Saturday, January 7, 2012
Music Review: Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here SACD (Limited Edition)
The term SACD is short for Super Audio Compact Disc. I realize that people often wonder whether such audiophile products are worth the additional expense, or are simply a marketing ploy. After listening to the new SACD edition of Pink Floyd’s classic Wish You Were Here, I can say that without a doubt, there is very noticeable improvement over the sound of my original “regular” copy of the disc. It is really quite remarkable, even on my thoroughly average-priced equipment.
To quickly lay out the basics of what the SACD has to off, I will quote from the Amazon.com site’s explanation of the format: “The SACD layer of hybrid SACDs offers much higher fidelity than regular compact discs, containing up to four times the musical information. Hybrid SACDs are designed for CD-quality playback on conventional systems, including home and car stereos, portable CD players, computer CD- and DVD-ROM drives, and DVD players.”
Those are obviously the type of officially-sanctioned words that nobody uses in actual conversation. “Is SACD really worth the extra money?” is the significant question. Based on both the sound quality, and the exquisite packaging it is presented in is a resounding “Yes.” In my opinion, the APO Company, who have licensed the album for this SACD release - have done an outstanding job.
When it comes to superstar bands, few are bigger than Pink Floyd. Both Dark Side of The Moon and The Wall continue to sell in incredible numbers. Between those two blockbusters came the relatively lesser-known Wish You Were Here and Animals. Both of those albums sold quite well also, but there is a reason Pink Floyd is sometimes referred to as “the biggest cult band in the world.” I would argue that for both the subject matter, and the music itself, Wish You Were Here is the ultimate Pink Floyd “cult“ artifact.
With a band of Floyd’s stature, their history is pretty well-known. By 1975, they were a very different group than the one they began as in 1967. They formed in 1965 around the incredibly charismatic Syd Barrett (1946-2006), and released their debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn in 1967. Whether due to Barrett’s prodigious LSD intake, or latent mental illness, (most likely a combination of the two), he broke down, and was replaced by David Gilmour in 1968. The specter of their founding “lost genius” haunted Pink Floyd for the rest of their days. In fact, much of The Dark Side of the Moon dealt with madness.
Wish You Were Here confronts “the subject of Syd” straight on. The nine-part “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” opens and closes the album, and accounts for over two-thirds of its running time. The “Crazy Diamond” is Syd Barrett, and the lyrics are heart-breaking;
“Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun. Shine on you crazy diamond. Now there’s a look in your eyes, like black holes in the skies. Shine on you crazy diamond.”
The music evokes both a sense of melancholy and virtuosity. David Gilmour’s first guitar solo, at around the 7:50 mark during the first part, is magnificent. It expresses the sadness the members feel at having reached such heights without their original visionary - better than the words themselves. The majority of “Shine On” is musical, there are but three stanzas in which Roger Waters expresses his thoughts on his lost friend. Guest appearances on Floyd albums were rare, but saxophonist Dick Parry was asked to add his sax to the closing portion of “Shine On (Part 5)”. He had previously appeared on the Dark Side tracks “Money,“ and “Us And Them.“
Parry’s sax leads us out of the internal madness of Syd Barrett and into the lunacy of the “real” world in “Welcome To the Machine.” This is another amazing Pink Floyd track, from the crystal-clear mechanized sounds that open the song up, to Gilmour’s strummed acoustic guitar, to the synthesized rushes that carry us inexorably along. It again references Barrett, although a bit more obliquely this time;
“You dreamed of a big star, he played a mean guitar. He always at in the Steak Bar, he loved to drive in his Jaguar.”
With the success of Dark Side of the Moon, the members of Pink Floyd had certainly reached the level of Rock Stars. The phoniness of it all is the subject of the next cut, “Have A Cigar.” A year later, snarling punk-rockers would point to this song as Exhibit A in their diatribes against “whining, spoilt rock stars.”
Fair enough, but “Have A Cigar” is a scathing indictment of the corporate music world. The best Pink Floyd “in-joke” is contained in the line “Oh by the way, which one’s Pink?” The little-known Roy Harper was probably the ultimate “musician’s musician” in England in the seventies. Led Zeppelin paid specific tribute to him on their third album, with the song “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper.” Pink Floyd went even further. For the first time in their career, they brought in an outside vocalist to sing one of their songs. It is not David Gilmour or Roger Waters singing “Have A Cigar,” it is Roy Harper.
The plaintive title track is next. While it could be construed as the description of a disintegrating marriage with lines such as “We’re just two lost souls, swimming in a fish bowl, year after year,” my perception is that it goes much deeper. It seems unlikely that the words “So, so you think you can tell heaven from hell, blue skies from pain,” as being directed at anyone other than Syd Barrett. The catch in the voice during the line “How I wish, how I wish you were here,” confirms this impression for me.
Parts 1-5 of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” open the record, and run 13:38. The 12:29 of Parts 6-9 close Wish You Were Here out, and bring us back to where it all began. But not really. There is a completely different energy to this portion of the piece than to that of the first. Just as a side note, for whatever mysterious reason - Syd Barrett actually showed up at the studio while the group were recording the track. It was the first time they had seen him in eight years. Spooky, huh?
For a classic example of record company stupidity, check out their attempt to put all of “Shine On” together as one long song. On the 2001 two-CD compilation Echoes: The Best of Pink Floyd, the piece was edited down to a single 17:32 track, titled “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-VII).“
I would argue that even more so than Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here is a fully realized suite with an internal logic that makes very little sense when taken apart. Sure, FM radio (and later Classic Rock radio) picked out “Welcome To The Machine,” “Have A Cigar,” and “Wish You Were Here” to play as stand-alone tracks. And those songs actually work just fine that way. But “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” was not designed as a stand-alone song. It really cannot be heard properly when taken out of the context it was originally presented in.
As previously mentioned, the SACD sound quality is light-years beyond the previously available versions. But the packaging of this set is worthy of mention as well. The Hipgnosis studio designed the original artwork for Wish You Were Here, and the images they came up with were brilliant. To me, the loss of the graphics which used to accompany albums is the biggest drawback of the digital age.
For the Wish You Were Here SACD release, this loss has been mitigated by some very creative thinking on the part of the people at APO. The oversized package contains six postcard sized reproductions of the famous artwork which was featured on the LP. There is also an eight-page booklet, with more pictures, the lyrics, and the credits. It is a very nice work-around to the inherent problem of reproducing the original intent and impact of the album as a whole in this smaller scale.
Wish You Were Here defines the “most popular cult band in the world” because out of the over two hundred million records the group has sold over the course of their career, very few really know of the real-life Greek tragedy Wish You Were Here represents. This is one of the deepest, saddest records I have ever heard. And every note of it rings absolutely true.
The limited-edition Wish You Were Here SACD will be available this Tuesday, and is an excellent example of a record company actually “getting it right” for a change. If you are fortunate enough to even have a local record store in your area anymore, they might even bring in a copy. If not, Harmonia Mundi is the U.S. distributor, and are worth checking out for this, and many other exemplary items.
Article first published as Music Review: Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here SACD (Limited Edition) on Blogcritics.