Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Richard Wright -- Pink Floyd Keyboardist

Pink Floyd is a band that has a memorable and powerful influence on music since the sixties. Although there were internal struggles and inter-musician rifts, their music stands the test of time.

I was always a fan and actually wore out my first Dark Side album and had to buy another. A few years ago I became acquainted with a Pink Floyd tribute band named “Pinky and the Floyd.” Among the members of this Bozeman, Montana band are the son of my close high school friend and a former schoolmate of my nephew. I’ve been to many of their shows and look forward to another summer of Pinky and the Floyd.

Although Roger Waters and David Gilmour — or perhaps the original member, Syd Barrett — may be the Pink Floyd players that come to your mind; or if you’re a drummer you probably focus on Nick Mason, a steadying influence since their origin; my favorite is Rick Wright who passed away in 2008. He was the band’s keyboard player, so naturally I take great interest in him and his contribution.

I started piano lessons in Lewistown, Montana when I was about ten years old. Mrs. Pennock was my piano teacher. She had been my mom’s teacher twenty years earlier. Although I later learned guitar and some other instruments, I still consider keyboards my main thing. I grew up playing on my mother’s Hammond Organ and I’ve played on the big B-3’s with Leslie speakers. I’m no Rick Wright, but I sure love keyboards.

Richard William Wright was born in London in 1943. He was married three times, fired from the band, was the only player to actually make money when he was hired back as a session musician for the The Wall tour in 1979, and rejoined for the final days. He was a quiet, yet competent contributor to Pink’s unique style and sound.

He was never the star of the band, although keyboard players rarely are (with the exception possibly of Styx), but that was a pleasing role for Rick. Making music as creatively as possible was what mattered to him and there are few moments more sublime than his measured playing on the 1973 The Dark Side of the Moon album of the song he co-wrote and sang with Roger Waters, "Us and Them."

He began his music at an early age, playing piano, trumpet and trombone as well as the guitar at home. He developed an interest in jazz and spent time in London clubs. It was in Architecture school in 1962 that he became friends with two other students, Roger Waters and Nick Mason. Their first band was a rhythm and blues group called “Sigma 6.” A few years later, at the age of 19, Rick married the female vocalist. The group went through various name and personnel changes, but Wright, Waters, and Mason remained throughout. With his career now decided, Rick quit Architecture school and enrolled at the London College of Music.

At that point, Roger Waters invited his neighbor, Syd Barrett, to join the group and the four formed a new band, called at first the “Tea Set” and then, at Barrett's suggestion, the “Pink Floyd Sound.” The name was in honor of two blues players, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. The quartet soon dropped the “Sound,” and “Pink Floyd” they became.

As the group expanded the scope of their writing and playing, Wright's talents were appreciated. He mastered all types of keyboards and also added trumpet and trombone. His knowledge of jazz and classical music contributed to developing the group’s special sound. Rick was a good harmony singer and a competent, if somewhat uncomfortable, lead vocalist. The extended instrumental, "Interstellar Overdrive," became their first anthem containing contributions by most of the band and even has a little Frank Zappa and Byrd's Eight Miles High somewhere under the covers.

Pink Floyd soon became well known around London for playing the experimental music, which by 1966 was called “psychedelic.” Their performances included film and innovative light shows and they played at well known London clubs. They were common players at Marquee’s Spontaneous Underground which was part of the “London Free School,” an English art school modeled after the concept of US “free schools.” Pink Floyd played at All Saints Church Hall, initially as part of The Notting Hill Carnival, and then a series of fund-raising concerts for the London Free School. These were among the earliest gigs by the band. In the summer of ’67, they starred in “14 Hour Technicolor© Dream,” an event at the Alexandra Palace that is now considered an essential part of the "Summer of Love."

At that time, Syd Barrett was the dominant songwriter and his "Arnold Layne" was their first single. It was at this point that the famous incident when an EMI executive asked the band, "Which one's Pink?" took place. They reached the Top 10 with another Barrett song, "See Emily Play," and their first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, was a success. The album name came from a line in the British novel, Wind in the Willows.

