Last September I was lucky enough to see Pink Floyd’s second masterpiece ‘The Wall’ live at Wembley Stadium. Presiding over proceedings was Floyd bassist Roger Waters; the man having commandeered the place to build a huge monument to his own ego. Ninety thousand people attended. Usually the bassist is the most overlooked member of a band but Waters’ strength was that he was an ideas man. He acted as chief lyricist, creating the concepts behind the band’s most famous albums, and sang on many of their songs.
That show alone cost more than £200,000 just to stage. There were twenty-metre tall puppets, flying pigs, pop-out hotel rooms, nazi rallies, giant marching hammers, exploding planes flying across the stadium and a giant wall five stories high that came crashing down on top of us, while Waters himself stood onstage, tall and imposing in a black leather coat, spitting bile and hatred. He even fired a machine gun loaded with blanks at us at one point. We loved it.
But there was one little complaint I had. Less a complaint than a wish. As Waters and his band performed Pink Floyd’s signature song Comfortably Numb in front of a projected galaxy of stars; as scores of stoners lit up and the smell of hash began to percolate the stadium; as Water’s touring guitarist appeared at the top of the giant five-story-high wall that towered over the pitch and began the song’s legendary solo with a single squealing guitar harmonic, there was not a single person in the stadium who didn’t secretly think: David should be playing this.
David Gilmour, Pink Floyd’s lead guitarist, is the opposite side of the coin to Roger Waters. If Waters was the band’s mind and body, Gilmour was its heart and soul. Waters favoured style over substance, showmanship and storytelling, but Gilmour was the one able to back it up with raw, unrefined musical talent, which he had in buckets. He is out and away my favourite guitarist, favouring quality over quantity of notes. He plays so that each note interweaves perfectly with its position in the song and it is a beautiful sound. His singing voice is soft and mellow, while Waters’ is harsh and bitter. As it was, it when Pink Floyd split up (initiated by Waters, who recently admitted he may have been a bit of a twat about it) that the differences between the two men became most apparent. While Waters put on a show, Gilmour put on a concert.
My second top ten album is Live in Gdansk, a recording of a 2006 concert when fifty thousand people packed into a dilapidated Polish shipyard to hear Gilmour and his band play, backed up by the Baltic Philharmonic Orchestra along with fellow Floyd member Richard Wright on keyboard. It would be Wright’s last show before his death two years later.
I love this album. Among other things, it lets me cheat, because as part of the setlist, Gilmour played his solo album ‘On an Island’ in its entirety. ‘On an Island’ is worth an honourable mention itself. It’s an album that does what it says on the tin, a combination of lilting vocal harmonies and slide guitar, full of atmosphere and texture. It really does sound like something from a deserted tropical island, at twilight, wind blowing softly through the palm trees. Shut your eyes and you can almost feel the breeze.
Gilmour begins proceedings with the opening tracks of Floyd’s piece de resistance, The Dark Side of the Moon: ‘Breathe,’ ‘Time’ and ‘Breathe (Reprise)’. Dark Side happens to be another of my top ten albums so I shan’t waste words on it here; we immediately launch into the Island set: Gilmour and his band effortlessly replicate all the nuance and sensation from the studio version, ten tracks of it. There’s one noticeable difference. Gilmour’s guitar has been given a lot more oomph, right at the front of the mix rather than buried under all the layers, the better for the fifty-thousand-strong audience to hear his playing. Gilmour doesn’t just stick to guitar: he takes lead saxophone on the tense ‘Red Sky at Night’ and plays banjo on the chilled-out jam ‘Then I Close My Eyes’. Very well, too. A lovely piano solo on the latter comes courtesy of Polish jazz pianist Laszek Mozdzer. More highlights include ‘This Heaven’, the album’s party song – but a relaxed party on a summer evening with friends and a glass or two of wine, rather than an apocalyptic boozefest – Gilmour isn’t a young man anymore. And it is the fact that he is a musician in his autumn years that leads to my favourite song from the Island set, the closing number, ‘Where We Start’. The orchestra swells behind Gilmour as he sings it. It’s a love song, very sweet and serene and lovely, about someone who is happy in their relationship, has been happy for a long time and intends to stay that way for a good while yet.
If Live in Gdansk was just a live rendition of On an Island it wouldn’t have made this list, good though it may be. But it is the second disc of the album that makes it. Here, Gilmour focuses on songs he wrote with Pink Floyd. His best songs. And we begin with ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, a song about Pink Floyd’s original charismatic frontman, Syd Barrett.
Barrett’s story is one of the most tragic tales of all drug-slugging rock stars. No spectacular burn-out for him, in the style of Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison. Barrett’s poison of choice was LSD, which he used so heavily that it led to permanent brain damage, his mind completely losing its anchor on reality and floating away into the aether. He left the band and began a slow fade away, a shadow of the bright spirit he once was.
