Pink Floyd have always been some of the most creative minds in all of art rock and their status as one of the most legendary bands of all time remains unquestioned to this day. After developing a cult following, they rocketed to mainstream success in 1973, but the fame seemed to tear them apart more than build them up as a group.
Many of their tracks are based on deep concepts, making it hard to discern the real meaning behind what they wanted to say. In this article, we’ll take a deep look at the inspiration and meaning behind one of their saddest and most famous songs, Wish You Were Here, the title track of their 1975 album.
The Meaning of Wish You Were Here
To understand the meaning behind Wish You Were Here, it’s important to know what was going on with Pink Floyd at the time it was composed and recorded. They were coming from their biggest hit album The Dark Side Of The Moon, which had turned them from a band with a cult following into mainstream rock stars. It started a three-year stint of heavy touring that had worn everyone in the band out.
On top of the exhaustion, their former frontman Syd Barrett suffered a mental breakdown thanks to his crippling LSD addiction that had forced him out of the band in 1968. He recorded a couple of solo albums but never regained the spark of genius he once contained within his mind.
Maybe it was the exhaustion, maybe it was the pressure to follow up their previous album, or maybe it was Barrett’s absence, but Pink Floyd was in a dark place in the mid-70s.
Most people consider Wish You Were Here a tribute to Barrett, and it’s easy to see why. It feels like the band was literally working out their emotions in the track after seeing their friend struggling so much.
Wish You Were Here opens up with a distant and somewhat choppy chord progression on an acoustic guitar, but it’s quickly paired with another guitar that is loud, perfect, and clean. The juxtaposition of the two guitar licks is what made the song sound so good, but it also carries the portion of the message most people interpret as being about Barrett.
While one guitar is full of life, the other seems to be a pale shadow of its lively counterpart. The low guitar coming in first is like the band seeing Barrett change, then remembering how he used to be when he was with them in the band.
This is given even more context when you realize that Barrett appeared at Abbey Road when Pink Floyd was recording the song, but none of the band members recognized him immediately.
When asked about the meaning of the track, Roger Waters and David Gilmour have given different answers over the years in interviews. While Shine On You Crazy Diamond was absolutely a tribute to Barrett, Wish You Were Here isn’t meant to be only that.
He wrote the lyrics for the song and said they were meant to have a broader scope than just Barrett. Rather, he directed the lyrics towards himself. While it was partially based on a poem he wrote about Barrett’s mental break from reality, he also based it on people’s inability to deal with mental issues and how painful it can be to helplessly watch someone fall into them.
All of the lyrics of the track question reality as a whole. Each line is essentially another example of something you would think of as normal, but the song questions whether you could tell the difference between it being normal or destroyed. From discerning the difference between heaven and hell to trees and burned wood.
It’s very much reflective of a mental state that isn’t accurately understanding the world around them. It’s a disjointed mental state that is much maligned by the companions in the track.
The final verse may be the saddest one of all. It’s the point where Waters is talking about how much he wishes the other person was there right now. He relates to the friend who is struggling, saying the two are both lost souls trying to find their way, as they’re both seemingly helpless when it comes to what to do next. And of course, the fishbowl that is the group’s fame did nothing but make them feel trapped and unable to right the ship when it came to their situation.
When looked at through any lens, Wish You Were Here is a poignant song that serves as both a tribute to Barrett’s glory days and a lament of his declining mental state. It’s a reminder of the pain that problems like those can cause in people’s lives as well.
It’s fairly obvious from the entire Wish You Were Here album that Barrett became a major inspiration for the band. They talked about the music industry, their exhaustion, modern life, and even how sad it was to see someone completely withdraw from life as a whole. It was a banner track that stands as more than just a song that still sees radio play or one of their most successful singles. It is both quintessentially Pink Floyd and one of their most shining achievements.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.