When Syd Barrett became unreliable due to his descent into drug dependency, Roger Waters recruited David Gilmour to play guitar. The band intended for Syd to remain on board, possibly just writing for the band, but he soon quit. The band did remain friends with Syd and Rick played on his solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, both released in 1970.

With their new member, in 1968, Pink Floyd made A Saucerful of Secrets. Rick wrote "Remember a Day" and "See-Saw," as well contributing to the 12-minute title track. This song became a feature of their performances and they headlined at a concert in Hyde Park. They were also shown in a documentary film by Peter Whitehead shot in 1967 describing the music scene in London with the suggestive title Tonite Let's All Make Love In London.

Continuing their interest in film, Pink Floyd provided the sound track to More, a 1969 film about heroin addiction, and in 1970 they scored Zabriskie Point for Michelangelo Antonioni. They also released a double album at the end of the year with the title Ummagumma which included live music recorded at shows in Birmingham and Manchester, as well as studio recordings that showcased individual members, each composing half a side for the album.

Rick provided "Sysyphus — Parts 1-4," music influenced by Karlheinz Stockhausen, a German composer and keyboardist widely acknowledged as both an important and controversial influence on modern music. Stockhausen was an early adopter of electronic music and his influence on both jazz and modern music, through Rick Waters, may have played a part in the developing Pink Floyd sound.

I first became aware of the band when I purchased a copy of their 1970 Atom Heart Mother. This music was performed at the festival in Bath, England, and the performance included a choir, orchestra, and fireworks — early indications of what would evolve into spectacular Pink Floyd road shows.

Pink was developing a reputation as a visual art as well as a musical group. Although some critics considered the work a little pompous, Atom Heart Mother topped the charts and elevated Pink Floyd to major stardom. It was while working on this composition that Pink Floyd tried to use everyday home and street sounds for composition. They spent a lot of time in the studio, but were not as successful as they had hoped. Atom Heart Mother did include the sound of frying bacon and led to future inclusions of everyday sounds in Pink Floyd’s music.

The next album, Meddle, combined a suite of songs, "One of These Days", and the atmospheric, 23-minute "Echoes." That was featured in the 1974 film, Pink Floyd at Pompeii. This was followed by another Schroeder film, La Vallée, whose score the band released on the album Obscured by Clouds.

In 1973, Pink Floyd, now working with the soon to be famous Alan Parsons, but producing themselves, created their best-known work — and technological masterpiece — The Dark Side of the Moon. With songs exploring insanity and the pressures of modern life, the album remained on the top of UK and US charts for over six years, a record that has yet to be matched.

Both the music and the lyrics, as well as the sound effects and atmosphere evoked on this album established Pink as one of the greatest rock and roll bands ever. Like the Beatles, this album also found the band neglecting singles and focusing on concept albums.

Rick was very intimately involved with the development of Dark Side, writing key contributions such as "The Great Gig In The Sky," and he co-wrote "Breathe," and "Any Colour You Like." Using an unused melody from Zabriskie Point, Rick wrote my favorite on the album, "Us And Them," with Waters. He performed vocals with Waters on this track and his electric piano featured prominently on "Money.”

The live shows by the band continued to become more theatrical and spectacular. They added quadraphonic sound and British Spitfires flew over the concert in their 1975 premiere of Wish You Were Here. The album was a tribute to Syd Barrett, and included the song "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" written by Waters, Gilmour, and Wright. Syd actually showed up at the studio during the recording, but his appearance had changed so much that, at first, none of his former bandmates recognized him. That was the last time any of them saw him until his death in 2006.

It was around this time of theatrical exuberance that an incident occurred that became Pink Floyd legend. In 1976, while shooting photos for their next album to be called Animals, a 40-foot balloon shaped like a pig attached to Battersea Power Station broke from its moorings and drifted away. The British Air Traffic Control had to issue a warning to pilots to beware of a flying pig. (What’s that governor? Say again, a flying pig?)

