RIP Richard Wright of Pink Floyd

I could, I suppose, have written on this earlier, but somehow that just didn’t seem right. I needed to have some music to go with it, and while I could have just gone and scrounged something up on YouTube or the like, it seemed more appropriate to write about this at home, sitting at the same desk I did when I first heard Pink Floyd in any detail back in 1987 or so.

So with the haunted-house shuffle weirdness of “Remember a Day” playing now, as deft a garage/psych number from the late sixties as any of the more famous ones out there — and Wright’s piano work providing both an elegance and an isolated feeling not often heard on such pieces, his soft vocals emerging from one speaker and then another, some reflections.

Earlier this year Norman Smith, the EMI studio legend who signed and produced Pink Floyd on their earliest efforts during the Syd Barrett years, passed on, and my blog post on him contains my memories on when and where I first got into Pink Floyd, so I won’t repeat myself there. I suppose I didn’t have any expectation that I would be writing about the passing of anyone else involved with that band any time soon, much less one of its members, but then again, after the passing of Barrett himself the other year, it shouldn’t be so surprising, this news that we heard today.

My immediate thought lay in the unfairness of it. Death is of course unfair, but that’s well trodden ground. But you listen to some of these other Wright-led songs from Pink Floyd — “Paintbox” and its gentle but not hamhanded jollity, the swooping grandeur of “It Would Be So Nice,” guitars not so much played as somehow inflating and deflating, like massive walls of electronic accordions, again his gentle vocals shifting from music-hall-tinged singalongs somewhere between the Kinks, the Beach Boys and Queen at their most vaudeville to aspirational reach — and you think to yourself, “Wait, maybe this was what XTC was really trying to be all along in the end. Definitely seems like this is what Captain Sensible was trying for on his songs with the Damned.” There’s an unfairness in this not immediately being apparent to others, or even yourself.

But that’s also the unfairness conditioned by the luxury of caring about this kind of stuff in the first place. The real unfairness is the kind you can relate to on a gut level — the one where someone who had been through it all (whatever it might be…a project, a job, a mission, a friendship) and had put up with a lot of stuff knowing that there were many better things one could do for oneself, but feeling that something good was still possible, found themselves completely shut out in the end. By the time of Roger Waters’ complete transformation into an obsessed psychodramatic musical architect, Wright must have known he was surplus to requirements — it’s no surprise he left after The Wall, no longer content to be a whipping boy and dumping ground. And when he returned, he found himself in the curious position of being central but to the side — Pink Floyd’s revival as a going concern was a bit like how Kiss reconstituted itself, with the division between the rights-holders and the returning veterans. I still remember wondering why it was that he wasn’t featured as a core bandmember in the liner notes for A Momentary Lapse of Reason, why he was filmed separately for MTV promo bits for the tour the following year. Even without Waters around it seemed like there was still something in the air.

Eventually he was fully back in the fold with The Division Bell — the only Pink Floyd album I’ve never actually heard, strangely (or not so strangely?) enough — performed with everyone, even Waters, at Live 8, helping steal the show just on the basis of being part of one of the few bands who had figured out how to perform at arena-scaled levels, then standing in for Barrett at the memorial service for the dead singer on “Arnold Layne.” And then, quietly, undemonstratively, telling few aside from his family and those closest to him, he faced a situation that was in fact entirely the opposite from one detailed in one part of the song “Dogs” from Animals — entirely the opposite aside from the final three words:

You gotta keep one eye looking over your shoulder.
You know it’s going to get harder, and harder, and harder as you
get older.
And in the end you’ll pack up and fly down south,
Hide your head in the sand,
Just another sad old man,
All alone and dying of cancer.

The comparison may seem jarring — again, I emphasize this wasn’t Wright’s general situation by any means, this lyrical portrait of realization of solitary fear and pointless flight, that there’s no escaping the end, no matter how much of a badass you think you are in life. If anything these would be the words that Waters may want to etch on his own mirror instead.

Yet thinking about Pink Floyd today I realize how sharply — and sweetly — they grappled with the Big Issues, the kind of things that readily captivate the kind of self-regarding mindset that late adolescence often allows one to indulge in if one is fortunate enough to have that space and time to do so (and by no means do all do). At their best, when Pink Floyd sang about death, loss and the end, it’s no surprise to me that when they let David Gilmour or Wright come to the fore instead of Waters’ strident, hectoring singing that they were able to shape his words into a more elegant presentation, sonically and musically.

A diversion, just a paragraph — it is interesting from so much distance now to see how the canon of ‘classic rock’ as such was welded together from so many disparate sources, smushed into a freeze-dried endless experience that presupposed something like it was always permanent and never-changing, though it was an endless jury-rig. As a result hearing how Pink Floyd both was and wasn’t something ‘of its time’ is enlightening. One friend recently compared them to Steely Dan, and the conceptual and sonic leap to connect the two makes more sense than simply bunching them together on an imagined FM playlist that doesn’t end. Hearing their impact in time reappearing in darker and darker shadows — Radiohead and Tool kept leaping to my mind today and it’s no coincidence that I’m a huge fan of both, though I don’t think I would have ever consciously identified my high school Floyd fandom as the root source — makes more sense to me than simply thinking of ‘rock blocks’ and waiting for the DJ to spin “Stairway to Heaven” again.

