Rick Wright’s beard, 1969
Rick Wright’s transformation in the two years from early 1968 to the end of 1969 was pretty extrordinary. There are two points of reference from which to examine this change – both his song writing and his physical appearance.
Early 1968 saw the departure of Syd Barrett from Pink Floyd. Rick Wright was, of all the members of Pink Floyd, the closest to Barrett – both as friend and musical collaborator. It is Rick who sings almost all the harmony vocals to Syd’s lead on the early material. After Barrett had left the group, Wright and Roger Waters briefly attempted to continue the pop orientated song structures of the early group. After a series of commercial failures they quickly abandoned the format for a more improvisational/compositional approach that the group had always been experimenting with concurrently with pop songwriting. The contrast of 1969′s material with 1968′s is almost startling. Wright’s perfect psychedelic snapshots “Remember A Day”, “It Would Be So Nice” and “Paintbox” would soon be replaced by the dense organ and drum (with miscellaneous echo box guitar noise and the occasional gong solo) soundtrack sprawl of the More soundtrack (work chosen by Pink Floyd because “..it said the right thing about drugs.” as Wright stated when interviewed on the subject) and the flat-out bizaare post Cage compositional work of Sysyphus parts 1 to 4.
The group continued to be a rock band live in the traditional sense, but on the 1969 double album Ummagumma the concessions of playing for an audience were both addressed (album one serves as a live greatest hits package) and dismissed (album two is, in effect, four separate studio solo projects). This seems to be a recurring theme in the musical path of Pink Floyd.
Wright’s contribution to Ummagumma gave the project a serious post avant classical leaning, the most “serious” of the four members projects. David Gilmour contributes a (soon to be) patented acoustic ditty, guitar noises and then tags on a song, Nick Mason contributes a lengthy (but essential) drum solo with flute headers and a temple block solo and Roger Waters contributes a low key conventional acoustic song (to which he would later endlessly ruminate on future works – The Body soundtrack, “If” from Atom Heart Mother and any number of better known, later compositions) and the ground-breaking (though seemingly tounge in cheek) “Several Species of Animals Gather Togther In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict” that employed both tape loops and tape speed manipulation in a fashion unheard of in rock music to that point. But it is Wright’s compositions that stand out as the most adventurous/dubious in the context of the past history of the band.
The concept of album two of Ummagumma is largely credited to Wright, who by some inside accounts, at that time had decided to move on to more “serious” compositional techniques. Wrights’ four part composition Sysyphus employed a battery of percussion onslaught, obvious two fisted piano technique, loose and evocative sound sculptures and also employed use of the Mellotron – I believe this to be unique to the entire Pink Floyd canon. Certainly this is the only Pink Floyd composition that casts this early electronic instrument as the lead. Sysyphus begins with a dark, cloudy opening theme that is characterized by a single note melody (this is a convention of the Mellotron, consider it a feature) that soon erodes into a swirl of shimmering piano glissando. Soon, however, things get nasty and the sound quickly becomes that of an Englishman smashing his piano from the inside out. There is some great held note two fist smash happening by the end of this section. Section three opens with said piano in serious prepared modification mode. Sound wise it is evocative of a couple large metallic spiders crawling under your bed waiting to attack. Finally, they do and it erupts in to an avalanche of persussion and ends with a bath of reverb. Section four employs early primitive synthesizer wheeze, field recordings of bird calls and out of tune Mellotron gurgle. The overall effect, and for whatever reason I’ve never seen this speculated before, is that of ocassional traffic passing a large rural field. You wait, an ocassional car passes, but really this section is content to go nowhere and “merely” hang out for a while. A nice baked listen. The composition ends as it began with a repeat of the opening Mellotron theme after a quick restatement of all other themes from this composition (this device was later employed by Pink Floyd at the closing of the “Atom Heart Mother Suite” and “Allen’s Psychedelic Breakfast” a good trick, apparently, is worth repeating). To accompny the “long hair” aspect of this music, indeed, by that point Rick had very, very long hair. And a very, very long beard too.