Rick Wright: Interstellar overdrive

Rick Wright gave Pink Floyd their surreal, spacey sound. Andy Gill bids farewell to the man, and the band, who changed the face of rock

With the death this week of keyboardist Rick Wright, the dim hopes for another Pink Floyd reunion finally faded. With David Gilmour and Roger Waters's individual tours both featuring their own interpretations of choice moments from the band's back catalogue, it appears that the group's brief reformation for the Live 8 benefit concert did indeed constitute the Floyd's last hurrah.

There are several ironies about this situation, not the least being that Wright was at one point kicked out of the band. Nor, indeed, was he one of the group's central composers, contributing sparsely to their oeuvre as a writer. But his distinctive keyboard technique was such an integral component of the band's sound that, although session players might easily replicate his parts, it would be like giving the group a soul transplant.

Undoubtedly the most significant British band to surface from the late-1960s hippie boom, Pink Floyd brought a questing originality and inventive spirit to rock music as they developed the signature sound that blossomed so spectacularly on Dark Side of the Moon. Uniquely among their peers, they managed the extraordinary feat of abandoning their chief songwriter (or vice versa) not once but twice, with subtle changes in approach but little diminution in popularity.

Imagine Pete Townshend leaving The Who, or Keith Richards leaving the Stones: such a loss would clearly be terminal. Yet the Floyd managed to dispense first with the quicksilver, quixotic genius of Syd Barrett, bassist Roger Waters stepping assuredly into the breach as creative mainspring, to lead the band on the journey that would reach Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall; then, when Waters in turn departed, guitarist Gilmour (who had originally joined to cover Barrett's growing unreliability) covered for the loss by flexing his compositional muscles in a much more decisive manner. Arguments still rage among fans – and band members – as to the relative merits of the Barrett, Waters and Gilmour eras, but the Pink Floyd brand endured regardless.

While the band's roots are customarily located in Cambridge, where Waters, Barrett and Gilmour first made each other's acquaintance, the Floyd only came together in London where, in the early 1960s, Nick Mason, Waters and Wright were all studying architecture at London Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster) in Upper Regent Street. The three became part of a loose association of musicians operating under a variety of whimsical names – Sigma 6, The Architectural Abdabs, The Tea Set – before Waters's Cambridge chum Barrett joined and the group settled as the four-piece Pink Floyd Sound, named after a couple of obscure American bluesmen, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.

Oddly, unlike most bands of the era, the line-up came about not by replacing the least competent players, but the most capable. "It stabilised around people of equal ability, or equal interest," Mason told me. "I seem to remember that the guy who had the best guitar, and knew the most songs, was the guy who left! Though I know that Rick would be most aggrieved by that. He was more committed to music earlier than the rest of us – in fact, he left the Poly after the first year and went to music college."

Mere competence, however, was never a high priority for the band. Nor was the fluff and nonsense of chart pop – though they would be one of the first "underground" bands to score hit singles. Instead, the quartet V C favoured outlandish experimentation, encouraged by their tutor (and landlord) Mike Leonard to incorporate sound effects and musique concrète elements into the pieces they created to accompany his lighting artworks. At the time, Fender was starting to produce amplifiers with vibrato effects, and the first of the new generation of sonic gizmos were appearing; tape-delay machines like the Watkins Copycat and the Binson Echorec, the latter becoming an integral part of the band's sound.

"There was a lot of using echo repeat to play triplets in a 4/4 rhythm," explains Waters, "which is what you get on 'Pow R Toc H', with all that tapping of the microphone, things like that. They're very simple devices, but very effective."

Particularly influential on the band's sound was the low-budget sonic genius Ron Geesin, who was experimenting with tape-delay effects long before anyone else in the UK. "He invented the technique of pulling the tape out between the record and playback heads to create a long delay," Waters recalls. "You'd run the tape past the record head, then pull it off the machine, round a mic stand, and back into the machine. Then, by moving the mic stand closer or further away from the machine, you could change the length of the delay."

