Wednesday, 10 September 2008

News, Views and Music Issue 4A: Rick Wright Tribute Special

Pink Floyd News/ Rick Wright Tribute:

I really hoped I wouldn’t have to do this until the website was aeons into its web-life, but here we are with the site not properly up and running and already one of the leading lights responsible for inspiring it has gone. The sad and unexpected death of Rick Wright, co-founder, keyboardist ,vocalist and songwriter with Pink Floyd, comes as a great shock to us all because it was only two years ago Rick seemed in the best of health and enjoying a higher profile than he had had in years, stepping into the limelight for the first time in over a decade by becoming an integral part of fellow Floyd David Gilmour’s touring band and making more TV/stage/music appearances than any time since the hey-deys of the Floyd in the early 70s. On the one hand I’m suprised at the amount of fuss currently being shown by Rick’s death in national newspapers and television news broadcasts, given that Pink Floyd have performed a grand total of once in the past 14 years and Rick was the band member with the lowest profile of all, despite serving long enough with the group to play on 13 out of their 14 albums. But on the other hand, I’m actually not that surprised at all, as to those who have always followed the Floyd, Rick’s role within the band was a special one, despite the louder more boisterous voices within the group. First line-up leading light Syd Barrett might have taken the band into whimsical hob-goblin land, Roger Waters might have infused the band with its political power and more recently David Gilmour brought the band a largely unique hybrid of noisy rock and pastoral folk. But it was Rick’s spooky melancholy that oozed from the Floyd at all times in its troubled history, with his easily identifiable shimmering keyboard licks and occasional compositions giving the band many of the greatest highlights of their back catalogue. Indeed, how such a talented musician as Rick ever got into the position of playing second-fiddle to a fellow band member who actually joined the band several recordings after he did is all part of Pink Floyd’s confusing story, one full of ridiculous twists and turns even compared to the other artists on this list.

Born Richard William Wright on July 28th 1943 in Middlesex, Rick is one of the few musicians on this list to show  an interest in music since he could walk. Rick learnt guitar, trumpet and trombone during his schooling (you can hear him play the latter for the only time on record during the Floyd’s ’Biding My Time’, an originally unreleased oddity on the ’Relics’ compilation of 1973), but it is the piano which Rick came to be most well known for. Classical training and a life-long love of jazz later gave the Floyd several extra avenues for developing their sound and Rick seemed at one point to be primed for life as a musician in a more—shall we say—respected field of music. Somehow (’by mistake’ according to Rick’s later account) the musician wound up taking a u-turn and started studying architecture at Regent Street Polytechnic where he met fellow Floyds Roger Waters and Nick Mason. After realizing their common interests and—according to Nick Mason’s later autobiog Inside Out—losing all interest in anything architecture had to offer) the three men plus various local friends and associates appearing locally under a wide assortment of ludicrous names (most famously the ’architectural abdabs’). The band truly became serious about their pursuit of music when band friend and fellow Cambridge local Syd Barrett joined the group. At this point in time, signed to EMI and recording in Abbey Road studios next door to the Beatles, the Floyd were everyone’s tip for the ’new thing’ and—for the best of part of 1967—the band delivered. You can read about classic first album Piper At The Gates Of Dawn at number 13 on this list; suffice to say, it established the band as one of the leading lights of the day with a truly unique hodge-podge of whimsical fairy lights and inky black darkness. Understandably, lead writer lead singer and lead guitarist Syd Barrett gained most of the plaudits for it then and now. But what many people missed at the time—and what many post-‘Dark Side’ fans forget - is that the album was a shared vision, with Rick’s sensitive keyboard parts and sympathetic lead vocals enhancing many of Syd’s more out-there works, bridging the gap between Syd’s growing adventurousness and the sort of thing that wouldn’t automatically give nervous record company men apoplexy. Break-through single ’See Emily Play’ is a case in point: it’s Syd’s boisterous vocal and eccentric guitar-attacking that hits you first, but analyse the track and it’s Rick’s contribution that shines almost as greatly—the organ holding it together; the sprightly speeded-up keyboard solo that allows the song to float away on a cloud; the harmony vocals that surrounds Syd’s often shrill voice with wonderful cushioning layers; all of these elements are Rick’s.

