I think I realised I was growing up into a big boy when I finally inched above my father’s speakers. They were one of my most immediate obstacles in life; strange that they are now among my best friends. The things they did in the early days though! Sometimes they screeched white noise at me as Dad played demo discs to check his new styluses and cartridges. “Right channel – meeeeeeeeeeep. Left channel – siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis”. Then there was that scary Gregorian chant which made me run out of the room with my hands over my ears. I wasn’t very tolerant of reverb as a young child, especially the sort that issues from Cistercian monasteries.
But once I grew enough to look them in the face, the speakers became good mates of mine. Dad was much more taciturn back then, but he spoke to me through his woofers and tweeters, and we shared many an evening of closed eyes and separate imaginings, feeling the waves being pushed around the room. The speakers, I began to learn, were part of a whole package, a ‘system’ as Dad called it (how quiet men love their systems). The big metal boxes with silver knobs and sliders were one big happy society of workers, all with different, complementary roles; and proudest of all was the Teac reel-to-reel, mounted in splendid isolation.
This machine held the utmost fascination for me as it loomed in the corner of the living room like some code-breaking relic from a wartime bunker. It made quite a clatter. It had heavy switches and buttons that clacked when you pressed them, and the tape itself whipped and swished as you wound it onto the big round heads. On this machine, all music had texture and tangibility: it required effort, even a wee bit of risk. Appropriately, Dad saved his open reel boxes for the big stuff – cosmic Bruckner symphonies, Wagner’s bleeding chunks, all the high Romantic, Germanic repertoire. And sandwiched between the symphonies and choral epics, Pink Floyd’s 1975 album Wish You Were Here.
There are many music fans who condemn the first half of the 1970s outright, and some of them have a point or two. Though I’m not so squeamish when it comes to progressive rock (no bearded keyboard player can be really), I’m as appalled by Emerson, Lake and Palmer as anyone else. By the reckoning of many, Wish You Were Here’s date alone is suspect, and I know all about 1976: the new broom of bog-brush hair that swept the record shop clean (though it left a slimy trail of Vaseline in its wake). Just look at the back cover of the Floyd album. Only five tracks, the first and final lasting about a quarter of an hour each – a punk’s nightmare. It unfolds at a snail’s pace, as cryptic and otherworldly as ‘Anarchy in the UK’ is gloriously obvious and wedded to the streets from whence it sprung. Yet this is its very rebellion. Pink Floyd may have had long hair and long songs, but in many ways they were more restrained than any of their contemporaries. The first inklings of ‘Shine on you crazy diamond’ (and they are inklings: little spots of sound indeterminately materialising on the running tape) are more Jean-Michel Jarre or Cluster than Yes or Genesis. Never forget that ‘On the run’ from Dark Side of the Moon predates Kraftwerk’s Autobahn.
‘Shine on you crazy diamond’ is possibly the longest sigh in popular music. There’s an unaccountable amount of air moving through it; Rick Wright’s synthesisers seem to offer their inner wires and circuits to the winds, while the jazzy sax towards the end of the first part is the sound of lungs filling up and puffing out. When ‘Shine on’ returns at the end of the album, it announces itself with a nip and a chill, the sound of actual, physical air blowing through the bass guitar and keyboards. It’s a song about insubstantiality. Band founder and friend Syd Barrett has gone AWOL, ‘blown on the steel breeze’. The world seems paper-thin without him, yet haunted by the beauty he left behind; he may well be ‘shining on’ but his skin is translucent. It’s an ode to a hologram.
More than any of the set-piece existential laments on The Dark Side of the Moon, then, ‘Shine on you crazy diamond’ hints strongly that life is, in best Shakespearian mode, an ‘insubstantial pageant’. Somewhat of a stretch to equate David Gilmour’s ennui with Prospero abjuring his magic, I know, though he does elegant tiredness better than many a vocalist. Nevertheless, the veins and arteries of life still peep through the milky surface, and it’s this friction between English restraint and gospel richness on both Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here that has always thrilled me. Think of ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’: that sublime sonic cliff-edge as the rather Anglican church-hall piano launches itself off the rocks and metamorphoses midair into a flying Hammond. In ‘Shine on’, David Gilmour may be struggling to understand why Syd is a prisoner, a piper, a painter, but the women harmonising in the background know that pure music is the only real palliative; it renders the answers irrelevant. I like to think these women are the ‘coloured girls’ of Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the wild side’, drafted in to lure Dave away from too much philosophising, to help him ‘shine on’ himself. The tension isn’t resolved, of course. It seldom is in Pink Floyd’s music, which is all suspensions and segues; but the fact that it is acknowledged so beautifully is a thing of wonder.
When I was seventeen, I imagined this might be the sort of music I would listen to in the poky lofts of student digs. There would be bare floorboards, faded rugs, half-opened bottles of wine; perhaps even the tang of hash caught in the moth-holes of frayed sweaters. Days would come and go, dust motes would idle through thin shafts of sunlight. Connections would be made, soulmates found, and my relationships would be conducted with that heady mix of English absentness and the sometime-acknowledged potential for occasional epiphanies and shudders of recognition. Barely one term into my college days, I found myself on two separate occasions listening to Wish You Were Here, in a half-reverent (half-drunken) state. Conversations came and went with ‘random precision’, and as I glanced over the murky, wet flowerbeds and damp Oxford honey-stone, a certain kind of England began to make sense to me. In ‘Breathe’, from The Dark Side of the Moon, Englishness is characterised by ‘quiet desperation’, but listening to ‘Shine on’ in the rooms of my new friends, it seemed to live more in the tacit acceptance of little pleasures in cloistered halls. Just as quickly, of course, somebody might interrupt with a knock at the door, or we might realise we’d missed first sitting at dinner and scuttle off in the rain to plates of nondescript meat and plain white rice. But Wish You Were Here became a way of sorting wheat from chaff. Guaranteed to virtually clear the room at a certain kind of party, it was a secret weapon, to keep the best of us in and the undiscerning out.
Syd Barrett apparently turned up out of the blue when Pink Floyd were recording their tribute to him in the studio. It’s almost as if he detected the change of air and donned his old pair of wings, finding they momentarily fitted him again. Ultimately, for me too, ‘Shine on you crazy diamond’ is a kind of coming back, a return. It might teleport me to the front room of 42 Ellesmere, awestruck by Dad’s home entertainment system, or to the indistinct fug of college evenings. A primal thing, perhaps; its woozy meanderings are the tranquillity of the foetus furling and unfurling in its amniotic fluid, a retreat to the safety of the womb. Sometimes it’s all you need. A corner; a silence; a suspension. For me, it’s a kind of faith, a respect paid to the god in the cones. In many ways, I’m a quiet man myself, you know: and I too love my systems.