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Understanding Pink Floyd's Classic Album 'Wish You Were Here'

Inner sleeve art for Pink Floyd's 'Wish You Were Here'. © Storm Thorgerson

Pink Floyd’s 1975 album Wish You Were Here is an undisputed rock classic. With the cover—two businessmen shaking hands, one of them on fire—designed by the legendary Hipgnosis (founded by Aubrey Powell and Storm Thorgersonit explored themes around fame, absence, greed, ambition, the music business, and featured a homage to departed founding member Syd Barrett and the demons that plagued him.

It topped the record charts on its release in both the UK and US and was recorded at the famous Abbey Road Studios across various recording sessions. One of which even included a visit from Barrett himself who turned up unannounced and unrecognisable. (In the recent V&A exhibition Their Mortal Remains a polaroid of the incident is on show along with a quote from Nick Mason stating, “David [Gilmour] asked me if I knew who he was… even then I couldn’t place him, and had to be told. It was Syd.”

Syd Barret photographed at his flat in Earls Court, 1969. © Mick Rock

And it’s this record, imbued with near mythical status, that YouTube channel Polyphonic tackles in its latest video. Titled ‘Understanding Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here it follows on from the channels previous exploration of musicians like the Red Hot Chili Peppers band member Flea’s bass playing and its video on why Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham is one of the greatest drummers ever.

As the video notes, Wish You Were Here was the followup album to Dark Side of the Moon, a huge success that gave the band international fame. Initially for WYWH they recorded sounds using household objects, making songs that were then discarded. So instead, due to the recognition that came with Dark Side of the Moon, WYWH became a more melancholic and reflective record, looking back at their success and what they’d lost along the way.

“[The result] was one part lament for their fallen comrade Syd Barrett,” notes the video. “And one part vitriolic takedown of the industry that they blame for their strife.”

The band in Abbey Road Studios during recording of 'Wish You Were Here'. © Jill Furmanovsky

Along with looking at Barrett’s backstory, the video also looks at how the song that became his dedication “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” bookends the album. This idea to split it into two parts and build it out from a four note guitar theme was Roger Waters’. He thought it made the music sound like the lingering ghost of Barrett.

Elsewhere the video essay notes how in “Welcome to the Machine” the ominous, imposing music and mechanical sounds reflect the cold, inhuman aspect of the music biz. This takedown of the industry is also felt in “Have a Cigar” where the song is written from the perspective of a music executive who cynically woes the band with money and success and asks the now famous lyric ""Oh, by the way, which one's Pink?".

This critique is also reflected in the imagery by Hipgnosis and the famous cover, which saw them set fire to a stuntman no less than 15 times to get the perfect shot, with assistants on standby with fire extinguishers.

Cover art for the live single of 'Wish You Were Here'. Storm Thorgerson recalled "What you see is what you get - 'Two lost souls, swimming in a fish bowl'. A dour couple, their faces trapped in a world of their own, confined within the fish bowls, intense and distorted in their separateness. No retouching here, no clever tricks, no pretence. Like the words of the song." © Storm Thorgerson

“Everything had sort of come our way, and you had to reassess what you were in it for thereafter.” the video quotes Gilmour as saying about the album. “And it was a pretty confusing and sort of empty time for a while.”

You can check out the fascinating video below. And head to Polyphonic’s YouTube channel for more video essays.

Rockarchive is delighted to be able to offer many iconic Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett images as limited edition photographic prints which you can buy here and here.

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