Whoever’s idea it was to split “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” into two different parts instead of one ultralong, one-side-occupying piece (think: “Echoes”) as originally intended, and further separated them by using them to bookend the album deserves a medal. I mean, the only other major decision the band had to make was picking a representative single and they fucked that one up when they chose “Have a Cigar” instead of, oh, I don’t know, “Wish You Were Here.”
The decision makes Wish You Were Here accessible, and therein lies half of the reason why it’s so accomplished. People who want to explore the possibilities of progressive rock or, in particular, Pink Floyd’s discography, should start with Wish You Were Here. The Dark Side of the Moon is the more common choice, certainly, but Wish You Were Here has more in tune with the genre as a whole, and if you can’t or don’t find yourself immersed in “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” you should probably go look at other genres. This is progressive rock at its most accessible: the lyrics aren’t as goofy as Genesis’ and the instruments aren’t as out there as Yes’. They’re not even as complicated as on The Dark Side of the Moon for that matter – the synths are used merely as textures, filling in the blank spaces between each of Gilmour’s notes, and there are a lot of those rests to fill. If you’re ever with a friend and want an easy song for both of you to jam out to, “Wish You Were Here” probably ranks somewhere at the top of the list, if not #1. And even when Gilmour does go off on a bit of a wank (“Have a Cigar”), the band cuts him off anyway.
As for the other reason, I’ll defer to Robert Christgau, who writes, “My favorite Pink Floyd album has always been Wish You Were Here, and you know why? It has soul, that’s why–it’s Roger Waters’s lament for Syd, not my idea of a tragic hero but as long as he’s Roger’s that doesn’t matter.” Of all of Roger Waters’ concept albums, this is inherently the most likeable: it’s not as if Roger Waters read Animal Farm and thought he understood politics (as on Animals) or as if Roger Waters thought him spitting on the fan was worth a rock opera (as on The Wall). Furthermore, despite the fact that you know and I know that the album is about Syd Barrett, the lyrics never explicitly mention it (barring one nod to The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and a brief excerpt of “See Emily Play” at the 12:12 mark of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (6-9)”). Really, read the lyrics, “Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun / Shine on you crazy diamond” or “How I wish you were here / We’re just two lost souls / Swimming in a fish bowl / Year after year” to yourself. Who’s the first person that jumps to mind? Probably not Syd Barrett.
Like The Dark Side of the Moon, this album has been elevated into a full-fledged concept album when it really isn’t. In the case of The Dark Side of the Moon, it was simply because human condition would rather us say “concept album” than “thematic album,” which is one syllable and one letter more. Here, it’s simply because human condition does its best to try and make us forget that Roger Waters goes on a 12-minute rant of vague criticisms against the music industry in “Welcome to the Machine” and “Have a Cigar.” If you want to trace where his assholery first began, it’s within Wish You Were Here. There’s no way tiptoeing around it, so I’ll just come right out and say it: “Welcome to the Machine” sucks. The songwriting feels like something that I could’ve come up while dicking around on a synth app on my Macbook Pro while strumming an acoustic guitar overtop of it afterwards. No lie, I spent an afternoon doing just that, but I had the good sense to delete what I created afterwards. The song chugs at a decidedly slow pace to really hit the song’s message home, but you have to ask what exactly the song’s message is when it features Godawful rhymes like, “You dreamed of a big star / He played a mean guitar / He always ate in the Steak Bar / He loved to drive in his Jaguar” that read like they belong in a kid’s book. His “Have a Cigar” isn’t bad, it’s just feels like the obligatory rock track following the success of “Money” (the single edit) from a band that really shouldn’t be writing these sorts of songs. And let me ask you something: on a concept album dedicated to Syd Barrett, where the fuck do these two vague criticisms against the music industry fit in? Nowhere.
Now that that’s over, we can focus on the good, and the rest of Wish You Were Here is assuredly good. No one ever talks about Nick Mason, who helps push “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” and “Wish You Were Here” to their contained explosions. Meanwhile, the singing, especially, which was never Pink Floyd’s forte, is at its best here. Had this been two years prior, they would’ve forced the female backing vocals to take lead (as on “Another Great Gig on the Sky”), but I don’t even register their existence on “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” Elsewhere, David Gilmour’s naked voice is half of the beauty in “Wish You Were Here.” And the band seems to know the singing is fantastic: during the explosive choruses brought on by backing vocals upon backing vocals in “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” David Gilmour doesn’t do anything at all, as if explicitly instructed to, only showing up briefly to bookend those parts. George Starostin argues that “[“Shine On You Crazy Diamond (1-5)”] ends in a rather feeble saxophone solo, and then off we go into loads of moody and atmospheric garbage.” I’m going to flat out disagree with him here: the saxophone solo isn’t the best saxophone solo I’ve ever heard, either in terms of melody or in terms of complexity, but it wins in the emotional category, which is what I’ve been arguing all along. Its first section, from the 10 minute mark to 10:53, sounds genuinely sad. Following that, it’s nothing but beautiful catharsis: the song’s tempo changes and the speed seemingly doubles (but really, it stays the exact same, evident by Gilmour doing the exact same thing underneath it) and it sounds danceable, whereas most artists would’ve opted to continue the same slow dirge. Similarly, Part 9 ends on a beautiful tierce de Picardie (ending a minor-key song in a major chord) that allows for both a greater and a more positive resolution.
As for the “moody and atmospheric garbage” bit that concludes Part 5? I find that such additions helps Wish You Were Here work as a holistic unit, a cohesive whole, segueing into “Welcome to the Machine.” Similarly, “Wish You Were Here” could’ve just thrown us in the bluesy riff but instead we get the atmosphere that we’re in a car at night time, surfing the radio after having enough of “Have a Cigar” and not finding anything else worthwhile (this is the best criticism of the music industry on the album as far as I’m concerned) before we finally find “Wish You Were Here” and we’re happy.
Finally, it cannot be said enough that Wish You Were Here, like The Dark Side of the Moon, benefits from a beautiful and iconic cover art that makes me believe that Storm Thorgerson was the single most important contributing member to Pink Floyd’s legacy. His work on both Animals and Echoes: Best of Pink Floyd to come solidify this theory.
PS: I always hear “Did you exchange / A walk on part in the war / For a negro in the cage.” That’s neither here nor there, but I hope you guys hear it too now.