The Rabbit Hole, 20-09-15. Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here.
Wish You Were Here
Pink Floyds album Wish You Were Here was their ninth studio album, released 45 years ago today on 12 September 1975 through Harvest Records and Columbia Records, their first release on Harvest.
The album is based on material Pink Floyd composed while performing in Europe and was recorded over numerous sessions throughout 1975 at Abbey Road Studios in London.
The album’s themes include criticism of the music business, alienation, and a tribute to founding member Syd Barrett, who left seven years earlier with deteriorating mental health.
Like their previous record, The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), Pink Floyd used studio effects and synthesisers. Guest singers included Roy Harper, who provided the lead vocals on “Have a Cigar”, and Venetta Fields, who added backing vocals to “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”.
To promote the album, the band released the double A-side single “Have a Cigar” / “Welcome to the Machine”.
The album received mixed reviews from critics on its release, who found its music uninspiring and inferior to their previous work. It has retrospectively received critical acclaim, hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time, although Dark Side Of The Moon is one of the best selling albums ever. It reached number one in the US and UK and Harvest’s parent company, EMI, was unable to keep up with the demand. Since then, the record has sold an estimated 13 million copies.
During 1974, Pink Floyd sketched out three new compositions, “Raving and Drooling”, “You Gotta Be Crazy” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. These songs were performed during a series of concerts in France and England.
Wish You Were Here was written entirely by Roger Waters. It reflects his feeling that the camaraderie that had served the band was, by then, largely absent. The album begins with a long instrumental preamble and segues into the lyrics for “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”, a tribute to Syd Barrett, whose mental breakdown had forced him to leave the group seven years earlier. Barrett is fondly recalled with lines such as “Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun” and “You reached for the secret too soon, you cried for the moon”.
Wish You Were Here is also a critique of the music business. “Shine On” crosses seamlessly into “Welcome to the Machine”, a song that begins with an opening door (described by Waters as a symbol of musical discovery and progress betrayed by a music industry more interested in greed and success) and ends with a party, the latter epitomising “the lack of contact and real feelings between people”. Similarly, “Have a Cigar” scorns record industry “fat-cats” with the lyrics repeating a stream of cliches heard by rising newcomers in the industry, and including the question “by the way, which one’s Pink?” asked of the band on at least one occasion. The lyrics of the next track, “Wish You Were Here”, relate both to Barrett’s condition and to the dichotomy of Waters’ character, with greed and ambition battling with compassion and idealism.
Alan Parsons, EMI staff engineer for Pink Floyd’s previous studio album, The Dark Side of the Moon, declined to continue working with them. The group had worked with engineer Brian Humphries on More, recorded at Pye Studios, and again in 1974 when he replaced an inexperienced concert engineer. Humphries was therefore the natural choice to work on the band’s new material, although being a stranger to EMI’s Abbey Road set-up, he encountered some early difficulties. On one occasion, Humphries inadvertently spoiled the backing tracks for “Shine On”, a piece that Waters and drummer Nick Mason had spent many hours perfecting, with echo. The entire piece had to be re-recorded.
The sessions for Wish You Were Here at Abbey Road’s Studio Three lasted from January until July 1975, recording on four days each week from 2:30 pm until very late in the evening. The group found it difficult at first to devise any new material, especially as the success of The Dark Side of the Moon had left all four physically and emotionally drained. Keyboardist Richard Wright later described these sessions as “falling within a difficult period”, and Waters recalled them as “torturous”. Mason found the process of multi-track recording drawn-out and tedious, while Gilmour was more interested in improving the band’s existing material. Gilmour was also becoming increasingly frustrated with Mason, whose failing marriage had brought on a general malaise and sense of apathy, both of which interfered with his drumming.
Humphries gave his point of view regarding these difficult sessions in a 2014 interview: “There were days when we didn’t do anything. I don’t think they knew what they wanted to do. We had a dartboard and an air rifle and we’d play these word games, sit around, get drunk, go home and return the next day. That’s all we were doing until suddenly everything started falling into place.”
After several weeks, Waters began to visualise another concept. The three new compositions from 1974’s tour were at least a starting point for a new album, and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” seemed a reasonable choice as a centrepiece for the new work. Mostly an instrumental twenty-minute-plus piece similar to “Echoes”, the opening four-note guitar phrase reminded Waters of the lingering ghost of former band-member Syd Barrett.
On 5 June 1975, on the eve of Pink Floyd’s second US tour that year, Gilmour married his first wife, Ginger. That day, the band were completing the mix of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” when an overweight man with shaven head and eyebrows entered, carrying a plastic bag. Waters did not recognise him. Gilmour presumed he was an EMI staff member. Wright presumed he was a friend of Waters, but realised it was Barrett.
Waters was reportedly reduced to tears by the sight of his former bandmate. And when fellow visitor Andrew King asked how Barrett had gained so much weight, Barrett said he had a large refrigerator in his kitchen and had been eating lots of pork chops. He mentioned that he was ready to help with the recording, but while listening to the mix of “Shine On”, showed no signs of understanding its relevance to him. Barrett joined Gilmour’s wedding reception in the EMI canteen, but left without saying goodbye. Apart from Waters seeing Barrett buying sweets in Harrods a couple of years later, it was the last time any member of the band saw him alive.
The album’s cover images were photographed by Aubrey “Po” Powell, and inspired by the idea that people tend to conceal their true feelings, for fear of “getting burned”, and thus two businessmen were pictured shaking hands, one man on fire.
“Getting burned” was also a common phrase in the music industry, used often by artists denied royalty payments. Two stuntmen were used (Ronnie Rondell and Danny Rogers), one dressed in a fire-retardant suit covered by a business suit. His head was protected by a hood, underneath a wig. The photograph was taken at Warner Bros. Studios in California, known at the time as The Burbank Studios.
The album’s back cover depicts a faceless “Floyd salesman”, “selling his soul” it was shot in the Yuma Desert in California. The absence of wrists and ankles signifies his presence as an “empty suit”.
The inner sleeve shows a veil concealing a nude woman in a windswept Norfolk grove, and a splash-less diver at Mono Lake. The decision to shroud the cover in black plastic was not popular with the band’s US record company, Columbia Records, who insisted that it be changed (they were over-ruled). EMI were less concerned; the band were reportedly extremely happy with the end product, and when presented with a pre-production mockup, they accepted it with a spontaneous round of applause.
In Britain, with 250,000 advance sales, the album went straight to number one, and demand was such that EMI informed retailers that only 50 percent of their orders would be fulfilled. With 900,000 advance US orders it reached number one on the US Billboard chart in its second week. Wish You Were Here was Pink Floyd’s fastest-selling album ever. The album was certified Silver and Gold in the UK on 1 August 1975, and Gold in the US on 17 September 1975. It was certified six times platinum on 16 May 1997, and by 2004 had sold an estimated 13 million copies worldwide. “Have a Cigar” was chosen by Columbia as their first single, with “Welcome to the Machine” on the B-side in the US. The album was a commercial hit in Europe, topping Dutch, English and Spanish charts.
Despite the problems during production, the album remained Wright’s favourite: “It’s an album I can listen to for pleasure, and there aren’t many Floyd albums that I can.” Gilmour shares this view: “I for one would have to say that it is my favourite album, the Wish You Were Here album. The end result of all that, whatever it was, definitely has left me an album I can live with very very happily. I like it very much.”