Counterbalance: Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here

Come in here, dear boy, have a cigar. You're gonna go far, just like the 207th most acclaimed album of all time, Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here.
Pink Floyd
Wish You Were Here

Mendelsohn: One more spin on the Pink Floyd space shuttle, Klinger. Are you ready? This will be the last go around. As much as I love this band, as large as they loom in my rock psyche, there aren’t too many other albums in their repertoire that I think merit extended examination: maybe Animals, maybe Meddle, maybe even their late-game return with Division Bell. This week will mark the fourth Pink Floyd record we’ve discussed — at number 207 is Wish You Were Here.

Klinger: And given my ambivalence toward Pink Floyd, I’m of two minds as to how to react to this announcement. Part of me wants to thank you, and yet another part of me wants to make you listen to The Final Cut just for making me go through all this so many times.

Mendelsohn: Please, this is only the fourth Pink Floyd record we’ve talked about. We could very we’ll be listening to Pink Floyd for the rest of the year. There are 11 more records, most of which are depressingly substandard — a mixture of psychedelic freak outs and overly pretentious thinkpieces on war, capitalism, or whatever — tread carefully, my friend. Wish You Were Here, however, perfectly represents the dichotomy that drove the band: that mix between well-executed pop and extended spaceman jam. This record encapsulates both of those with ease, weaving between the synth driven atmosphere piece of “Welcome to the Machine”, and then dodging back to the pop ecstasy of the title track. But as much as Pink Floyd had become a wrestling match between Roger Waters and David Gilmour at the time, there was always an unseen presence driving the band: the legacy of Syd Barrett. Wish You Were Here is an ode to their lost friend, and whenever I listen to this record I am always struck by the deep, lingering sadness the band brings to the table as they ramble (or meander) through a scant five tracks.

Klinger: Five tracks may sound scant, but when you consider that the opening track is a 13-minute suite that takes at least three minutes to even establish itself, and no one even starts singing until the 9-minute mark, it’s hard to think of Wish You Were Here as some sort of breezy jaunt.

Mendelsohn: Honestly, I’ve never noticed. I know the “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” suite takes up the majority of the record, but they move with a purpose. I’m always surprised when the songs end. In contrast, I was never high on Barrett’s music. He may have started the band, but it wasn’t until he checked out that the group was able to transcend the ordinary. But now, looking back, it’s easy to see he never really left. Pink Floyd carried him with them, and despite of, or because of, his absence, the band was able to push the music beyond the reach of their contemporaries. Wish You Were Here is a maddeningly obtuse record yet an open book, a full-on display of the festering psychic wound that refused to heal. I love Pink Floyd but I will readily admit that this album is a tough listen sometimes.

Klinger: That it is, and mainly that’s down to the idea that they’ve written a magnum opus about Barrett without ever capturing any of the strange whimsy that made him the key component of the group’s early sound. (And I will stand on Roger Waters’ coffee table and tell him that Piper at the Gates of Dawn is and will always be the group’s high point.) Ultimately, though, Waters sought to put together his thoughts on the tragic disintegration of his friend and bandmate and somehow managed to make it come across like the Further Tribulations of Roger Waters. I’m not saying he should have tried to recapture the sounds of 1967, but I don’t feel like Waters is necessarily trying to make a connection into Barrett’s mind. Maybe if he hadn’t taken time out from his elegy to Barrett to throw in a couple songs about the corruption of the music industry (it wasn’t EMI’s greed that took Syd down, it was LSD).

Am I missing something? Am I using up too much energy wishing that Pink Floyd had actually written a thoughtful statement about their lost comrade instead of putting a few thoughts together and surrounding it with (let’s face it, we’re inching uncomfortably close to smooth jazz in a few places here) layers of noodles and cheese?

