[2 October 2008]
“Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink?” was the question posed on “Have a Cigar”, Pink Floyd’s record industry-knocking anthem from their 1975 album Wish You Were Here.
Though it may be construed as a joke on the surface, in the context of which of the group’s five original members could’ve been identified as the singular embodiment of the legendary British group’s colossal sound—Mr. Pink Floyd, if you would—one would look no further than keyboardist Richard “Rick” Wright. Arguably, even more so than the group’s original frontman, the late Syd Barrett, despite the fact that he was the basis for the central character “Pink” in Alan Parker’s film adaptation of the group’s 1979 magnum opus The Wall, as well as the perplexing muse of many of their most memorable songs.
And though guitarist David Gilmour and bassist Roger Waters may have, in fact, written the majority of the songs, Wright and his endless arsenal of electric and acoustic ivories provided the all-important oxygen by which their tunes were breathed into life. From the group’s auspicious beginnings as the mysterious house band for London’s famed UFO Club to their ascension into the lexicon of AOR immortality, Wright’s array of Moog, Korg, Fender Rhodes, Hammond, and grand piano flourishes and accentuations were the foundation of it all. He truly was the architect of the Pink Floyd sound. So which one’s Pink? It was the guy surrounded by that wall of knobs and levels on stage right, if you want my opinion.
The news of Wright’s death following a short battle with an undisclosed form of cancer on September 14th, 2008 came as a shocking bolt of sorrow to the legions of fans that grew up at the foot of his piano bench. However, one can be considered grateful that Pink Floyd, who many believed would never play together as a whole again, joined together one last time at Live 8 for a short but memorable hit-heavy set in 2005. And though they eventually split off into two factions shortly thereafter, with Roger Waters and drummer Nick Mason going one way and Wright and David Gilmour going the other, both tours were successful in exposing a whole new generation to the magic of psychedelic revelry that is Floyd’s music (as well as the unheralded brilliance of both Waters’s and Gilmour’s solo material, respectively). And while it is left up to the beholder as to which tour delivered the classic stuff the best, the multitude of concert-goers who were lucky enough to have caught the Gilmour tour must be eternally grateful to have been able to shower themselves in the thunderstorm of Wright’s frenetic frenzy of acid-washed textures one last time before this most unexpected tragedy.
Playing before nearly 100,000 people on August 26, 2006, the 25th anniversary of the founding of Poland’s Solidarity Trade Union at the invitation of Union founder and former Polish president Lech Walesa, this live album of the Gilmour concert held in Gdańsk’s historic shipyard district is indeed as much a testament to Wright as it is Gilmour. And while a good portion of the two-CD set is top-heavy with Gilmour’s perfectly fine solo material, particularly culled from his third album, 2006’s On an Island, it’s the Pink Floyd stuff that you really want to hear. Especially considering that listening to Live in Gdańsk will now be quite possibly one of the very last times you will get a chance to hear Wright perform on record, making these stellar performances of a vast array of both obvious and deep Floyd favorites all the more spectacular both in sound and vision.
Though not on the accompanying DVD documentation of the Gdańsk concert, the audio portion of this set contains a brilliant run through the first third of Dark Side of the Moon, where Wright’s science fiction Moog jamming propels “Speak to Me”, “Breathe”, and “Time” as exquisitely as he and Gilmour had done back in 1972, when the record-breaking album was originally issued. You can relish in Wright singing the lead vocals on “Comfortably Numb” and harmonizing with Gilmour on Floyd’s first single, “Astronomy Domine”, as fluidly as he had 41 years ago with Syd Barrett, whose passing from pancreatic cancer one month before this Gdańsk concert can be felt in Gilmour’s mournful, emotionally personalized renditions of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” and “Wish You Were Here”, two of Floyd’s most obvious tributes to their self-exiled ex-frontman.
Other highlights include the several tunes performed with the Baltic Symphony Orchestra, conducted by notable Polish film composer Zbiginew Preisner. Most notable are the Island instrumental “Red Sky at Night”, which features Gilmour playing saxophone, and a poignant performance of the Division Bell highlight “A Great Day for Freedom”, featuring a string arrangement by the late film composer Michael Kamen, which resonated strongly throughout the capacity crowd of Polish nationals celebrating the anniversary of their own emancipation from Soviet rule. The version of the Atom Heart Mother nugget “Fat Old Sun” on here is just out of this world and really signifies the strength of Gilmour’s touring band, which, in addition to Wright, also featured former Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, session drummer Steve Di Stanislao, and longtime Pink Floyd collaborators bassist Guy Pratt, programmer John Carin, and the great saxophonist Dick Parry, who played with Gilmour in his pre-Floyd band the Joker’s Wild and whose beautiful playing punctuated the brilliance of such albums as Dark Side and Wish You Were Here.
Nothing, however, will remind longtime fans of the genius of Wright’s legacy as the quintessential architect of his band’s sound quite like the performance of “Echoes”, the most heralded slice of psychedelia in the Pink Floyd canon and centerpiece for their 1971 album Meddle. The epic song’s extended instrumental jam is Wright’s “A Love Supreme”, and on Live in Gdańsk he attacks that Hammond organ of his against an eerie fog of electronic sound effects and synthesized whale calls with the same perception-blasting intensity he had in that empty amphitheater in Pompeii, Italy, back in October of ’71. And while hearing the mind-bending interplay between Gilmour and Wright is great, actually watching them duke it out on the DVD before coming back together to sing out the song’s indelible lyrics in perfect unison, just as seamlessly as they had at the top, is just really something special. Over 37 years after its recording, “Echoes” remains the quintessential acid symphony of rock ‘n’ roll, thanks to Wright, whose vision of amplifying a grand piano through a special effects loudspeaker was crucial in giving it its unique sound.
The news of Wright’s passing means that, whether or not the surviving members of Pink Floyd ever decide to convene together one more time—which at this point is more than doubtful—they will never sound the same again. Syd’s passing was a tragedy in that we never had the chance to watch him evolve as an artist beyond his early years with Pink Floyd and his brief solo career. Rick’s, however, was even more of a loss, because we have, in fact, been fortunate enough to grow up listening to him through the years, both as a member of Pink Floyd and through the din of his terribly underrated solo output, which includes such stellar works as his 1978 solo debut Wet Dream and 1996’s Broken China, both of which rank up there with Gilmour’s eponymous debut, Waters’s Amused to Death, and Nick Mason’s Fictitious Sports as the cream of the band’s sparse solo work.
Nevertheless, anyone who ever dropped their first tab of acid in college to the sounds of A Saucer Full of Secrets, or went to see The Wall during Midnight Madness at their local multiplex, or went to see Pink Floyd at Yankee Stadium on their final world tour in 1994 has some wonderful memories of Wright and the excellent music he helped create. He will truly be missed.