the album version could have likewise been presented as a side-long epic rather than split up as presented in the formal release. That it turned out that way is in itself a bit of surprise, given the group's penchant for long-form tracks (Dark Side of the Moon an obvious exception). But the final treatment proved to be the better choice, as it makes the album's parts register as a whole rather than as two halves of one long piece and three shorter ones (apparently it was Waters' idea to split “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” in two).
Wish You Were Here also reminds us of how oversimplistic it is to label Pink Floyd a spacey prog band. If anything, the group plays like a blues-rock outfit on much of it (“Welcome to the Machine” the exception), and there are even moments during the second half of the live “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” when the group more resembles the Allman Brothers than Ash Ra Tempel. Wright and Gilmour both publicly cited Wish You Were Here as their favourite Pink Floyd album, and it's a sentiment I share. To these ears it's the last great Pink Floyd album, as its successor, Animals, signified a major drop-off that would continue thereafter, eventually culminating in The Wall, an overrated collection that hardly captures the band at its peak.