David Gilmour: The man and his music as a solo artist

By Richard Mahon

David Gilmour is one of rock music’s best guitarists, musicians and session performers with whom the public at large is not familiar. For those in the know, Gilmour is a guitar legend, the man responsible for the Pink Floyd sound and in demand for those who seek to add his talents to their own music.

Perhaps the reason Gilmour is underrated is that he presents himself in such a low-key manner. There are stories of the members of Pink Floyd walking alongside the crowds at their concerts without being recognized. Never one to put himself in the public spotlight, the average music fan would likely be unfamiliar with him if they saw his photograph. But if a Pink Floyd album was placed in a CD player, the music would be instantly recognized. Gilmour simply prefers to let his music do the talking. He wouldn't have it any other way.

While his work with Pink Floyd is familiar to the mainstream listener, Gilmour’s body of solo work includes many hidden gems. Those who seek to find this work will be pleasantly surprised that Gilmour’s standard of excellence extends far beyond the scope of his work in Pink Floyd.

In 1978, David Gilmour recorded and released his first solo album. The self-titled album is perhaps his most underrated work. Some of the music could easily have been placed on a Pink Floyd album. Gilmour would cover familiar musical territory, providing the perfect balance of guitar sounds and styles between Pink Floyd’s 1977 release, “Animals,” and their 1979 release, “The Wall.”

The album’s opener, the instrumental “Mihalis,” built around a repeated sequence of chord changes, sets the tone for the rest of the album. The second song, “There’s No Way Out of Here,” had moderate success as a single. “Cry From the Street” includes a double-time section at the fadeout reminiscent of “Sheep” from “Animals.” This is followed by a beautiful, melodic ballad called “So Far Away.” “Short and Sweet” features a guitar riff with the same chord changes as Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell.” This song is a collaboration between Gilmour and Roy Harper, who sang lead vocals on Pink Floyd’s “Have A Cigar” from “Wish You Were Here.” “Raise My Rent” is an instrumental, essentially a five-and-a-half-minute Gilmour guitar solo over clean arpeggios. “I Can’t Breathe Anymore” begins with a clean electric guitar that moves to a distorted sound with power chords and ends in an instrumental passage that closes the album.

In 1984, Gilmour released his second solo album, “About Face.” Gilmour made a concerted effort to escape the boundaries of the expectations that come with a Pink Floyd album. The material is diverse. The album’s second track, “Murder,” starts with Gilmour on acoustic guitar and builds up to a straightforward rock ’n’ roll song. The song was Gilmour’s response to the murder of John Lennon. The line “Was it your only way of making your mark?” could be a reference to Lennon's assailant, Mark David Chapman. “Out of the Blue” expresses Gilmour’s fears of a nuclear holocaust, a fear prevalent in society during the time the album was released. The song begins and ends with Gilmour and a simple piano. “All Lovers are Deranged” includes lyrics by the Who’s Pete Townshend. The song is a guitar-driven rocker that Gilmour once referred to as his “heavy metal song.” The song also received its fair share of FM radio airplay and a music video in rotation on MTV. “Let's Get Metaphysical” is an instrumental that features a blend of Gilmour’s guitar with a full symphony orchestra. “Cruise” was inspired by then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s reference to a deadly nuclear weapon as “the peace keeper.” “You Know I’m Right” seems like Gilmour’s take on his relationship with Roger Waters, though Gilmour would never confirm it. The album’s last song is a slow acoustic number called “Near the End.” Gilmour skillfully guides the song to a melodic guitar solo that fades out to complete the album.

While songs such as “Murder,” “Out of the Blue” and “Let’s Get Metaphysical” may have worked as Pink Floyd songs, others varied from that sound, such as the aforementioned “Cruise,” which includes a reggae section for its guitar solo, while “Blue Light” is an up-tempo song with a brass section. “Love on the Air,” the second of two songs featuring Pete Townshend lyrics, is a love song – a rarity in the Pink Floyd catalog.

Gilmour toured in support of “About Face” in 1984. While Pink Floyd concerts had been known for their spectacular lighting effects, visuals and pyrotechnics, Gilmour’s solo tour was stripped down to the basics. David Gilmour, the man and his music, would stand on their own merits as Gilmour’s shows would focus on material from his solo albums. He only performed three Pink Floyd songs during this tour: “Money,” “Run Like Hell” and “Comfortably Numb.” Furthermore, “Money” wasn’t performed at all during the European leg of the tour.

