Remembering Richard Wright: one year later

Today marks the first anniversary of a profoundly sad day in the history of Pink Floyd. Last year on this day, keyboard genius Richard Wright left this world forever after a short and unpublicized battle with cancer. Rick’s death, while very sadly serving as somewhat of a footnote in daily entertainment news of the day, was felt deeply by Pink Floyd’s vast fanbase the world over, not only because this quiet, enigmatic and highly underrated figure of rock’s greatest band was all of a sudden no longer with us, but additionally sad because Rick’s death effectively meant that Pink Floyd, as a continuing unit, was firmly over.

Rick was the second member of Pink Floyd to pass on; Syd Barrett, after spending over 30 years out of the public eye, died in 2006 at the age of 60. But while Barrett’s health was known to be declining for several years, Rick’s passing was much less expected, and came about in a period where Rick had been effectively revitalized as an active musician.

After the Live 8 reunion of 2005, Rick would subsequently contribute organ and backing vocals to David Gilmour’s 2006 solo album On An Island. Having already obtained tickets to see David Gilmour perform in Los Angeles in April that year, you can only imagine my excitement when David’s touring band was announced, and at the top of the bill: Richard Wright (keyboards/vocals.) My dad and I made a fantastic trip to Hollywood that April to see the show (I had to pull a few strings to make the trip work around a final exam), and it was nothing short of phenomenal. Being able to see Gilmour and Wright perform together on stage was something I never realistically imagined myself seeing live, but on April 20, 2006, it happened.

Rick in particular performed amazingly. Appropriately understated as usual, his Hammond organ playing (especially on Echoes) was as fluid as it had ever been. After his periodically trying years as a member of Pink Floyd who was often seen as a background figure (either by his own will or because he was pushed there,) he clearly seemed to enjoy performing live more than he ever had in his life. His interviews on the Remember That Night DVD seem to confirm this. He sang more lead vocals in more songs in the show probably than he ever sang in one Floyd show (Time, Arnold Layne, Echoes, and covering for Roger on Comfortably Numb), and this was clearly very satisfying for him considering he once said that he never really liked his own singing voice. His voice had deepened considerably over the years, but it was no less very moving whenever his voice was heard. It was no suprise to me at all that when David introduced the band, the name Richard Wright spawned rapturous applause and a standing ovation.

Two years later, after being picked up from work, I was told the devastating news. I remember for the next few days, I found it rather difficult to listen to the sound of a Hammond organ in any musical context. Sadder still was that the instrumental solo album Rick had been writing, and had at the time found a producer for, would never see the light of day.

Richard Wright was a major hero of mine, and remains so to this day. He was not exactly a virtuoso like Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman, but he didn’t strive to be, and quite frankly I’m glad he didn’t. Rick Wright was perhaps the most tasteful rock keyboardist of all time, one whom without Pink Floyd would simply have never worked the way it did. I feel incredibly privileged to be given the duties of recreating Rick’s brilliant work as a member of Pigs. Godspeed Richard.

I asked my bandmates in Pigs to say a few words about Rick on this very sad anniversary. Here’s what they had to say about the late, great Richard Wright:

K.C. Hingley (bass/vocals)

The Floyd could hardly have sounded like the Floyd, or been relevant in the psychedelic and progressive rock movements of the ’60s and ’70s without a pioneering keyboard player. Rick was able to work with some of the best-sounding gear available at the time like the Farfisa organ etc. Unlike some other prog-rockers, he was far from being a virtuoso, but he seemed comfortable with his role as mood-setter to the David’s lead-lines and Roger’s lyrics. He was able to find the feel of the song and accentuate it: consider the range of style and tone involved in Shine on you Crazy Diamond I-V as compared to the following song on the album, Welcome to the Machine. Shine On is thick with synth-strings and organ, which makes the song seem angelic as it laments a lost comrade, where his crunchy synth in Machine creates a din of industrial factory noise, supporting the ironic lyrics about art being mechanized.

As the band’s career progressed into the Wall and Final Cut years we see Rick, for whatever reasons, being pushed to the background and finally even leaving the band for The Final Cut. Those two albums are conspicuously lacking in the ambience department, especially in The Final Cut, where even David seems like a guest performer on a Waters solo album. On TFC, Michael Kamen’s piano, though admirably played, doesn’t fill space and create feeling the way the organ and synths do on earlier albums like Wish You Were Here. I don’t mean to disparage those two albums, I like them because they find Gilmour and Rog at the peak of their abilities, but I doubt they would have arrived at that point in their careers without Rick’s work on earlier albums, helping to develop their sound. This is especially true of the early days of the band, where Rick was the only one with a working knowledge of his instrument.

Rick died far too young, though his sound will, I’m sure, live forever.

K.C. aka Rog

Josh Szczepanowski (guitar/vocals)

It seemed inevitable that Richard would be the first to go. He appeared to be a quiet spirit, withdrawn, quintessentially British – but without the bull-headed stubbornness that has kept his former band-mates going well into the 21st century.
None of us ever met Richard – and in fact, only one person I know has even seen him from afar. But the songs he helped create changed everything for two generations of music lovers, and seem destined to change it all again for a third pretty soon. It’s easy to feel like we did know him; after all, music is undoubtedly the story of the soul, and over the years he told a lot of great stories. Nothing says so much about a person as music they have created.
It is a shame that a great deal of his contribution to Pink Floyd has been undermined or forgotten, both by the other members of his band and by the record-buying public. Roger has of course dismissed Richard’s contributions for years, Nick has stayed planted firmly on the fence, and even Gilmour – who, aside from being Richard’s most steady employer, was also to all accounts his friend – has been known to belittle the work Richard did in the band.
It’s funny the way a person’s attitude can change the story so completely – for it is obvious in hind-sight that all of the Floyd’s best work, and later much of Gilmour’s, was done with Richard sitting at the keyboards. His compositional skills can’t be questioned: his work on Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here are beyond reproach. And Animals, though it seems to be all about the guitars, would have been seriously one-dimensional without Richard’s deft touch at the Hammond. If he hadn’t been so soft-spoken, perhaps he would’ve staked a stronger claim.
Now that he is gone, of course, the world is happy to embrace Richard’s work. Still, I would encourage anyone who thinks they are familiar to dig a little bit deeper. Do yourself a favour and have a listen to his delicate ballads on Obscured by Clouds, enjoy his performance of his piece Breakthrough in Gilmour’s Meltdown concert, have a listen to his classical playing on Ummagumma. Even his solo albums (the completely forgotten Wet Dream, and the overlooked Broken China) have a wistful, timid sound that is nonetheless as compelling as anything Roger or Gilmour have come up with.
Richard’s passing will never have the same effect on the public as the passing of people like John Lennon or Hendrix did, but I suspect he’d prefer it that way. He was never a towering icon of rock, but Richard Wright changed music forever, and he won’t be forgotten any time soon.

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