There have been few rock & roll bands with the grand sense of scope of Pink Floyd, and fewer with the taste and sense to know when to rein it in and just rock. For Pink Floyd this has meant getting back to the nuts-and-bolts soul of the music -- namely, the blues -- when a sense of drama and increasingly complicated production have threatened to overwhelm the essence of the songs. But perhaps no other band in the '70s took the ambitious rule-shattering promise of revolutionary albums like Sgt. Peppers and Pet Sounds and ran with it like Pink Floyd.
"Shine on You Crazy Diamond" is a case where the band has their cake and eats it too; it's a majestic, cinematic piece that begins with one of Floyd's now-familiar haunting, atmospheric drones and progresses with funk bass lines, blues-influenced guitar, and synthesizer jams. The introduction and instrumental parts of the suite taken alone could serve as an compelling soundtrack to a thriller, while the song proper is Pink Floyd at their best tackling their favorite subjects: personal sense of reality as affected by mental illness, childhood and adulthood, and the gulfs and walls people construct between themselves.
The whole album Wish You Were Here (1975) reveals a restless band whose ambition transcends their genre, an ambition realized to some extent in the cinematic adaptation of their 1979 double album The Wall. Wish You Were Here could very well have been titled after "Shine on You Crazy Diamond," the song that -- with its nine parts and serving as the album opening and closing number -- forms the backbone of the record, taking up over two thirds of the whole. The concept record is largely focused on and dedicated to Pink Floyd's long-lost founding member, Syd Barrett, a victim of mental illness and drug abuse who, in a mythical bit of circumstance, wandered into the recording sessions at Abbey Road Studios just as the band was recording "Shine on You Crazy Diamond." (The sense of coincidence is lessened when one realizes that the song must have taken up a fair bit of the overall recording time.) "I walked into the studio at Abbey Road, Roger was sitting, mixing at the desk, and I saw this big bald guy sitting on the couch behind," recalled keyboardist Richard Wright in Pink Floyd: The Illustrated Discography. "About 16 stone. And I didn't think anything of it. In those days it was quite normal for strangers to wander into our sessions. Then Roger (Waters) said, 'You don't know who that guy is, do you? It's Syd.' It was a huge shock, because I hadn't seen him for about six years. He kept standing up and brushing his teeth, putting his toothbrush away and sitting down. Then at one point he stood up and said, 'Right, when do I put the guitar on?' And of course he didn't have a guitar with him. And we said, 'Sorry Syd, the guitar's all done.'"
Over instrumental movements that span funk, blues, gospel, rock, classical, jazz, and soul, bassist/vocalist Roger Waters sings a paean to their colleague with very direct lyrics that show their writer struggling with the effects of Barrett's absence (the album had the working title Variations on a Theme of Absence) on his bandmates and Waters himself: "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 in 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." In a matter of a few economical lines, Waters sums up a series of complicated and often contradictory emotions and perceptions of the enormous subject. And he digs deeper, again wrestling with the Ken Kesey-explored concept of sane/insane that Floyd looked at on Dark Side of the Moon's "Brain Damage": "You reached for the secret too soon...you seer of visions/Come on you painter/You piper, you prisoner." Waters views his comrade as one who has broken through in a William Blake-like sense; he's in touch with his childhood self -- the innocent, truer self: "Come on you miner/For truth and delusion and shine."