Pt 1. Commercial Success, Creative Breakdown?
Where do you go once you’ve reached madness?
That could have been the question taunting Pink Floyd after the completion and release of their most wildly successful album, The Dark Side of the Moon. Madness was one of the album’s chief themes, and it was ingeniously explored both musically and lyrically with Dark Side, along with companion themes of the ruthless pressures of modern society: money, fame, work stress, alienation, and death.
That wasn’t the only question of that ilk that Pink Floyd could have asked, however. “Where does one go after achieving the pinnacle of success” would have been a reasonable alternative. After all, The Dark Side of the Moon has, to date, sold an estimated 45 million copies. It spent 741 weeks on the Billboard charts after topping the charts in 1973 – also reaching the #2 spot in the UK.
It could easily have been argued that with The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd had crafted both the perfect album artistically and achieved the kind of commercial success in rock and roll that would be impossible to top with their next album.
Even David Gilmour has admitted that after densely packed soundscapes and emotional outpouring on Dark Side, Pink Floyd was creatively drained; they were reeling. In many ways, The Dark Side of the Moon and its runaway coaster success sowed the seeds for ending of the collaboration between these core four members of Pink Floyd. Tensions about both creative direction as well as financial allocation would abound.
But guitarist David Gilmour and bassist Roger Waters were not breaking up, not at this point. And they would still have a few masterpieces up their sleeves.
The first of those was Wish You Were Here.
Pt. 2. Are Pink Floyd Really Here?
One major creative difficulty the band had to face after Dark Side was whether to follow their smash success up with another concept album, the favored approach of Rogers Waters or, instead, to create a less confined collection of songs, which David Gilmour preferred. This difference probably stemmed from the fact that Waters was so lyric-driven, whereas Gilmour believed that The Dark Side of the Moon, focused too much on lyrics at the expense of the musical side.
The concept around which Roger Waters wanted to build their ninth studio album was that of absence. Hence, the title of the album came to be “Wish You Were Here” – precisely because somebody was not there. On one level, the album and that specific song were certainly about Pink Floyd’s founding singer and guitarist, Syd Barrett, who was famously lost to the band due to his acid use.
But Roger Waters was referring to something more general about humanity as well, and also about the band that was such an important part of his life. He was referring to people – really anyone – who was physically “there” in body but not present emotionally. People whose mind and heart were somewhere else. Waters came to feel that, to some extent, the members of Pink Floyd were not truly and fully present to each other. He also felt that way about his relationship with his wife, which was in the process of deteriorating. Emotional unavailability was the name of the game.
Pt. 3. Be Here Now
One of the remarkable things about Wish You Were Here is that it consists of only four songs: the sprawling “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”, the eerie “Welcome to the Machine”, the ironic and biting “Wish You Were Here”, and the poignant acoustic title track.
Even the way to handle the 25-minute long “Shine On” became a source of contention for the ever-turbulent bandmates Waters and Gilmour. While Gilmour wanted to have the song take up the first full side of the record, Waters envisioned splitting the song into two pieces and having them bookend the album. Waters’ preference won out.
“Shine On Your Crazy Diamond” was credited to writers Gilmour, Waters, and keyboardist Rick Wright. As epic in scope as anything ever created in rock music, the song shimmers over a bed of dreamy Rick Wright keyboards landscapes, caustic blues guitar riffing from Gilmour, and the emotive harmonizing of the band and two backing vocalists, Carlena Williams and Vanetta Fields. Dick Barry’s piercing baritone saxophone bleets add an additional emotional context to the tune.
The song is the emotional centerpiece of the album. It invokes a deep feeling of isolation, alienation, loss. And yet its tremendously uplifting, as all the best work by Pink Floyd is. It leaves you feeling hopeful, not despairing. As if the emptiness can be filled in. As if our longings can be satisfied. As if we can be emotionally available and fully present in the moment.
– Brian M. Reiser,
Tribut Apparel / Joe Bonamassa Official Blog