The Wright Stuff:An Alternative Critical Appreciation of Pink Floyd And Its Late Keyboardist
“a strange resonancekind of a feedback thing*Ping!* A complete accident. We said “That’s great!” and we used it as the start of the piece.” – Dave Gilmour describing Rick Wright’s inspiration for the beginning of “Echoes”
There have been many retrospectives, memorials, and tribute articles written about Richard Wright, Pink Floyd keyboardist, since his passing on September 15. And rightfully so, as the musician was a key component in the architect of acid rock, and improvisatory sculpted-noise’ throughout the late 1960s, and into the mid-70s before his inevitable artistic malaise. Tis a double-edged sword to be both a financially successful artist, and one no longer with the desire to push the creative envelope.
Hence, if you’re looking for yet another brief piece about Wright’s alleged twin towers of Floydian accomplishments_The Dark Side of the Moon’s_ “The Great Gig in the Sky,” and “Us and Them,” you’ve come to the wrong place. For one thing, I’m not interested in giving the reader a trite, linear account of Wright, or Floydian history. And for another, I think the beauty of the Floyd canonand their bootleg gold is out there in soundboard heaven, one just needs to be diligent, patient, and exploratory (sound familiar?)lies in the discovery of what the heck made them so special in the first place.
I first learned about Pink Floyd when a very pot-enhanced friend turned me onto Animals. Being a budding guitarist, he liked the edge of “Pigs (3 Different Ones),” and “Sheep”Gilmour’s guitar roared with a self-contained dirty, abrasive series of cantankerous riffs, and my friend was bought and sold. I_I_ was completely transfixed by “Dogs,” and the long instrumental passage in the middle of the lengthy near-20 minute song. I wanted to live in that weird, alien world, and I needed more of that sound. (A song lasting almost 20 minutes?! Who knew?)
My friend advised that I listen to Meddle, and oh, check out side 2. The second side of the album was, indeed, “Echoes,” which lasted a bit longer than 20 minutes, and I became convinced that Messrs. Waters, Gilmour, Wright, and Mason were unparalleled in their quest to make something transcendent out of absolutely nothing. Little did I know until years later that a) “Echoes” was compiled from a series of unrelated passages called “Return of the Son of Nothing,” and b) I would find my great musical love in a band that consistently found ways to create monumental improvised moments from a single, unrehearsed note. The initial note heralding the arrival of “Echoes” was played, and distorted to sound like a piano in an echo chamber, and it was played by Richard Wright, and it is my favorite part in my favorite Floyd piece.
Therefore, from my limited and humble perspective as a long-time music fan, and a writer of surreal little books of fiction, I noticed that one of the essential truths that has been missing from Wright’s assessment since his death is the fact that Pink Floyd was very much an anti-social, rebellious, dissonant troupe when they began life in 1965 as a weird blues band with a major twist. Their frontman would soon become a genius on a par with John Lennon and Brian Wilson at finding that eccentric pearl that produces a pop song worth remembering. Alas, unlike Lennon and Wilson, his oeuvre that stood the test of time consisted of one epic ground-breaking album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. In the end, also inevitably, his legacy is vastly overrated, and consumed with a misguided legend while the band’s sonic framework that they were slowly building is incredibly overlooked, or underrated by most musical historians weaned on Piper, instead of Meddle, or the underrated stretches of _Obscured by Clouds_a brilliant soundtrack, and template prefacing the 1973 DSOTM classicand Ummagumma, which contained a studio album of errant experimentalism, but also contained a live album documenting a fiercely energetic and original performance as they appeared to retire four eccentric, but rigorously mobile chestnuts from their acid rock heyday, and the residue of the Barrett era, which needed tocheck that_had_ to end for all involved.
