Saturday, January 19, 2013

Wish You Were Here

"The reality was that we were struggling with making the follow-up to Dark Side and we rushed back into the studio to do that.  We put ourselves under sort of ridiculous pressure in a way trying to make a record from nothing."Nick Mason

"It was disengagement.  It was not being willing to apply yourself sufficiently.  The concentrated activity was rather diluted.  I'm sure for a very pushing, driving sort of person like Roger it was more frustrating than it was for anyone else, although considerably frustrating for all of us." - David Gilmour

"I had to fight David for a bit, as he acknowledges completely.  We had completely different ideas and that was a fight that I won.  So, at some point in that process, I came up with the idea that this has to be thematic.  This will make this a more coherent work.  And because it's coherent it will be better than if we just throw all the songs we've been working on together and go boom, there you are, that's it.  There's one song that's about Syd but the rest of it is a much more universal expression of my feelings about absence because I felt we weren't really there.  We were absent." - Roger Waters

Last Monday, Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show offered Roger Waters in a guest appearance.  The interview itself was short and rather pointless, Waters was suffering from a bit of the flu, but seeing it did bring back both old and recent memories.  Of the recent variety was when the former member of Pink Floyd appeared on stage last November with 14 veterans wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The group played several songs together including the quintessential Pink Floyd tune Wish You Were Here which is one of my all-time favorite songs and certainly one that features some of the best lyrics ever written.

Long-time readers know this blog is named after a Pink Floyd album.  The Floyd went through several manifestations from their initial Syd Barrett-led Piper at the Gates of Dawn in 1967.  As is known, Barrett blew his mind out with LSD and had to be replaced by David Gilmour who joined drummer Nick Mason, bassist Roger Waters, and keyboardist Rick Wright for several historic and massively successful records.

Then Waters quit the band, which created some controversy and great legal consternation when Gilmour decided to carry on with Mason and Wright in 1987.  The post-Waters Pink Floyd tours of 1987-89 and 1994 rank among the highest grossing rock concert tours in history.  As if to balance things out, Gilmour then went on to have a fabulous solo career of his own, highlighted by his studio album On an Island and several great live performance releases including an awesome one in Gdansk, Poland.

Now that Gilmour has more or less faded from the scene, Waters has come back strong with a new tour of Pink Floyd’s mega-hit The Wall which, like almost all of the Floyd’s thematic material, was primarily written by himself with marginal assistance from Gilmour.  It might surprise readers to learn that the Waters tour, which began in 2010 and is still on-going, is now the 6th highest grossing rock concert tour in history, reaping more than $375 million so far.

Anyway, seeing Waters on Stewart’s show triggered another fairly recent memory.  Last summer, a Blu-ray documentary was released about the making of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here album.  While most of the story was known to me, there was a great deal that I learned from the hour-long video.  I have simply not gotten around to blogging about the documentary until now.

After the band toured following the phenomenal success of The Dark Side Of The Moon, they toyed around in 1974 with a few new songs.  Shine On You Crazy Diamond was specifically about the mental breakdown of Syd Barrett, who was the group's original lead guitarist, lead singer and song writer.  But, the band was directionless, bloated on massive financial and critical success, and had no sense of purpose or even cohesion.  Yet, they were paying big bucks to record at the famous Abbey Road Studios in London.

And they had nothing.  They had a cobbled together version of Shine On and two other tunes.  One of those was called at the time Raving and Drooling which later was reworked and became Sheep on the Animals album.  The other was You Got To Be Crazy which also later evolved into Dogs on Animals.  Anyway, that was it.  Gilmour felt it was sufficient material for a new record.  Waters, without any real ideas of his own at that point, simply disagreed.  It felt like a cop-out to him.  Lucky for the Floyd he had that feeling.  The result ended up being my favorite album by my favorite rock band.

The band butted heads.  They argued.  They sat around the studio doing nothing.  They played squash.  They played darts.  They rambled.  They argued some more.  When, suddenly out of nowhere, inspiration emerged while Gilmour was just fiddling with his acoustic guitar.

