Aug 062021

Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!

Wish You Were Here covers

Few bands have lost their star and their leader, the writer and singer of their songs, and only then rocketed to stratospheric levels of success. But that’s the main thrust of the Pink Floyd saga. Those two themes—of tragic loss and outsized stardom, absence and success—are at the heart of their 1975 Wish You Were Here album. The “You” in the title refers to Syd Barrett, who led the band until his disintegration in the late ’60s. At the same time, “You” refers to anyone you ever loved and lost, which is part of why the album and its title track are so enduring.

Wish You Were Here had the thankless task of following The Dark Side of the Moon, the success of which is hard to overstate. In its wake, Floyd guitarist David Gilmour called Dark Side “a benevolent noose hanging behind us.” Many a Floyd aficionado loves Wish You Were Here more than its predecessor (even some Pink Floyd members count it as their best), but among the general populace nothing eclipses Dark Side. Just glance at the landscape of cover versions: Dark Side has sprouted all manner of tributes and reinterpretations—some of which have taken on lives of their own, with anniversary reissues and the like—while Wish You Were Here remains practically virgin territory for other musicians to explore.

It’s easy to forget that Wish You Were Here, for all its turmoil and richness, consists of just four songs. One of those songs is divided into two tracks, creating a gap for the other three songs to fill, so that the album’s opening song is also its closer. Thematically, the album divides in two again, with two songs lamenting Barrett’s fate, and two songs concerning the dark side of the stardom they’d just achieved.

The album’s twin themes are entangled. First, it was Barrett’s breakdown that prompted the hiring of Gilmour to come in as guitarist and vocalist, and allowed Roger Waters to emerge as one of the great songwriters of his time. Had Barrett not lost it, in other words, we wouldn’t have Wish You Were Here (or Dark Side, or Animals, or The Wall, etc). For Pink Floyd to wish Barrett were here is to wish that none of their good fortune had occurred, that all this great music would be erased—and perhaps their burden of guilt along with it.

Second, there’s the irony that it was not the drama and sorrow surrounding Barrett’s fate that drove the band apart–it was Floyd’s unexpected success. The sudden wealth and fame, the four-star daydream, all took on nightmarish form, and pushed the four band members apart as a band, apart as friends. By their own account, their creative juices froze—at least at first. Gilmour describes the time immediately following Dark Side as one of “emptiness.” Waters insists the band was already done by the beginning of Wish You Were Here.

All the more impressive, then, that the group rallied from its shell-shock and funk to turn out four great songs on Wish You Were Here, each one of them a classic in the band’s catalog, and which as a collection add up to a cohesive concept album. Now let’s see how other artists have interpreted these four songs.

Viktor Krauss with Shawn Colvin–Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Pink Floyd cover)

This sprawling song–or is it a suite?–is for Syd Barrett. Divided into nine parts and two separate tracks, SoYCD takes up more than half the album with its 26-minute expanse. It’s Floyd’s third attempt at something this long: precursors were “Atom Heart Mother” (23:44) and “Echoes” (23:31).

Songs of epic length tend not to inspire cover versions, for obvious practical reasons. (Exceptions prove the rule, though: we looked into covers of “Echoes” and found some goodies). If the cover artist doesn’t want to devote half an album or concert set to the song, they need to condense and abbreviate. And so it is with the short but sweet take that bassist and composer Viktor Krauss released in 2006.

Krauss made his mark early on in other artist’s projects (he was in Lyle Lovett’s band for a stretch, and plays on every track of Bill Frisell’s landmark Nashville album). Despite his Americana pedigree, his own songs head into ambient territory, and are strong on cinematic atmosphere. Although Krauss has on occasion joined forces with his famous sister Alison, here his vocalist of choice is Shawn Colvin. (We included this track in our recent look at Colvin’s career.) In this arrangement, we get only the verses from Part IV (it’s the heart of the song, after all). Musically, the cut centers on Gilmour’s haunting four-note theme, and creates its mood efficiently, with minimal noodling around. Abridged too far? Maybe for some, but for others it works well when you don’t have 26 minutes to listen to the original, or when you simply want to hear the song anew.

BTW, you can find some good and lengthy EDM remixes of “SoYCD” out there. Pink Floyd from the outset tried not to be a band one could dance to, so EDM treatments are a nice offshoot.

Queensrÿche–Welcome to the Machine (Pink Floyd cover)

Members of Queensrÿche basically imprinted on Pink Floyd while coming of age in the late 1970s. The band even secured one of Floyd’s producers when it came time to record their first full-length in the ’80s; Floyd drummer Nick Mason came to the sessions to see what the excitement was all about. The band went onto considerable success, drama, and longevity, much like their role models.

