Pink Floyd’s Final Act

Pink Floyd’s Final Act

“We all have a dark side, to say the least,” guitarist David Gilmour sings over the bluesy churn of “The Dogs of War,” the centerpiece of Pink Floyd’s 13th LP, A Momentary Lapse of Reason. But by the time the album — now revitalized as part of an extensive new box set, The Later Years — was released in 1987, the prog-rock act’s own Dark Side was a distant memory: a faintly felt echo of their glory days with former bassist and conceptual mastermind Roger Waters.

The pioneering band that recorded headphone masterworks like The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here was essentially dead by the mid-’80s — at best, it existed as a property, a brand, a contractual obligation for which no one involved could envision a communal path forward. Waters had become Pink Floyd’s guiding visionary, for better or worse, on the grandiose double-LP The Wall (which turned 40 last fall) and its fractured 1983 follow-up, The Final Cut. But by mid-decade, he saw the group as a “spent force” and attempted to dissolve it entirely.

Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason managed to reconstruct the band for 1987’s Lapse of Reason, injecting period-friendly production sparkle and boomy, sculpted choruses into their cinematic soundscapes, aided by a boatload of top session musicians. (Pun intended: They recorded the album primarily in Gilmour’s fancy houseboat studio, Astoria.) It was a modest success, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard charts and spawning a pair of marginal hit singles, including the varnished midtempo rocker “Learning to Fly.”

But something, or someone, was missing: Co-founder Richard Wright contributed to the record as one of several session keyboardists, but his contributions felt muted within the stadium-sized sound. Luckily, they course-corrected for 1994’s The Division Bell, reinstating Wright as a full member and playing to their core strength of spacey full-band atmosphere. (The sessions were fruitful: Two decades later, after Wright’s 2008 death cemented the group’s demise, the surviving members tweaked and edited some unreleased outtakes into an ambient swan-song LP, 2014’s The Endless River.)

The recently released box, The Later Years, presents a full picture of the post-Waters era. In its streaming edition available on TIDAL, it offers an “updated” remix of Reason (featuring restored, posthumous parts from Wright and new drum tracks from Mason), a remixed and expanded version of the 1988 concert album Delicate Sound of Thunder, rare live recordings captured between 1987 and 1994, and previously unreleased studio leftovers from ’94. To mark the occasion, we’ve rounded up five of Pink Floyd’s definitive moments from this often misunderstood, underrated epoch.

“The Dogs of War”
A Momentary Lapse of Reason, 1987; remix 2019

Though it borders on cheesy, with dated sound effects and Gilmour’s bluesy belting, “The Dogs of War” still captures the deep-space spectacle of vintage Floyd — particularly with Wright’s Hammond organ rippling off in the margins. The breakthrough comes halfway in, as the 12/8 groove shifts into a 4/4 thump, just in time for a squealing sax solo.

“One Slip”
A Momentary Lapse of Reason, 1987; remix 2019

This proggy anthem marks Gilmour’s first co-write with Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, a key collaborator on his later LPs. But they were already kindred spirits here, uniting for an experimental arrangement that conjures the jagged symmetry of King Crimson. From its marimba-like opening to the middle instrumental section’s growling Chapman Stick funk (played by Crimson’s own bassist, Tony Levin), “One Slip” clearly tips its hat to the band’s albums of that era. While Pink Floyd occasionally lapsed into comfortable yet catatonic ambience in the 1980s, they were still capable of surprise.

“Cluster One”
The Division Bell, 1994

After a static-y dawn-chorus overture, Pink Floyd’s 14th album commences with a ray of sonic sunshine: Gilmour’s wispy bent notes conversing with Wright’s droning synth and shimmering piano theme. The intensity builds as the major key changes to minor, with Gilmour venturing into palm-muted riffs and thwacking hammer-ons. The track feels like it could continue on for years, its emotional palette shifting with the seasons.

“Poles Apart”
The Division Bell, 1994

Pink Floyd never lost their mastery of texture after Waters’ exit, but they had trouble crafting another “Money” or “Comfortably Numb” — a song that expertly balanced the intimate and the cosmic. “Poles Apart” is a rare exception, soaring on one of Gilmour’s dreamiest vocal melodies; a folky guitar pattern that nods to their more pastoral ’70s moments; and a lyric that gazes wistfully back at faded friendships. “Why did we tell you then/You were always the golden boy then,” Gilmour sings over the fingerpicking and lap-steel. “And that you’d never lose that light in your eyes?”

“Things Left Unsaid”
The Endless River, 2014

Post-rock wouldn’t exist without Pink Floyd, so it’s fitting that their instrumental excursions felt contemporary in the ’90s. Retooled Division Bell leftover “Things Left Unsaid” sounds as much like Sigur Rós as “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” with Gilmour’s airy, sustained EBow mingling among Wright’s vaporous synths and Hammond. Who knows where Pink Floyd could have gone next?

Ryan Reed is a Knoxville-based writer, editor, professor and record collector with regular bylines at Rolling StoneRelixUltimate Classic Rock and Revolver. He’s also contributed to BillboardPitchforkStereogumEsquire and Salon, among other outlets.

Image: Pink Floyd in 1987. From left: Richard Wright, Nick Mason and David Gilmour. Credit: Ross Marino/Getty Images.

 

 

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