Gimme Five: Solo songs from Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour

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With just three proper solo albums over three and a half decades, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour very inconsistency — there was once an amazing stretch of 22 years between releases — can make it hard to keep up.

Folks who remember his self-titled debut, which was wedged between Floyd’s Animals and The Wall, might forget the 1984 follow up — which arrived between The Final Cut and Momentary Lapse of Reason. Oh, and did you happen to catch Gilmour’s surprising, but ultimately very fitting, collaboration with the Orb?

Dig around, and you’ll find there’s more than enough to warrant an exploration of the guitarist’s work away from Pink Floyd. But where to start? Presenting a handful of must-have Gilmour solo tracks …

“ON AN ISLAND,” (ON AN ISLAND, 2006): For so long forced into a square peg of diffidence and/or crankiness by Roger Waters’ narrative contortions, Gilmour’s third — and, by far, best — solo album was full of nocturnal reveries. The waltzing title track balances the album’s typically elegant atmospherics with a series of Floydian elements — from his arching rumination on the guitar to the presence of old bandmates in Richard Wright on organ and Andy Newmark (who appeared on Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut) at the drums. Bassist Guy Pratt was part of the 1987-94 post-Waters touring units, as well.

But the title track, based on a twilit memory from the island of Kastelorizo near Greece, finds its most most important contributors in a place that has nothing to do with Gilmour’s old band: Graham Nash and David Crosby, of Crosby Stills and Nash fame, give “On an Island” its emotional propulsion, settling in behind Gilmour’s airy vocals.

In so doing, the discover a place “halfway to the stars” — just before a typically visceral solo, augmented this time by sensitive orchestrations by Zbigniew Preisner — that works as both launching pad and soft landing. When Gilmour returns to the lyric, Crosby and Nash take up a cascading vocal counterpoint that only adds to the song’s enchanting embrace.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Everybody went through a Pink Floyd phase, right? But, the child is grown; the dream is gone. Let’s face it, some of this stuff, well, sucked.]

“OUT OF THE BLUE,” (ABOUT FACE, 1984): A track that was said to have been at the demo stage in the run up to 1983’s The Final Cut, only to be discarded (along with “Murder,” “Near the End” and some other odds and ends), the smartly episodic “Out of the Blue” would have done much to smooth out the didactic nature of Waters’ finale with Pink Floyd.

Instead, that uneven album was completed with leftovers from The Wall project, leaving Gilmour with no compositional credits — and the future of Pink Floyd very much in doubt. Gilmour would next gather with an ace studio band that included drummer Jeff Porcaro, bassist Pino Palladino, and guests that included Pete Townshend, Jon Lord, Steve Winwood and Floyd orchestrator Michael Kamen, and About Face was born.

The album itself suffered from the era’s mechanized production sensibility (in particular on the dance-y “Blue Light” and “Murder”), but songs like “Out of the Blue” transcended those of-the-moment missteps. Beginning as a diaphanous, quietly English meditation on the suddenness of our fates, Gilmour fills the song’s middle with a thunderous bit of rage, before settling into a perfectly conceived, open-ended conclusion. This is the song Gilmour was trying for again — but not quite reaching — with “On the Turning Away,” from Pink Floyd’s subsequent Waters-less return, 1987’s Momentary Lapse of Reason.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: You could call this 1994 Floyd concert “Rain Like Hell,” as the grandest effect of all was provided courtesy of God — actual creator, you are reminded, of the moon and its dark side.]

“SPHERES SIDE,” with the Orb (METALLIC SPHERES, (2010): Gilmour’s familiar Fender Stratocaster vibrato effortlessly blends with the Orb’s next-galaxy synthesizer washes, mid-tempo house flourishes and whoa-man effects. And, along the way, helps both Gilmour and the Orb reclaim a measure of their own early promise.

In fact, this might just be the best collaboration from any edition of Pink Floyd over its last decades. After Waters’ departure, Gilmour worked alongside a series of lyricists and co-writers, notably partner Polly Samson, achieving mixed results under the Floyd moniker. Revisiting a pre-Dark Side of the Moon penchant for narrative instrumental musings (Stream it!:Echoes”) allowed Gilmour a return to his own roots, even as it hurtles him past an impossible talisman.

After all, Gilmour-as-Floyd was never going to top Dark Side — or even The Wall, for that matter — and certainly not without Waters. Besides, several elements of the ambient house/techno movement that the Orb helped define actually sprang from the initial-era Floyd performances, anyway. Together, they blended perfectly.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: As legendary psych-rockers Pink Floyd and EMI launched an exhaustive re-release campaign, we took a look back at a few key cuts.]

“SHORT AND SWEET,” (DAVID GILMOUR 1978:) A kind of precursor to the far more widely known “Run Like Hell” on Floyd’s subsequent The Wall, “Short and Sweet” combines the sweetly romantic sound of Gilmour’s voice with a serrated guitar edge. Co-written by Roy Harper (who later issued his own version of the song on 1980’s The Unknown Soldier), the track is part of an obvious attempt to showcase Gilmour as something more than just another member of Pink Floyd.

He’s perhaps never sounded more personal. David Gilmour is loose, never too deep, often instrumental — and anything but a knockoff of what the larger band was doing (like, say, the Gilmour-led Floyd album Momentary Lapse of Reason). The liner notes provide a hint as to why: The main band here was a reunion of Bullitt, an early Gilmour group that included drummer Willie Wilson and bassist Rick Wills.

Of course, Gilmour quickly folded back into Pink Floyd, and this album — other than its minor hit cover of a song by Unicorn (Stream it!: “There’s No Way Out of Here”) — became largely forgotten. Gilmour, Waters and Co. would return to this same Superbear Studios in France to work on The Wall, where a leftover riff from these solo sessions would find a home in “Comfortably Numb.”

[ONE TRACK MIND: Henry McCullough discusses his happenstance – and very funny – appearance on Pink Floyd’s “Money,” as well as his time with Wings and Joe Cocker.]

“POCKETFUL OF STONES,” ON AN ISLAND (2006): An excruciatingly beautiful song, “Pocketful” connects with the same shattering sense of loss that defined Pink Floyd’s 1975 masterwork Wish You Were Here — not to mention the time-is-running-short themes of Dark Side — but with a contemplative orchestral counterpoint that adds oaken new depths.

Zbigniew Preisner’s crepuscular arrangement takes center stage — at least at first. Gilmour’s most important contribution here is vocally. “Pocketful of Stones” stands as perhaps his most sensitive work ever at the mic. Quietly confidential, strikingly open, Gilmour’s approach to the lyric is the perfect accompaniment to a typically searching solo.

Together, they create something simultaneously wonder filled and so very still, a song with this darkness around the edges that couldn’t be less like what we’ve come to expect from David Gilmour as a member of Pink Floyd, or even as a solo artist. The songs ends with another purpled flourish from Preisner, who brought along regular collaborators Leszek Mozdzer and Alasdair Malloy. They only add to the cobalt-hued sense of heartbreak surrounding “Pocketful of Stones.”

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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