With a couple of vicars' sons, Peter Jenner and Andrew King, assuming managerial duties, the band secured gigs in London, became fixtures at early hippie clubs like UFO and Middle Earth, and even started playing outside their comfort zone, to provincial audiences less inclined to take their lengthy experimental jams as entertainment. An ironic low was reached when the group played a Catholic youth club, after which the promoter refused to pay them on the grounds that what they were playing "wasn't music". When they took him to the small claims court, the promoter won the case. It was official: they weren't playing music!

Nevertheless, they were creating enough of a stir for EMI to offer the Floyd a recording contract, which soon resulted in hit singles such as "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play". Listen now to those early records, and what's most striking about them is not the voice or the guitar or the beat, but the washes and whizzy keyboard noises with which Wright fleshed out Barrett's songs, and gave them a sort of audio-visual context as strange, surreal and haunted as the courtyards and landscapes inhabited by Giorgio De Chirico's busts, bananas and mannequins.

Without Wright's contributions, they would be just whimsical little nursery-rhymes from Barrett's bag of songs about gnomes, cats and scarecrows, a kindergarten world of English eccentricity in the mould of Edward Lear and Hilaire Belloc. But with his unique additions, they assumed a more sinister, forbidding aspect.

When Barrett became too fried on acid to contribute reliably, Wright's jazz- and classical-influenced keyboards took on a new importance as the group's output metamorphosed from maverick kiddy-pop psychedelia to the longer, unhurried space-rock pieces that would become their trademark. It was Wright who provided texture and colour to the vacuum of space, so to speak, on signature tracks like "Careful With That Axe, Eugene", tracking the music's progress from contemplative reflection to juggernaut aggression. Without meaning to, he and the band had in effect invented a new genre, progressive rock, which for other, less innovative bands became simply an excuse for long, masturbatory instrumental solos, but which in the Floyd's hands offered much subtler, more intriguing musical possibilities.

"One of the great things about the Floyd is the dynamics of the music," Wright believed. "You rarely hear those kind of dynamics in a live concert, from quite quiet to a lot of noise; but it's been the Floyd's thing, ever since we started, to have a more subtle balance between quiet and loud. For me, that might possibly have come from being brought up on classical music, in which the symphonies have huge dynamics."

That dynamic balance was not easy to capture in the studio, however, as early synthesisers proved about as unreliable as Syd Barrett. "On the Mini-Moog, you'd tune three oscillators together to get the sound," Wright explained when I interviewed him a few years ago. "It's really quite an intricate process – if one oscillator goes slightly out, it's ruined. Nowadays, you just push a button and anything you want comes out. But when we started, there were no synthesisers; the first time we got near anything like that was the VCS3, developed by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which we used for 'On the Run'. Basically, all our sound went through the Binson Echorec: my Farfisa organ, Syd's guitar, even Roger's bass, occasionally. That was all we had! These days, computers have made it so much easier – but people still struggle to get that Dark Side of the Moon sound, there's something very unique about that."

It was to Dark Side of the Moon that Wright contributed perhaps his most memorable compositions, "The Great Gig in the Sky" (made especially notable by Clare Torry's histrionic wordless vocal solo) and "Us and Them", which many consider the heart of the album. Originally written for the Antonioni movie Zabriskie Point but rejected by the director for being "beautiful, but too sad... it makes me think of church", it has since become one of the emblematic Floyd melodies, its air of melancholy resignation perfectly evocative of the soothing, distinctly British discomfiture underlying much of the band's output. But such moments became rarer as the band's more dominant warring personalities fought for control of authorship.

"Sometimes, I'd sit down at rehearsal or sound check and play something, improvise a little," Wright recalled, "and David would come over and say, 'What was that? It's really good!', and I'd say, 'I have no idea, I can't repeat it.' Sometimes I play something, and I haven't recorded it, and I don't know where it came from, why my hands did what they did, what key it was in, anything. For me, playing music is like meditating – I just play and don't really think about what I'm doing, I just let it happen. And those moments can be really, really precious."

