The PopMatters Music Blog
19 September 2008
The Great Gig In The Sky: An Appreciation of Rick Wright
Back when Pink Floyd was the first band in space, they remained mysterious, and cool, by being invisible. For being one of the biggest rock groups in the world all through the ‘70s, the average fan would not have recognized any of them in the local pub. With few exceptions, their faces weren’t on the album covers and—as the resulting records prove—they put the music first. In their prime, the records were truly group efforts, and no one cared too much about taking credit. This, of course, changed once Roger Waters decided he was Pink. Not coincidentally, the more Waters set the controls for the heart of his ego, the more the albums started sounding like…Roger Waters albums. By the time an increasingly megalomaniacal Waters turned his attention to The Final Cut, the original band’s presciently titled swan song, he had decreed Rick Wright’s keyboard abilities no longer necessary for his vision. It was an unfortunate power play: the album suffered for Wright’s absence, and the solo albums Waters subsequently made only served to prove how desperately he needed his band mates (and, to be fair, vice versa).
It was not always thus. Indeed, from the band’s first album, Rick Wright’s piano and organ were integral parts of the Pink Floyd sound. Once founder (as well as leader and primary songwriter) Syd Barrett left the group, it was Wright who temporarily assumed vocal duties until David Gilmour joined the fold. In those early, transitional albums (everything from A Saucerful of Secrets to Meddle can be seen as transition records, all leading to what is arguably the greatest rock album ever made, Dark Side of the Moon) made between 1968 and 1972, the dominant sound of the group was created by Wright and Gilmour. The interplay of guitar and keyboards infuses practically every song, including the sidelong epics “Atom Heart Mother Suite” and “Echoes”. The employment of keyboards moved ever closer to the forefront as progressive rock dominated the early ‘70s, and Wright should get his fair share of credit for legitimizing—and popularizing—this evolution.
To properly appreciate Wright’s versatility, it makes sense to consider Pink Floyd’s most overlooked and misunderstood album. The soundtrack to the film More is often, and egregiously, dismissed as an inconsequential stepping stone to more significant work. The individual songs hold up remarkably well, but they also remain illustrative of the ways in which Gilmour and Wright (as musicians, as songwriters) would hone and perfect that signature post-psychedelic Pink Floyd sound. The uninitiated should be pleasantly surprised by the delights contained within: the expansive dreamscape of Wright’s organ solo at the end of “Cirrus Minor”, the almost jazzy action of “Up the Khyber”, and the languidly mesmerizing “Quicksilver”. The album’s centerpiece, appropriately titled “Main Theme”, represents early Floyd perfection, and epitomizes the surreal soundscapes Gilmour and Wright were capable of composing as early as ’69. It is really a remarkable achievement, managing to sound urgent and laid back at the same time—a uniquely wonderful effect Floyd would pull off with uncanny consistency going forward. Many of the ingredients found on More, particularly the blues-influenced guitar and atmospheric keyboards, would resurface, albeit in a steadily refined fashion. The instrumental tracks from this album are blueprints for the slowed down and fleshed out masterpieces waiting down the road.
About those masterpieces. People understandably remember the words to the songs from Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and Animals, but Rick Wright is the not-so-secret weapon dominating the sound and feel of these albums. As ever, Gilmour’s guitar is the engine soaring into infinity, but always, it’s Wright framing the contours—the boundless blue sky behind all the clouds. Consider the sublime (no other word will do) “Breathe In the Air”: Gilmour’s slide guitar (and vocals) dominate the action, but Wright balances it throughout with his ethereal and understated control. Of course, he wrote the music for “The Great Gig in the Sky” and “Us and Them”, two of the group’s best loved, and enduring tunes. The crescendo of the album’s coda “Eclipse” would be unimaginable without his pulsating organ notes.
Perhaps his penultimate contribution is to Floyd’s somber meditation on loss, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. Is there a more melancholy, but beautiful opening to any song in all of rock music? Considering the subject matter (the drug-induced disintegration of former band leader and childhood friend Syd Barrett), it is at once stunning and poignant. And speaking of the aforementioned “Pink Floyd sound”, that’s all you get for the first four minutes of the song: Wright and Gilmour. To be certain, this is Waters’ finest hour as well (those, again, are his words and, on this song, his voice) but let there be no mistake about the sound and feeling, and who was responsible for its creation.
Wright’s role was diminished, but still integral to the final great Floyd album, Animals (yes, I’m of the opinion that The Wall is merely a very good, but not great album—certainly not in the class of the holy trinity that preceded it). After that, if it’s easy to claim that Waters moved himself more to the forefront with increasingly middling results, it also is the truth. Of course, Wright and the others had the last, lucrative laugh, as they soldiered on, sans Waters, in the newer age version of the band. They filled arenas while their embittered ex-mate nursed his indignity, arguably at the expense of his art. No matter. What the band did, from 1967 to 1977, is indelible, and undeniable. In all those years, the refreshingly faceless band focused on the only thing that matters—the music. Fittingly, the quietest member of this most unassuming supergroup possessed the calm contentment of knowing how impossible it all would have been without him.