The iconic cover art for Pink Floyd’s seminal 1975 album Wish You Were Here speaks volumes. It depicts two suited men shaking hands, one of whom is engulfed in flames. What is so absorbing, however, isn’t the fact that one of the figures is on fire, but that he doesn’t seem to care he’s on fire.
The image is perhaps one of the most successful encapsulations of an album’s interior meaning in the history of popular music, largely because it seems to imply so many different connotations in one fell swoop. Whilst portraying the purely transactional and hollow nature of the music business, it also seems to capture the self-destructive impulse of Pink Floyd’s tragic frontman, Syd Barrett, to whom ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ was dedicated. Before the record has even been pulled from its sleeve, it seems to speak to the claustrophobic and shallow environment Pink Floyd found themselves in by the mid-’70s. Expanding ever outwards, the album can be regarded as something of an antidote to that claustrophobia. And so many years later, Wish You Were Here still has explosive power.
The songs that land on Wish You Were Here were composed whilst Pink Floyd were touring Dark Side Of The Moon around Europe. It wasn’t easy going. Whilst that album had cemented their popularity worldwide, the extensive tours it necessitated left Pink Floyd exhausted creatively, mentally and physically. As a result, the prospect of producing another album of the standard they had set themselves seemed a near-impossible challenge. The band’s early attempts to compose new material were characterised by apathy, weariness and quiet disintegration. But within weeks, the tide had started to turn, and Roger Waters began to establish a concept that would act as the catalyst for Wish You Were Here.
By 1974, Pink Floyd had the bare bones of three new compositions and went about honing them during the final leg of their European tour. One of these rough compositions, from David Gilmour, was little more than a four-note melodic pattern. Within those four notes, however, Gilmour found something which seemed to evoke the “indefinable, inevitable melancholy” of Syd Barrett.
The group worked together to develop the song fragment, transforming it into the album’s opening track ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’. The song triggered a creative surge and, soon enough, Waters, Gilmour, and Mason found themselves plunging into new and unfamiliar musical territory. In tracks like ‘Welcome To The Machine’ and ‘Have A Cigar’, for example, the group criticised the insincerity and hollow ideals of the music industry.
In this way, Wish You Were Here seemed to represent a new maturity in the band’s output. But, whilst the album won the hearts of many for its innovative use of synthesisers and sound design, some regarded it as a bitter lament that revealed an obvious lack of creative imagination. In contrast to Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here seemed like the product of a band whose passion for their art had long since faded.
Today, however, the album seems an infinitely more intelligent record than Dark Side of The Moon. It’s true that it lacks the accessibility of that previous album, but it has a poignancy that never quite emerges in Dark Side. That same poignancy is heightened by the stories which surround the production of the album. One notable example is the story of Syd Barrett’s surprise visit to Abbey Road on June 5th 1976. Pink Floyd were putting the finishing touches on a mix of ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ when an overweight man with no hair and shaved eyebrows walked into the studio. Gilmour presumed he was a member of EMI staff and, when he finally managed to identify his friend, was utterly horrified.
The band’s conversation with Barrett was normal enough, but it became clear that the former frontman wasn’t really there. He didn’t seem to recognise the relevance ‘Shine On’ had to him, and he eventually wandered away without saying goodbye. Waters was deeply upset by the experience of seeing his friend so drastically changed, and it undoubtedly affected the melancholy mood of Wish You Were Here.
Whilst fans are divided about whether ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ is actually about Barrett, what is clear is that the album as a whole, captures the profound tragedy of Barrett’s decline. It is an album that grapples with itself, interrogating the sadness inherent to modern life.