Revisiting Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett Tribute, ‘Wish You Were Here’
Following up a hit record is no mean feat for any band, and even under the best of circumstances, Pink Floyd might have found it all but impossible to come back from the massive success of Dark Side of the Moon.
Unfortunately, when the band returned to the studio in January 1975, conditions were far from favorable in the band for a variety of reasons — not the least of which was the fact that, as they adjusted to life after a worldwide smash record, the members of the band found themselves more disoriented than fulfilled. Compounding the problem was a growing disconnect between bassist Roger Waters and the rest of Pink Floyd, particularly guitarist David Gilmour.
"We were all having to assess what we were in this business for," Gilmour said in the 2012 documentary The Story of Wish You Were Here. "Whether we were artists or businessmen. Having achieved the sort of success and money out of it all, it could fulfill anyone's wildest teenage dreams, why we would still continue to want to do it? Roger has said he thinks we may have been finished at that point, and he may have been right."
It also didn't help that, as drummer Nick Mason said in a separate interview filmed for the movie, the band didn't exactly have a ton of material stored up for their next album. After spending years rotating through the industry's tour-and-record cycle, they hunkered down on their Dark Side follow-up basically bereft of material — and some of the songs they had written ended up being thrown out of the running order.
The songs in question, "Raving and Drooling" and "You Gotta Be Crazy," were excised from the album after a fight between Waters and Gilmour, prompted because Waters felt the songs they had didn't hold together as a cohesive whole. In his view, it was better to expand one particular track — titled "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" — into a bookend that essentially enveloped the rest of the record. As Waters later revealed, the piece was largely inspired by his heartbreak over the self-imposed exile of the band's founding guitarist and first leader, Syd Barrett.
"I’ve never read an intelligent piece on Syd Barrett in any magazine, never," Waters says in Mark Blake's Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd. "I wrote and rewrote and rewrote and rewrote that lyric because I wanted it to be as close as possible to what I felt. There’s a truthful feeling in that piece. That sort of indefinable, inevitable melancholy about the disappearance of Syd. He’s withdrawn so far away that he’s no longer there."
Listen to 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond'
Waters' feelings regarding Barrett's absence could have been applied, to some degree, to the rest of Pink Floyd. "No one was really looking anyone in the eye," he complained. "It was all very mechanical."
"It was disengagement," concurred Gilmour. "It was not being willing to apply yourself sufficiently. Lots of moments when any one of us might have been much more interested in thinking about what we were doing that weekend. ... The concentrated activity was rather diluted, and I'm sure for a very pushing, driving sort of person like Roger, it was more frustrating than it was for anyone else — although it was very frustrating for all of us, I suspect."
Thus preoccupied by feelings of alienation and disillusionment, the members of the group — primarily pulled along by Waters — cobbled together a set of songs built around absence, starting with the withdrawal of their friend Barrett and spilling over into the creeping disappointment they'd found with one another and in the industry they'd enriched with Dark Side of the Moon. In the midst of the recording, Barrett himself made an unannounced appearance in the studio, looking so different that the members of the band initially failed to recognize him.
Drummer Nick Mason, for one, later remembered Barrett looking like a "large, fat bloke with a shaven head, wearing a decrepit old tan mac and carrying a plastic shopping bag," while keyboard player Rick Wright recalled a sad denouement to their former leader's surprise visit: "Syd stood up and said, 'Right, when do I put the guitar on?' And, of course, he didn’t have a guitar with him. We said, 'Sorry, Syd, the guitar's all done.'"
Such was the band's disconnect that one song on the album, titled "Have a Cigar," ultimately ended up being sung by someone outside the lineup. After Waters and Gilmour tried and failed to lend the requisite degree of vocal snark to their sarcastic ode to music business cynicism, they ended up turning to singer Roy Harper, who was sharing the studio with them and happened to be in the room one day while they struggled to find a solution.
"Roger can write songs but he’s never going to be in the top one hundred as a rock singer," observed Harper. "He tries hard, he’s a good lad. Anyway, neither of them could get up there. I just stood at the back, leaning against a machine and laughing. I said, 'I’ll sing it for you,' and someone said, 'OK,' and I said, 'For a price.'"
Listen to 'Wish You Were Here'
Recording finally wrapped in the summer of 1975, and after settling on a typically evocative cover design from legendary artist Storm Thorgerson, the members of Pink Floyd sent their ninth studio LP — titled Wish You Were Here, after a particularly disaffected Gilmour-Waters cowrite — to their label. Scheduled for release on Sept. 12, it immediately became one of the most highly anticipated albums of 1975.
Not that Pink Floyd necessarily acted like a band delivering a major piece of product. In fact, their only concession to the promotion machine was a single syndicated live show, recorded at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in the spring of 1975, which was broadcast in an array of major markets ahead of the tour booked to support Wish You Were Here. The sold-out set, which still included "Raving and Drooling" and "You Gotta Be Crazy," also featured an extended "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" as well as "Have a Cigar," "Echoes," and "Dark Side of the Moon" — as well as an expanding roster of special effects that now included expensive and unpredictable pyrotechnics.
In spite of inevitably mixed reviews, Wish You Were Here went on to top the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, and although it couldn't hope to match the gargantuan sales of Dark Side of the Moon, it enjoyed substantial success in its own right, selling more than six million copies in the U.S. alone. And while the Floyd machine would continue to churn out product on a regular basis in the near future — starting with 1977's Animals, which included the jettisoned Wish tracks ""Raving and Drooling" and "You Gotta Be Crazy" — the writing was already on the wall for Waters' eventual departure from the band. As he pointed out in The Inside Story of Pink Floyd, even the biggest sales figures can't balance out creative dysfunction.
"The dream," shrugged Waters, "is that when you are successful, when you’re a star, you’ll be fine, everything will go wonderfully well. That’s the dream — and everybody knows it’s an empty one."