“Wish You Were Here”: The Art of Absence

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Two men, one of them in flames, shake hands in a studio back lot. The image of a nude woman emerges from a red veil. A diver breaks the waves of a lake without creating a splash or ripple in the water. Those evocative images form the elements of the album art for Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, released 40 years ago September 12. Wish You Were Here, a rueful meditation on absence and loss, is as memorable for its artful packaging as it is for its music.

Pink Floyd released Wish You Were Here in the wake of the massive commercial success of The Dark Side of The Moon, released in 1973. By the time the band started recording Wish You Were Here, the Floyd (David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Roger Waters, and Richard Wright) was experiencing enormous pressure and dissolution. Before The Dark Side of the Moon, the Floyd was a popular progressive rock band with a cult following. The Dark Side of the Moon made the Floyd mainstream rock superstars. The band struggled with all the demands that fame thrust upon them, including the rigors of touring, making their fans happy, and living up to the expectations of record executives. An inability to handle fame contributed to an internal dissension that began to slowly destroy Pink Floyd (although the collapse of the Roger Waters-era Floyd would not occur for years yet).

The Floyd responded with an album that is both a sarcastic slap in the face to the music industry (through songs such as “Have a Cigar” and “Welcome to the Machine”) and a sad farewell to the band they could never be again (“Wish You Were Here” and “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” understood to be about ex-Floyd member Syd Barrett but also having broader meanings about the loss of a different time in the band’s history).

As was the case with The Dark Side of the Moon, the album packaging was (and remains) a sensory experience, including a black shrink-wrap, stunning front-and-back covers, mysterious inner sleeve, sticker, and a postcard. The theme of absence unified most of the elements. For instance, the woman in the inner sleeve is absent from first viewing. You must strain to find her form in the image of a red veil.

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The diver in the postcard insert is mostly absent from view, and ripples are absent from the lake where his body breaks the water.

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In the book 100 Best Album Covers: The Stories Behind the Sleeves, Wish You Were Here designers (and long-time Floyd collaborators) Aubrey Powell and Storm Thorgerson provided more insight into the connection between the postcard and the theme:

The title clearly derives from the theme of absence. It is an ironic request that implies the opposite, referring to postcards sent from abroad by people who are probably rather pleased that you’re not around. Your absence is what is wished for, not your presence. Accordingly a postcard came with every vinyl package.

In the context of an insincere postcard greeting, the album title indeed can be interpreted as a kiss-off to everyone that Pink Floyd wanted to keep at arm’s length as the pressures of fame began to crush the band. “Wish you were here” could easily mean, “Wish you were not part of my life anymore. Wish I could turn back the clock when I could make myself absent from you.”

The most famous element of the album packing consists of the front cover, which depicts two men shaking hands in a studio back lot. They both symbolize stereotypical corporate executives — the type who ignorantly ask, “Oh by the way, which one’s Pink?” in the song “Have a Cigar” which opens Side 2 of the album. They are dressed in conservative suits and dark shoes. Both of the white men have well coiffed hair. But one of them is in flames. As Powell and Thorgerson explained,

The theme of the album duly surfaced as “absence” — emotional and physical absence. In relationships, when people withdraw their commitment — their emotional presence — and become absent, it is often for fear of getting hurt or being “burned.” Hence a burning man — a man on fire.

To create the effect of the burning man, the design team doused stuntman Ronnie Rondell (wearing an asbestos suit and wig) with gasoline and set him on fire. According to Powell and Thorgerson, the wind blew the flames against his face, burning his real moustache. Rondell was philosophical about the shoot, saying, “It was pretty easy to do, not too life threatening, and paid well.”

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An out-take from the album cover shoot.

On the album’s back cover, another corporate type — this time a businessman in a suit and a hat — offers a copy of Wish You Were Here, leaving no doubt as to how Pink Floyd felt about the record company machinery the band was feeding. In the words of Powell and Thorgerson, “[The image] embodied Floyd’s critique of the corporate side of the music business. Biting the hand that feeds, perhaps.”

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Wish You Were Here became Pink Floyd’s fastest selling album ever. In the United States, the album shot to Number One on the Billboard charts in its second week of release. The album received a mixed reception, as some critics did not know what to make of the sprawling, epic sound of lengthy tracks such as “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” (clocking in at 25 minutes and broken into two parts). But like the best of Pink Floyd’s albums created during the 1970s, Wish You Were Here would gain a place in the pantheon of great rock albums, routinely making “greatest album of all time” lists from publications such as Q and Rolling Stone. By 2004, the album had sold 13 million copies. In 2011, Wish You Were Here was released in the form of a lavish box set that included a version in 5.1 surround sound.

When I listen to Wish You Were Here today, I feel sadness, absence, and loss in the music and lyrics, especially the title track:

How I wish, how I wish you were here.

We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year,

Running over the same old ground.

What have we found?

The same old fears.

Wish you were here.

By expressing the vibe of the songs through visual storytelling, the album packaging endures as a powerful complement to the music. Think about how Pink Floyd intended to tell its story through music, words, and artwork the next time you reduce Wish You Were Here to a digital commodity on Spotify.

Here are other albums I’ve profiled in my series on memorable album covers:

Ray Charles: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music

Peter Gabriel: Peter Gabriel

Al Green: Greatest Hits

Led Zeppelin: Houses of the Holy

Led Zeppelin: Untitled

Willie Nelson: Red Headed Stranger

Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon

Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers

Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run

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