Syd Barrett helped Richard Wright, Roger Waters, and Nick Mason find themselves as musicians. That’s certainly an odd, and not a very popular opinion, but the former architectural students (not Barrett), used that linear craft in their new musical field to hone songs that didn’t always make sensethe bootleg performances of “The Man,” and “The Journey” show a band attempting to rein in their avant-garde nature, while being as wonderfully bizarre, as always. (In between numbers, a man in a gorilla suit ran through the aisles. I guess this predated the giant flying pig, in a cheap sort of way.) The trio, plus new member Gilmour on guitar, vocals, and occasional music writing just didn’t have the foggiest idea of how to sculpt songs out of their wildly experimental work. Wright played Farfisa Duo, amongst other keyboards, which wasn’t exactly the sort of thing that would get you mentioned in the same breath as most keyboardists, let alone hep cat rock pianists looking to bend noodles. Wright, along with Dave Gilmour who would replace the fallen acid casualty once known as Syd Barrett, and soon to return to his initial namesake Roger Barrett, was more interested in finding the dark, melancholic, blurry edge of rock music. What helped was Mason didn’t drum like most rockers. He was almost a jazz drummer, while focusing more on eccentric percussion passages than keeping a steady rhythm.
Roger Waters was the Sleeping Giant of Pink Floyd, and when he reached his peak as a true conceptual auteur with his conceptual masterpiece, The Wall, the damage to his fragile relationship with his other band mates would eventually lead to Wright’s departure in Pink Floyd 2.0. Alas, Pink Floyd 3.0 would include Wright, but exclude Waters with Gilmour in command. The simple fact that legions of modern fans got to see the 3.0 version, instead of what many remember as 2.0The Real Deal (althoughoriginal acid heads will say that Barrett WAS Pink Floyd, and the others were along for the ride, but I digress, and disagree)negates the whole argument that a Floyd with Waters is no Floyd at all. In the end, Wright regained his artistic stature with the
help of Gilmour and Mason, and would continue making music for several years post-Waters meltdowneven crafting a solo concept album in 1996.
Richard (or, as I recall back in high school “Rick Wright,” as no one would have ever called him “Richard,” just as most people never uttered “David Gilmour.” He was “Dave Gilmour,” and Roger Waters ran Pink Floyd with Nick Mason on drums, percussion, and occasional dry wit for the ages) Wright should be remembered for many thingsnot least of which all of his pathos-riddled contributions to Piper, A Saucerful of Secrets, Atom Heart Mother, Meddle, The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were and Animals. He should also be remembered as a component in a great machine that in its early days was not afraid to alienate its audience by creating eccentric pieces of music that weren’t always going to help anyone within a hundred miles of finding out the answers of life. Wright helped deconceptualize the mysteries of life so that one questioned existence, and I’m not exactly sure that is such a bad thing. The Floyd could create odd goosebumps when listening to all of that early space rock music in the dark in one’s basement, or parent’s living room, or the bedroom with the lava lamp collecting cobwebs, and the brain freaked out, but it was Wright who would always be upfront in the mix with his gorgeous organ imagery drifting towards the song’s coda, pulling away from the lunatic Barrett- and later Gilmour-led guitar napalm attacks once the sonic brush was cleared.
I suppose if Gilmour was the Voice of many of Waters’ greatest songs, and Mason was responsible for pounding out a weird sub-continental beat, and Waters was attacking his bass, and writing scores of timeless lyrics filled with deep societal problems, and eliciting a strange lifelong bond with his bemused drummer, it was Rick Wright who would always be present in the background of the tunehaunted and haunting, melodic and anti-pop, hymn-like and occult-bent, lifting the piece into an area which was chilling yet profound. That odd dual ability to both repel and attract the listener was a hallmark of Wright’s music. I could demand many passages to listen to in one’s studio and live quest when investigating the gold of Wright’s work with Pink Floyd, but that would be a bit toohow does one saymore Waters than Wright. Tune in. Tune out. Explore. Enjoy.
_- Randy Ray stores his Pink Floyd bootlegs on his external hard drive, and his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com