With the advent of punk, Pink Floyd became one of the least hip bands around – not that falling out of fashion exactly harmed their sales, as 1979's The Wall proved colossally successful, vying with Dark Side of the Moon as their biggest-selling album. But the kind of things the Floyd represented – doubt, introspection, lengthy development of themes, grandiose stage presentations – would for a while be scorned by tastemakers, a situation not helped by the comparatively lacklustre albums that followed The Wall.

It would take another decade for their star to rise again, during the late-1980s boom in loved-up dance music, when producer-DJ outfits such as The Orb would use many of the methods invented by Pink Floyd – and probably a few actual sampled tones and textures, too – in their sonic collages. Since then, the group has resumed its position as one of the legendary touchstones of British rock music, no more embarrassing an influence to cite than The Beach Boys or Leonard Cohen, legends whose careers have likewise waned and waxed back into favour. But now, alas, less likely to be seen again.

Remembering Rick, by Nick Mason

Losing Rick is like losing a family member – in a fairly dysfunctional family. He's been in my life for 45 years, longer than my children and longer than my wife. It brings one's own mortality closer. I'll remember Rick with great affection. He was absolutely the non-contentious member of the band and probably suffered for it. I wouldn't say he was easy-going, but he certainly never pushed to any aggravation. It made life a lot easier.

I first met Rick at the Regent Street College of Architecture. And I think Rick was always pretty much that same character I met in 1962. Rock'n'roll is a Peter Pan existence; no one ever grows up. Over a period, we gravitated towards the people who were less interested in architecture and more in going to the pictures and making music. The band happened a couple of years later. We all had very different ways of working. He always knew what he wanted to do and had a unique approach to playing. I saw an interview he did on TV, and he said it clearly: "Technique is so secondary to ideas." Roger [Waters] said the more technique you have, the more you can copy. Despite having some training, Rick found his own way.

To some extent, I think, the recognition for what he did in the band was a bit light. He was a writer as well as a keyboard player, and he sang. The keyboard in particular creates the sound of a band. By definition, in a rock'n'roll band people remember the guitar solo, the lead vocal or the lyric content. But a lot of people listen to our music in a different way. The way Rick floats the keyboard through the music is an integral part of what people recognise as Pink Floyd. He wrote "The Great Gig in the Sky" and the music for "Us and Them".

We were a very close-knit band and one always has the memory of that. We spent a lot of time together between 1967 and the mid-1970s. Rick was a very gentle soul. My image of Rick would be him sitting at the keyboard playing when all the fireworks were going on around him. That's the main quality one remembers, in a band where Roger and David [Gilmour] were more strident about what they believed should be done.

If there's something that feels like a legacy, it's Live 8 [July 2005, Hyde Park] and the fact that we did surmount any disagreements and managed to play together. It was the greatest occasion.

The division bell also tolled for these argumentative acts
By Elisa Bray

Take That

Robbie Williams walked out on Take That in 1995 to forge a solo career, and he and Gary Barlow subsequently feuded for many years. Despite rumours that the pair had reconciled, instead of Williams rejoining the group for the reunion tour more than 10 years later, fans had to make do with a 20ft hologram of the star.

The Libertines

One of the most shambolic tales of recent rock'n'roll history. Pete Doherty wouldn't give up the drugs and so Carl Barat gave up Doherty. Doherty was finally kicked out of the band in 2003 after he burgled Barat's flat. Yet last year the pasty-faced poet asked Barat to be his best man.

The Smiths

The intense relationship between Morrissey and Johnny Marr became strained throughout the Eighties until the band split in 1987. Morrissey was reportedly annoyed by Marr's work with other artists and Marr disliked Morrissey's obsession with covering Sixties popsters. "I didn't form a group to perform Cilla Black songs", he later said.

Spandau Ballet

The Eighties new romantic band's spectacular fall-out ended in the High Court. Nine years after they split in 1990, Tony Hadley, Steve Norman and John Keeble lost their action when they sued Gary Kemp for a £1m share of the songwriting royalties.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
arts + entsFor a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
booksNew book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past