Tag Archive: Lord Byron

Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here - 9/12/1975

Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here – 9/12/1975

Two years after their brilliant explosion of success, Pink Floyd made the best song of their career. Not a lot of people agree with me, and with good reason. The title track from their 1975 question mark album Wish You Were Here really doesn’t make a whole lot of waves. Most albums worth their salt have a track like “Wish You Were Here”; it’s a breath inward, a break in the action that usually comes before one final push. Led Zep’s “Going to California”; Black Sabbath’s “Solitude”; R.E.M. with “Hairshirt” and “Country Feedback”; even the Beatles with “Yesterday.” And as to Pink Floyd’s best song, most people would point to “Another Brick In the Wall Pt. 2,” “Time,” See Emily Play,” “Comfortably Numb” or “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” as their greatest defining single. But “Wish You Were Here,” in my mind, surpasses them all.

There’s more than one reason, too. First is that it contains some of the BEST lyrics EVER penned, and certainly the greatest turn of phrase of the entire ‘70s. The whole song is great, but this is the best:

Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?

Second, the song’s grasp far exceeds its reach, which is opposite of how most songs come out. It’s little more than a lazily strummed acoustic guitar, a drunken piano, and light and airy drums. The final coda has a bluesy guitar solo on top of it that makes the song float away. But the ecstasy the song possesses while it’s playing and the impact it leaves have a size and scope that simply defies logic.

Third and most importantly, “Wish You Were Here” succinctly and beautifully captures the essence and message of the album which lends it its name. Wish You Were Here is about the alienation and emptiness felt by someone who has been given all this world has to offer. The Dark Side of the Moon brought Pink Floyd success on every level. Money, girls, drugs, and hordes of adoring fans – all the things you presumably get into the music business for, aside from actual music – all of this had come Pink Floyd’s way. They had definitely paid their dues; Dark Side was their 8th studio outing, and they had been together for over 10 years by the time that things started settling back down in 1974. They had scaled the heights of rock and roll stardom – now what?

“Wish You Were Here” is in second person, addressing someone directly in the present tense. What passes for a chorus in this little-engine-that-could goes like this:

How I wish you were here / We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year / Running over the same old ground / Have we found the same old fears? / Wish you were here

Who is the “you” in this song? Who is the lyricist addressing? Some say it’s Syd Barrett; that’s because Syd is the focus of the song “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a 26+ minute opus split into two halves which open and close the album (and the reason most people buy the album anyway). Some say the “you” is musical purity, the elemental material of music unencumbered by corporate greed and financial motivation. That’s what the other two songs on Wish You Were Here are about: “Welcome to the Machine” is a disturbing exploration of how innocent rock and roll dreams are corrupted by money, and “Have a Cigar” paints a clear portrait of a greedy record executive (more on both of those later).

But I think the “You” in “Wish You Were Here” is Pink Floyd itself. Their 9th album finds them completely empty, wondering how they got to this crazy place and desperately wanting to return to a simpler time. In the process of getting bigger, more popular and more successful, they lost who they were. And with Wish You Were Here, they are finally asking the question, “Who are we?” It’s their most existential album yet; Søren Kirkegaard would be proud.

And the title track has all the existential wanderings of the entire album rolled into a naked singularity. Pink Floyd’s desire to strip away all the complications and fallacies the music business imposes on them is reflected in the musical simplicity of the track. It’s not a complicated song – more often than not, a good piece of art is defined by what the artist takes away instead of by what he adds. But since I make my existence on words, the thing I remember the most is the poetic method Pink Floyd uses to work out its angst. The lyrics are simply stunning, and leave me dumbstruck. “Wish You Were Here” is a true poem, right up there with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “She Walks In Beauty.” The mark: it leaves me with nothing to say, because I can find no words better than the ones it uses.

Next: Syd Barrett, the crazy diamond.

Changing the Game

From the time they were teenagers, John Lennon and Paul McCartney had been credited together for songs that either of them had written. They commonly wrote together, with John writing the verse-chorus part and Paul adding the middle eight, or some such thing, but they just as commonly wrote songs completely on their own. Their collaboration was such that most of the time they paid no real mind to who wrote what. It was the song that was important, not where it came from. So the Lennon/McCartney credit was very prolific by 1965.

By Rubber Soul, however, they had started to distinguish themselves from their songwriting partner. From the beginning, you could usually tell which of them took the lead in the writing from who had the lead vocal. Starting with Rubber Soul and Revolver, though, it really started to show with the style of the lyrics. John was usually more acerbic and sarcastic than Paul, having had a more difficult childhood. Paul was a little more of a child of privilege, and thus had a more optimistic outlook on life than John did. Those different outlooks eventually became undeniable.

Lord Byron (club foot not pictured)

Take the songs “Here, There and Everywhere” and “Doctor Robert.” The Paul McCartney tune is a gentle, soothing love song, unabashed in its overarching sweetness. Like an Elizabeth Barrett-Browning poem, it doesn’t pull any punches on the gooey feelings. It has a splendid beginning-middle-end structure to it, anchored on three points (“here,” “there,” and “everywhere”). It works on the same level as a Shakespearian sonnet, and reveals that Paul McCartney is just a little lovesick puppy. He’s like a modern day Lord Byron, without the club foot or the penchant for choir boys.

“Doctor Robert,” on the other hand, is about drugs.  On all the band’s tours, John Lennon was the keeper of all the pills, and the other band members went to him when they wanted a fix. He wrote “Doctor Robert” about the band’s drug dealer, which was himself.  It’s acerbic, witty, and filled with John’s crooked sense of humor. It stands in direct contrast to Paul’s personality, which is sunny and optimistic. John wrote a lot of love songs (“If I Fell,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “Please Please Me”), but Paul has a mastery of that material John could never fathom. On the other hand, Paul could never write a song like “Doctor Robert.”

On Revolver, the Beatles were breaking out of their previous mold, and even showing a little disrespect for it. While the girls who were going gaga over them had probably never tried an illegal drug in their lives, the Beatles released one of their druggiest songs up to that point with “She Said She Said.” John wrote it about Peter Fonda, who said he knew “what it’s like to be dead” while Peter, John, George and many others were sitting in a giant bathtub in an estate in Beverley Hills, all of them tripping on acid. Fonda, who was showing them his old bullet wounds, was thought of by George as being “very uncool.” This incident is probably also the basis for “And Your Bird Can Sing,” which John described as “another of my throwaways… fancy paper around an empty box.”

Amidst the swirl and confusion that most of the album is mired in, we have “For No One,” a moment of surprising maturity and sophistication. Paul actually cuts deeper than he normally does with this song. He describes the end of a relationship with some rather poignant insight. Later comes the Paul song “Got to Get You Into My Life,” where Paul’s twee tendencies crystallize perfectly. Sung with passion and optimism, it’s active instead of passive, if a bit of a backwards step from the bold new direction the Beatles were clearly going in.

The album finishes off with “Tomorrow Never Knows,” a twisting, gyre-and-gimble type of song. Written by John and with lyrics largely based on Timothy Leary’s Psychedelic Experience, it’s the single boldest statement by the Beatles up to this point. It says, “Throw away everything that you know about the Beatles.” From here on out, all bets were off.

The Beatles changed the game when they first came on the scene, making it suddenly plausible for all those snot-nosed rock and roll kids playing in garages to make it, and make it big. Revolver was another game-changer, shifting the public’s idea of them as simply the Fab Four. And it prepared the world (although insufficiently) for the far-out freakishness of Sgt. Pepper.