The Floyd story should have taken on a very different path at this point, but a combination of Syd’s fear of stardom, bad experiences with drugs and boredom with repeating himself meant that the state of Pink Floyd’s leader put them in a very precarious position indeed. Thinking the unthinkable, they drafted in band and especially Barrett friend David Gilmour to cover for him and promptly broke away from their former leader, despite the fact that there had only been one non-Barrett recorded under the groups’ name up until that point. Rick was the obvious replace for Barrett, having handled several sterling vocals on the band’s earliest recordings and his own first batch of songs—Paintbox and Remember A Day especially —were promising material. But then came bassist Roger Waters, stepping up to the mark with the power and determination that Barrett had once had and - luckily for the band - out of nowhere, Waters arrived with the vision and the songs to match. In any other group, Rick would have been in the perfect position to become band leader and household name—but all the Floyds (except Roger, perhaps) seem to have been reluctant to have ever stepped into the limelight and Rick seemed to falter more and more over his position with his band in the years ahead. And yet, even while being sidelined, Rick continued to shine when given even half a chance.  Many of the highlights of the next batch of Floyd records are down to Rick; ’Remember A Day’ is a classic song, Barrett-like in its mixture of childlike call towards a more innocent past and the dark and foreboding future that seems to hang heavy over the narrator; the sweet brass-filled pop of ‘Summer ‘68’ which comes complete with one of the catchiest riffs in the Floyd’s back catalogue; the delightful organ-led ballad ‘Burning Bridges’; the typically muted and reluctant cry for help ’Stay’ with its memorable hook-line and chorus; even the much-maligned singles ’Paintbox’ and ’It Would Be So Nice’ are lovely songs, half full of gloriously mournful and heartfelt cynicism and half full of delightful tongue-in-cheekness, as if Rick is laughing at himself for even trying to write the ‘serious’ songs that Roger Waters was now making his own.

Everything changed when ’Dark Side Of The Moon’ came out in 1973, turning the Floyds from a much-loved and fairly famous underground band into the most talked about group on the planet. Arguably one of the reasons ’Moon’ sold so well compared to past Floyd records is that at last, after several false starts post Barrett’s departure, the Floyd sound united as a group, with all four members on top form and pitching ideas in. Along with the short side-project committed to tape just three months before Dark Side sessions started—the film soundtrack ’Obscured By Clouds’, where Rick enjoyed two co-writes and several group credits - Rick was enjoying a second spurt of creativity. This was perhaps, in part, because Roger Waters had finally come up with a ‘grand’ concept that Rick could relate to. ‘Dark Side’ appeals to as many listeners as it does because it studies in turn the fears and pressures that each individual in the modern world is meant to have fought against at some point. Rick always sounded slightly uncomfortable with his own heavier material before this point, something which is understandable given the icy looks the other Floyds were well known for giving each other when presenting new material. However, its noticeable that now Rick was being actively encouraged to work in a serious project he came up with perhaps two of the most serious songs on the album, ’Us and Them’ and ’Great Gig In The Sky’, as well as several three-way and four-way writing credits. ‘Us and Them’ is a track that most reflects the Floyd sound for many people, with its luscious spaces between its long-drawn out notes and lovely lilting piano riff, a sound enhanced by Roger Waters’ perfectly fitting lyrics about isolation, separation and division. Recycling a piece of music recently submitted to but rejected from the Antonioni film ‘Zabriskie Point’, this piece of music somehow manages to be comfortingly warm and chillingly cold all at the same time and is testament to Rick’s hidden talent within the band. ’Great Gig’ got even more spines tingling and will now be very hard for all us fans to hear, as it’s one long cathartic wail (provided by session singer Clare Torry) and spoken word reflections about death combined to make one of the most talked about pieces on the record, ending the first side of the album in haunting style. Ironically, this piece of music was dubbed ’religion’ in its early stages before Rick worked out exactly what he wanted to do with it—fittingly, this instrumental is the most spiritual piece of Floyd music around.

