Many who knew music in the mid-1970s said it would be impossible for Pink Floyd to adequately follow their groundbreaking album, Dark Side of the Moon (1973). Everyone, that is, except Pink Floyd.
Dark Side was the best-selling album of all time for awhile, with claimed sales of more than 50 million copies and 778 weeks on the Billboard 200 album chart. It strikes nerve after nerve with two generations of listeners, despite its depressing subject matter: aging, mental disease, futility.
Why? The music. The music, and the lyrics that support it, are flawless. This may well be because of Floyd’s vaunted perfectionism. It would be easy to see how that insistence on quality led to Wish You Were Here, the band’s next studio album.
The themes are no more cheery than on Dark Side, and yet it’s still impossible to tear your ear away from it. The soul-numbing greed of the music business, working its alchemy to change art’s chemistry into money, fuels “Welcome to the Machine” and “Have a Cigar.” Sound effects ranging from loud parties to rewinding tape machines, their clicking reels echoing like lock tumblers on a prison cell door, transition to another enduring gem, the album’s title track. The lyrics still resonate.
So…so you think you can tell
Heaven from hell
Blue skies from pain
Can you tell a green field
From a cold steel rail
A smile from a veil
Do you think you can tell?
Did they get you to trade
Your heroes for ghosts
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange
A walk-on part in the war
For a lead role in a cage?
The song has been seen by many to be an elegy for the sanity of Syd Barret, the band’s founding member, who left in 1968 as his increasingly erratic behavior began to eclipse his prodigious musical talents. But whether for Syd or an expression of leaden regret at paths that cannot be backtracked, the song is a heart-stopper, sure to have listeners staring into space, even as they are musically fascinated. (The link is to a tasty live performance, which is missing some of the ominous sound effects that lead off the studio track. But it is powerful nonetheless, and its guitar solo is an enriching variation on the studio version.)
The bookends of these three songs — the opening “Shine On You Crazy Diamond Parts 1-5” and the ending, same title, Parts 6-9 — are alternately rock dirges and jabby keyboard experiments that plumb the mysteries of genius, madness, and the fluid Venn diagram where they intersect and interfere.
Uplifting? No. Artistic, intriguing, and not to be missed? Decidedly. Shine on, you crazy listener.♦
© 2013 Adam Barr, except album cover photo and linked music