Welcome to Radio Baxter, a tribute to the FM tradition of the classic album hour. The only difference is you bring your own music. The following was originally live-tweeted on Saturday 17 May 2014 at #RadioBaxter. Thanks to everyone who joined me.
This classic album session is at the request of my very good friend Nick, a social media Luddite who nevertheless has promised to stalk your Girl Reporter on Twitter if she would just tweetalonga while we playalonga Wish You Were Here.
Oh Nick, you know not what you ask. It’s about to get personal. And a bit dark. But what’s music for, if not to shine a light on our dark corners?
At times it’s the musicianship, at other times the story an album tells and then, occasionally, it’s because the work is fixed in a precise moment of the soundtrack of your life. With Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, it’s all three for your Girl Reporter.
That’s why we’re spinning Wish You Were Here. So, if you’re sitting comfortably, let’s begin.
00:00 T1 Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Parts I-V
It was January 1977 and my mother was in Washington for Jimmy Carter’s inauguration – a highlight of her journalism career. But for me at 14, just into those difficult teenage years, it was a moment of abject misery.
The setting couldn’t have been more 1970s cliché if it tried – the only architect-designed and built squatter hut in Hong Kong, perched on the rocks above Shek-O, complete with large, cushion-filled pit in the centre covered by a glass dome.
My father and his friends were pretending, for my benefit, that the woman he had brought along for the afternoon wasn’t his mistress. They kept forgetting her assumed name, the one that was supposed to protect the ‘secret’ should I happen to mention it to my mother on her return.
And I was huddled by the stereo, a confused, lonely kid pretending that the only thing I knew or cared about was our host’s music collection.
I had never heard of Pink Floyd but the album cover, with its arresting images of the burning man and the empty suit, was irresistible. I have never given another album the intense first listening this one got, and couldn’t have picked a more perfect accompaniment to that painful, lonely hour.
Pink Floyd’s ninth album is overshadowed both by its predecessor Dark Side of the Moon and the legend of Syd Barrett, famously absent and yet a heavy presence throughout this album.
This first track is specifically about Barrett, who had left the band in 1968 following an LSD-induced breakdown from which he never recovered. Don’t do drugs, kids.
For a kid brought up on 3-minute pop songs the leisurely build into the first 13 ½ minute track was a revelation.
Settle back, and remember when you were young.
Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun
The lyrics, when they finally came in, seemed to speak directly to me. A soundtrack to the loss of my childhood, in realtime. No wonder it’s remained so powerfully with me.
13.31 T2 Welcome to the Machine
You never feel things as strongly as you do in adolescence and this track, with its complicit dad welcoming his son to the machine, seemed to continue a very personal conversation with your Girl Reporter.
And you didn’t like school, and you know you’re nobody’s fool, so welcome to the machine
What did you dream? It’s alright we told you what to dream
20:54 T3 Have a Cigar
The iniquities of the music business which made him rich is a recurring theme in Waters’ lyrics but my money’s on this gloriously cynical track.
Waters has said he regretted handing vocal duty to Roy Harper, who just happened to be in the studio next door, but Harper’s raucous treatment is still a delight.
And the exquisite little dig at the music industrial complex of “By the way, which one’s Pink?” is Waters’ writing at its best.
25:62 T4 Wish You Were Here
You’d think, given the circumstances, I’d hate this album, but in fact it never fails to inspire me.
So you think, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell, blue skies from pain
Yes, I could tell, and perhaps thanks in part to this album, with its warning that things can lose their meaning if you let them, I still can.
It’s to encourage myself not to accept a lead role in a cage but to go on demanding of myself that I keep on auditioning for the walk-on part in the war – Roger Waters
How I wish, how I wish you were here. We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year
Still gets me, after all these years.
31:02 T5 Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Parts VI-IX
The second part of the extended jam which bookends the album is a good time to study the cover art.
Storm Thorgerson designed many iconic album covers and his work for Pink Floyd is a great example of how strong images add to the musical experience.
Album cover art’s time has passed and if all you’ve got is a CD or a digital file it’s worth googling all the images which went into this one.
My first copy was a Hong Kong pirate which used the diver picture as its cover, originally a postcard insert. Wish you weren’t here.
And many people think the ‘robot handshake’ is an alternative cover when in fact the art presentation was incredibly complex.
The original LP came in black shrinkwrap with the robot handshake sticker over it to peel away and reveal the iconic ‘burning man’ handshake.
All the images are intended to convey the theme of emotional and physical ‘absence’ and in them days the work to realise them was astonishing.
For instance, the ‘diving man’ had to perform a yogic headstand and hold his breath for about two minutes. Don’t try this at home.
And ‘burning man’ Ronnie Rondell really was on fire, in an asbestos suit and wig. Again, best left to the experts kids.
Syd Barrett, the absent presence, turned up at the Abbey Road studio during recording, and was unrecognised by the rest of the band.
He looked pale and vacant and asked if he could help. There was nothing he could do – Storm Thorgerson
Nobody knows where you are, how near or how far
Shine on, you crazy diamond
We’ll bask in the shadow of yesterday’s triumph sail on the steel breeze
Come on you boychild you winner and loser, come on you miner for truth and desire and shine
And, finally, Dick Parry’s sax takes us back to the beginning – like tying a big bow around a remarkable album.
ROLL CREDITS –
David Gilmour – vocals, guitar, lap steel guitar, EMS Synthi AKS, keyboards, tape effects. Nick Mason – drums, percussion, tape effects. Roger Waters – vocals, bass guitar, guitar, EMS VCS3, tape effects. Richard Wright – keyboards, EMS VCS3, clavinet, background vocals. Brian Humphries, engineer. Peter James, assistant engineer. Additional musicians: Dick Parry – saxophone Shine On You Crazy Diamond. Roy Harper – vocals Have a Cigar. Venetta Fields and Carlena Williams – backing vocals. Stephane Grappelli – violin Wish You Were Here.
Behind the Song: Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” – by Andrew Leahey at American Songwriter
Watch Documentaries on the Making of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here – By Josh Jones at Open Culture
Rolling Stone’s 1975 review of the album – by Ben Edmonds
Storm Thorgerson and the end of album art – by Ben Greenman, the New Yorker