Rick’s piano and keyboard work was to the fore in both this album and follow-up ’Wish You Were Here’ (1975), a record often cited as Rick’s favourite record with the band. Despite only possessing five tracks (and one of them is a ’continuation’ of an earlier track) and despite being recorded in between some of the biggest arguments to have been contained within a recording studio, the Floyd inter-band skills were never better. Rick’s solo icy keyboard parts at the beginning of the first and end of the second parts of ’Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, a track written in tribute to former partner Syd Barrett, are the perfect scene-setter and goodbye to the record respectively. Offering an aural warmth unusual for synthesizers of the period, Rick’s sound on the record is the epitome of reluctant detachment, cleverly reflecting the themes of isolation and not-quite-being-there that the record title and cover pictures depicted with just enough warmth to make you feel that the narrator is detached against his better judgement. Thereafter Rick got silenced within the group once more, as Roger Waters continued to strengthen his claim to ‘his’ group and David Gilmour, as ever, did his best to prove Roger wrong. Rick survived the making of ’Animals’ (1977) by the skin of his teeth, but by the recording of The Wall in 1979/80 (see review no 76 for more) he began to clash too many times with character opposite Roger Waters over just about everything—his ideas, his share of Roger’s commitment and vision and his lack of songs—and found himself pushed out of the band he had co-founded, given an ultimatum to leave quietly or Roger would scrap the band’s entire 80-minute magnum opus at a time when the band were on the verge of being bankrupt.

Perhaps if Rick had saved back some songs from his forgotten first solo album ’Wet Dream’ (1978) then Roger might have been kinder about his perceived lack of input. Floyd solo albums to date are a mixed bag, with each member in turn sorely lacking the strength or musicianship that the others bring when they work together, but outside perhaps of Roger’s ‘Amused To Death’, this album works well on its own merits and is one of the best Floyd solos as a whole. Most commentators, when they notice this obscure album at all, call it a timid affair which seems deliberately recorded to avoid catching the ear or looking one in the eye. Actually, delve further and it’s a very brave record; Rick’s slight vocals seem deliberately lowly mixed so that you can’t hear the vocals too clearly—but given Rick’s state of mind in 1978 (fractured band; fractured marriage) the lyrics are impressively courageous and revealing (at one stage he even sings a ‘goodbye lyric’ written by his troubled wife, something even Roger Waters would think twice about delivering). Rick’s languid piano accompanying is also rarely better than during the real ’songs’ on this record and takes on quite a different form on the ‘instrumentals’; driving rockers accompanied by lilting saxophones that give Booker T and the MGs a run for their money.  Certainly compared to its close cousin ’David Gilmour’, another solo record released in the same month, it sounds very co-ordinated and, occasionally, surprisingly edgy given its reputation as a bit of a non-starter.

While back in Pink Floyd Roger continued to bicker and Dave began to disagree with him just for the hell of it, Rick broke as far away from the Floyd’s traditional sound as he possibly could with the album ‘Identity’ (1984), released in collaboration with comparative youngster Dave Harris under the moniker ‘Zee’. This album too died a death and is one of the hardest Floyd-related records to track down, with the general census being that while this album was commendably modern for its day, its use of 1980s synthesizers and impressively early but depressingly primitive digital sampling means it hasn’t fared quite as well as ‘Wet Dream’. After this, Rick went into semi-retirement on board a yacht he bought with his last Floyd earnings and kept until his death before unexpectedly being called back into the Pink Floyd family once again. Roger had finally delivered to his colleagues what he felt was the biggest trump card he could possibly play, declaring the band ‘over’ as an entity and explaining to the press and anyone who would listen that as the last few band records were effectively ‘his’ solo records, the group’s fans should follow him from then on. Dave Gilmour followed a career-long trend by disagreeing with Roger in the most public way and announced that a ’new’ Floyd would be formed, welcoming Rick back into the fold—although so dodgy was the faith of the band’s management and record company and so destructive had the band’s past management and company difficulties been that Rick only re-joined the band on a wage, rather than as a fully paid-up member. His confidence reportedly still in tatters after Roger’s best efforts to attack it, Rick - like fellow Floyd Nick Mason - reportedly had only a minimal amount of input into Floyd comeback record ’A Momentary Lapse Of reason’ (1987). Yet even if the keyboard parts weren’t all played by Rick like we were lead to believe, its interesting that, given the instruction to produce a ‘Pink Floyd-like record’, the hodge-podge of band members, friends and session musos go out of their way on this record to re-create Rick’s characteristic keyboard ‘sound’, rather than Waters’ political rants or Gilmour’s more velvety vocals/power guitar riffs which might have been a more obvious way to go.

