If you had to list your top 20 rock albums, what would they be? It is hard to believe the average person would not have at least one Pink Floyd album on that list. Have you ever caught the Pink Floyd bug? Sat down, closed your eyes, and listened to one of their albums from start to finish?
Some time ago, I read some well written commentary about Floyd, and the author mentioned Floyd’s albums were written to be listened to all the way through, in one sitting. It hadn’t occurred to me that this was the case, and when I considered my own habits regarding Floyd, I found it was spot on. I tend to listen to fine art music this way as well; Beethoven’s 9th, Orff’s Carmina Burana, Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons are all among the many pieces I have at home that I enjoy listening to in one sitting. While these pieces are not comprised of “songs” per se, they are comprised of many movements that are often enjoyed by themselves like songs are, in fact, Carmina Burana contains 28 movements. One of my top two favorite all time bands is Pink Floyd. I love the post Syd Barrett work up until Roger Water’s departure that I call the Waters-Floyd years. I sat down to listen to Wish You Were Here the other night for the umpteenth time and thoroughly enjoyed it and thought a shout out to them on UTB Geek would be apropos; I hope you agree.
I had a friend in high school whose father was an internationally known scientist and was so brilliant that there were only two people in the world whom could receive and evaluate his PhD dissertation. It was he who actually turned me on to fine art (Classical) music, and the first piece I ever listened to was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture on a vinyl LP at his house. He was the type of guy that would provide pearls of knowledge, and sometimes wisdom, if you listened when he spoke. Once he told me that psychologically speaking, what people enjoy about music is the ability to learn the pattern (melody) and follow along with it. Later I learned that this was part of the formula for popular music (as opposed to folk or fine art- the differentiation of which could be the subject of another post), in that you could catch the beat pretty quickly and then follow along easily. Popular music is far more simplistic than fine art music in this regard. In fact, the melody so many people enjoy from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony that is often referred to as “Ode to Joy,” is only heard three times throughout the piece, and one of those times, it is only hinted at and is almost indistinguishable. Play the video below starting at 2:35…
What happens when one sits through the entire composition of a piece of fine art music, is that there is dissonance, not in the strict sense of a specific chord like in jazz, but in the sense that you’re waiting for the “fun” or joyful part and sitting through the dissonant part makes the fun part even better. So in Beethoven’s 9th, for example, he teases you with the “Ode to Joy” melody, later shares it with you a little to whet your whistle, and then finally serves it up to you towards the end. This is how Copland wrote “Appalachian Spring” as well, and applies to so many more pieces. There is a melody in Copland’s piece that is pretty popular and also very enjoyable, and Copland makes you wait for it. There are clearly parallels to this aspect of musical delayed gratification, in physical intimacy and satisfying your partner, but that is beyond the pale of this post.
Pink Floyd’s track “Wish You Were Here” is almost universally liked. It’s an excellent, soulful song that includes outstanding lyrics with great music writing and arrangement. When you sit and listen to it loudly, you can hear the mono sound at the beginning and it sounds like you’re listening to a very old radio with a fuzzy reception, until it switches to stereo and you hear the acoustic guitar kick in. This track is one of Floyd’s most popular songs and is the heart of the album. What Floyd does on the album is take you on a journey that provides a context for the pinnacle song, then gives you that song, and then lets you down gradually afterwards in a fashion similar to how they started.
Before delving into Floyd’s album, please follow me on a couple short tangents. If I really want to “get inside the music” and get lost in it, I think simple stereo is the best configuration. In automotive audio technology, a good stereo is tuned to have the sound reach a central point in the car at a specific time. Often, this is a point in between the driver and passenger, close to the rear view mirror. I’m not really an audiophile so I cannot say exactly how this is accomplished, but the signal leaves the radio and must travel varying distances to the different speakers and arrive from those speakers to one point in the car at the same moment. If a driver wants to tune his stereo himself, he can use the “fader” and “balance” dials to make the desired adjustment. Stereo is two channels of recording, meaning, there are two separate “sources” of sound that one can distinguish. Today, there is surround sound, which is upwards of 5 channels and although this is cool when watching a movie; for instance, the helicopter sounds like it’s actually flying over your head, I personally would chose stereo over it mostly because it’s difficult to find that sweet spot in a multi-channel surround sound implementation, where you feel like you’re “inside” the music. Nevermind finding music recorded in surround sound, which is something I cannot comment on as I have never looked for it. When I listen to Floyd, I will arrange my speakers in a perfect triangle with my ears, and I know I have it right when sometimes the music sounds like it’s coming from the left, sometimes from the right, and sometimes from a point right in the middle. If you close your eyes and count to 10, and then point to where it seems like the sound is coming from, when you open your eyes, you should be pointing to a spot midway between the speakers. This will allow you to enjoy the full stereo effect.
