Retrospective: Welcome to the Machine

The song that gave me what I could call an actual conversion experience was Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine” (1975). I first heard it on Rock 101 WGIR in the early ’80s, and by the end I realized there was more to music than the top-40 garbage I consumed daily on 98.5 WROR. This was uncharted territory for my young ears. In the space of seven and a half minutes, Pink Floyd showed me music’s true potential.

I drank the ambience, falling under its spell. Years later I’d learn the nuts and bolts: the pulsating sounds were made by a VCS 3, a voltage controlled studio used increasingly by progressive ’70s bands. As early as 1971, The Who had used it in “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, and Led Zeppelin in “Four Sticks”. In “Welcome to the Machine”, Floyd used it to provide the distinctive bass sound that kept throbbing in my head days after triggering my epiphany. The band was pushing something insistent.

But I had no idea what at the time. I latched on to bits of the lyrics with the self-indulgence of fifteen-year olds. “Welcome to the Machine” was welcoming me, personally, to a better world of music. Come to find out it’s a very angry song, about greedy record producers and band managers. The machine was the corporate system telling musicians what to do, and what to dream, in order to become successful. Apparently this system had a hand in Syd Barrett’s psychological breakdown. (Barrett was Pink Floyd’s original lead vocalist who left the band in 1968, when schizophrenia, drug use, mood swings, and even catatonic trances overwhelmed him.) While the song isn’t about Barrett specifically, the Wish You Were Here album is something of a dedication to him.

The nameless young man of the song is waking up to a system that cripples artistic expression in the name of promoting it. He believed himself to be a rebel — “You bought a guitar to punish your ma, you didn’t like school, and you know you’re nobody’s fool” — but his contrarian ideas were fostered precisely to make him achieve fame and feed the machine. Rebellion: the means to money, expensive restaurants, and Jaguars. Reward: measured by consumption.

Granted this isn’t the deepest message. It’s an old story, and artists willingly sell out all the time. Genesis did so in the mid-’80s, and Aerosmith too. But few artists protest the cycle with such conviction. “Welcome to the Machine” is Pink Floyd’s middle-finger to what brought them to where they were. When I first heard it, the machine was an ominous new world daring me into its bosom. It later crystallized into the dirty politics of consumption. Either way, it was a milestone. And I’d just discovered Pink Floyd. What more cause to rejoice?

 

Listen here and sing.

šŸŽ¶

Welcome my son, welcome to the machine
Where have you been?
It’s alright, we know where you’ve been
You’ve been in the pipeline filling in time
Provided with toys and ‘Scouting for Boys’
You bought a guitar to punish your ma
And you didn’t like school
And you know you’re nobody’s fool
So welcome to the machine

Welcome my son, welcome to the machine
What did you dream?
It’s alright, we told you what to dream
You dreamed of a big star
He played a mean guitar
He always ate in the Steak Bar
He loved to drive in his Jaguar
So welcome to the machine

šŸŽ¶

From the album Wish You Were Here, 1975.

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