Wow In Music – Shine On You Crazy Diamond
Editor | On 19, Jun 2019
After writing Dark Side of the Moon, their most commercial album to date, the four members of Pink Floyd were introduced to all of the trappings of international stardom. It is perhaps no surprise, therefore that the band’s next project would have an introspective theme. The 1975 album, Wish you Were Here, turned out to be exactly that kind of album. Listening back to the album today, the twin themes of absence and alienation are unmistakable. The album itself is built around the ‘song’ ‘Shine On you Crazy Diamond’, the lyrics of which pay homage to lost founder, Syd Barrett (Shine on You crazy Diamond). They have also become a source of considerable comfort to many people with depressive illnesses.
At over 26 minutes, Shine on you Crazy Diamond is Pink Floyd’s longest single track. It is split into 2 halves, and then split again into 9 sections. The 1st half opens the album, the 2nd half is played at the end.
Roger Waters wrote all of the lyrics for Shine on you Crazy Diamond. They contain a succinct message built into only three short verses. Most of the ideas described in the lyrics are easy to understand.
“Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun” refers to Syd as he was growing up in Cambridge, a “bouncy” like character, full of passion.
“Now there’s a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky”, is an obvious reference to Syd’s state of mind during his mental decline. David Gilmour described it best in the “Syd Barrett Story” as a lack of his usual sparkle, the Syd he knew had gone.
“You were caught in the cross fire of childhood and stardom” exposed Syd Barrett’s vulnerability on an emotional level as well as emphasising the attack and intrusion that sudden fame had caused him.
“You reached for the secret too soon”, a reference to Syd’s LSD drug use and its perceived (at the time) ability to help users reach a higher state of consciousness and spiritual understanding.
“You wore out your welcome with random precision”. This is a fantastic (Principle 37) oxymoron that sums up Syd’s alienation from Pink Floyd. “Random Precision” seems a very fitting phrase to describe Syd Barrett’s personality.
Then comes another, more subtle, (Principle 37) oxymoron, this time repeated at three points during the song. I think the idea in the lyric is that the “Steel Breeze” is both a metaphor for fame and the effects that it brings and also Barrett’s guitar playing. When the subject is first “blown on the steel breeze”, he has just become famous and is being subjected to all the forces and pressures that fame can exert. When he “rode on the steel breeze”, he was actively making use of his fame to further some of his own goals and desires. (This could easily ‘wear out his welcome’ if those goals are at odds with the agents of fame – photographers, agents, etc.) Finally, ‘basking in the shadows of yesterday’s triumph’, the heyday of his fame is behind him and all he can do is try to enjoy the residual effects of having once been famous, and “sail on the steel breeze”.
“Steel breeze” is, too, in many ways the essence of the Pink Floyd sound. Which is where, I believe much of the enduring appeal of Shine On You Crazy Diamond originates…
Parts I – IX (Music)
The music of Shine on you Crazy Diamond includes compositional elements from both lead instrumentalists, Dave Gilmour (guitar) and Rick Wright (keys). Gilmour wrote the famous 4 note motif (Bb – F – G – E) that enters 4 minutes into the song whereas Wright was responsible for some of the more complex harmonic structure, his signature “7#9” sound found on Breathe (Dark Side of the Moon), and several solos and funk grooves. One of the most musically interesting points is the use of a “Tierce de Picardie” ending, as the minor home key of G minor changes to the key of G major during the final few bars of the track.
Part I: Wright starts this journey with just a simple G minor chord played on a string sound and analogue pad; a mini moog is used to play a spacious atmospheric (Principle 2) time-signature-less soundtrack. This section lays the ambient foundation for the whole track.
Part II: At 2m 14s Gilmour enters the mix with similarly spacious guitar but this time the harmony changes between Gm, Dm and Cm. The placement of these chords implies that the accompaniment is following the guitar line using “colla voce”, a kind of rubato meaning literally “with voice”.
Part III – IV: Gilmour plays a 4-note arpeggio that is comprised of Bb – F – G (below Bb) – E that enters at 3m 59s. This phrase is repeated throughout the track and is later named the Syd Barrett theme. According to Gilmour’s words from subsequent interviews, the whole of Shine On You Crazy Diamond grew from this hypnotic, ‘bell-like’, phrase. The phrase is repeated 4 times before Nick Mason enters on drums, the feel is lazy 12/8 time, with Mason playing well behind the beat (Principle 37 in musical form), and the chord played is C major, different to the C minor that was used in parts I-II. The E note of the cell is sustained spelling the 3rd of C major, interestingly when the phrase is played under the solo form (which is basically a minor blues), the same E becomes the 6th of the Gm6 chord. This means that the Syd Barrett lick could be freely used across almost the whole of the solo section. It is only adapted to fit the harmony during the last bars (Eb7 – D7), where the E changes to Eb. This happens during Gilmour’s 1st solo.
Part V: The vocals enter at 8m 48s with verse 1. There is a sense of (Principle 12) antiphony between the vocal line and the guitar lead, and as a vital contrast to the spacious opening, we hear a lyric with a syllable on almost every beat, making it near impossible to not listen to what is being said.
Church organ and gospel singers support the vocals especially when the lyric “Shine on you Crazy Diamond” is sung, raising the dynamic considerably (Principle 38). Dick Parry plays 2 choruses of improvised tenor saxophone, one at the original tempo and the second one where the feel (Principle 19) changes to a 4/4 shuffle using metric modulation giving the impression that the track is speeding up. This concludes the first half of Shine on as the sax solo fades over the tonic chord.
Part VI – VIII: Verse 3 is sung 5 minutes into the second half of the track after vamps based on straight 8th and shuffle grooves. At 6m 05s the meter changes again (Principle 19) to a slow 4, this time with a near disco feel. It’s just a Gm vamp but the orchestration includes the use of clavichord (a sound made popular by funk music) and electric piano. Layered on top of this vamp is a (Principle 5) pentatonic-based 4 bar synth riff that uses sweeping glissandi creating quite a haunting sound.
Part IX: A drum fill with a reversed effect plays a pickup into the part IX. At 9m 09 this is really the final anthem, the piece of music with a closing statement. We return to a slow 4 meter and a new sequence of chords with a more advanced flavour. The chord sequence is Gm – Bbm – Fm – Fm/Eb – Cm – Am7b5 – D7 and this is repeated 3 times before arriving at the “Tierce de Picardie” ending of G major. This last chord is significant as it leaves the listener with an optimistic feeling, a complete contrast to the rest of the track, which is essentially minor. The Steinway grand piano, organ, synths, and strings complement each other gloriously (Principle 40) and coupled with the slow tempo, there is a great sense of procession and then, finality.
Shine on you Crazy Diamond is a work of art and an extremely well-considered piece of music. The lyrics, the iconic 4-note arpeggio, the chord sequences, the changes in meter, the solo’s (where the presence of Barrett in both Gilmour and Wright’s playing is almost palpable), the unhurried true depiction of a story, the behind the beat drumming, the (Principle 3) changes in timbre all come together to make for an all-time classic. I first heard Shine On You Crazy Diamond at the start of punk rock, just after I read about Johnny Rotten walking around in his ‘I Hate Pink Floyd’ t-shirt. The radio DJ of choice for British punks back in the late 70s was the legendary, irreplaceable, John Peel. His annual listener-voted ‘Festive 50’ was always a great summary of the best music of the year. Punk or no-punk, for me the most amazing testament to the power of Shine On You Crazy Diamond is that it stayed at the top of the Festive 50 for several years. A beacon atop a sea of punk. Even those that were desperate to kick out the old guard, knew greatness when they heard it.