Many years ago, I learned that meditation can have an interesting effect on one’s enjoyment and appreciation for many types of art, and many other sensory experiences. Without belaboring the subject, being able to be still inside, and empty the mind, makes one particularly receptive to the inputs coming from the senses, amplifying the aspects of art that you enjoy. Many people get this same affect via recreational drugs, but you can tune into this quite handily if you meditate regularly. It’s appropriate to say that this is not the “goal” or intent of meditation, but that’s another matter. In any event, I will often center myself before listening to Floyd, so I can fully engage the art and enjoy it. I feel a much greater connection to the music this way and often am able to get lost in it. I get my most satisfying emotional releases when I am able to really “get inside” whatever music I’m listening to. Many of you have had dinners and had “background music” playing throughout; the kind that is not intrusive. I use world music for this when I entertain. Floyd is not “background music,” in fact, it’s the opposite, as it really calls out to you and compels you to engage it. As I said before, I am a big fan of the Waters-Floyd years. That sound is so unique, that if you like it, you’re stuck because there is nothing else like it anywhere; you have to continue re-enjoying the same several albums of which Wish You Were Here is one.
The album starts off with “Shine On You Crazy Diamond Part 1,” which is reminiscent of the beginning to “The Wall’ where Floyd starts off the story with “Pink,” the protagonist, innocent and full of hope in “In the Flesh,” and “The Thin Ice.” Parallels to The Wall and Wish You Were Here don’t stop there. Both include aspects of the business side of the music industry and how it is somewhat cold hearted and warps the artists who get caught in the middle. In both works, the music industry is portrayed as a big, cruel machine, devoid of feeling. In both works, the musician enters the industry innocent and hopeful and Shine On You Crazy Diamond represents this aspect.
The second track is “Welcome to the Machine” where the loss of innocence on the part of the musician, begins. Welcome to the Machine speaks to the innocence and youthful optimism of the musician getting warped by the business aspect of the music industry.
The next track is “Have A Cigar” where Floyd describes the salesmanship aspect of what I assume would be the record labels who try and manage the artists to get the most production out of them, again, a theme found in “The Wall.” The track starts out with the sound of an elevator rising to the top of a very tall building and opening up to some kind of cocktail reception with lots of voices in the background, a bit of genius arranging and use of sound effects and story telling. You feel as if you’re getting off the elevator with “Pink” and being shown off to all the “VIPs.”
Finally, we are treated to the main event, and the namesake song of the album. This track starts off in a very grainy mono sound as if we were listening to an old radio before television was available. There’s a program on in the background and we can hear some muffled voices before it sounds as if the dial was changed from this program to the song. Shortly thereafter, the acoustic guitar kicks in and the sound changes to stereo. This simple maneuver is part and parcel of something Floyd does so many times through out the Waters years, using sound effects in a very clever way, to help weave a narrative. Thus begins a seminal work in rock music, and one of the most raw, soulful songs ever written. I won’t go into the meaning of the lyrics, as this post has already gotten long, and possibly, the meaning is self evident, but the song is about living rather than just surviving. It’s about swimming in the river of life rather than studying it, about being able to discern the things that bring life, versus the things that destroy it. About knowing how to live versus merely exist, and about thriving or flourishing versus mere survival.
Lyrics to Wish You Were Here
-So, so you think you can tell – heaven from hell? Blue skies from grey? 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?
-How I wish. 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, what have we found, the same old fears? Wish you were here.
The song is primarily a series of questions that seem to be asked by someone who presumably knows how to live, to someone who merely thinks he does, or who hasn’t thought about it at all. The song ends with the speaker lamenting the loss of the person he’s asking the questions of, as if that person somehow took the wrong path and went astray. I have heard the song was written about Syd Barrett, one of the founding four members of Pink Floyd, but I have no way of corroborating this. In any event, the song has significant meaning on the face of it, merely as an enjoinder to live your life fully, dive in, and embrace the chaos.
The last track on the album is one of my favorites and includes the “dissonance” I spoke of earlier. Like Part 1, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond – Part 2” is about 13 minutes long and rambles around with classic rock instruments and some synthesized sound before weaving a wonderful tapestry of notes on the synthesizer-organ. About halfway through, the track changes gears completely and features the keyboards. Then, towards the end, the synthesizer-organ starts to tie everything together, and I tend to get excited and really enjoy the more harmonious and soothing melody that finishes the work.
Wish You Were Here is an amazing accomplishment. Like so much of the music produced during the Waters-Floyd era, it begs to be listened to all the way through. It is like a beautiful, albeit demanding muse that will take you on a wonderful journey if you devote all your attention to her. If you are not familiar with the Waters-Floyd years of Pink Floyd, I highly suggest you search it out and get some of these albums. The sound is unique and cannot be found anywhere else. There are some amazing stories told and some deep, spiritual content shared. This is soulful stuff that really resonates with people whom Jimi Hendrix might have described as, “experienced.”