Forty years ago, Pink Floyd, near the peak of their career, released “Wish You Were” – a five-song album that simultaneously served as a tribute to former band member Syd Barrett and a critique on the corrupt heads of the music industry. Over time, it became one of the most poignant and influential progressive rock releases ever.
The album starts off with “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V)” – a five-part epic, which begins with a nearly four-minute wine glass harmonica and organ playing in a somber G minor chord, and ends with a baritone saxophone solo and several time signature changes. This transitions into the next song, “Welcome to the Machine,” a chillingly polyrhythmic, hypnotic and synthesized piece about the rampant greed present in the leaders of the music industry, and how they manipulate newer artists.
Following is the beginning of side two of the album: “Have a Cigar” offers a different kind of substance, with a churning guitar riff in D Pentatonic to begin a song with a more typical structure than the last two pieces. “Have a Cigar,” similar in lyrical substance to “Welcome to the Machine,” though not as bleak, ends with one of Gilmour’s most brilliant guitar solos, where he brings his guitar to life, deliberate as ever in his choice of notes to complement the song’s moving bassline and synthesizers.
Perhaps one of the most memorable moments of the album is the transition from one part of Gilmour’s solo to the ending of the song – where after a sweeping sound effect, the music is dropped to a quiet radio-level, with Gilmour’s guitar continuing to wail while dying against the fading sound.
The titular track, “Wish You Were Here,” is a ballad about Barrett, who suffered a mental breakdown during his short time with Pink Floyd. Though many may find the folk aspects of the track a bit trite in comparison to the rest of the album’s experimental aspects, it still remains a touching tribute many decades later. It includes legendary lines like when Gilmour, singing in this track, asks Barrett, “did they get you to trade/your heroes for ghosts/hot ashes for trees/hot air for a cool breeze?” Oh yeah, and there may be line about fishbowls or something. It was included in Rolling Stone’s top-500 songs of all time.
“Shine You Crazy Diamond (Parts VI-XI)” is similar to its first part, but a bit faster paced and grander in its finale. Its funkier and more major scale-focused progressions create a spectacular finish to an all-time great album. Though it may not have the same kind of mainstream recognition as 1973’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and 1979’s “The Wall,” “Wish You Were” has its own kind of charm as an immortal prog rock staple, one that retains its minimalist beauty 40 years later.