Gilmour’s performance at the Hammersmith Odeon on June 30, 1984, was filmed for a videotape release. The tape also included a documentary titled “Beyond the Floyd,” a behind-the-scenes look at Gilmour’s European tour. The show included guest performances by Roy Harper, who performed on “Short and Sweet,” and Nick Mason, who drummed on “Comfortably Numb.”

Gilmour’s ability to make the guitar “speak,” with his sense of melody and timing, is a standard that every musician should strive toward. This fact was not lost on fellow musicians who sought Gilmour’s assistance in their recording projects. After his solo tour, Gilmour became an in-demand session guitarist and producer. Paul McCartney’s “No More Lonely Nights,” from his film “Give My Regards to Broad Street,” was in heavy rotation on MTV in late 1984. For the first time, the average rock music fan could hear Gilmour’s distinct guitar playing on a song that didn't bear his name.

Gilmour’s guest work began to spread across the musical spectrum. He contributed to pop bands such as Berlin, for whom Gilmour delivered a memorable solo during the song “Pink and Velvet,” and played on “The Promise” by Arcadia (made up of Duran Duran members). He also appeared with rock and blues artists such as B.B. King, Paul Rodgers, Elton John and Supertramp, as well as musicians he’d toured with, including guitarist Snowy White, backing vocalist Sam Brown, and backing vocalist Durga McBroom’s band, Blue Pearl.

British pop singer Paul Young asked Gilmour to play guitar on a song called “Heaven Can Wait.” MTV Europe broadcast a short news segment in which Young explained that a segment of his song became a “Pink Floyd” song by virtue of Gilmour’s presence.

On July 13, 1985, Gilmour appeared with the Bryan Ferry band during the Wembley Stadium, London, portion of Live Aid. Later in 1985, Gilmour became a member of Pete Townshend’s band, Deep End. On June 29, 1996, Gilmour joined The Who on stage for a live performance of “Quadrophenia” on behalf of the Prince’s Trust. In 1999, Gilmour took part in Paul McCartney’s recording “Run Devil Run” and joined McCartney’s touring band. Their performances included a charity concert, television appearances and a memorable performance at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, which is available on DVD.

Other notable guest work includes production on two of Kate Bush’s albums, the Dream Academy’s debut album, Syd Barrett’s solo releases and albums by the British progressive rock band Unicorn, whose song “There’s No Way Out of Here” was covered by Gilmour on his first solo album.

MTV’s “Unplugged” series became a staple of the music industry in the 1990s. Fans imagined the possibilities of a Pink Floyd “Unplugged” performance for years. Their wish was granted June 22, 2001, when Gilmour took to the stage for a charity concert with an acoustic guitar and proceeded to play a solo acoustic rendition of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” The set list included a cover of Syd Barrett’s “Terrapin” and Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day,” as well as other Pink Floyd songs such as “Wish You Were Here,” “Comfortably Numb” and “Fat Old Sun,” which Gilmour performed for the first time since the early 1970s. “High Hopes,” from the Pink Floyd album “The Division Bell,” featured a superb choir section backing his lap-steel guitar solo. As a bonus to the DVD release of this performance, viewers are allowed access into Gilmour’s home as he rehearses parts with the choir. The DVD also includes guest performances by Pink Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright and singer Bob Geldof, who played the part of Pink in the film of “The Wall.”

These solo performances, including additional dates in January 2002, included instruments seldom used in rock music, such as a cello and a stand-up bass, and featured composer Michael Kamen on piano along with the previously mentioned choir. One member of the press labeled Gilmour’s approach “chamber rock.” Once again, Gilmour’s excellence shines through. This is not exactly what one might expect from a guitarist known for sending his soaring lead guitar through the midst of a sold-out football stadium.

Richard Mahon's book about “Pink Floyd-The Wall,” co-authored with Vernon Fitch, will be published by Genesis Publications later this year.

Pink Floyd
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Pink Floyd: The journey of a legendary band
Roger Waters: The story of another Pink Floyd member's solo career

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