"Like the four notes at the beginning of Shine On You Crazy Diamond, other people start going 'Hey, that's good.  You've got something there.'" - Gilmour

"And I said to him 'What's that you're playing?  That's really nice.'  And he played it and I said 'That's really good.  Maybe I should try a do something with it.'" - Waters

"I think Roger and I then worked on writing the verses and putting those chords into the whole thing.  And Roger did those brilliant words and there we are." - Gilmour

"That collaboration between David and I is, I think, you know, really good. All bits of it are really, really good. So, I'm very happy with that." - Waters

Out of the arguments and the apathy came this incredible collaboration that is Wish You Were Here.  Suddenly, Waters was on fire.  The album became a self-reflection of the band's own incredible success.  Roger wrote Welcome To the Machine about the music industry itself and the dehumanizing effects of a massive corporate presence of an expression of art.

Waters also wrote Have A Cigar about the music industry.  But, try as they might, neither he nor Gilmour had the proper voice for singing the song.  By coincidence, Roy Harper was in an adjoining studio attempting record material for his next record.  Apparently, he was equally listless and ended up spending a lot of expensive studio time idle with Pink Floyd discussing concepts and playing darts.  In the end it was Harper who out of the blue sang the lead vocals on that track, whereas everyone, including me in my student years, thought it was Roger's voice.  But Waters only sang that song on tour.  The documentary makes it clear that he later regretted that decision.  He wish he had persevered.  Nevertheless, it is not a Pink Floyd member singing that worldwide hit song when the record was released.  This one contains the cool lyric asking "By the way, which one's Pink?"

The documentary features interviews with all the ancillary players, including Harper, Storm Thorgerson who famously designed most of the Floyd's most successful album artwork, Brian Humphries the album's recording engineer and with one of the background singers, Venetta Fields I found her comments on how she initially reacted to the band and their style of music interesting and entertaining.

"They loved their ooo's.  We just sang 'shine on you crazy diamond' and just ooo'ed the rest of the way.  They loved their ooo's.  I didn't know them from a bar of soap and I didn't like their music in the beginning.  It was in the minor key.  It was all very low and everything was ooo's and ahhh's.  I said, who are these people?  I thought Motown was meticulous but this was the most meticulous four musicians that I had ever seen work before." - Venetta Fields

An undercurrent throughout the video is Syd Barrett, his madness, and attempts by the band and others to get him back into the studio to record, thinking it might be therapeutic for him.  Finally, they achieved this.  After three days of incredible frustration all that happened was a few musical scribbles that amounted to nothing.  The attempt was abandoned.  Syd, the fundamental inspiration for the album, was musically gone forever.

Following up The Dark Side Of The Moon was not an easy task.  The band was beginning to show the fissures of massive success.  They were lazy, lacking cohesion, and without any real sense of purpose beyond doing what they had always done - making another record.  But, this time it was different.  They were under a great deal of pressure (partially self-induced) to produce something worthy of Dark Side.

In the end Waters took control and led the band to the finished product, inspired and rescued from the doldrums by Gilmour's musical spontaneity. Wish You Were Here was released in 1975 and went on to sell 19 million copies.  I wore out my vinyl copy playing it in college and in the years following my graduation.  It was standard fare at the end of a long evening of partying to sit back, stare into a fireplace or a candle or just in the dark and experience it.  As I said, it remains my favorite Pink Floyd recording and Roger's lyrics, especially on the title track, are timeless and brilliant.

So, so you think you can tell
Heaven from Hell
Blue skies from pain
Can you tell a green field
From a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?

Did they get you to trade
Your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
And did you exchange
A walk on part in a war
For a lead role in a cage?

How I wish, how I wish you were here
We're just two lost souls
Swimming in a fish bowl
Year after year
Running over the same old ground
What have we found?
The same old fears
Wish you were here

"I think most of the songs that I've ever written all pose similar questions.  Can you free yourself enough to be able to experience the reality of life as it goes on before you and with you and as you go on as part of it?  Or not?  Because if you can't you stand on square one until you die. And that my sound like bullshit but that's what the song is about.  People do attach a lot of internal feelings and they may not be entirely sure what it's about.  I'm only telling you what it's about for me.  But, there's no reason why other people shouldn't put other interpretations on it which could be just as valid." - Waters

"To me it's about the most complete album in some ways.  And we all know how difficult it was to get to that point.  The problems we had."  - Gilmour

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