Pink Floyd’s Rick Wright: 12 Essential Songs
Throughout Pink Floyd’s three-decade-plus history, the band employed only five full-time members. Three of those men had their turn helming the project, each one inflecting it with a unique flavor. Syd Barrett reigned over the madcap, bluesy space-rock era; Roger Waters ruled the proggy, introspective concept-album days; and David Gilmour ran the atmospheric, textured and sometimes instrumental later phase. With Barrett, Waters and Gilmour commanding the spotlight, both in the band and in the press, it’s easy to undervalue the contributions of the other two members, drummer Nick Mason and keyboard player Richard Wright.
Wright, who co-founded the Floyd in 1965 and played on all but one album in the band’s discography, died 10 years ago today at the age of 65 after a battle with cancer. “It is hard to overstate the importance of his musical voice in the Pink Floyd of the Sixties and Seventies,” Waters said at the time in a statement. Wright’s jazzy piano and organ lines, his early songwriting credits and his venerable vocal performances were all hallmarks of Pink Floyd’s sound. “He was my musical partner and my friend,” Gilmour said. “In the welter of arguments about who or what was Pink Floyd, Rick’s enormous input was frequently forgotten.” Here we revisit 12 great moments in Wright’s career.
“Pow R. Toc H.” (1967)
It was 1967, and the Floyd were holed up in Abbey Road recording their debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Next door, the Beatles were working on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “They were God-like figures to us,” Mason said of the Fab Four, who let Floyd watch as they recorded “Lovely Rita.” Back behind the controls, Barrett & Co. were equally driven by experimental urges, which are on full display on the first of Piper’s two instrumental tracks, “Pow R. Toc H.” The song features early examples of beat-boxing and other out-there vocal effects, but its main melody comes via Wright’s improvisational piano playing, which eventually gives way to a more tense organ freakout.
“Paint Box” (1967)
“Paint Box” is a rare musical glimpse into the personality of the man his bandmates described as “quiet, introverted.” The song, which was originally released as a B side to Barrett’s “Apples and Oranges” single and later appeared on the compilation album Relics, is a somber psychedelic affair in which Wright recalls a drunken evening of feeling out of place, singing, “But in the scene I should have been/Far away.”
Wright only received sole writing credit on 10 of Pink Floyd’s 217 songs. In the early days, he had a fondness for what Mason termed “wistful songs, very much in the Barrett tradition.” Two such tunes appear on A Saucerful of Secrets, the band’s second studio album, and last to feature Barrett. “See-Saw” is a dreamy ballad of childhood bliss gone awry. Wright sings lead and contributes piano, Farfisa organ, xylophone and mellotron, while Gilmour and producer Norman Smith provide languorous backing vocals.
“Sysyphus (Parts 1–4)” (1969)
Pink Floyd were on a roll in the late Sixties, and fewer than five months after More, they released Ummagumma. The double album, their second release of 1969, was built around an interesting conceit: the first LP was a live album and the second, at the suggestion of Wright, had the four artists each split a half-side to make “real music,” a solo work without the involvement of any other member. Ummagumma memorably opens with a live take of “Astronomy Domine,” which just two years earlier kicked off their debut. On Piper, Barrett sings lead while Wright provides a higher vocal harmony; live, Wright sings the main melody while Gilmour takes on the harmony. On the solo tracks, one can suss out what each member contributed to the band’s energy and sound. Wright’s “Sysyphus” is a four-part suite, which he later deemed “pretentious.” It starts out with an ominous orchestral overture, which leads into a beautiful, impressionistic piano piece that sounds like something out of the Debussy songbook. The work eventually takes a left turn into Stockhausen-inspired mayhem, but in the calm before the storm, Wright exemplifies his knack for blending the somber with the nostalgic.
“Summer ’68” (1970)
Appearing on Side Two of 1970’s Atom Heart Mother, “Summer ’68” is Wright’s most ambitious and successful solo credit. Side One of the album was devoted to the 23-minute title track, whereas the flip side followed in the general Ummagumma mold, with Waters, Gilmour and Wright each spearheading a track. Wright’s baroque suite features extended brass sections and piano curlicues that dance atop the melody. The music is upbeat, but the lyrics find Wright in a wistful mood, reflecting on road life: “My friends are lying in the sun/I wish that I was there/Tomorrow brings another town/Another girl like you.”
In his Rolling Stone review of Meddle, Jean-Charles Costa raved that “Echoes” is “a 23-minute Pink Floyd aural extravaganza that takes up all of Side Two [and] recaptures, within a new musical framework, some of the old themes and melody lines from earlier albums.” The epic song opens with submarine-like pings, courtesy of Wright’s piano being fed through a Leslie speaker, and builds instrumentally until the three-minute mark, when Wright and Gilmore share vocal duties, harmonizing together. “Echoes” served as the opening and closing theme to the band’s famed 1972 film, Live at Pompeii, and in 2016, when Gilmour returned to perform at the Roman amphitheater 45 years after the initial trip, he told Rolling Stone, “It would be lovely to play ‘Echoes’ here, but I wouldn’t do that without Rick. There’s something that’s specifically so individual about the way that Rick and I play in that.” In 2011, RS readers named “Echoes” Pink Floyd’s fifth best song.
