When I was about 13, my sister and I were watching TV and saw a news story about some up and coming boy band (I don’t remember their name). They were riding the crest of the Backstreet Boys/*NSYNC success, and were just one of the hordes of imitators. My sister was a big New Kids On the Block fan in their day. And because I wanted to be just like my big sister when I was 9, I was too, but that was more about my fawning admiration for her than any attachment to the band.
Anyway, this story had cameras follow them through a typical day in the life of their band: voice lessons, dance rehearsals, and since they didn’t have actual press appearances yet (‘cause nobody knew who they were), they practiced them – honest to God. Part of their preparation as a musical group was sitting in a row at a covered table with a microphone in front of each of them, fielding imaginary questions about their favorite color, whether they have a girlfriend or some useless crap like that.
I took offense to this; it violated some high-minded idea I had about “tainting the purity of music” or something. But while I took offense to the fake press conference, my sister took offense to my offense. She saw my disgust, and in an equally disgusted voice said, “What, you think Pearl Jam or Smashing Pumpkins don’t do that same thing? You think they don’t need to learn how to talk to the press? Get off your high horse!”
Nobody knows how to push my buttons better than my sister. Maybe she does it because she knows I’ll always love her and be there for her, no matter what.
Some people (and record executives only barely meet the definition of “people,” in my opinion) work their hardest to suck all the art, joy and transcendence out of music and turn it into a business. They view it not as an art form but as something they can use to make money. It may as well be manufacturing washing machines or cooking meth for all they care. They don’t see the art in it, and even if they do, they don’t care. Whether or not it’s good art has no bearing on whether or not it’s good business.
That was the right side of my brain talking. Now I’ll let the left side have its say.
It is a business, of course. A musician can produce 20 Hallelujah Choruses a day, and it’s all meaningless if no one hears it. That’s where the business kicks in. The record industry, aside from all the other things it does, gets music heard. When you go to the iTunes Music Store, there’s actual money changing hands. This isn’t a bad thing, in and of itself – commerce is one of the things that makes the world go ‘round. Two of the bedrock American principles, for good or ill, are these:
1) Find something you love to do, and then find someone willing to pay you to do it.
2) If you’re good at something, never do it for free.
How do you balance that? There has to be some happy medium between artistic freedom and financial success. Some bands have found it; R.E.M. is a good example. From the very start of negotiations with Warner Bros., they made it very clear that they wanted to have complete artistic control and they never wanted to be in debt. But for nearly every other band out there, it’s almost exclusively a matter of record executives taking advantage of them to line their own pockets.
In 1975, Pink Floyd was really struggling to find that balance. Perhaps in those days, it was worse than it is now. With the advent of the internet and the readiness of information, music has an easier time getting into the public’s hands, sometimes without record companies’ involvement at all. But before the days of Facebook and Bandcamp and SoundCloud, it was cigar-smoking fatcats and empty suits.
“Have a Cigar,” the first song after the vinyl flip of Wish You Were Here, is a biting examination of one money-grubbing dirtball as he drools over Pink Floyd’s musical potential and the money to be had from that. Its lyrics are a second-person account of this empty suit flattering, exaggerating and outright lying. And in doing so, he reveals his selfish motivations.
Here’s a piece of the lyrics:
Well, I’ve always had a deep respect and I mean that most sincerely
The band is just fantastic / That is really what I think / Oh, by the way… Which one’s Pink?
He has a “deep respect” and thinks they’re “just fantastic” and the douchebag doesn’t even know Pink Floyd is the group’s name and not the lead singer’s. I bet he had visions of a t-shirt that had “Pink” up front and the other members in the shadowy background.
The lead vocal on “Have a Cigar” is performed by Roy Harper, a legendary folk musician who just happened to be in the studio at the time. Both Roger Waters and David Gilmour recorded versions of the song singing lead, but neither of them were happy with the results. In swoops Roy Harper with just the right tone and character to his voice to play the part of a smarmy A&R man. His take wowed Waters and Gilmour; it was meant to be, I think.
“Welcome to the Machine” decries the slavering dogs of the music industry as well, but comes at it from a different angle. It’s still a second-person account from the antagonist (in this case “the machine,” being the soulless mechanizers of an entire art form, or society in general). But it starts with a young and green musician dreaming of rock and roll stardom. It ends with the chatter and clinking of glasses of a high-class party.
“Welcome to the Machine” is one of those iconic Floyd songs, creepy and unsettling. It has the rich, human tones of a strummed acoustic guitar, as well as cold and mechanistic synthesizer rhythms. And both “Machine” and “Cigar” have shifting time signatures that keep you on your toes, something that’s become a bit of a Pink Floyd trademark.
Wish You Were Here is my favorite Pink Floyd record because it communicates an extremely important message: never let the demands other people place on you make you forget who you are.
Next: the Fascist Regime!