Jim Sullivan recounts his conversation with the Pink Floyd guitarist while he was promoting his vastly underrated second solo album About Face
Pink Floyd is unquestionably of the most popular bands in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, making the definitive prog-rock/mainstream masterpiece The Dark Side of the Moon in 1973.
And it’s one the darkest, one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most curious contradictions: No band so relentlessly grim and cynical has been so widely consumed. I’ve long considered them the flip side of Yes.
And also, of course, the Floyd has been one of rock’s most fractious entities, the key battlers in the post-Syd Barrett early era being songwriter-bassist-singer Roger Waters and singer-guitarist-songwriter David Gilmour. They may hate each other still – check out the February MOJO story by Mark Blake for the history and updates on that situation – but the band in its prime has needed what each brought to the table.
Pink Floyd after Waters exited in 1985 had a nice familiar sound, great guitar licks but low-impact, meh, meandering songs. In 1994, Gilmour told me, “We’re trying to work to our strengths, and that’s the writing and making music. Roger was the king of the lyrics, so to speak, and we kind of miss that. But we’re concentrating at trying to collaborate and do things the way we used to do them — jamming around, working on ideas.”
On the occasion of Gilmour’s 75th birthday on March 6, I’d thought I’d revisit an interview I had with him in 1984 and bring back of that. This was after Pink Floyd had released its last Waters-connected LP, The Final Cut, a fairly dismal affair – huge exception: “Not Now John” – and Gilmour was embarking upon his first solo tour, behind his second solo album, About Face.
Was Pink Floyd still a band, I wondered.
“Um, these things aren’t quite as clear at our age as they were 10 years ago, or they are for young, up-and-coming people,” Gilmour said addressing the breakup rumors. “What is or isn’t a group? I don’t know if you’d still call us a group. I mean, we haven’t officially split up or anything. Whether or not we record again is anyone’s guess. At this juncture, we haven’t got any plans to record, but on the other hand, we’ve not said we’re not going to either. No one has screamed at anyone else: I never want to work with you again, you bastard!’ “
Those days were ahead of them.
Keyboardist Rick Wright was sacked after The Wall, because, according to Gilmour, “He had given up contributing and honestly wasn’t very interested in what was going on. He just seemed to be sitting in there, picking up the money. It got too much for some of us to bear.”
(Gilmour made up to him, posthumously, at least. Wright died in 2008 but left behind many songs – some Gilmour collaborations – that were central to the final Floyd album, 2014’s The Endless River.)
As Pink Floyd drifted off into mid-‘80s limbo, Gilmour released About Face, and he and his sextet were on the road playing mid-size American theaters sans any grandiose Waters-ian theatrics. It was, Gilmour said, “a fairly standard rock ‘n’ roll show,” adding dryly, “It’s based on music.” For this tour, Gilmour had assembled a band that included guitarist Mick Ralphs, formerly of Mott The Hoople and Bad Company, and Raphael Ravenscroft, a session saxophone ace.
Gilmour admitted that rock star life isolated him in terms of knowing what else was happening in the world of new music. “I’ve been out of touch, to be quite honest,” he admitted, but claimed that his reclusiveness allowed him to easily mix with people, a freedom other pop stars didn’t have.
“If you look at us,” Gilmour said, “you only see some sort of public image, the amount that we let out. And that’s an image of privacy and stuff, but what that gives me is the ability to not be at all private in my life. It means I can go out shopping any place, I can go to Portobello marketplace on a Saturday morning, which is teeming with people and never have any problem. And what that means is I’m actually more in touch with what’s going on around me than a lot of other people in my sort of position, who are a lot more public in their image.”
For fun, Gilmour said he regularly played with friends in London pub bands.
On About Face, Gilmour wrote eight songs by himself and two with Pete Townshend. For the Townshend collaboration, Gilmour wrote the music, sent Townshend cassettes and Townshend mailed them back with lyrics.
Like Waters, Gilmour often floated depressing or distressing ideas over some imaginative rock ‘n’ roll – music that ranged between pastoral calm and churning hard rock, with the blues-based Gilmour’s classic use of sustain, vibrato and effects. In “Cruise” Gilmour suggested that the cruise missile’s “song will be sung/And will ring in the ears of everyone.” In “Until We Sleep” he depicts an evening of quiet nightmares: “Into a deep and dreamless sleep our spirits fall/And what we sow we cannot reap or keep at all.”
It’s not what one would call a cheerful album. “At some times, I’m dealing with fairly depressing topics,” Gilmour said “but at the same time, my idea is the music will be uplifting. That sort of combination is something I try to work on.”
Gilmour delicately talked about the difference between his songwriting approach and that of Waters: “Roger addresses himself to whole problems in life and then tries to expand and broaden that and make a whole album fit around that sort of idea. He wants to explore that idea in very, very, very great depth from many angles, which I don’t have any disagreement with. But, I mean, there are moments when I personally would not make some of the things quite so preachy and complaining. Those things I don’t like to do.”
The dark side of his muse, though, is “definitely a part of the way I am,” Gilmour said, laughing slightly. “You know the moments that are the best artistic achievements, for most people, is when they are dealing with the darker subjects. Most of the best songs have been written about downers of one sort or another; the traditional song is the lost love song. There are very few people who get away with real happy songs. So that doesn’t mean that those people are unhappy; it’s just that moments when they happen to be able to write songs are when they’re thinking about, or are involved in, some sort of emotional upset.”
The cynicism, though – Waters’ core base stock – was not Gilmour’s. “I just have, I suppose, a fatalistic attitude, where I think it’s a very wonderful thing to be here on this planet, living, but you know, what you see is what you get. I’m not a religious person; I think the years we’ve got on this planet are all there is for any of us. That’s one of the things that concerns me, being a greedy person.”
VIDEO: David Gilmour at the Hammersmith Odeon 1984