NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hey, Cuz! Welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs. And this week, we’re looking at some Pink Floyd.
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I don’t usually talk about my other podcast but if you can’t promote yourself once in awhile, what can you promote? My other podcast is called Words and Movies, and my co-host Sean Gallagher and I find two movies with a common thread between them and we do a little compare and contrast. Sean is the genius in that one and I’m just the sidekick, but if you want to learn a lot about the art of film, Words and Movies is a pretty good place to go. The website is Words and Movies Dot Com, and it looks suspiciously similar to How Good It Is dot com, go figure.
I have another good one from the folks at The Sound of Vinyl. According to that website, what David Bowie song has been covered more than any other? This one might come as a surprise to you; maybe not. I will say that there are a few surprises in the Top Ten, though.
I’ll have that answer for you near the end of the show.
Today we’re looking at “Wish You Were Here,” by Pink Floyd, and I think this makes Pink Floyd only the third artist I’ve covered more than once on this show.
“Wish You Were Here” is the title cut from the album of the same name, so let’s look for a moment at the album as a whole. Because Wish You Were Here is definitely an album that’s designed to be a larger piece, and you often can’t even think about one track without thinking about the others. And while Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall and Animals also have a central theme to them, Wish You Were Here has more of a cohesive feel to me, almost like a single continuous work comprised of smaller pieces, whereas the others are collections of songs with a common theme stitched together. That’s strictly my opinion and you’re welcome to disagree with it.
Wish You Were Here has a lot of subtextual layers to it. It’s a tribute to former member Syd Barrett, who left the group a few years earlier after a mental breakdown; it’s a critique of the music business, and it’s a reflection on the distance the band saw growing between themselves and their audiences as their fame grew. Remember that before Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd was making music for themselves and a relatively small but dedicated group of fans. All of a sudden they’re multimillionaires but they’re also a potential source of serious income for the label, and the relationships between the members were starting to show some strain.
Now, while the album Wish You Were Here has all that, I would argue that “Wish You Were Here” the SONG encapsulates all of the above. And by that point in the album we’ve been introduced to each of those elements, and the last 12 minutes of the album, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts Six through Nine)” are just a coda to the whole thing. So let’s dive in, shall we?
To begin with, it’s a relatively rare instance of Roger Waters and David Gilmour working together on a song, since they usually worked individually. Gilmour had worked out the initial riff and was playing it in the studio, but he was playing it at a much faster tempo than the one you’re used to hearing. Waters heard it and asked him to play it again, but slower. From there the pair worked on the music for the chorus and verses together, and Waters putting together the lyrics.
Now, we have to remember that we were still dealing with the constraints of the media, that is, the album, having two sides. So chances are, if Pink Floyd were recording this in the streaming era, or even in the CD era, they would have had all of the songs segue one to the next, and the ending of “Welcome to the Machine” would have been different, and so would the beginning of “Have a Cigar”, because they would have connected to one another. But otherwise in putting together a cohesive whole of an album, all of the other songs do segue together, and the change from “Have a Cigar” to “Wish You Were Here” is one of the more clever ones of the rock era. So you have David Gilmour cranking away on his electric guitar and Richard Wright’s synthesizer providing counterpoint, when suddenly there’s a kind of electronic sweep and both the volume and the sound quality drop dramatically, so that it sounds as though we’re listening to it through an old transistor radio. But here’s the thing: when you’re listening to it on the radio, radio stations have something called a compressor, which works to even out the overall volume of everything, so when radio stations play this song, the transistor radio part sounds pretty much as loud as everything else and you lose the effect. When you’re listening on an LP or a CD, however, you can hear a dramatic change. Now, I typically put this show through a bunch of processing, but I’m going to do my best to preserve the effect here…
… Let me stop it for a moment here so I can describe what’s coming next. What we get now is somebody tuning the radio off that station and seeking through a couple of other things before finally landing on “Wish You Were Here.” For this part of the record, David Gilmour recorded himself tuning through his own car’s radio. So there’s some random tuning noise, a snippet from a radio play, a few notes of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, and finally the opening notes of “Wish You Were Here,” being played on a 12 string guitar. At this point we’ve moved away from the radio and into a recording that’s been processed to sound like it’s on the radio. In fact, now they’re adding in the whine of what are called heterodynes in the radio signal, those high-pitched whistling sounds you hear especially when you’re listening to radio stations from far away.
