Classic Rock – I Wish You Were Here

Back in the early 2000s, my wife and I were working as delivery drivers for a Pizza Hut store, in Kennesaw GA. We and our manager, Robert, shared the same passion for rock’n roll, and one day, to our surprise, he trusted us with his most beloved possession, his Pink Floyd CD collection.

Later that night, while burning copies in our apartment, we came across the “Relics” album. We just couldn’t believe that was actually Pink Floyd stuff. We were used to more mainstream songs, played on the radio, songs like Comfortably Numb and Another Brick in the Wall. We had never had contact with the band’s light and psychedelic side of the band before.

We all know how rock bands can blossom and venture into much more mature creations. The Beetles is a good example of this but the transformation of Pink Floyd is unparallel.

A creative machine

This early stage of the band is marked by the presence of the guy who started it all, the frontman and lead guitarist Syd Barret.

After going through various name changes, in 1965, the original members of the band, Nick Mason, Richard Wright, Roger Walters, and Syd Barrett, settled with Pink Floyd, which is a combination of names of two American blues musicians Barrett loved, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.

Pink Floyd, in 1967. From left to right, Roger Walters, Nick Mason, Syd Barret, and Richard Wright.

Syd pushed Pink Floyd to the status of the leading band in the psychedelic movement, singing, playing guitar, and writing most of the songs on the band’s 1967 debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn as well as its first hit singles, “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play.” He could fit perfectly into the stereotype of the rock’n roll genius: highly intelligent, and creative but unstable. Some would say that his mind-bending songs and stage performances were the results of his heavy LSD addiction.

Barrett soon started to lose connection with the real world. The frail state of his mental health and the drug addiction made him an unreliable bandmate and an embarrassment during live presentations.

In the fall of 1967, Pink Floyd was in the USA, for a much-desired American tour. The band was invited to play live in two different TV shows, as part of the advertising campaign for the tour. In both presentations, Barrett seemed to be in some other world. He just stood on the stage, in a catatonic state of mind, without playing or singing. Foreseeing a much bigger humiliation, the band’s manager canceled the whole enterprise. It became clear that Barrett’s behavior could no longer be tolerated.

Gilmour steps in.

In hopes of bringing back some balance to the band, the members reached out to David Gilmour, inviting him to be the fifth member of Pink Floyd. The idea was to push Barrett to a “behind the scenes” songwriter role. This arrangement didn’t last long and by 1968, Syd was no longer part of Pink Floyd.

Hiring Gilmour was a fortunate decision. The fame and popularity of Pink Floyd continued to grow through the late 60s and early 70s. In 1973 the band released the iconic The Dark Side of the Moon, which became one of the best seller rock albums of all time. Even if the band was, at this point, going in the desired direction, the members felt that leaving Barrett behind was a harsh decision. Even the new guy, Gilmour, felt uneasy about it, after all, he and Barrett were long-time friends.

Wish You Were Here.

Pink Floyd became the master of concept albums, and The Dark Side of the Moon might be the best example ever. The album focus on the pressures faced by the band during their arduous lifestyle, exploring themes like conflict, greed, time, death, and also the problem of mental illness faced by Syd Barrett. The album became a monumental success, propelling the band’s popularity to a level that they never thought possible.

Writing songs about their missing friend was the way they found to cope with Barrett’s absence and the possible regret of letting him go. Syd was no longer physically among them, but his influence never left.

Pink Floyd at the Abbey Road Studio, London UK, 1975.

But it was only in their next album, 1975 I Wish You Were Here, that Barrett became the center point of their work. Roger Waters’ lyrics tell us about the hardships faced by the members during the transition from an underground band, making music for a small but devoted audience – and the present. Pink Floyd had become a worldwide phenomenon, generating millions of dollars for themselves and for the music industry. The camaraderie that once existed between them was not the same anymore. Tying the song cycle together are two compositions about Syd Barrett: the nine-part opus “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” and the short, haunting title track.

The song opens with the sound of a car radio tuning away from the previous track (Have A Cigar), across a station playing Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony (the part was recorded using the radio of Gilmour’s car). The next part jumps on to Dave playing the delicate 12-string acoustic guitar intro. “It is all meant to sound like the first track getting sucked into the radio, with one person sitting in the room playing guitar along the radio,Gilmour explained.

Syd Barrett, by the time when he left Pink Floyd.

Roger Waters claimed that David Gilmour’s four-note guitar motif summed up a “sort of indefinable, inevitable melancholy about the disappearance of Syd”. It is in fact, one of the most beautiful guitar intros in the history of rock and roll. It’s simple and meant to be casual, to the point that Gilmour can be heard coughing, followed by some breathing right before the main guitar comes along.

I always thought the coughing/breathing was there on purpose, considering how Pink Floyd was an experimental band, but legend has it that Dave could not hold the cough due to his heavy smoking at the time. When he heard the final take, he was devasted but the band decided to keep the recording the way it was. Gilmor quit smoking cold turkey on the following day.

But Waters later said: “Shine On is not really about Syd — he’s just a symbol for all the extremes of absence some people have to indulge in because it’s the only way they can cope with how fucking sad it is, modern life, to withdraw completely.”

The last appearance

On the 5th of June, 1975, Syd Barrett made a surprise visit to Abbey Road Studio, where the album was being recorded. He showed up at the same time engineer Brian Humphries was working on the final mix of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” He’d put on so much weight that the others didn’t recognize him for several minutes. He’d shaved his head, too, along with his eyebrows. He even wanted to help with the recording but according to the members of the band, Barrett had no clear idea of what was going on in the studio. Waters couldn’t hold the tears when he saw his friend so lost, so detached, so disengaged from the world around him. “Wish You Were Here” deals with that mental inability – the refusal, even – to engage with reality, and it served as much as a rallying for Waters as a sad tribute to Barrett’s better days.”

That was the last time all five Pink Floyd guys were seen together.

Final thoughts

Both Roger Waters and David Gilmour agree that “Wish You Were Here” is one of the band’s best songs, if not the best. It is a worthy homage to a dear friend.

Wish You Were Here album was released on September 12, 1975, and became one of the most emblematic works of Pink Floyd. By 2004 it had sold an estimated 13 million copies.

Barrett died at home in Cambridge on 7 July 2006, aged 60, from pancreatic cancer. None of the Pink Floyd members attended the funeral.

In a statement, Wright said: “The band is very naturally upset and sad to hear of Syd Barrett’s death. Syd was the guiding light of the early band lineup and leaves a legacy which continues to inspire.” Gilmour said: “Do find time to play some of Syd’s songs and to remember him as the madcap genius who made us all smile with his wonderfully eccentric songs about bikes, gnomes, and scarecrows. His career was painfully short, yet he touched more people than he could ever know.”


Published by Rubens Junior

Passionate about classic cars, motorcycles, airplanes, and watches.

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