Follow-up record Division Bell (1994) finally gave fans something closer to what they wanted to hear—the band no longer tried to replace Roger by shouting like him but worked to the strengths provided by the three of them instead. The record may well be Gilmour’s finest hour—most of the songs are his and his expressive guitar playing and vocals are rarely better. Yet it was Rick’s sudden returning confidence that gave the record much of its ’soul’; the sound is dominated by his atmospheric keyboards (most definitely played by Rick this time around) and Rick’s contemporary-sounding update of his old sound hit the spot for much of the record. Best of all, Rick’s supporting vocals and rare single lead vocal were impressive indeed, turning back the clock to 27 years before by giving Rick back his favourite ’sympathetic foil/second-in-command’ role. Indeed, Rick’s co-write ‘Wearing The Inside Out’ was heralded by virtually everybody (including me) as the record’s clear highlight, with Gilmour and Wright trading contrasting verses just like the days of old, while Rick’s dazed but courageous vocal did much to bring out the subtleties in the song’s lyrics. The Floyd cognoscenti, knowing how long it took the band to put new records out even in their heyday, thought that that would be it for a while—and then Rick surprised us all by releasing his third solo effort ’Broken China’ in 1996. Well received by most critics, but surprisingly poor-selling even when tagged onto the tail end of the ‘Division Bell’ juggernaut, Broken China follows on from ’Wearing The Inside Out’ by dampening much of the Floyd’s traditional ’heavy’ sound in favour of a light ’new age’ ambience. Like Rick’s other solo albums, ’China’ doesn’t actually have that many ’songs’ on it (much of it is made up of instrumentals), but the overall theme of depression and isolation is a very Floydian one and closing song ’Break Through’ has become something of a fan favourite, despite this record’s low profile.     

All went quiet again on the Wright front until Rick suddenly emerged, unheralded, behind David Gilmour’s left shoulder when the guitar legend started touring again in 2005 in support of his new solo album ‘On An Island’. In truth, ‘Island’ has Rick’s colourful fingerprints all over it and is less of a solo record than ‘Momentary Reason’ had been. Indeed, any other artist would have demanded co-billing for their hard labour and pulling power, but Rick seemed at his happiest as a fully paid up member of Gilmour’s crew, without the hassles and problems of running the show, and his excellent turns in the spotlight on ’Arnold Layne’ ’Comfortably Numb’ ‘Wearing The Inside Out’ and his own ’Breakthrough’ on the two live David Gilmour DVD sets currently out are among both concert’s highlights (there’s a third one, ‘Live At Gdansk’, out any day now). Certainly, Rick seemed more comfortable working with Gilmour alone than when all three Floyds joined again with Roger Waters for Live 8 in 2005. Typically Floyd, Gilmour nonchalantly stole all the camera angles because that’s who the director obviously thought was the star, despite the best efforts of Roger Waters to politely try and steal the show and direct the camera back to him. Little noticed for most of the concert, Rick stuck his head down and let Floyd’s two boisterous buddies get on with their job posing for the cameras while he—perhaps more than any other member the band’s most dedicated musician— ignored the cameras and got on with his job of making music. Rick might not be the name or the face people think of when they picture the Floyd, but for those of us who know the band’s music well, it is Rick’s sound that we conjure up in our ears when we think of their music. The sonar ‘pings’ on Echoes, the killer keyboard runs on ‘Any Colour You Like’ and those glorious harmonies on ‘Arnold Layne’ and ‘See Emily Play’ are among the most treasured moments in the band’ back catalogue and they are all down to Rick’s distinctive style and talents. The great gig in the sky seems to get louder and busier every year now, with more 60s and 70s legends passing there all the time. This week it gained one of its greatest stars, even though Rick himself would never ever see it that way. Shine on, the Floyd’s other crazy diamond. 