During these years of great band and personal success, Rick Wright produced a solo album, but it was a commercial flop. His Wet Dream project, released in 1978, did not sell well.

Soon came Pink Floyd's most ambitious project, a double album that deals with the themes of abandonment and personal isolation: The Wall. The idea was sparked when Waters began to experience what he called a "gulf" between himself and the audience. After an experience where an exuberant audience so frustrated Roger that he actually spit at them, Waters spoke with music producer, Bob Ezrin, and a friend of Ezrin's, a psychiatrist sharing their car, about the feelings of alienation he was experiencing on the tour. He articulated his desire to isolate himself by constructing a wall across the stage between the performers and the audience. He later said, "I loathed playing in stadiums … there is something very wrong with this.'

Trouble, however, was to haunt the development of this epic album set. The Wall is a rock opera that explores abandonment and isolation, symbolized by a metaphorical wall. The songs recount a storyline of events in the life of the main character, Pink, a persona based loosely on Waters, whose father was killed during the Second World War. The character Pink is oppressed by his overprotective mother, and tormented at school by tyrannical, abusive teachers. Each of these traumas become metaphorical "bricks in the wall". Pink eventually becomes a rock star, his relationships marred by infidelity, drug use, and outbursts of violence. As his marriage crumbles, he finishes building his wall, completing his isolation from human contact.

The release of The Wall was followed by an elaborate road show and also lead to a crisis point for Rick. There are many different versions of just what happened, but there were problems from the beginning. Rick asked to produce the album and he was allowed at first to do that, but later Waters switched back to Ezrin as producer. This didn’t work well either because of the tight and complicate recording schedule and Ezrin’s poor work habits and late arrivals. Ultimately the recording schedule had to be moved forward to allow for a Christmas release of the album and tempers amongst all the band members were short. There were several disagreements and misunderstandings between Waters and Wright that ultimately led to the “firing” of Rick Wright from the band.

One fact that stands out to me personally is that Rick did not contribute any songs to The Wall, unlike most previous albums. That and the tight recording schedule and very complicated production of the album and travel to various studios stressed out all the band’s members. Wright had his own problems, a failing marriage and the onset of depression. So Wright left the band, the album was a huge success, and a rare single, "Another Brick In The Wall (Part II)," topped the UK charts for five weeks in 1979, all without any credit to Richard Wright.

Ironically, Wright was contracted as a musician for the world tour of The Wall, and since the lavish production was very expensive, and as Wright was salaried as a musician, he was the only “member” of Pink Floyd that made money on the tour.

In the early 80’s, Rick was in another band under an alias, but that endeavor was not successful. In the mean time, Rick took unsuccessful legal action to prevent Gilmour and Mason from using the band name.

Internal and artistic tensions continued with the band, and Roger Waters left the band in 1987 stating they were a “spent force.” David Gilmour began reconstituting the band. There were legal obstacles to Wright's re-admittance to the band; however, after a meeting, Gilmour invited Wright to participate in the coming sessions. He later stated that Wright's presence "would make us stronger legally and musically."

Rick rejoined but was not reinstated as a full member until the following year. He appeared as a guest on A Momentary Lapse of Reason, and was back writing with the band for another soundtrack project in 1992.

In 1994, Wright wrote four songs and sang lead vocals on "Wearing The Inside Out" on Pink Floyd's final studio album, The Division Bell. The tour promoting the album and band concluded in October 1994 and was the final performance of Pink Floyd. It appeared the band was truly “spent.”

Following the breakup of Pink, Wright continued his solo work producing an album with computer-based songs about depression featuring Sinead O'Connor on vocals.

Over ten years later, in July 2005, the original quartet, Wright, Gilmour, Mason and Waters, reunited triumphantly for the Live 8 concert in London's Hyde Park. Wright played on Gilmour's album On An Island in 2006, and he was working on a solo album at the time of his death.

No comments:

Post a Comment