The band’s tribute to Barrett was their longest song: Shine on You Crazy Diamond. Split across two sides of their Wish You Were Here album, it clocks in at twenty-six minutes, a musical extravaganza of echoing keyboards, swooping and mysterious guitars and a huge, gospel-choir refrain singing Barrett’s praise.
Gilmour begins his second set with “Shine On” but it sounds very different. A couple of years before the tour began, the dim light that was all that remained of Barrett finally went out, so Gilmour has rewritten the song. All the layers have been stripped away to just Gilmour and his guitar. Gone are the gospel choirs too. “Now there’s a look in your eyes/Like black holes in the sky/Shine On, you crazy diamond” Gilmour sings alone. A man, mourning the loss of his friend. The song is all the poignant for it.
The tribute to Syd Barrett continues with Gilmour playing Barrett’s song “Astronomy Domine,” a spacey acid-trip of a song with strange nonsense lyrics. Astronomy Domine is the first song from the Floyd’s last album, so Gilmour also plays the last song from their last album, “High Hopes”. This is Gilmour’s best effort since songwriting powerhouse Waters left; a truly moving goodbye song about how everything fades with time and how “The grass was greener”. The orchestra is used to full effect here, swelling to a great crescendo while Gilmour plays a beautiful soaring solo on a slide guitar. He adds an acoustic coda, where the orchestra falls away leaving him alone. Full of emotion, this album.
A big surprise is the inclusion of “Fat Old Sun,” a track from one of the Floyd’s early, we-don’t-really-know-what-we’re-doing-now-that-Syd’s-gone albums that the band mostly hate. A double surprise, in that the song, originally a pastoral doze in a country field, has been fitted with an outro guitar solo that hits you like an unexpected charging bull.
Nobody could accuse Gilmour of not being ambitious: next we’re treated to all twenty-four minutes of “Echoes,” the first piece the band released where they were really flexing their muscles. Unlike a lot of prog-rock at the time, Echoes is surprisingly listenable. No awkward time signatures or strange drumming patterns to throw people off balance. A long, languid intro opens into the song proper, a subaquatic drift whose lyrics make little sense but aren’t important, the song’s mainstay is the du-du-du-du-DUMMM stepping hook famously ripped off by Andrew Lloyd Webber for the title song in “Phantom of the Opera”. (Water’s delicate response to the plagiarisation was “It probably is actionable. It really is! But I think that life’s too long to bother with suing Andrew fucking Lloyd Webber.”) Gilmour lets rip another epic guitar solo, then there’s a long, funky jam where Gilmour duels with keyboardist Wright, who holds his own admirably. Then comes the obligatory weird prog-rock bit of strange screams and noises like crows in a graveyard over throbbing keyboards and wind sounds. Then a long slow buildup, broken by Gilmour playing a spectacular – and very loud – guitar arpeggio which echoes like he’s playing it on top of a mountain. Singy bit again, another guitar bit, long languid outro, end. Phew.
Coming towards the end now, we have acoustic anthem “Wish You Were Here,” with lots of lovely added piano, then the album’s only minor misfire, “A Great Day for Freedom,” a song that deals with the atrocities committed by former communist nations after the breakup of the USSR, chosen in honour of the concert’s setting in a former soviet shipyard. Nothing wrong with Gilmour’s playing, it’s just that it isn’t one of his best songs.
The next one is.
I’ve already mentioned Comfortably Numb in this article. I think it is one of those very rare songs that, within an album full of very good songs, turns out to be really exceptional. It is Pink Floyd’s, and Gilmour’s signature song and has been voted “Best Guitar Solo Ever” by a number of publications, and deservedly so. Look; I can say all the words I want about it, they really won’t do it justice, you’ve just got to listen to it.
In fact, I am going to, if I may, make a bold claim: This song is like musical sex. Wait, what? Yes, musical sex. It starts of sort of slow and sedate and mysterious and throbbing (we’re talking about sloooow sex) then goes sort of happy and nice. Then there’s the solo in the middle, like a kind of, ‘ooooooh! Cheeky’ bit of tickle, then more sedateness and happiness and then it actually gets down to BUSINESS, getting more and more spectacular even when you think it can’t do so any more, getting higher and higher and ohmygodohmygodohmygodcannotdealwiththishitthetippingpoint BIG WET MUSICAL ORGASM… Then you lie there panting and blinking the sweat out of your eyes to rapturous applause. IT’S PERFECT.
Alright, maybe I need to work on my analogies.
One heavily drunken night at Aidan’s, before diving into the bar along with everybody else, I instead snuck into the kitchen (I PROMISE THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE SEX ANALOGY!)and listened to this song, on full blast. It was great. But why this album in particular? Well, Gilmour’s ability is astonishing. It’s the album that inspired me to pick up a guitar and get good at it because it showed me how the sound of the music alone can move you. Certainly one of my top ten albums.