published: 20 /
In his 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' column, Ben Howarth examines the life and legacy of Rick Wright, the keyboardist with pink Floyd, who died on the 15th September
While the rest of Pennyblackmusic blows up balloons, bakes cakes, dons silly paper hats and invites everyone along to its birthday party, I’m afraid that this month the 'Condemned to Rock and Roll' column has a more morbid theme.
The untimely death of a member of the 60's and 70's rock elite always brings a tinge of sadness. I doubt I was the only person upset by the passing on of Pink Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright. Naturally, given that I didn’t actually know the man, retrieving 'The Dark Side of the Moon' from the comfortable spot in the CD rack it had occupied undisturbed in recent years seemed the only appropriate way to mark the occasion.
These rock star deaths are, however, something we’re all getting used to, rather inevitably. Pop music is no longer just a young man’s game, and there is no better indicator of that fact than the need now for major music publications to compile extensive obituary sections.
The 60's pop star generation (remaining members of which are all well into their sixties, at least) re-shaped the cultural landscape around them. Their music is now firmly set at the base of the entertainment establishment, so much so that it is now thinking wistfully of retiring to the golf course and collecting its free bus pass.
Seeing the tributes to Richard Wright reminded me just how fondly this golden age of pop is still remembered, and just how much his generation accomplished. Indeed, Pink Floyd - even accounting for their huge record sales and the fact that Sigur Ros and Radiohead have acquired immense fanbases just by shamelessly ripping them off - hardly caught the wider public imagination to the scale of the Beatles and the Stones. Yet the death of a mere keyboard player warranted the prompt attention of BBC News.
Of course, the reason for this is that Pink Floyd legitimised pop music. The punk generation hated them for it (or, at least, pretended to), but the Floyd - with their grand artistic ambitions and their palpably posh accents - proved that the classical music hegemony was over for good. Their stadium filling success during the 70's confirmed that pop was no passing 60's craze.
Creative youngsters from then onwards were going to use their expensive piano lessons to concentrate on taking forward the legacy of the Beatles and the Stones, rather than Mozart and Beethoven. Furthermore, they were going to get paid handsomely to do so, while suppressed intellectual agendas could now be pushed forward, as writing songs solely for teenage ears ceased to be a prerequisite.
Pink Floyd’s other legacy was to entrench pop music as a subject for fierce debate. Even Bob Dylan fans fail to argue as well as followers of the Floyd. On one hand, we have staunch admirers of Roger Waters, who still consider him the band’s true genius. On the other, those who note that David Gilmour’s guitar solos were rather good, and Waters as a simple bassist could have had little to do with those. These arguments are serious enough, and that is before someone points out that Syd Barrett was actually the singer when the band made its debut.
Any historian mad enough to want to track the development of internet discussion forums will have to devote several chapters to the endless debates on Pink Floyd (several people have doubtless already acquired Government funding for such a task). But, to my mind, these online rows have obscured the band’s real legacy.
Listening again to 'The Dark Side of the Moon', an album that sparked my love of pop music in the first place, has reminded me that their contribution is far more than a historical one. Armed only with tin pot resources that a 21st century band wouldn’t deem fit for a demo, they crafted songs dazzling in their scope and technical expertise. Still, the focus was almost always on good songs.
Richard Wright was as much a part of that as his bandmates. There isn’t a song on 'The Dark Side of the Moon' that doesn’t benefit from his tasteful contributions on the keyboard, while for this album he actually wrote two of the band’s best songs, ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ and ‘Us and Them’. For all the debate about which star front man/guitarist was the true genius, it is most remarkable that four men in their twenties got together to pluck such fantastic ideas from their imagination, and set them to tape.
Given that so much of the best music is made by collaborative bands, rather than through the effort of a single individual, it is surprising that less attention is given to what made them tick at their best than to the rivalries that emerged when the partnership became less productive. Who cares, after all, whether Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp keep in touch now that their Arsenal strike partnership is over ?
So, Rest In Peace Richard Wright - essential element in one of the most remarkable bands in the history of music.