Pink Floyd fans have long argued over which band member was the most important. Some say it was Syd Barrett, the founding member who gave the group its name and guided the then-unknown band in maniacally imaginative directions. Others argue that it's Roger Waters, the bassist who took over as lead songwriter after Barrett left the band in 1968; Waters led Pink Floyd through its most successful period. Then there are the David Gilmour fans, who say that the lead guitarist was most responsible for Pink Floyd's widely influential and groundbreaking sound. But for me, the heart and soul of Pink Floyd was always keyboardist Richard Wright, who died today at age 65.
I first heard the music of Pink Floyd, thanks to an older brother, when I was in elementary school in the 1970s. The album was Dark Side of the Moon. All these years later, I can still vividly remember listening to the record on headphones, with my eyes popping at the mindblowing sound I heard. Dark Side showed me that music could be so much more than the standard three-chord pop dreck on the radio. It could be transporting.
Of all the incredible sounds on Dark Side of the Moon — and there are many — it was Richard Wright's simple and beautifully elegant piano and organ that struck me the most. One of the songs he wrote for that album was the hypnotic and poignant "Us and Them."
While Wright's contemporaries — keyboardists like Rick Wakeman of Yes or Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer — were focused more on synthesizers as a driving (and often brash) force in music, Wright chose a more restrained style. He loved what a simple organ or piano line could bring to a song. His tasteful mix of jazz and neoclassical forms proved to be the perfect complement to the blues- and folk-flavored psychedelic rock of his bandmates. It's not that Wright didn't love synthesizers; some of his best work was largely synth-based. (Check out Wish You Were Here for proof.) But Wright's voice was always one of calm and control. It's one of the reasons the band rarely allowed extended jams during live shows: The songs were composed with such precise melodies, they didn't really lend themselves to free-form improvisations. Wright had a lot to do with that.
Richard Wright inspired me to be a musician. My parents forced me to take piano lessons when I was 6 and finally allowed me to quit when I was 9 because I loathed it so much. Wright made me want to return to the keyboard. More than 30 years later, the music I play and love today is shaped greatly by his music and what he brought to Pink Floyd.
When Waters and Wright left Pink Floyd and the band more or less fell apart for good in the mid-'80s, Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason soldiered on with the largely forgettable 1987 album A Momentary Lapse of Reason. It was obvious to most longtime fans that Waters' lyrics were no longer steering the ship. But for me, the most glaring omission was Wright's piano and organ. When the regrouped Pink Floyd returned in 1994 with The Division Bell, Waters was still gone, but Wright had returned — and the band's new music was noticeably improved.
Like any Pink Floyd fan, I've long hoped the band would tour again. I'm not ashamed — okay, it's a little embarrassing — to say that I got misty-eyed when Waters, Gilmour, Mason and Wright reunited briefly in 2005 for a Live 8 performance. It sparked a lot of rumors and speculation that Pink Floyd would finally hit the road again. But now, with Wright's death, those hopes have come to an end.
Wright wrote my all-time favorite Pink Floyd song, one with a title suited to commemorate his passing. I'd like to think he's playing now in the "Great Gig in the Sky."