Set The Controls For The Heart Of Pink Floyd
Read a 1997 interview from the late Richard Wright
Richard Wright, Pink Floyd’s co-founding keyboardist, died 12 years ago on Sept. 15, 1997, in London from lung cancer.
Upon these anniversaries, we sometimes like to look back at once was, so let me take you back to when I spoke with Wright as he was promoting his just-released second solo album, Broken China.
But first some quick backstory: Pink Floyd was a band once dominated by Syd Barrett and then, after Barrett’s departure (forced or coaxed due to madness, drugs or a combo), it became a group co-led by Barrett’s friend and replacement, guitarist David Gilmour, and bassist Roger Waters. Gilmour’s guitar tone and style were ever-distinctive and central to the Floyd sound, but it was Waters, as the primary songwriter, who shaped the band’s post-Barrett vision the most.
Wright had been through some radical ups and downs. He’d been effectively fired in 1979 during Pink Floyd’s The Wall by Waters.
“Awful,” said Wright, of the period. “I wasn’t suffering from clinical depression, but I was depressed. Roger’s ego was getting bigger and bigger. He said he wanted me out because I hadn’t produced any material: ‘If he doesn’t leave, I’m going to withdraw The Wall and make it a solo project.’ Dave and Nick [Mason, the drummer] were very scared too. It was a nightmare for all us.”
Nevertheless, Wright played on The Wall tour as, essentially, a contract worker. He did not appear on the final Pink Floyd album with Waters, The Final Cut. Waters finally blew up and exited Floyd in 1985. Wright rejoined Floyd in concert in 1987 for the Momentary Lapse of Reason tour and contributed to The Division Bell album in 1994.
In 1997, he said, he remained a member in good standing: “I don’t hold any grudges.”
I wondered if there was a Pink Floyd as of 1997. “Pink Floyd is not finished,” he said. “I’m sure next year we’ll be getting together again, working on the new album. I’m sure of that. I’ve heard rumors that Dave is getting itchy . . .”
Well, next year was naught but eventually … the final Floyd album, The Endless River, came out in 2014, six years after Wright’s death. Gilmour, drummer Nick Mason and Wright all played on it – so it was a proper Floyd album in the post-Waters universe. Wright wrote three of the tracks and co-wrote eight. Mason, in 2014, told FACT magazine, that the album was, in some ways, a tribute to Wright: “I think this record is a good way of recognizing a lot of what he does and how his playing was at the heart of the Pink Floyd sound. Listening back to the sessions, it really brought home to me what a special player he was.”
But in 1994, Pink Floyd — this behemoth of a stadium band – was wrapping up their 1994 tour, promoting their Division Bell album, looking forward to making financial investments and a nice long hibernation. Yet Wright had a fire in his belly. He was raring to go. To go solo.
“Invariably, as you know,” said Wright, “When we finish a tour there seems to be nothing heard of us for a couple of years, maybe more, sometimes three years before an album is actually being done again.”
In 1978, he released Wet Dream, a minor gem. This time, Wright’s initial plan was to do an instrumental album. “I hadn’t any idea of a concept, if you like, for the album,” he said, “but I had a lot of music inside me that I wanted to express outside the context of the Floyd.” Also, he added, “I’ve often said I’m not that comfortable with my voice, for many reasons. One, I didn’t like the tone of it and, two, Dave Gilmour, being the lead singer, that was his role. I was very dubious about singing on this album.”
But the idea of an instrumental album fell by the wayside when Wright was steamrolled with a topic that hit very close to home: clinical depression: His girlfriend (who became his wife), an American named Millie, suffered from it.
“I was very much involved,” Wright said, “trying to help as much as possible. It was, of course, a very frightening and very emotional time, to witness this happening. When it came time to do the record, luckily, there was a subject I could try and express my feelings about.” Wright caught himself on the word “luckily” — no, he did not mean it that way. It’s just that he had a subject that matched the melancholic character of the music.
“A lot of the things I write would be melancholic,” Wright said. “And melancholic is an emotion that is certainly about sadness, but it’s also about peace as well at other times. The Pink Floyd, largely due to Roger’s lyric input, has been known to deal with the dark side of life, The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, particularly. But as a person, I’m not preoccupied with it. Everyone says, ‘Are you carrying on the Pink Floyd tradition of writing about dark subjects?’ And, actually, it’s the first time in my life that something did happen to me which was dark, which was sad, which was frightening and therefore I needed to express that.”
The music was, no surprise, keyboard based. But it had not so much the bombastic qualities associated with latter day Pink Floyd as it did the plaintive piano tones and contemplative, rich textures of early 1970s Floyd. It had, if you will, echoes of “Echoes,” the gorgeous, meandering side-long suite from Meddle.
“Certainly, tracks like ‘Hidden Fear’ and ‘Blue Room in Venice’ do,” said Wright. “This was a side of me that I suspect may not be used in the Floyd so much. And ‘Echoes’ is interesting because it is a very thematic piece of music, something that I particularly enjoy creating. This album was really planned out on a chart on a wall: writing down what sounds we wanted, what music we wanted. It was actually mapped out completely from beginning to end, rather than just writing a song, overdubbing and moving on.”
Wright knew what he wanted to express, but he also knew he needed a lyricist to help him do so. Enter Anthony Moore, a longtime friend, lyricist, computer programmer and an occasional Floyd contributor. “He knows my wife,” said Wright; “we’re all very close.” Moore gave voice to the feelings Wright and his future wife shared.
Broken China was a relatively somber affair. It was broken up into four segments. “The first part is childhood,” said Wright. “Where she had traumas, traumas that she hid that actually caused the depression. The second part is my attempt to express her adolescent escape. The third one, obviously, was the depression. And the fourth one is the breakthrough. On the last song, ‘Breakthrough,’ with Sinead singing, well, the lyrics say what happened.”
The song carries a feeling of triumph as Sinead sings of being like a banner unfurled — “the self you’ve never known.” The last lines run: “They’re never going to make it easy / Of this you can be sure / You feel untied, beautiful / And loved for evermore.”
O’Connor, said Wright, was attracted to the project because “when she heard the music, she obviously was sympathetic to the album and the ideas. She has often stated out her problems in childhood. But the reason I asked was not because of that — the reason was simply the quality of her voice: tremendous, unique, different.”
Was there ever a fear of Millie’s feeling exploited by the work?
“It was a very difficult time, for her and for me,” said Wright. “But knowing what the result was, which was a complete cure, I could therefore write about the bad times knowing it ends up good.”
Back then, you couldn’t exit an interview with a member of Pink Floyd without touching upon Barrett, whose sad story and spectral presence wound its way through Wish You Were Here and much else the band did. Was he a recluse? Insane? Living in his mother’s basement, painting, in Cambridge?
VIDEO: 1967 Syd Barrett 📺 clip
So, I asked simply: How was he?
“It’s nothing,” said Wright, of Barrett’s mental capacity. “It’s the same since he left the band back in ’68. Very sad. Now he’s in hospital; he’s diabetic, sad to say, and possibly going blind slowly. There’s not much more I can say. We were asked by his doctors not to be in touch — it reminds him of who he was and puts him in deep depression. They say there’s nothing you can do and you should not speak to him or see him. We respect his doctors.”
There are those old royalties to keep him solvent. “Word is that he’s comfortably off,” says Wright. “He’s not suffering financially or emotionally. He’s generally happy in his own little world.”
Barrett died in 2006 of pancreatic cancer. I highly recommend Rob Chapmans’s 2010 bio, Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head for a deep dig.
AUDIO: Richard Wright Broken China
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