The Pink Floyd Set

06london

Arnold Layne (Bowie and David Gilmour, live, 2006).
Comfortably Numb (Bowie and David Gilmour, live, 2006).

David Gilmour was touring in the spring of 2006 as a solo artist, as Pink Floyd, the band whose name and leadership he’d assumed since the mid-Eighties, was finally in the grave. “I’m at liberty to play with Rick [Wright] and Nick [Mason] any time,” he said in 2001. “But the weight of the whole Pink Floyd thing is something that I don’t feel like lifting these days…I just think I’ve grown out of it. Finally.”

He and Roger Waters had sniped at each other for decades over who “owned” Pink Floyd. Waters, the band’s neurotic auteur, had left in acrimony in 1983 and Waters partisans considered the Gilmour-led, still-platinum-selling Pink Floyd to be a shell of its former self. Gilmour and Waters buried the hatchet (at least for a night) in 2005, when Pink Floyd reunited for Live 8, but Gilmour used the occasion as a public burial for the band. There were offers of £150 million for a series of reunion gigs, but Gilmour was done: no more tours, no more Floyd albums.

In 2006 Gilmour put out his first solo record in two decades, On an Island, and it hit #1 in the UK (given the collapse in record sales by 2006, if you had any sort of fanbase, you had a good shot to top the chart on your album’s release week).* He played the Royal Albert Hall for three nights at the end of May, with a band and set list full of guests—David Crosby and Graham Nash, Robert Wyatt, Phil Manzanera. And at the first show, with no fanfare or pre-show hype, David Bowie walked out on stage to help sing the encores.

Gilmour said he chose his collaborators that night from “people I grew up loving…David Bowie might not have worked with Pink Floyd,” he said in 2007. “But it fits with me.” Afterward on BowieNet, “sailor” wrote that “I had a ball tonight singing with David Gilmour and the band. He invited me up to do Arnold Layne and Uncomfortably Numb.” (Bowie felt obligated to note, in a follow-up post, that the latter title was a joke.)

Bowie’s appearance at the Royal Albert Hall, following his performances with Arcade Fire the previous autumn, hinted that he was testing the waters for a return to public life. Soon enough would come the announcements: a new album, even a new tour, perhaps? Any day now, certainly.

BowieGilmour

We’re doing this for everyone who’s not here. Particularly, of course, for Syd.

Roger Waters, Live 8, 2005, before “Wish You Were Here.”

The encore songs were both Pink Floyd pieces: two points far apart on the band’s spectrum, though symbolically linked. Both addressed the man who wasn’t there; a man who, in two months, would finally die, though he’d left the world far earlier.

“Comfortably Numb” is a moment of grace on Waters’ misanthropic The Wall, perhaps in part because Gilmour wrote most of the music. Its lyric was pure Waters: isolation as defense mechanism, using dope-induced quietude to find a lost, better self, exalted self-pity. The B minor verses found Waters in a favorite role as a manipulative bureaucrat—here, a doctor trying to revive the catatonic “Pink” and get him functioning enough to perform (inspiration came from Waters getting a tranquilizer injection before a show during the Animals tour). The Gilmour-sung D major refrain was the release, the needle hitting the vein, the clouds lifting for a moment.

Behind it all was Syd Barrett. Was there ever more heartbroken a band than Pink Floyd? Spending decades mourning a man who’d left them, making album after album in his image. “Brain Damage,” “Wish You Were Here,” “Comfortably Numb” were all Waters trying to contact his lost boyhood friend, to try to see the world as he imagined Barrett did. Barrett’s continued presence on the margins was a rebuke: the fact that he kept on living and enduring (“[Syd] found his own mind so absorbing that he didn’t want to be distracted,” his sister Rosemary Barrett said after his death), that he didn’t need Pink Floyd a tenth as much as they apparently needed him. “When people called [Syd] a recluse they were really only projecting their own disappointment. He knew what they wanted but he wasn’t willing to give it to them,” as Rosemary Barrett said.

Bowie struggled to find his footing in “Comfortably Numb,” in part because he was miscast for the verses. Given the near-conversational melody that Waters wrote to fit his cracked recorder of a voice (it started as something of a Dylan parody, as a studio demo shows), Bowie elevated his phrasings and wound up worrying his way through the song; he’s a doctor who knows he’s a quack.

