Looking inside the late keyboardist’s unsung solo work
Amidst the strum und drang of mid-to-late ‘70s Pink Floyd, the barking dogs and the bleating sheep, keyboardist Richard Wright released a modest, mostly instrumental album in 1978 called Wet Dream.
It sank like a stone. Commercially, at least. Not so on my turntable. A gorgeous and melancholic record, certainly related to the Floydian sound of the times but more delicate than thunderous.
This was new music from a man who’d once been a songwriting partner – a solo writer or collaborator in the earlier years, a guy who penned a whole side of 1969’s double album Ummagumma. He had taken a backseat as bassist-singer Roger Waters exerted ever more control and more power. If the Floyd was still a group – and it was – it was Waters pulling the levers, steering the ship, and David Gilmour providing the wailing, iconic, bluesy guitar leads and main singing voice.
On July 28, Wright would have turned 80 and – probably not coincidentally – the day Wright’s oft out-of-print solo debut will be re-released. Is the world clamoring for this? Probably not. Not anymore than it did the first time, but the world – well, at least the Floydian parts of it – should pay heed. And they should dig deeper and tune in to its follow-up – released almost two decades later – Broken China, which featured the Sinéad O’Connor on two tracks. (News of O’Connor’s death broke as I was writing this piece.)
Some backstory: Wright was a co-founder of Pink Floyd and played a significant role in shaping its sound. But during the recording of The Wall in 1979 he was fired by alpha dog Waters because – allegedly – he wasn’t writing enough music. This always seemed odd to me: That Waters – who’s pretty much declared I AM/WAS PINK FLOYD – for years would want others’ material to color his dark visions. But Waters demanded Wright be fired and Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason gave the not entirely enthusiastic OK. Wright admitted he was not in a good place creatively plus he was getting divorced from his first wife and trying to spend time with his kids.
Where it gets even more weird, however, is Wright agreed to remain as a salaried musician for Pink Floyd’s tours in 1980 and 1981. Then, when Waters finally abandoned ship, Wright would return in 1985, contributing to their first post-Waters album, A Momentary Lapse of Reason. Still, in more weirdness, his contract kept him from rejoining Pink Floyd properly, meaning he stayed listed as an additional musician, though he did get songwriting credits on their last album for 20 years, The Division Bell. And he was a full (and consequential) member for the Gilmour-helmed 2014 release, the ambient/psychedelic double LP, The Endless River, writing or co-writing half the tracks. (Yes, he died in Sept. 2008 – lung cancer — but evidently a chunk of the songs that made up the album were written/recorded in 1969 and 1993.)
After his death Gilmour posted: “In the welter of arguments about who or what was Pink Floyd, Rick’s enormous input was frequently forgotten.” (Right on!)
Waters’ statement: “It is hard to overstate the importance of his musical voice in the Pink Floyd of the ’60s and ’70s. He was my musical partner and my friend.” (Uh, OK.)
I’m going to go back to when Wright was fully alive and I had my only conversation with him. It was at the end of 1996.
We addressed the firing 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 were very scared, too. It was a nightmare for all us.”
Nevertheless, as noted, Wright played on The Wall tour as, essentially, a contract worker.
The future of Pink Floyd has long been a topic for fans and whenever I’ve talked to a band member, I asked.
So, in 1996, I asked Wright: Is there is a Pink Floyd?
“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…”
No matter what, Pink Floyd post-‘70s would not be considered the hardest-working band in show business. This is something charter understands intimately.
Here they were, this behemoth of a touring band wrapping up their 1994 stadium tour, promoting The Division Bell, looking forward to making financial investments and a nice long hibernation, and Wright had this fire in his belly. He was raring to go. To go solo. At least with the Floyd on its inevitable hiatus.
“Invariably, as you know,” says 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.”
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 told me. “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, David 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 does 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,” he agreed. “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 is, no surprise, keyboard based. But it has not so much the bombastic qualities associated with Pink Floyd as it is the plaintive piano tones and contemplative, rich textures of early 1970s Floyd. It has, 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,” Wright said, “and we’re all very close.” Moore gave shape to the feelings he and Millie shared.
Broken China is a relatively somber affair. It’s 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 Sinéad singing, well, the lyrics say what happened.”
The song carries a feeling of triumph as O’Connor 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.”