The Pink Floyd Keyboardist Explores Depression in “Broken China”

By J. Sullivan

Pink Floyd, England’s quintessential art-rock group, will never be considered the hardest-working band in show business. This is something charter member keyboardist Rick Wright understands intimately.

Here they were – this behemoth of a touring band, fronted by singer -guitarist David Gilmour – wrapping up their 1994 stadium tour, promoting their “Division Bell” album, looking forward to making financial investments and a nice long hibernation …and Wright has got this fire in his belly. He’s raring to go. To go solo. At least with the Floyd on its inevitable hiatus, which is ongoing.

“Invariably, as you know,” says Wright, “when we finish a tour there seems to be nothing heard of us for a couple of years, maybe more, [sometimes] three years before an album is actually being done again.”

Wright’s initial plan was to do an instrumental album. By admission, he’s never been much of a singer or lyricist. He had made two albums previously, the first, 1978’s “Wet Dream,” a minor gem. “Broken China,” this new one, which features Sinead O’Connor on two tracks, comes out Jan. 14 on EMI.

“I hadn’t any idea of a concept, if you like, for the album,” he says, on the phone from New York, “but I had a lot of music inside me that I wanted to express outside the context of the Floyd.” Also, he adds, “I’ve often said I’m not that comfortable with my voice, for many reasons. One, I didn’t like the tone of it and, two, Dave Gilmour, being the lead singer, that was his role. I was very dubious about singing on this album.”

But the idea of an instrumental album fell by the wayside when Wright was steamrolled with a topic that hit very close to home: clinical depression. His girlfriend (now his wife), an American named Millie, suffered from it.

“I was very much involved,” Wright says, “trying to help as much as possible. It was, of course, a very frightening and very emotional time, to witness this happening. When it came time to do the record, luckily, there was a subject I could try and express my feelings about.” Wright catches himself on the word “luckily” – no, he does not mean it that way. It’s just that he had a subject that matched the melancholic character of the music.

“A lot of the things I write would be melancholic,” agrees Wright. “And melancholic is an emotion that is certainly about sadness, but it’s also about peace as well at other times. The Pink Floyd, largely due to Roger’s lyric input, has been known to deal with the dark side of life, “The Dark Side of the Moon” and “The Wall” particularly. But as a person, I’m not preoccupied with it. Everyone says, `Are you carrying on the Pink Floyd tradition of writing about dark subjects?’ and, actually, it’s the first time in my life that something did happen to me which was dark, which was sad, which was frightening and therefore I needed to express that.”

The music is, no surprise, keyboard based. But it has not so much the bombastic qualities associated with Pink Floyd – especially former leader Roger Waters – as the plaintive piano tones and contemplative, rich textures of early 1970s Floyd. It has, if you will, echoes of “Echoes,” the gorgeous, meandering side-long suite from “Meddle.”

“Certainly, tracks like `Hidden Fear’ and `Blue Room in Venice’ do,” says Wright. “This was a side of me that I suspect may not be used in the Floyd so much. And `Echoes’ is interesting because it is a very thematic piece of music, something that I particularly enjoy creating. This album was really planned out on a chart on a wall: writing down what sounds we wanted, what music we wanted. It was actually mapped out completely from beginning to end, rather than just writing a song, overdubbing and moving on.”

Wright knew what he wanted to express, but he also knew he needed a lyricist to help him do so. Enter Anthony Moore, a longtime friend, lyricist, computer programmer and an occasional Floyd contributor.

“He knows my wife,” says Wright; “we’re all very close.” Moore gave shape to the feelings Wright and his future wife shared.

“Broken China” is a relatively somber affair. It’s broken up into four segments. “The first part is childhood,” says Wright, “where she had traumas, traumas that she hid that actually caused the depression. The second part is my attempt to express her adolescent escape. The third one, obviously, was the depression. And the fourth one is the breakthrough. On the last song, `Breakthrough,’ with Sinead singing, well, the lyrics say what happened.”

The song carries a feeling of triumph as O’Connor sings of being like a banner unfurled – “the self you’ve never known.” The last lines run: “They’re never going to make it easy/Of this you can be sure/ You feel untied, beautiful/And loved for evermore.”

O’Connor, says Wright, was attracted to the project because “when she heard the music she obviously was sympathetic to the album and the ideas. She has often stated out her problems in childhood. But the reason I asked was not because of that – the reason was simply the quality of her voice: tremendous, unique, different.”

Was there ever a fear of Millie’s feeling exploited by the work?

“It was a very difficult time, for her and for me,” says Wright. “But knowing what the result was, which was a complete cure, I could therefore write about the bad times knowing it ends up good.”

Wright had been through his own ups and downs. He’d been effectively fired in 1979 during Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” by Waters. “Awful,” says Wright of the period. “I wasn’t suffering from clinical depression, but I was depressed. Roger’s ego was getting bigger and bigger. He said he wanted me out because I hadn’t produced any material: `If he doesn’t leave, I’m going to withdraw “The Wall” and make it a solo project.’ Dave and Nick [Mason, the drummer] were very scared too. It was a nightmare for all us.”

Nevertheless, Wright played on “The Wall” tour as, essentially, a contract worker. He did not appear on the final Pink Floyd album with Waters, “The Final Cut.” Wright rejoined Floyd in concert in 1987 for the “Momentary Lapse of Reason” tour and contributed to “The Division Bell” album.

He remains a member in good standing. “I don’t hold any grudges,” he says.

So, there is a Pink Floyd? “Pink Floyd is not finished,” says Wright. “I’m sure next year we’ll be getting together again, working on the new album. I’m sure of that. I’ve heard rumors that Dave is getting itchy.”

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