But before that he’d sung “Arnold Layne,” Pink Floyd’s first single, a Barrett masterpiece. Though it was recorded after Bowie had cut his first album, “Arnold Layne” distilled the latter—Bowie’s little bombardier, cross-dressing barkeep and Uncle Arthur are the children of Barrett’s knicker-thief and jailbird Arnold. Bowie’s songs share Barrett’s empathy for his oddball, his knowledge that there’s little separating him from the official freaks of the world—why can’t you see? Barrett had sung to a silent England. Like “Waiting for the Man,” “Arnold Layne” could seem like a song that Bowie wished he’d written, to the point where he named his “fake” rock band the Arnold Corns in homage to it. Finally singing “Arnold Layne” here, at the apparent end of his stage career, came off as an intro melody reappearing in a closing movement.

Bowie savored the song’s Mockney rhymes (“now ‘ees CORT/a nahsty SORT,” “LAYNE..had a STRAYNGE ‘obby” (see his “The Supermen”: “straynge gaymes thay would play”) and he jibed the refrains. “Takes two to know! TWO to KNOW!” flashing a V-for-victory sign. The freaks and the oddballs had won out, or at least they’d persevered, if keeping to their own worlds, as Syd had. By 2006, Arnold Layne had become a late 20th Century saint: Bowie, Gilmour and Richard Wright sang his name over and over again in tribute.

Two months after this performance, Barrett died of complications related to diabetes. Wright died of cancer in 2008. Gilmour keeps on; he revived Pink Floyd one last time in 2014 for a scrap reclamation effort; he’s got a new album coming this year, it’ll probably hit #1. Waters tours The Wall endlessly (it’s lasted longer now than the old Berlin one). And David Bowie has never performed live in Britain again.

Recorded 29 May 2006, RAH, London. “Arnold Layne” was released 25 December 2006 as a UK/European single (EM 717), with Bowie and Rick Wright’s versions of the song and Gilmour’s take on “Dark Globe.” “Arnold Layne” and “Comfortably Numb” were released 17 September 2007 on the DVD/Blu-Ray Remember That Night: David Gilmour, Live at the Royal Albert Hall.

* For instance, see other one-week UK LP #1s of early 2006: Morrissey’s Ringleader of the Tormentors, the Strokes’ First Impressions of Earth, The Streets’ Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, etc.

Top: “Tom,” “South Bank Portrait,” London, 13 October 2006.

BOOK HYPE: As I think I’ve mentioned, the e-book version of Rebel Rebel‘s now available, for everything from Kindle to iTunes to Nook to Google Play. See the “electronic” list on the book page.

And I’ll be the guest of Evan “Funk” Davies on WFMU this Wednesday, 29 April, from 9 to midnight EDT. So tune in: there should be a lot of Bowie played. The show will be archived on Evan’s page afterward.

32 Responses to The Pink Floyd Set

  1. David Belbin says:

    Nice post. I abandoned the Floyd before ‘The Wall’ (having been a big fan, my first gig was them doing ‘Eclipse’ in January 72), I didn’t cotton on to Comfortably Numb until the Scissors Sisters covered it. Of course, the live ‘Arnold Layne’ with Bowie singing came out as an EMI 7″ single in the UK: ‘dedicated to the memory of Syd Barrett’. Bowie’s version was on the A side with RIck Wright singing it on the B side, plus a version of Syd’s ‘Dark Globe’ with Dave G singing.

  2. botley says:

    Interesting that The Endless River doesn’t rate a mention here, as Gilmour clearly either forgot or went back on his No More Floyd pledge, with listless and disappointing results IMO.

    • col1234 says:

      yeah, I consider “Endless River” to be more like Led Zep’s “Coda”–a bunch of studio scraps tidied up with a bit of new material. or the Beatles’ “Free As a Bird.”

  3. MrBelm says:

    Gilmour performed “Comfortably Numb” as a “guest spot” during Waters’ run of The Wall at the O2 in 2011: https://youtu.be/hUYzQaCCt2o

  4. billter says:

    “Arnold Layne” sounds like an outtake from Pin Ups (and I mean that in a good way, if that makes sense). I wonder if Bowie ever considered recording it at that time–he did two Pretty Things songs and two Who songs, why not two by Pink Floyd?

  5. David says:

    Like Wake Up, I imagined Bowie’s rendering of Comfortably Numb, an almost perfect expression for his creative state of mind during the period-particularly the way he recedes into the darkness towards the end of the song.

    I also recall at that concert, Robert Wyatt-whose version of Shipbuilding, Bowie once described as wishing he had written himself-described David as one of the most courageous performers he’d ever seen.

  6. StevenE says:

    There was a time when it looked like Kate Bush’s last live forary would have been Comfortably Numb too, which would have been a sweet piece of symmetry (been years since I last looked but from what I remember she wasn’t a great fit either), so I’ll hold out some hope for a live return.

    KB’s return, the fan reaction and the reviews, must have got him thinking, and it set out a template for a single-location, ambitious, theatrical show that’d likely work well for David’s catalogue.

