Four notes from David Gilmour’s black Stratocaster (B flat, F, G, E) were what triggered the most melancholic and heartfelt record by Pink Floyd. Those four notes made something click in Roger Waters’ head that brought him to his friend and ex leader and founder of the band, Syd Barrett. His ghost, who had always been with them since his traumatic departure for mental deterioration, was there, as in a Victorian novel, he appeared in flesh and blood, not in the mind, until the end of the recording session, giving the proper climax to a unique record. ‘Wish You Were Here’ was an album about the absence of Barrett, in a way, it was also their swan song as a band.
It wasn’t an easy task after ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ a record that turned them into the most popular band in the world, and had sold millions of copies. As Gilmour pointed out, (Barrett’s friend who had replaced him in ‘68), they had fulfilled their teenage dreams, they had the full package of a rock star: money, women, popularity, but they weren’t happier for it. The band peaked over a wall and had to see if they were in it for the money, the fame, or the music itself. Waters in particular, felt alienated by the public, something that would later be reflected in The Wall. After Dark Side of the Moon, they shut themselves in a studio to come up with some ideas, and 3 songs bore fruit, Raving and Drooling, You Gotta Be Crazy, and Shine On You Crazy Diamond, but other troubles surfaced between the band members. It didn’t seem the time to go on tour, but they did anyway, and the result was a musical and critical disaster.
Having had their pride bruised, the band locked themselves in Studio 3 of Abbey Road in January 1975, but the mood had stayed the same for some time, no new ideas, and the hours passed without doing much more than drinking and playing darts. It wasn’t until Waters, inspired by Gilmour’s 4 notes, decided to dream up the specter of Barrett, that things began to roll. Shine On You Crazy Diamond became the centre piece of the record and Waters decided there was no room for the other 2 new songs (they wound up on Animals). Gilmour was against this, but Mason and Wright backed Waters and the album began to take shape. Disgusted with the music industry, which he blamed in part for Barrett’s demise, Waters composed two poison darts against the industry and its executives, Welcome to the Machine, and Have a Cigar, sung by Roy Harper, a friend of the band who was then recording at Abbey Road, after Waters wasn’t happy with his own interpretation of the song.
The cherry on top was another collaboration between Gilmour and Waters, the guitarist had just got himself a 12-string acoustic, and was toying with it when he came up with those 4 notes on the iconic riff of Wish You Were Here. Waters was delighted and figured he could do something with it. The result was the most emblematic of their songs and also a lamentation for various reasons, like the old camaraderie they once had, but also for the man who gave them fame, and a name, before he lost his mind due to diverse causes, Syd Barrett.
They put everything they had into this record, and were soaked in this melancholic spirit. Gilmour especially shines on the title song where he plays an impressive solo on his acoustic Martin D-35 and on Crazy Diamond, with solos that make reference to bluesmen, mainly B.B. King. Although the best reference was the solo by Wright on the last part when he plays the melody of See Emily Play by Barrett.
This story cannot end without mentioning the most meaningful moment, the visit from a ghost of the past. On June 5th, while they were mixing Shine On You Crazy Diamond (who knows if the 4 notes resonated), a strange man appeared in the cabin, he was bald, had shaved eyebrows, and a big belly. Nobody recognised him at first, but after a few long seconds, Gilmour told the band that they were standing before Syd Barrett. The skinny seducer responsible for their wonderful debut was looking straight at them with black holes for eyes that saw nothing but emptiness. Waters couldn’t hold back the tears. When they began to speak to him they realised again that he spoke from a parallel reality, Syd was there but for so long he hadn’t, the ghost turned real but the feeling of his absence would never leave them. They never saw him again, but his ghost will always be there with them.