Tag Archive: Shine On You Crazy Diamond


Syd Barrett

Syd Barrett

On June 5th 1975, the members of Pink Floyd were happily churning away at Abbey Road Studios in London, recording parts for “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” the central piece for their next album. On this particular day, though, they had a visitor. He showed up unannounced. He had no hair, no beard, no eyebrows, had a dead look on his face, and mystified everyone in the sessions as to why he was there. Even though they didn’t recognize him at first, they knew him – it was none other than Syd Barrett himself.

He looked completely different than the guy they all knew years before. He had put on weight, for one thing, and he was dressed differently, but the biggest thing was his lack of hair. Roger Waters in particular must have this burned into his memory; in his fullest exploration of madness and its effects, The Wall, the main character Pink shaves off all the hair on his body, signifying the completion of his descent into insanity.

Syd’s behavior that day was predictably unpredictable. At one point, he stood in the studio control booth brushing his teeth. The timing of this visit is particularly interesting, since Pink Floyd was recording “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a song Waters had penned specifically about Barrett. When Waters asked him what he thought of the song, Barrett just said “sounds a bit old.” Waters had so much to say about Syd, his personality, his psychoses, and madness in general. He wrote two albums about it (Dark Side and The Wall), as well as a grand 26-minute magna carta specifically about him, and all Syd could find to say was “sounds a bit old.”

Syd at Abbey Road, June 5th 1975

Syd at Abbey Road, June 5th 1975

If you want my opinion, Syd didn’t really understand that the song was about him. I’m guessing there wasn’t a lot at that time Syd did understand. For some geniuses like Syd, the rest of the world is speaking a foreign language. It’s not just in the words they say – it’s in their actions, their mindset, their perceptions, the entirety of how they interact with the world.

Some have speculated that Syd was schizophrenic – a rather easy and unsatisfying answer. Some say he had some sort of autism spectrum disorder, like Asperger’s. Others point to his copious use of mind-altering drugs in his younger years. But whatever the diagnosis of what the hell was wrong with him, what remains is that Syd Barrett was both blessed and cursed, and both by nature and by circumstance. Syd was born into a particular arrangement of events, or the stars aligned, or God stretched out his holy hand, or whatever – Syd was different; he was blessed (or cursed, depending on your perspective) with a kind of understanding that is granted to extremely few people. He also did a lot of LSD, another contributing factor. But however it came to pass, his story ends in a sputtering incoherency, one that we can only understand through the flagrantly inadequate lens of “well, he’s just crazy.”

But Roger Waters knew better. He knew what very few people knew about Syd – that there’s a little piece of Syd inside all of us.

Pink Floyd with Syd, pre-David Gilmore

Pink Floyd with Syd, pre-David Gilmour

“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is really a collection of a bunch of different musical ideas Pink Floyd had hatched over the course of two years. Originally, it was supposed to be a side-long composition, much like “Echoes” from Meddle and “Atom Heart Mother” from the album of the same name. The lyrics serve as the backbone of the entire song, but they only appear in 2 of the 9 sections. In the lyrics, it’s Roger talking directly to Syd directly, calling him all manner of things, like stranger, legend, martyr, painter, piper, prisoner, boy child, winner and loser. He details in poetic terms Syd’s history with the band, and reveals that he, more than anyone else, understood what Syd was going through. He also understood that Syd had to go through it completely alone; the other members of Pink Floyd would not follow.

Next: But if that salt has lost its flavor, it ain’t got much in its favor…

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.

Music can’t be completely pinned down to an objective perspective, much as we may try. Songs hit people in different ways because no one is in exactly the same place as anybody else. But as subjective a pursuit as music is, there are some things that remain as true as 2+2=4. One of them is this: Genesis’ best song is “Supper’s Ready.”

