Rock History 101: Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”

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    Rock stars just don’t seem to have the same mystique or larger than life personalities that they used to. Musicians are still an interesting bunch, but the wild stories of such icons as Jim Morrison, Sid Vicious, and Mick Jagger seem to be a thing of the past. The times we live in, undoubtedly, play a major role in that. Censorship was a bigger issue in the past, allowing for a greater sense of rebellion. The sixties and seventies were also decades of change and new beginnings; not only in music, but society as whole. If Jim Morrison broke onto the music scene in 2006, would he be the rock god that he was in the sixties? To a degree; he was an extremely charismatic presence, but it probably wouldn’t be like it was then. Everything’s been done. There have been few real legends to emerge over the last twenty years, and the last true rock icon was Kurt Cobain in the early nineties.

    Some of Rock n’ Roll’s most interesting stories are also the most tragic, and tragedy often breeds legends. Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd was one of the more colourful characters of the late sixties, but teetered between genius and madness until his disappearance from the public eye in the early seventies. The enigmatic Floyd founder was the band’s main creative force in the early days, but a combination of schizophrenia and massive LSD use led to his dismissal after the group’s second album, A Saucerful of Secrets, in 1968. His erratic behaviour included strumming one note over and over onstage, detuning his guitar onstage, and staring into space during recording sessions. The band had hoped to keep him on as a songwriter, but his arrangements had become to complex and they scrapped the idea. Although his time in Pink Floyd was fairly brief, his effect on the band would continue in their song writing on albums such as Dark Side of the Moon and most specifically, Wish You Were Here. He was gone, but his presence hung over the band like a phantom watching from the balcony.

    Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun.
    Shine on you crazy diamond.
    Now there’s a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky.
    Shine on you crazy diamond.
    You were caught on the crossfire of childhood and stardom,
    blown on the steel breeze.
    Come on you target for faraway laughter,
    come on you stranger, you legend, you martyr, and shine!
    You reached for the secret too soon, you cried for the moon.
    Shine on you crazy diamond.
    Threatened by shadows at night, and exposed in the light.
    Shine on you crazy diamond.
    Well you wore out your welcome with random precision,
    rode on the steel breeze.
    Come on you raver, you seer of visions,
    come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, and shine!

    Syd Barrett’s story is one of talent, tragedy, and madness, eloquently immortalized in the band’s homage to their fallen member, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” from the aforementioned 1975 album, Wish You Were Here. 1975 was an interesting year in music. The old guard was still going strong, but there were signs that a change was on the horizon. Kiss released its breakthrough Alive album, the Sex Pistols played their first concert, and the Ramones released their debut single; and although progressive rock was slowly being challenged by shorter, more energetic songs, Pink Floyd responded with one of its strongest efforts.

    The band began playing “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” onstage about a year before it was recorded, when it was just called, “Shine On.” The song was originally intended to be an uninterrupted opus, but was eventually split into the two parts that bookend the album. The recording of Wish You Were Here was an incredibly exhausting experience for the band, and Roger Waters pushed his voice so hard for “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” that an outside vocalist, Roy Harper, had to be brought in for the recording of “Have A Cigar.”

    One of the most interesting stories to emerge from the recording sessions was the reappearance of Barrett at the studio, whom during a bizarre coincidence, walked in during the recording of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” The band hadn’t seen him in years and barely recognized the new look of their former mate. Barrett never wore his insanity well, and had become fat and bald (as seen above), jumping around the studio while brushing his teeth. The sight was enough to bring Roger Waters to tears. The members of Pink Floyd have said that Wish You Were Here was a difficult album to make, but after all these years, more than one has also claimed it as their favourite.

    Both David Gilmour and Roger Waters continue to play “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” onstage, although surprisingly, neither performed it at the Syd Barrett tribute concert, after his death at the age of 60 in 2006. Either way, the song is a heartfelt reminder of a wasted talent and a timeless tribute to one of rock’s most elusive icons.