“Welcome to the Machine” leads-off the band’s all-covers Take Cover album from 2007. The song is also the album’s one single, though the interpretation is not very singular: the band doesn’t add or subtract much from the original. (Well, they leave out the non-musical bits like the sounds of  motorized machinery.) They do bring a mean guitar to the forefront, where Floyd’s version was heavy on the synths. And Queensrÿche’s firepower does invigorate the song; the original feels machine-like and bloodless in its execution.

The Main Squeeze–Have A Cigar (Pink Floyd cover)

Pink Floyd became known for spectacular live shows in which the musicians had no freedom to improvise—the music was sync’d to video, to sound effects, to the deployment of inflated pigs and military aircraft fly-bys. They played with headphones on to hear click-tracks and other cues. Impressive stuff, but sadly these multi-media spectacles overshadowed the band’s other great strength: Pink Floyd knew how to jam.

When The Main Squeeze covers “Have a Cigar,” they get back to that raw and flowing element of Pink Floyd. The performance is less about click-track exactitude and more about organic feel and groove, and letting the guy with the hot hand get on with his badass soloing. (Watch the drummer picking up what the guitarist is laying down: if he wasn’t busy holding down the beat he’d be pumping his fists in the air and high-fiving strangers.) Kudos to the singer who brings such soulful touches of his own to the song, too, but the guy on guitar!

The Main Squeeze has posted a few more covers in this vein, and in other veins, and exciting material of their own. The band is just fantastic and ought to get an album out, that is really what I think. No, really.

Milk Carton Kids–Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd cover)

Before texts and photo-sharing apps, travelers sent postcards. They’d often write “Wish you were here,” an indication that the traveller had nothing to say to the people they didn’t invite to whatever destination they were writing from. Eventually the phrase was pre-printed on the postcard, to further minimize the bother, or the anxiety, of saying something authentic. (What will you say? It’s all right, we’ll tell you what to say.)

And yet “Wish You Were Here,” the song, finds surprising depth in the cliche. They are the last words on the album’s title track, and also the first words on the album, if you count the title of the album itself.

The phrase appears, the first time, after a litany of unreasonable questions. Once the song gets around to making a simple, earnest statement, the words come out ruptured and repetitive: “How I wish, how I wish you were here.” That small break expresses so much of the brokenness the songwriters felt; in that pause is where you yourself get choked up when you sing it in the car. But the song isn’t finished and the phrase will come in again one last time, where postcard convention expects it, at the end. This time it is different: the writers now resort to the exhausted and hollowed out cliche. “Wish you were here.” It’s not fully in earnest as it was a few seconds earlier. It’s not even a full sentence but a sentence fragment, missing the subject, the “I.” If the song is a postcard, it’s not only addressed to a missing person, it is written by one.

Not that Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan–the Milk Carton Kids–would buy any of these remarks. Their rendition has one job: honor the simple sorrow of the song with their finely-tuned musicality. They express the tenderness more than the tiredness or the weight of the original. David Gilmour’s voice conveys multiple shades of feeling at once; the folk duo focus on the one emotion and they do it full justice.

Remarkable guitar work, too. Gilmour plays the original’s intro with intentionally unmasterful playing (the conceit is that you are hearing some kid in their room playing along with the cheap radio). Pattengale’s playing is all about the polished and intricate picking–he owes way more to David Rawlings than David Gilmour, stylistically–choosing notes that challenge the ear even while delivering the pleasure. It’s gorgeous stuff. All of it.

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  5 Responses to “Full Albums: Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’”

Comments (5)
  1. Solid recommendation as usual but, re: Main Squeeze. They ought to get an album out other than the eight albums and assorted singles they already have out?

    • Bird Lives: good point, and I had that argument with myself while writing it. I mean I knew they had albums out already, etc, but decided the lyrics are all coming from a clueless person (“which one’s Pink”), so it was ok to appear clueless. It’s in keeping with the spirit of the song to be ill-informed, if you follow me. I do regret not linking to their website though. Slipped through the cracks.

  2. Disagree re “intentionally unmasterful”: every note is perfectly placed and his phrasing is exquisite. Sure, the notes are simple–but that’s not the point (never is with Gilmour as a guitarist).

    YOU play it, and see if it sounds as good as Gilmour’s playing. It won’t.

    • Jeff, disagree if you like, but you are in a disagreement with Gilmour himself. He says all that about his own playing on that particular song in this interview (at about the 7:50 mark):
      I do agree with your other point: my guitar playing isn’t as good as Gilmour’s.

  3. Stairways to Heaven. It is an album of cover bands, specifically Austrailian cover bands covering Stairway to heaven. Elvis, B52s, en vogue… Give it a listen

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