Longplayer being played

That’s kind of an ironic statement when you consider that “Supper’s Ready” is actually more like seven different songs all strung together. As such, it totals out at almost 23 minutes. It’s cited among the world’s longest pop songs, along with songs by Dream Theater, Jethro Tull and Valient Thorr. But if it’s pure length you want, and don’t care about the song having a shred of musicality, look to Longplayer. Not strictly a song by any particular music group, it’s more of a compositional project started by composter Jem Finer. It started playing at the stroke of midnight on December 31st, 1999, and will continue uninterrupted until the final moment of the year 2999. Bet you can’t dance to it, though…

Starting with the tour after their previous album, Nursery Cryme, Peter Gabriel would intro some of their more epic songs with a story: a prose composition of his own creation, sometimes having nothing to do with the song itself. The story was bizarre, funny or off-putting, often all three, and would end with a segue into the song. The story for “Supper’s Ready” was among Gabriel’s weirder; it involved earthworms coming up from underground because they think it’s raining (it’s actually just a naked man drumming on the ground), and getting eaten by birds, for whom “the supper is ready!”

Just listening to “Supper’s Ready” is a mammoth undertaking; it’s best if you don’t have a lot of distractions. It’s meant to be listened to all at once, so a small time commitment is necessary, and it’s definitely not ideal for background music. Listening to it in the car is fine, but not with passengers. It also will require more than one listen to really understand, but you shouldn’t just put it on repeat – for one thing, that will eat up at least close to an hour.

I know, I know – I’m not selling this very well. The truth is, I can’t. “Supper’s Ready” isn’t easily digestible like other pop songs. It requires patience and resolution. But if you don’t mind, I’ll hold out hope that the modern music listener still knows what those are.

Given its length, I was expecting it to have a long build-up like “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” but it jumps right into the action with the first section, “Lover’s Leap.” While Steve, Mike and Tony all play an eerie/folksy arpeggio part of 12-string acoustic guitars, Peter sings with double-tracked vocals about an actual experience he had one night with his then wife Jill, and Genesis producer John Anthony. The three of them were having a conversation when Jill had some sort of possession experience – she started talking in a different, otherworldly voice. Peter thought he saw another face superimposed on Jill’s and held up a makeshift cross (a candlestick and something else), and Jill reacted violently, scaring the crap out of the other two. They eventually calmed her down and put her to bed, but neither Peter nor John slept a wink.

Another part of the lyrics come from an experience Peter had while at his wife’s parents’ house, where he looked out on the lawn late at night and thought he saw seven robed and hooded figures marching across it. Amazingly, he had this experience with no drugs or alcohol in his system. That time where Jill got possessed, the three of them were staying up late, but no drugs or drinking was involved there, either.

That rather straightforward story ends with a chorus that indicates the song’s name with “hey babe, your supper’s waiting for you.” The 12-string guitars continue in a hypnotic, cloud-like reverie, and Tony goes to his organ and plays a solo. That progression segues seamlessly into the second section, “The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man.” Five and a half minutes into the song, this is where it really starts to pick up. It turns from an ethereal dreamscape to a grandiose anthem with a sing-along chorus, despite its rather awkward title and tagline.

The main character of this section is a “fireman who looks after the fire.” He’s a sort of anti-Christ figure, a charismatic Messiah who makes wild promises of salvation and commands the attention of many kinds of people. He’s the leader of a high-brow scientific religion that demands complete devotion, basically the definition of a cult. Scientology, anyone? The lyrical imagery is astounding, cramming a great amount into just a few minutes.

Steve Hackett doin’ his thang

After that comes a sudden stop, a flute solo from Peter, and the third section, “Ikhnaton and Itsacon and Their Band of Merry Men.” The music picks up even more, becoming a full-fledged rock song. It even has a bitchin’ guitar solo that features Steve Hackett doing tapping, a full six years before Eddie Van Halen ripped it off. The lyrics talk of a great battle, presumably from the point of view of the army of this Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man. This starting to sound like the book of Revelation, a concept we get even surer of as the song goes on. Meanwhile, our lovers watch as this battle progresses, ending in victory for this Band of Merry Men.

There’s a brief pause with the next section, “How Dare I Be So Beautiful?,” which is no more than a delayed guitar effect and Peter’s soft vocals. The title is a reference to Narcissus, a figure from Greek myth that fell in love with his reflection and didn’t want to stop staring at it; he died of starvation. The battle of the previous section has left only chaotic and smoking ruins and a mountain of dead bodies, but a lone figure remains, staring into a pool at his own reflection. His existence begs the question: who is to take responsibility for a defeated army after they’re defeated? If no one takes responsibility, what will they become? …A flower?

More on “Supper’s Ready” and what happened to Narcissus after he became a flower… tomorrow!