“The Great Gig in the Sky” (1973)
Wright’s contributions to Dark Side of the Moon include co-lead vocals on “Time” and the music to “Us and Them.” But his key moment on the legendary concept album might be emotional interlude “The Great Gig in the Sky,” which was written by Wright and credited solely to him until 2005. Clare Torry, who was later granted co-songwriting credit for her wordless vocals, adds an essential element with her soaring and soulful belting. Wright humbly recalled the song as “just me playing in the studio, playing some chords, and probably Dave or Roger saying, ‘Hmm … that sounds nice. Maybe we could use that for this part of the album.’ ” Waters was a bit more effusive about “The Great Gig,” saying, “It’s a great chord sequence. ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ and the piano part on ‘Us and Them,’ in my view, are the best things that Rick did — they’re both really beautiful.”
“Us and Them” (1973)
Early in their career, Pink Floyd specialized in soundtracks, contributing music to 1968’s The Committee, 1969’s More and 1972’s La Vallée (which led to the band’s album Obscured by Clouds). They also presented a handful of songs to Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni for inclusion in his 1969 film, Zabriskie Point. One of these was Wright’s “The Violent Sequence,” which the director passed on; according to Waters, Antonioni said of the song, “It’s beautiful, but too sad. It makes me think of church!” The piece was shelved until writing was underway for Dark Side of the Moon, when Waters added lyrics to it and the song became “Us and Them.” The chorus, on which Wright can be heard singing backing vocals, is a rousing emotional wallop.
At this point in Pink Floyd’s history, Waters’ grip was tightening and each successive album until his departure, following 1983’s The Final Cut, felt more and more like a Waters solo album. All but one track on Animals is credited solely to him, but the other members still make their presence felt. “Sheep,” begins with bleating sounds and 90 seconds of Wright soloing on his Fender Rhodes. The Supertramp-esque noodling is some of Wright’s most virtuosic playing on record and one of his last great moments in the band’s classic incarnation. Wright was contributing less and less to the band, with Animals being the first album for which he received no songwriting credit. This led to tension further down the road.
“Against the Odds” (1978)
During the 1977 In the Flesh Tour, intraband tensions were ramping up. Waters began arriving at each venue alone and departing immediately after the show. Royalties were earned on a per-song basis, causing more conflict. Wright threatened to quit after the tour and began work on what would become his 1978 solo debut, Wet Dream. “Doing this album has helped me get back my creative energies for the next Floyd thing,” Wright said at the time. The most affecting song from the album is “Against the Odds,” co-written with his then-wife, Juliette. As Juliette Gale, she had been a singer in one of the early bands that would go on to become Pink Floyd, and the two married in 1964. “Against the Odds” is an adult-contemporary torch song about a struggling relationship. “I don’t know/Why we go on so/I don’t want to fight no more tonight,” Wright laments. By 1982, the two divorced.
“Wearing the Inside Out” (1994)
During sessions for The Wall, Wright was allegedly struggling with cocaine addiction and was forced out of the group by Waters, who refused to release the album with the keyboardist still in the group. “I think [Waters] has great ideas. But he is an extremely difficult man to work with,” Wright told Rolling Stone in 1987. Once Waters left in 1985, and following an ugly legal battle over who could claim the name Pink Floyd, Wright was hired back for the remaining two albums recorded during his lifetime. The latter was 1994’s The Division Bell, on which Wright sings his first lead vocal since “Time” on Dark Side. “Wearing the Inside Out” is a slow burner written by Wright, with lyrics by Anthony Moore, and sung as a duet with Gilmour. Choral backing vocals and breathy sax solos round out the tune. Though Wright didn’t write the words, hearing them from his mouth is convincing. The opening lines sound like autobiography as he sings, “From morning to night I stayed out of sight/Didn’t recognize I’d become/No more than alive/I’d barely survive/In a word … overrun.”
“Autumn ’68” (2014)
According to Wright, Pink Floyd recorded five or six hours of unreleased material during the making of The Division Bell. Twenty years later, Gilmour and Mason used the tapes as inspiration for Pink Floyd’s final album, The Endless River, a tribute to Wright. “I think this record is a good way of recognizing a lot of what [Wright] does and how his playing was at the heart of the Pink Floyd sound,” Mason said at the time. “Listening back to the sessions, it really brought home to me what a special player he was.” Wright appears posthumously on the track “Autumn ’68” via a recording of him playing the legendary organ at the Royal Albert Hall in the year of the song’s title. It’s a fitting send-off: a gorgeous, soothing instrumental soundscape that shows just how much his abilities inspired his bandmates during their lengthy collaboration.