Now, before I go any further let me remind you that at the end of the last episode, I promised you we’d be talking about a song that uses Tchaikovsky in it. I just want it on the record that I kept that promise. OK, let’s listen in a little more closely. The song is playing on the radio, and we hear a man enter the room, cough, sniffle, and then he starts to play along with the radio, until finally the radio disappears and we’re left with Gilmour soloing and then the rest of the band comes in…
And as I mentioned a long time ago, way back in Episode 11, Gilmour didn’t intend to cough and sniffle on the recording, but he was a pretty heavy smoker at the time, and it happened to get caught on tape, so they left it in because it sounded so natural. Gilmour did, in fact, quit smoking after that little incident.
Now, while the album is generally accepted to be a tribute to Syd Barrett, there’s a little bit of disagreement about this song specifically. Waters, for his part, says that the lyrics were directed at himself, a kind of exhortation to be present in your own life, as exemplified by the line about accepting a lead role in a cage versus taking on a walk-on part in a war. But he does concede that it’s open to interpretation. David Gilmour, on the other hand, says that he can’t play the song without thinking about Barrett.
And in one of those weird coincidences of life, as they were putting the final touches on the album, an unexpected guest wandered into the Abbey Road studio. Roger Waters, not knowing who the man was, asked if anyone knew him, and then Richard Wright realized that it was Syd Barrett. He’d put on a lot of weight and shaved both his head and his eyebrows.
Now, while the album’s lyrics dealt with Barrett’s illness and absence, graphic designer Storm Thorgerson had a slightly different concept in mind for the album’s cover art. He saw the lyrics as representing a kind of unfulfilled presence, as though something was missing. He and photographer Aubrey Powell were inspired by the idea that people tend to hide the way they really feel about things for fear of “being burned,” as the saying goes, and that’s why we have the image of the two businessmen shaking hands, with one of them on fire. The image was always meant to have the man on fire to the right, but the wind was blowing the wrong way, endangering the stuntman, so they had to shoot it the other way and flip the image later on. On the back cover we have an empty suit selling Pink Floyd materials. The inner sleeve has a nude woman concealed by a veil, and a person diving into water without a splash. All of these last three have something essentially absent from them—the clothes on the woman, the missing splash, and the suit without a body. And when it was first released, the album was wrapped in an opaque sleeve, with only a sticker identifying it—giving us the absence of a cover in the record store. The sticker had the same image as the label on the album, with the two mechanical hands engaged in a handshake—another empty gesture.
“Wish You Were Here” was released as a single in September of 1975, and while it got a bunch of airplay on the album-oriented FM stations, it didn’t chart anywhere until a re-release in 2012, when it did manage to register on some European charts. There were two reasons for this resurgence: first, because it was played at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics that year, as performed by Ed Sheeran, Richard Jones from the band The Feeling, Mike Rutherford from Genesis and Pink Floyd’s own Nick Mason on drums. But there was also a re-release of the original album that year, so both versions were briefly on the charts at the same time. There’s a difference between the 1975 version and the 2012 version, though: in the original 1975 version, you have to listen very carefully to hear it, but violinist Stephane Grappelli can be heard briefly near the end of the song, while the wind is blowing. It’s so faint and so brief that Grappelli wasn’t credited on the album, supposedly because they didn’t want to insult him with such a small contribution. But in the 2012 version he’s more prominent in the mix. The only other notable cover, I think, comes from Wyclef Jean who included a soul-reggae version on his album titled The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II a Book, and Jean tosses in a few bonus lyrics giving Pink Floyd a shout-out:
And now it’s time to answer our trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you what David Bowie song has been covered more than any other. Let’s run through the Top Ten, based on collating done by The Sound of Vinyl:
At Number Ten we have Rebel, Rebel, with 22 covers.
in the Number Nine position is The Man Who Sold the World, which has also been covered 22 times. Though I guess you could say those two are tied for ninth.
At Number Eight is Let’s Dance, which has been covered 25 times.
Edging that one out with 26 covers is Starman, taking the Number Seven spot.
At Number Six is Under Pressure, which has been covered 31 times.
The Number Five song, with 35 covers, is This is Not America. That was a bit of a surprise for me.
Also a little bit of a surprise is this one: Ashes to Ashes, which holds the Number Four slot with 38 covers.
At Number Three is Life on Mars—another surprise for me—which has been covered 42 times.
Are you excited yet? We’re in the Top Two. And Number Two was my guess for Number One. It’s Space Oddity, which has been covered 55 times.
But the Number One Bowie song for covers, with 61, would be Heroes, which we talked about half a lifetime ago, in Episode Number 66. And if I was a betting man, I’d bet that a huge percentage of those covers are fairly recent, despite the song being over forty years old.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we check out another song without a chorus, by Blood, Sweat and Tears.
Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time.