It was June 1975, and Pink Floyd were drawing towards the end of a difficult recording process. They had achieved incredible success with their previous album The Dark Side of the Moon, but the consequences of this success had been laid bare in the studio. The band were now no longer a tight knit unit. Their fame and exhausting work loads had gradually driven a wedge between them.
Their engineer, Brian Humphries, was making some final adjustments to a mix when an overweight and sickly-looking man walked into the Abbey Road studios.
As he lurked in the background, complete with his shaven head, Humphries played ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’.
“I saw this guy sitting at the back of the studio. But I didn’t recognise him,” keyboardist Richard Wright later remembered in an interview.
“I said, ‘Who’s that guy behind you?’ ‘That’s Syd Barrett‘. And I just cracked up. I couldn’t believe it. He had shaven all his hair off… I mean, his eyebrows, everything.”
“Roger [Waters] was in tears, we both were. It was very shocking… to walk in while we’re actually doing that particular track. I don’t know – coincidence, karma, fate, who knows? But it was very, very, very powerful.”
Despite leaving the band seven years earlier, Barrett’s influence was still keenly felt within Pink Floyd. On their ninth studio album there was perhaps no greater evidence of this.
The record begins with the legendary lines, “Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun. Shine on you crazy diamond.”
It was a direct reference to Barrett. The nostalgia filled lyrics revelling back on a time when he wasn’t viewed as a rock and roll tragedy. His mental health had suffered severely just as the band had started to emerge from the London underground. Yet for Waters the image of his friend as a bright and engaging presence, before their rise, was still greatly remembered.
It wasn’t the only reference to the former front man that was made on the record though. In fact, his presence was laced throughout the album as Waters looked back fondly on him in his lyrics. However, they also dipped into Barrett’s mental breakdown too in the face of his increasing propensity for drug use.
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“You reached for the secret too soon, you cried for the moon.” Hinted at his much publicised love of LSD and the disastrous effects it had on him. While it was proceeded by the heartbreaking assertion that, “Now there’s a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky.”
Eight years earlier, David Gilmour wasn’t a part of Pink Floyd. The band were in the process of recording their sophomore album A Saucerful of Secrets, but by this time Barrett was starting to show worrying signs of decline.
During a live show in America he purposely detuned his guitar and he became increasingly unreliable when it came time to record. His final contribution to the band, before he was kicked out, was in the form of ‘Jugband Blues’.
“It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here. And I’m much obliged to you for making it clear, that I’m not here,” Barrett sang solemnly.
After his subsequent departure, Gilmour was drafted in and helped the band complete the album. But it would be seven years later before Waters responded lyrically to this song.
‘Wish You Were Here’ declared how Waters felt about the circumstances that surrounded both his band and his friend as Pink Floyd turned into a global hit.
“I can’t sing it without thinking of Syd,” Gilmour conceded in an interview.
After a bitter separation in 1985, Waters left the band he had co-founded. He finally reunited with them though in 2005 at London’s Live 8 festival.
“It’s actually highly emotional, standing up here with these guys after all these years,” Waters told the audience. “We’re doing this for everyone who’s not here… and particularly, of course, for Syd.” The band then began to play ‘Wish You Were Here’.
Meanwhile, elsewhere on the album Waters was lyrically preoccupied with the worsening feeling of alienation as his bank account swelled and his fame skyrocketed to new levels.
Despite all of his achievements he was left feeling vulnerable. The record label was at his heels for a new, equally as successful, album. While the constant grind of touring had begun to weigh him down.
In ‘Have A Cigar’ Waters addresses these grievances as he takes aim at the so-called industry “fat cats” who preyed on his artistic creativity. While ‘Welcome To The Machine’ covers similar ground as it offers a stark response to what those sort of ideals have on the creation of music.
The album was released on September 12th 1975 and has since gone on to sell over 12 million copies. It is regularly featured in greatest albums of all-time countdowns. While it has been cited by Wright and Gilmour as the favourite album of their careers.
As for Barrett, that June 5th return to the studio would be the final time he saw the band he had helped create. It would also be the final time he stepped into a recording studio during his lifetime.
He retreated back into his seclusion after, having released just two spellbinding solo albums since his departure from Pink Floyd. Yet on the band’s ninth record his memory loomed large as themes of loss, alienation and the nagging sense of a lack of fulfilment combined to create a classic.