Wish You Were Here (Experience Edition)

Pink Floyd

Capitol, 2011


REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


An old game among music fans is to ask what five CDs they would take with them to a deserted island. For casual fans, it’s not a terribly difficult choice. For serious music fans – as in, everyone on the Vault staff, and probably all of you reading this – it can be a lot harder. How do you distill a library and a lifetime of experiencing music down to a Top 20 list, let alone a Top Five?

The answer is, you look at the music that has profoundly affected you the most, and for me that is Wish You Were Here (if you want to know the rest of my Top Five, send me an email).

“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is one of the greatest songs ever written. It is everything Pink Floyd did right – the hypnotic soundscapes, the jarring noise bursts, the melody, the attention to details that brings a song together – but with a significant amount of heart and passion missing from earlier Floyd works. Even Dark Side Of The Moon, for all its virtues, seemed a bit cold and detached, but the wounded, beating hearts of the quartet were finally visible here and it resulted in their greatest album.

At least, Gilmour and the late Richard Wright thought so, which makes sense considering how their playing is the bulk of what you remember about Wish You Were Here. The cinematic opening to “Shine On” sets the stage for the jazz-rock sections that follow, Gilmour’s guitar punctuating with an (accidental) four-note melody before Nick Mason’s drums come pounding in out of the void in his second-most dramatic drum entrance in Floyd history.

You actually feel the aching loss and redemptive hope in this music before Roger Waters even sings a note, but his potent, inside-joke lyrics are as effective as Gilmour’s slide guitar solo that opens the second part of the song. Although it works astoundingly well as a 25-minute epic, Waters’ decision to split the song in half at a natural point was the right decision, as it allows the band to explore three other avenues before returning to the main focus.

The story is well-told but continues to bear repeating. After the success of Dark Side, the band members were at a bit of a loss. As Gilmour described it, they had achieved financial success, fame, adulation, a compelling and enduring work of art…everything they had set out to do. So what was next? Compounding this was a sense of guilt that they had done all this without their co-founder and friend Syd Barrett, a casualty of drug use who had not been seen or heard from in years. Waters and Gilmour channeled all of these emotions into “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” and, more directly, “Wish You Were Here,” but the added beauty – and something Waters emphasized later – is that they can apply to anybody who is lost, anybody you have lost contact with, even anybody in your life who is struggling or distant or trying to reclaim who they once were.

In a burst of acidic anger, Waters turned his focus away from Syd for a time to the music business itself, a theme referenced on the album’s artwork (an empty suit, mechanical handshakes, someone getting burned) and in the pointed lyrics. “Welcome To The Machine” is hauntingly beautiful and gleamingly metallic, with Wright’s synthesizers and a mechanical hum setting the foundation for the bursts of air and Gilmour’s minor-key acoustic guitar. The protagonists of the song appear to be music executives telling their latest batch of stars how to act (“We told you what to dream”) around one of those beloved legendary music biographies (“You didn’t like school, and you know you’re nobody’s fool,” “You played a mean guitar,” “You loved to drive in your Jaguar”). The executives have found their poor sap, created a backstory, packaged him as a legend and made him rich, but the mechanical thrum of the song indicates he lost his soul somewhere along the way, and the song ends with someone taking an elevator ride into what appears to be a top-floor cocktail party.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Have A Cigar” is much more pointed, of course, with the famous line “Which one’s Pink” that was actually uttered by an executive somewhere and the image of a cigar-chomping, overweight fat cat in a suit somehow palling around with these hippies after the success of Dark Side: “You gotta get an album out, you owe it to the people / We’re so excited we can hardly count / Everybody else is just green / Have you seen the charts? / It’s a hell of a start, it could be made into a monster / If we all pull together as a team.” Right. Because of vocal issues singing “Shine On,” Waters wasn’t quite able to sing this song the way he wanted, and Gilmour deferred, so the band went next door and recruited Roy Harper. In hindsight, this was a brilliant move, because Harper’s voice lends an outsider’s perspective – he becomes the executive, making it believable – and he sings in a cynical, snide manner not unlike Waters. The song itself is fairly standard chunky blues-based rock, the least ambitious song here and a welcome oasis of wit among the more melancholy bulk of the disc.

“Wish You Were Here” is probably more beloved by the general public than “Shine On,” for while it explores similar themes, it does so in a more direct, heartfelt way. The references to Syd in “Shine” are necessarily specific, but “Wish” floats by on a lovely acoustic guitar and piano figure and a simple request to a dear friend. In one of those it-can’t-be-true-but-is music stories, Barrett actually showed up toward the end of recording (Gilmour’s wedding reception was around this time), overweight, bald, and holding a plastic bag. Not one member of the band recognized him at first. Once they did, they sat around and tried to talk to him, but he was fairly gone mentally at that point, and most of the band members wept at what had become of their old friend and band founder.

Picturing that scene informs the entirety of Wish You Were Here and explains why it is so damn special.

The Experience edition is the one to get for fans looking to update their collection. The remastering is solid, as usual, but the second disc is the true gem. Included are three songs from the 1974 Wembley show: a sublime take on “Shine On,” and then excellent versions of “Raving And Drooling” and especially “You’ve Got To Be Crazy.” The former is a far more groove-centric version of what would become “Sheep” and the latter is a spine-tingling piece of prog-rock that would become “Dogs,” both from 1977’s Animals. The songs are about 90% complete compared to their finished versions, other than the obvious lyric changes to “Sheep” and the rewrite of the verses of “Dogs,” which Gilmour sings here in a breathless near-rap. The songs are raw by Floyd standards but a must-have for collectors. Also present is the beginning to “Shine On” when it was called “Wine Glasses,” from the aborted Household Objects album that was an early follow-up to Dark Side, a version of “Wish You Were Here” with violin, and an unnecessary version of “Have A Cigar” with Waters’ vocals added.

I will argue that this is Floyd’s finest hour and the last time they were truly a band. Between the sessions for this album and the release of Animals, they really only wrote one new song together (“Pigs [Three Different Ones]”), which was clearly the beginning of Waters’ dominance of the band and Wright’s irrelevance of the same; as said above, “Dogs” and “Sheep” were written in 1974 and pretty much finished, other than lyric changes and studio recording time. So this is where it ends, in a sense, and there’s no way they could ever top this.

The unannounced visit to the studio also was the last time the members of Pink Floyd would see Syd Barrett until his death in 2006.

Rating: A

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