You know you’re working on a monolithic song when you have to split it into nine different parts (the first five appearing together as the opening song on one of Pink Floyd’s masterpieces, Wish You Were Here, while the last four parts appear together as the final song on the album). Today we are focusing on the first five parts. And while both of the “songs” are brilliant, parts 1-5 constitute one of the best songs ever made. An homage to former Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett (who “went crazy” due to mental health and drug abuse issues and dropped out of society altogether, unfortunately), it is a monolith—and will stand the test of time for countless more decades. However, spanning over 13 minutes total, the experience is a commitment that demands your attention. It starts out slow and progressively picks up the energy—only to culminate in expansive crescendos of musical heaven.
The first eight and a half minutes are instrumental (no vocals) and fittingly so, beginning with a fade-in of a synthesizer combined with filtered sound effects. Those who are familiar with Brian Eno will find themselves immersed in its ambient nature. After those two minutes, David Gilmour starts playing the electric guitar. But he takes his time. One of the things I (and millions of others) love about Pink Floyd is their patience. They know how to stretch out a song, create progressive momentum, and provide an escape from our universe—just for a little while. And indeed, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond Pts. 1-5” is a paradigm of that structure. Anyway, the song continues to gradually build for two more minutes—with a stimulating aura that keeps us zoned in (as if Gilmour’s guitar play isn’t scintillating enough—and then Nick Mason’s drums kick in just after four minutes into the track.
The drums kicking in is where the song actually starts to sound like a song and not mere ambient, synth-pop, or “stoner” music. (Little do first-time listeners know what they’re about to get into.) This part also marks the transition from part 1 of the song to part 2, which technically spans from 3:54 to 6:27. So, once all of the rudimentary instruments are deployed together for a few minutes via a four-note theme known by fans as “Syd’s theme,” we then hit part 3 (6:27-8:42). Opening with a synthesizer solo—which is followed up by a Gilmour guitar solo—part 3 begins to reveal to Pink Floyd’s diehard fans how ambitious this work truly is.
Finally, the vocals kick in at part 4 (8:42-11:10)—featuring both Roger Waters and David Gilmour as lead vocalists while Venette Fields and Carlena Williams sing the backup parts. By this point, Gilmour is absolutely shredding his guitar like the master he is while Mason’s drums continue to gradually build in tempo. And finally, part 5, the final stretch of the song (11:10-13:32), represents the song at its apex. A second guitar is introduced here with an arpeggio version of the theme—ultimately leading into a majestic saxophone solo played by Dick Parry. The sax solo is incredibly elaborate and, at its end, is met with a fade of synthesizer notes as the song transitions into the album’s second track, “Welcome to the Machine.”
To be fair, every song on Wish You Were Here is absolutely phenomenal. Each has its own array of appeals. But “Shine On You Crazy Diamond Parts 1-5” is, in my opinion, the legendary band at its finest. It is a song unlike any other. And yet, I respect those who prefer the album’s title track, “Wish You Were Here.” The thing about Pink Floyd is that every listener has their own unique and layered experiences with the band. However, the music is also highly subjective—so not everybody will love it (especially now that songs are getting shorter and shorter). Nobody who is in a hurry or otherwise not deeply invested in the experience should listen to it. Still, if it finds you at the right time, you’ll never forget this masterpiece. It is easily the most transcendental musical experience I have ever encountered.