Top 5 Rick Wright moments:

5) ‘Against The Odds’ (Rick Wright/ Wet Dream, 1978):

Twenty years before Lulu had a hit with the same sentiments, Rick braved his feelings to the world and declared ‘I don’t want to fight no more’; exactly the sort of statement that was getting the assertive Roger Waters so worked up during the ’Animals’ sessions the year before this song came out. But Rick is right here and obviously has these very thoughts much on his mind—this is his first released lyric on a record since 1969 after all and they’re genuinely moving. The arrangement is clever too; the verses to this song are isolation personified, with only a sparse piano lick a la ’Us and Them’ for company. But the choruses come in from nowhere to give this mournful song a happy twist, suddenly modulating itself to the major key and suggesting that, despite all the odds, everything might be OK. Suddenly everything on the track is in perfect harmony and this understated melancholic song ultimately delivers far more emotion than half an hour of Roger Waters screaming (although, to be fair, that sound is surprisingly moving as well).

4) ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ (Pink Floyd/ Dark Side Of The Moon, 1973):

Talking of moving, this ode to death sounded like nothing else that had ever been released back in 1973—and it still doesn’t sound like anything ever released to this day. Rick’s tight-fitting gospelly piano chords invoke a truly sublime response from session singer Clare Torry, who improvised her way around the piece as if hypnotized by Rick’s ear-catching melancholic hookline. Both Clare’s vocal and the spoken-word additions (like the rest of ’Dark Side’, this track is littered with extracts from interviews with band friends and associates; in this case responding to the question ’are you frightened of dying?’) are superlative, but its Rick’s thoughtful piano structure that gives this track it’s intoxicating mood.


3) ‘Remember A Day’ (Pink Floyd/ A Saucerful Of Secrets, 1968):

More Syd Barrett-like than anything Syd ever actually wrote, this is a classic early Floyd song, recorded during the ‘Piper’ sessions but left unreleased till the follow-up album. The twinkling piano riff, fluffy treated vocals and gorgeously cheery lyrics about summer times from childhood are set against a truly mournful middle-eight, a space age vocal sound effects battle between Syd and Rick and some of the most chilling sound effects ever placed on record, all making up a track that is one of the Floyd’s most unfairly neglected gems.


2) ‘Us And Them’ (Pink Floyd/ Dark Side Of The Moon, 1973):

When film director Antonioni asked the Floyd to come up with some music for his film ‘Zabriskie Point’, the group jumped at the change to highlight one of the most shocking and memorable scenes in the film—the one where a load of rioting students get unsparingly beaten up by the police. Most groups would have done the obvious—pretended they were Metallica re-incarnated hanging from their feet and screaming whilst dangling from a rollercoaster. Not so the Floyd. Rick went quite the other way and brought to the table a piece of music so sparse and mournful that it’s sense of fragility and the preciousness of each note somehow made even more sense when set against the mindless violence in the film. Rejected and then recycled for ‘Dark Side’, Roger Waters put his smoldering differences with Rick aside to come up with the perfect accompanying set of lyrics, dealing with isolation and mankind’s need to put his fellow man into ‘categories’, juxtaposing verses of icy placidness with a froth of fiery indignation on the chorus. A typically brilliant Floyd lesson in contrasts.

1) ‘Wearing The Inside Out’ (Pink Floyd/ Division Bell, 1994):

The most unexpected Floyd treat of all. When the group announced they were releasing a new album in 1994, we never dared hope that they’d reach heights like this. Rick’s first lead vocal for the band since ‘Dark Side’ 21 years before, this complex song about courage mixed in atmospheric keyboards, a mournful saxophone riff, a classy David Gilmour guitar solo and some sterling Floydian lyrics about fighting back after years of withdrawal from band friend Anthony Moore. This wasn’t Rick’s statement about coming back to life then (Rick gets a credit for the music, not the lyrics), but it just reads like it should be and hearing Rick’s vulnerable but battling tonsils getting round the words is very moving. Not many Pink Floyd songs make you cry (they weren’t that kind of band), but for some reason this one always does. Magic stuff.  


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