FT : Great Gig In The Sky
Sunday, September 21, 2008
In Pink Floyd’s early days, Richard Wright was ribbed by his band mates for appearing to play the same keyboard motif in each song. “Rick’s Turkish Delight”, they called it, as he added another layer of swirling eastern chords to the scribbling guitars and spacey vocals of their 1967 debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Wright could also be critical of his contributions. The songs he wrote for A Saucerful of Secrets in 1968 he later judged “embarrassing”. “Sysyphus”, an avant-garde piano suite composed the following year, was “pretentious”. Yet while his modesty was an attractive quality in a band that became increasingly grandiose over time, it obscures the crucial role he played in Pink Floyd’s turbulent history – one that comes to a close with Wright’s death on Monday aged 65 after suffering cancer.
Pink Floyd’s journey from underground psychedelic rockers to one of the world’s biggest bands began at an architectural college in London where Wright enrolled as a student in 1962, alongside the band’s drummer Nick Mason and bassist Roger Waters. Mason remembered Wright as shy and introverted when they met. Born in 1943, the self-taught keyboardist came from a middle-class family in north London: his father was chief biochemist at Unigate Dairies. Unusually for aspiring rock musicians of the time, he was privately educated. Early versions of the band went under dubious names such as The Architectural Abdabs until, joined by Syd Barrett in 1965, they settled on The Pink Floyd. Backed by a hallucinogenic light show and playing songs mixing Lewis Carroll-style surrealism with wild experimental rock, they emerged as leaders of London’s psychedelic scene…..In the first phase of Pink Floyd’s career, Wright was widely seen as the band’s second creative force after Barrett. The pair shared vocals on the opening song of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and his Farsifal organ, for all the teasing about its limited range, was a vital motor behind the band’s pioneering space-rock. Wright was closer to Barrett than the rest of the band, but he sided with Waters and Mason in ejecting Pink Floyd’s chief songwriter when Barrett’s mental instability became unmanageable. Heavy LSD use had made him dysfunctional, playing a single guitar note at shows and staring blankly into space as his colleagues desperately tried to hide the cracks. Few expected the group to last without their star. Yet they found a replacement guitarist, David Gilmour, and continued recording. Wright, Gilmour and Waters took over the songwriting duties and gradually evolved the monumental progressive rock sound that made them superstars in the 1970s. Their breakthrough came with Dark Side of the Moon in 1973, a concept album that parlayed the interstellar imagery of their early work into an ambitious commentary on life, death, greed and insanity. Wright co-wrote several songs, and composed the gospel-influenced meditation on mortality, “The Great Gig in the Sky”. Dark Side of the Moon is one of the best-selling albums ever, lasting an extraordinary 14 years in the US Billboard 200 charts. Wright believed it was the first time that he, Waters and Gilmour meshed as songwriters, refracting Pink Floyd’s cosmic tradition through a conceptual framework, like the celebrated prism of light on the album’s cover. Its follow-up, Wish You Were Here , in 1975 was Wright’s favourite album. He co-wrote its core statement “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”, an epic tribute to the stricken Barrett that underlined the centrality of Wright’s restrained, atmospheric keyboards to the band’s soaring grandeur. It was the last time he exerted a meaningful influence. Power struggles between the iron-willed Waters and the rest of the group began to poison relationships. Wright was too reserved to stomach the fray. In 1978, he made an unassuming solo album and withdrew to pursue the typical extracurricular activities of the millionaire rock star: yachting in the Caribbean was a favourite pastime. Waters sacked him from Pink Floyd during the making of The Wall in 1979. He was re-employed as a session musician for the band, but the blow to his confidence was grave. In 1982, his 18-year marriage broke up (he married twice more and is survived by three children). An attempt to launch a new group in 1984 failed. “There’s other things in life apart from music,” he reflected.
The last acts of the Pink Floyd story were ignoble, though a triumphant coda awaited. Gilmour, victorious in the band’s fratricidal in-fighting, expelled Waters and invited Wright back for the 1987 album A Momentary Lapse of Reason. A final LP came in 1994, but by then the band was a lacklustre shadow of its former self. A final twist came when the quartet reformed to play their first gig together in 24 years at Live 8 in Hyde Park in 2005. Their set of four songs was the highlight of the day. Enmities were suspended as the classic Floyd sound spilt out into the London night. Hopes revived for a full-scale reunion, but it turns out to have been their valediction. With Wright’s death, both he and the band he founded have headed irrevocably to the “Great Gig in the Sky”.