Friday, January 26, 2018

Swimming in a Fishbowl, Year After Year - Wish You Were Here (AM10)

What do you do to follow up DSOTM? The Beatles survived the daunting task of matching or topping their last outing, but that's The Beatles; Revolver indeed topped Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper, Revolver, but Pink Floyd's only early success had come in the Barrett years and by Meddle their consistency was marginal. So what do you do following the unprecedented accolades and the most successful LP of all time (at latest count, 50 million copies sold, 591 consecutive weeks – 11 years! – on the Billboard Top 200)?

When the band returned to the studio in January 1975, conditions were far from favorable 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 Waters and the rest of Pink Floyd, particularly Gilmour. "We were all having to assess what we were in this business for," Gilmour stated. "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."

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 didn’t hold together as a cohesive whole. In his view, it was better to expand one particular track — "Shine On You Crazy Diamond"  — into a bookend that essentially enveloped the rest of the record. The piece, of course, was largely inspired by his heartbreak over the self-imposed exile (?) of Syd Barrett. "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 He's withdrawn so far away that he's no longer there."

Thus preoccupied by feelings of alienation and disillusionment, the members of the group 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 at Abbey Road looking so different that the members of the band failed to recognize him. Nick Mason 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 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.'"

"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."

Yet, despite moderate reviews, Wish You Were Here, may in many ways out Dark Side Dark Side (there is certainly more substance). If nothing else, WYWH is the PF equivalent to Magical Mystery Tour (you know, the real one, the American version with "Strawberry Fields" and "Penny Lane").

Unlike much of what is labeled progressive rock, Wish You Were Here is notable for being a strangely emotional album, sliding between sad eulogies, genuine music business angst and, every now and then, a glimmer of hope that all is not lost. The electronic bits bubble away, but don't get in the way, rhythms shift with glacial beauty and guitars do the things that guitars do (but only Gilmour's guitars), all pulling in the same direction and working towards the same goal, which is something that Pink Floyd would fail to accomplish again. Forty years on I've bought the album again, this time on 180 gram vinyl. Nothing has changed; WYWH is an AM10.