It debuted at No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, has gone six-times platinum, and has been tabbed by both David Gilmour and Richard Wright as their favorite Pink Floyd album. But Wish You Were Here was no Dark Side of the Moon. It never could be, and that — as much as anything — seems to have relegated this 1975 project to perpetual underrated status.
That’s a pity. Where Dark Side, for all of its many career-making attributes, could occasionally lose focus, Wish You Were Here is as concise conceptually as any album Pink Floyd ever attempted. At the same time, Gilmour and, in particular, Wright pushed the work into deeper, more progressive musical themes, fashioning what would become the last truly collaborative studio project between Waters and his increasingly disgruntled band mates. For that reason alone, Wish You Were Here (no matter how it stacked up commercially with the 15-times platinum Dark Side) ought to be every serious Pink Floyd fan’s favorite album.
Together, they crystallized everything that was happening to the band in the wake of the dizzying success of Dark Side, brilliantly coupling lyrics that conveyed this sad sense of dislocation with free-form instrumental passages that were as beautiful as they were melancholy.
As the central idea here coalesced, songs that had been emerging out of live shows were cast aside in order to focus on bridging two different sections of a piece then simply called “Shine On.” (“Raving and Drooling” and “Gotta Be Crazy” would later be reworked for 1977′s Animals as “Sheep” and “Dogs,” respectively.) The lyrics, Waters said, grew out of in-studio conversations where the members of the band unburdoned themselves on the sea change that had engulfed them since Dark Side of the Moon went supernova. At one point, Waters even wanted to include snippets of these talks on the album itself — though that was eventually cast aside.
Ultimately, they were able to leverage that ennui into a sweeping theme. For instance, Gilmour said he never felt any personal connection to themes like “Welcome to the Machine,” and that imbued the song with a just-right sense of detachment.
For Waters, the project’s larger ideas dovetailed with his own feelings about Syd Barrett, who had descended into a kind of drug-fueled madness since their split — but he’s maintained that Wish You Were Here is not, as the popular myth holds, simply a tribute to Pink Floyd’s departed frontman: “The album is about none of us really being there,” Waters once said, “or being there only marginally. About our non-presence in the situation we had clung to through habit, and are still clinging to through habit — being Pink Floyd.”
Of course, Barrett famously slipped into the sessions for Wish You Were Here, with his appearance so radically different that he was all but unrecognizable to his old band mates, but this was reportedly during a playback session on June 5, 1975 — well after the project was complete. Wright remembered that, at one point, “Syd stood up and said: ‘Right, when do I put the guitar on?’ And, course, he didn’t have a guitar with him, and we said: ‘Sorry, Syd, the guitar’s all done.’” They’d never again see Barrett, who died in 2006.
Meanwhile, the vocal sessions were intense, to the point of distraction. It’s said that, at one point, Waters was re-recording portions of “Shine On” line for line, trying to get the timbre just right. Ultimately, they gave the sarcasm-laced music industry diatribe “Have a Cigar” over to Roy Harper, who was recording nearby. After a snippet of radio chatter (recorded in Gilmour’s car), the album moves from “Cigar” into its title track — where, so deep as to remain largely unheard, there remains a coda by violinist Stephane Grappelli, who was also at work at the Abbey Road studios during this period. Even this album’s biggest guests stars were there, and not there.
The late Wright, whose ghostly resonant keyboard work provides the emotional centerpoint on this album, ended up with a songwriting credit on eight of the nine segments that would make up “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” He takes centerstage as Parts VI–IX unfold to close things out. Never again, however, would Wright so deeply impact a Pink Floyd recording, giving Waters’ occasional sobriquet for it (Wish You ‘Weren’t’ Here) all the more resonance. By the time the group had finished 1979′s The Wall, Wright would be ousted — marking the beginning of the end of the Waters-led edition of Pink Floyd. Never again, too, would they reach these heights.