Wish You Were Here (Immersion Boxset)
In the early 1970s, the Syd Barrett Appreciation Society, a passionately dedicated band of British fans devoted to the work of former Pink Floyd leader Syd Barrett, faced a severe problem. Barrett's withdrawal from public life meant there was little new information with which to fill the Society's occasional bulletin paper, the mimeographed fanzine Terrapin. In 1975, it finally ceased publication, citing its reason, not untruthfully, as "a lack of Syd".
A lack of Syd was a situation that Pink Floyd had faced in their time too, only they had no intention of giving up. Barrett's departure brought out the group's resourceful side, and in the absence of his songwriting, Pink Floyd embraced a new process of painstaking studio collaboration. Barrett's struggles with mental illness, meanwhile, had helped give them a subject. One of the themes of their 40 million-selling The Dark Side Of The Moon album of 1973 was his declining mental health.
Above all, Barrett's departure had shaken the foundations of their group so profoundly, the remaining members of Pink Floyd seem to have become convinced that their only conceivable way forward was by rebuilding the band from the ground up every time it made a new record.
After the success of The Dark Side Of The Moon, Pink Floyd earnestly debated whether their follow-up recording should even feature musical instruments at all.
This line of thinking led them to Household Objects - in which instruments would be discarded and music made from the sounds of elastic bands, hammered nails, and so on.
If there's a particular selling point to the current Pink Floyd reissue campaign (titled, with a knowing nod to 1970s advertorial, "Why Pink Floyd?"), then it's this - the release of music and fragments that fans have never heard, and in some cases, have never even heard of.
In the Immersion Boxset (that's to say the deluxe, five disc edition) of Wish You Were Here, the unreleased Household Objects project is represented by Wine Glasses - a mysterious, evolving ambience of about two and a half minutes, not dissimilar to the mood created by Pink Floyd in the opening minutes of the completed Wish You Were Here album. That, however, was as far as it went: Household Objects was soon discarded as a labour-intensive failure.
Reflecting on their lack of other ideas, Pink Floyd allowed this absence to become the stated theme of the proposed new album. As Roger Waters and the rest of the band attempted to come up with songs to play on their British tour in the winter of 1974. Meanwhile, it became evident that madness, and Barrett, were again uppermost in their minds. In a paradoxical way, he was absence, personified.
This new edition of Wish You Were Here allows the listener to spectate on how this absence slowly assumed musical form, a process represented here by three tracks from the band's show at London's Empire Pool, Wembley in November 1974. Though ostensibly still promoting Dark Side, the band decided to debut three new songs, with which they opened the show. Raving And Drooling, a strident rock song later reworked as Sheep for the band's 1977 album Animals finds an insane narrator on a vampiric rampage. You Gotta Be Crazy was a more contemplative piece that ultimately became the Animals track, Dogs. Both were later discarded when recording sessions resumed.
With Shine On You Crazy Diamond, the song that opens the show, however, it's clear the band had reached a eureka moment. Even at this early stage of its life, the song wields an impressive power, beginning with an incrementally glowering ambience before commencing in earnest with David Gilmour's morose four-note guitar figure. Although new to both band and audience, the song clearly works well for both - the arrangement of the piece not being much different from how it appeared on the finished album six months later; the crowd keeping faith along its 20-minute length.
When Pink Floyd returned to the studio in early 1975, it was pragmatically agreed to split Shine On You Crazy Diamond in two and link the two halves with three new songs. Today, the decision is borne out as a wise one: Wish You Were Here for all its mixed feelings, unfinished psychological business and out-and-out rancour, is a perversely immersive, and beautiful sequence of music, the details of David Gilmour's tasteful guitar playing sitting comfortably on Rick Wright's warm backdrop of keyboard textures.
As excellent as this music sounded when it was released, the new edition offers among its many additional materials (a DVD of Storm Thorgersen's tour visuals; a scarf; marbles) a remaster of the original mix, as well as state of the art 5.1 surround sound and, for period detail, a remastered quadraphonic mix - a testament to the fact that the music has survived where the contemporary technology has not.
There are also alternate takes on the album's title track, featuring the jazz violinist Stephane Grapelli gamely essaying a turn out of his comfort zone, and a less successful take on the album's satirical highpoint, Have A Cigar. Why all the additional stuff? Because as the Pink Floyd of this era would have been all too keen to tell you, this is the record business.
The record business gets quite a hard ride on Wish You Were Here. But that fact is best seen in context as a waystation on Roger Waters' thematic journey from "anxiety about modern life" (The Dark Side Of The Moon) to "bitter suspicion of all institutions" (1977's Animals). Wish You Were Here, in this company, is a less savage, more parochial tale about a loss of innocence, as brought about by the record industry.
It's the way they tell it. While some of Pink Floyd's generation prospered, others were doomed to become casualties of the era.
Wish You Were Here is about how innocent, motiveless creativity of the 1960s, as personified by Barrett in the first section of Shine On You Crazy Diamond has (by the second, closing section of the song) been lost, and its creator martyred. Some of their generation had made it in computers, ice cream, record companies or politics. Pink Floyd undoubtedly had done so in rock music. But at what cost to themselves?
Welcome To The Machine, the album's second track, explains the process, transporting the listener from the first sections of Shine On… inside an immensely sinister glass elevator. We are taken to a chattering party and finally to the song itself, in which a jaded narrator passes swingeing judgement on the actings-out of the 1960s counterculture ("You bought a guitar to punish your ma …"). But if the sentiments are bitter, the music is strangely dreamy and floating. Throughout the album, as one imagines it often does in the environments of the enormously powerful, great sumptuousness and great menace sit alarmingly close to one another.
Thus disheartened, one is ready to meet the boss. Pink Floyd don't really do jokes, but Have A Cigar comes pretty close, being an unkind portrait of a record executive whose fandom of the band begins and ends with their sales figures. His cluelessness is evidenced by the song's pay-off line: "By the way, which one's Pink?". In this company, small wonder the succeeding title track, the folky Wish You Were Here has a spectacularly rueful cast - a lament for what (and who) has been lost along the way, to characters like this. As if summoned by spiritualist ceremony, Barrett himself mysteriously appeared at Abbey Road studios during the mixing of the album, apparently describing what the band were doing as sounding "old". As if to prove their conceptual point, Barrett was so changed by the intervening seven years, he was initially unrecognisable to his former colleagues.
Today, there's a certain irony to be listening to an album about how much a band hates the record business, in an expensive edition, while a representative of that same record business serves up coffee and fancy biscuits. Such is the enduring quality of this music, however, it's not a completely uncomfortable one. Partly down to their conceptual heaviness and partly because of their enormous sales, Pink Floyd albums retain a monolithic quality.
If anything, these Immersion editions actually make the band's music more approachable. By opening its vaults and revealing its workings, they seem less remote and more human, the interesting ideas, wrong turns, and relationships between albums gradually made explicit. Wish You Were Here, particularly, is a very human story. As far as Syd Barrett was concerned, the man could let go of Pink Floyd - Pink Floyd, however, could never quite let go of the man.
John Robinson is associate editor of Uncut and the Guardian Guide's rock critic. He lives in London.