Mendelsohn: I think the problem you are having is trying to find some sort profound statement in the grooves of this record. Don’t think about it so hard. It’s like looking for cinematic mastery, solid storytelling, and in-depth character development from a Three Stooges film. It ain’t happening — I don’t care how great of an auteur you make Moe out to be. The same principle applies here; we are still talking about a Pink Floyd record. This record is one that suffers from the growing delusions of grandiosity from Waters — Gilmour had conceded creative territory to his band mate — and an overwrought sense of nobility as the group constructs a love letter of sorts to a lost friend while taking pot shots at the record industry. I understand the issues with this record. Your assessment is hilarious and spot on. But I would posit that Wish You Were Here isn’t just plain old mac n’ cheese made with powdered cheese constitute, but rather a gourmet pasta dish, made with shredded cheese of the finest vintage and baked until the breaded topping has turned a crispy, golden brown.

Klinger: I’m not sure whether the Three Stooges ever made a movie in which they were pasta chefs, but I’ll bet if they have, you’ll find several very spooky moments where the lyrics to Wish You Were Here match up with with action onscreen.

Mendelsohn: It might make more sense to look at Pink Floyd as two completely different bands who are inextricably linked through a shared history. Barrett’s Pink Floyd ended when he left. That Pink Floyd was perfectly suited for the ’60s, soaking up the psychedelica and strange airs of the decade in order to write songs of whimsy and misdirection. The Waters/Gilmour Pink Floyd was more suited to the ’70s, able to take in the failure and paranoia left in the smoking rubble of Decade of Love and turn it into something exquisite, something tangible that expressed the hopes and fears about the future. Dark Side of the Moon took Pink Floyd from being just another ’60s tie-dye freakout with a pretty groovy record to the biggest band in the world. Wish You Were Here is Pink Floyd’s response to being at the top of the mountain. They stand at the peak, looking down, and see that it is not some sort of momentous occasion but a disastrous realization of what it took to get to the top. The band pours that melancholy into this record, lamenting the loss of their friend and pushing back against the music industry complex that wants the band to keep climbing, even if there isn’t another mountain in sight. But, again, that’s just the dichotomy of Pink Floyd — well meaning intentions and high concepts from Waters coupled with cheesy saxophone and long noodly guitar solos.

Klinger: I see your point. And as someone who’s been pretty sure I’ve hated Pink Floyd for over 30 years, I’ve found myself confounded by the band at nearly every turn during this Counterbalance experiment. I wanted to hate Dark Side of the Moon, but their twinkly noises and sonic innovations broke through my defenses. I wanted to hate The Wall, but I couldn’t help feeling a little bit sorry for Waters as he wrote about his war baby experiences (I still hold him accountable for his less-than-charitable attitude toward his fans). So by now, I’ve come to recognize that there are merits to the Floydian approach that are there even as the band overreaches in its attempts to be deep.

Wish You Were Here is still destined to be a lesser part of Pink Floyd’s legacy, especially since its the follow-up to one of the most iconic albums of all time and the precursor to another. (Oh, I’m sorry, was there an album called Animals released somewhere in there as well? Poor Animals. Animals : Pink Floyd :: Presence : Led Zeppelin.) But that’s not surprising, given that sonically, Wish You Were Here treads a very similar path to Dark Side of the Moon without the mystery, and it lacks the Grand Guignol insanity of The Wall. But that’s to be expected. I don’t think it’s healthy for a group to attempt to outdo itself with each effort. Sometimes it’s a good idea to take a step back and reassess what the muse is really telling them to do. So not everything becomes canonical in the same way, and even if the group’s actual execution still leaves me cold, I appreciate the group’s attempts to make their own sense of Syd Barrett, one of rock’s true enigmas.

Mendelsohn: Just for the record, Led Zeppelin’s Presence isn’t on the Great List, while Pink Floyd’s Animals is number 1734. And if you think you’ve heard it all, then you haven’t heard Roger Waters’ take on George Orwell’s Animal Farm. I will make you listen to that record, Klinger. Do not test me. But so long as you can recognize at least part of the reason for Pink Floyd’s success, I’ll leave it be. Wish You Were Here may not be the band’s greatest achievement, but as a side-step away from the juggernaut of Dark Side of the Moon and an ode to their lost friend, it works exceedingly well.