To return to Wright in particular:

It’s no surprise that Wright’s most immediate fame comes from The Dark Side of the Moon, I suppose. The band’s fame lies with it, the kind of acknowledgment of the past and dead weight that leaves Radiohead dealing with OK Computer still, to draw that comparison more clearly. If The Piper At the Gates of Dawn allows Wright more frenetic explosions and swirls, then by the time of The Dark Side he had not only changed his approach somewhat but readily embraced further developments in technology to expand his palette — perhaps most obviously literalized on the sweeping progression of “Any Colour You Like,” the instrumental song that initially feels like an interruption of the ‘concept’ but which in the end feels like a necessary freeing from it in terms of sonic lushness. The other examples are almost too easy to name — his r’n’b keyboards on “Money,” the hushed piano shaping the wordless gospel celebration of “The Great Gig in the Sky,” and perhaps most affectingly “Us and Them,” the kind of song that takes one of the most cliched sentiments in the universe — ‘war is hell’ — and, thanks to both Waters and Wright perfectly meshing on writing the song and Wright’s harmonizing with Gilmour on the chorus, the whole is contemplative, sad but not sorrowful, a great sigh of regret at it all — more Vonnegut than Joseph Heller, say — makes it all greater than the sum of its parts, and Wright’s full-on church organ introduction and backing, along with his piano, especially on the gorgeous instrumental break (during the ‘short sharp shock’ snippet), is just that much more crucial.

Then there’s Wish You Were Here, the follow-up to that album, and Wright’s own pinnacle of exploratory synth work as detailed and beautiful sonic universe creation, his contributions to “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” especially the extended drone and soft melody that begins the song and by extension the entire album, suggestive of lost moonscapes and mournful signals from who knows where. By this point in his career, as well as those many other musicians around the world who had pushed electronics and electronic keyboards from being strictly the province of obscure experimentalists to popular music vernacular, he was not working on the frontiers, but he was working with a now huge audience that was set to grow even further, and as Pashmina said on the ILM thread in honor of Wright today, “Intro to “Shine on you crazy diamond” was one of the primary things that got me into synthesisers & electronic music. For that alone, he was a star to me.” That intro has had an interesting life — just a few years later it served as a great setup in the third episode of the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio series. Where a wide variety of electronic music was featured throughout the series, the only time any of it was specifically mentioned was when Arthur Dent said in astonishment, referring to Marvin, “Do you realize that that robot can hum like Pink Floyd?” It fit in so perfectly, and so unselfconsciously, somehow, as a classic example of ‘space’ music that it could almost be heard as nothing else, almost as if it was written for the show and not as an initial fanfare for an extended tribute to a damaged friend.

Yet the album I wanted to hear most when I heard the news — the one that’s perhaps inevitably become a snob’s choice, I realize, and yet it’s almost certainly the one I’ve heard the most over time — is Meddle, the last non-soundtrack album the group did before Dark Side, and which doesn’t sound so much as the necessary prologue for that later record as, contextually, a new peak, a point of resolution for a band just four years on from its debut that had gone through a series of radical changes. I’d almost argue it was the first concentrated and stable album since Piper, actually — the many releases between the two albums almost seemed like a collection of experiments, no bad thing at all but almost best heard as such, with many pinnacles. On Meddle, there were no symphonic collaborators, no splitting into various solo projects, no working out of the last throes of Barrett’s time with the group, no films to follow — just them and what they wanted to do on their own.

It would be wrong to call this Wright’s album, it certainly doesn’t start with him. But it is breathtaking to hear how his shuddering, nervous keyboards punctuate the opening “One of These Days,” suddenly adding a fearsome twitch to Waters’ doomy-as-hell bass crawl. And throughout the first five songs, the original first side of the vinyl release, you get to hear Wright try out all sorts of things, from the warm, rich tones he adds to the lovely “Fearless,” further punctuated on the chorus by a gentle piano the Band would be proud of, to something arguably even more Band-like, the lazy blues keyboards on “Seamus,” a bluesy near goof that gets away with it (and it too has its afterlife — Tom Stoppard used it as the theme music for his film of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, dogs and all).

Then there’s the sixth and final song, a full side long effort in the vinyl days, “Echoes” — and more than anything else in the end, this may be Wright’s tour de force, his song above all. As heard — and if you ever catch Pink Floyd at Pompeii, and you should sometime, as seen — Wright is the key to the start and the end, the opening note that signals the beginning — an insistent sound, slowly repeated, stark and solitary before the rest of the band slowly joins in, Wright shifting to a rich synth glaze, a demi-drone rooted in the band’s psychedelic merriment but now taking on an air both enveloping and almost threatening, soothing to silence. In the middle of the song, the band drops away again for the most part and it’s nothing but free-form wails and textures, a jettisoning of ‘rock’ expectations in favor of something queasy and strange, pretty and poisonous. Then after a truly awe-inspiring return to the full band — when Gilmour lets loose with the guitar part you can hear a couple of generations of power metal groups and post-punk fiends suddenly spark to life simultaneously — it all ends on an endless rise of swelling sound, that opening note returning again and then disappearing deep into what almost sounds like the distorted, unnerving choral vocals from 2001 in miniature.

There’s a great photo with Meddle, at least with the CD version I currently have, featuring the band in a posed shot somewhere on sand dunes in a vertical arrangement. Gilmour, at his most moodily monklike with his flowing hair and all-black clothes, stands in the background, Nick Mason wryly peeps over the crouching Waters, the latter squinting into the sun. Sitting comfortably on the ground, wearing jeans and a buttoned black shirt, a gentle smile on his face, Wright looks up and slightly away, squinting a bit as well, a massive flare of light coming from, presumably, a small mirror just next to his feet.

At least at that one moment in time, Wright seemed to be the one most fully enjoying himself and what he was able to be doing. A good way to remember him. RIP.

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