    On that note, Before the Dawn was amazing. Some amazing CD quality bootlegs out there and very easy to find as well for anyone who missed it – the live run though of the Aerial suite is my go-to tbh.

    • Mr Tagomi says:

      I like Bowie’s way of singing on Comfortably Numb. It adds a layer of interest to it and avoids the problems that would be posed by trying to replicate Waters’ original style.

  7. s.t. says:

    I can “appreciate” most classic Floyd albums, but as for “loving,” it’s just the early stuff with Syd. Even Saucerful largely fails to hold my interest.
    They’re completely different beasts without Barrett. Majestic sad unicorns rather than smirking satyrs. I understand why people like them, but it’s not for me.

    Gilmour’s in fine voice here though.

    • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

      I know what you mean s.t. I have 3 or 4 Floyd albums among my 1200 or so cd collection, but they very rarely get a spin.

  8. Jaf says:

    I got an email from a pal at the RAH the morning after that show: “Bowie turned up to sing a couple of numbers, I saw him earlier in the day and meant to tell you to come along but forgot, sorry”.

    I’ll never forgive him

  9. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    “Was there ever more heartbroken a band than Pink Floyd”?
    Well, some may argue Lynyrd Skynyrd. Though I would tend to opt for the New York Dolls. Their original drummer od’s at a party on their first trip to London, after accepting an invite via a telephone call which turned out to be a wrong number.( “Time, in Quaaludes and red wine, demanding Billy Dolls.”) Years after they break up acrimoniously in a trailer park in Florida, guitarist and recently cleaned up junkie Johnny Thunders is murdered in New Orleans, and within weeks replacement drummer Jerry Nolan dies from complications from years of addiction. Meanwhile, Bassist Arthur Kane, after years spent in alcoholism and poverty, jumps from a window after seeing singer David Johansen on tv in the movie “Scrooged”, managing only to break his arm. The remaining members plus replacements reunite at Morrisey’s request for the 2003 Meltdown Festival, and days after a successful and rapturously-received show, Arthur Kane succumbs to cancer. The band carries on to this day, carrying more baggage than the retrieval system at Heathrow.

  10. Deanna says:

    The performance of Comfortably Numb was hard to watch. Bowie looked enormously uncomfortable up there, like he’d never been on a stage in years. David Bowie should never seem that way; it feels wrong. The whole thing was heartbreaking.

    I haven’t yet watched the Arnold Layne performance. Maybe that one will hurt less.

  11. David says:

    Hard to believe there’s only two more posts before the Next Day

  12. I do like Syd Barrett. I enjoy the first Pink Floyd album as well as the early singles, but nothing the band made after Barrett’s departure has really grabbed my attention. They sound like entirely different acts to me and the difference is all the more obvious in these two performances.

    Naturally, Bowie seems quite at home singing a whimsy song about transvestism. Arnold Layne is a song that wouldn’t be out of place in his own discography (I actually just had to check whether it predates his own She’s Got Medals. It does not).
    He of course covers the band’s second single See Emily Play quite convincingly for Pin Ups a few years later, one of the stronger moments on the album for me.

    It’s easy to see why Comfortably Numb doesn’t work as well. The performance is a little awkward and Bowie doesn’t mould into the song nearly as effectively.
    As for the performance by the rest of the band… I guess they did good? Comfortably Numb is one of those songs I struggle to sit through. I closed the video after six minutes. I suppose I’ll never become like those guys in the audience rocking out to long guitar solos.

    • Incidentally, I wonder what Barrett thought of Bowie. Particularly after his indifference to Love You Till Tuesday. I take it this is one of those things that we don’t/will never know?

    • BenJ says:

      DB is on record as saying that Pink Floyd ended for him when Syd left. (Okay, “had his limp body thrown overboard” is probably a more accurate verbal phrase.) That’s what makes these performances something of a surprise. It does seem like he was seeing how it felt to be onstage again, ascertaining whether it was still for him.

  13. Maj says:

    Jeezes flippin Krist. 9.5 minutes. I guess you had to be there.
    I’m of the generation that first knew CN as a dance banger via Scissor Sisters.
    I still haven’t been able to get into Pink Floyd, despite the many artists I like being influenced by them. Oh well.

    I don’t have a problem with the way Bowie sings CN, I suppose it’s because I might have heard the original once while the ah-ah-ah-I’m comfortably numb Sisters version is firmly lodged in my head. I quite like this relaxed, melancholy middle aged version (Bowie still looks otherworldly among them, even more so as a shadow of himself).

    As for AL, a song I didn’t know at all before this live Bowie occasion. Can’t say I’ve felt compelled to listen to it many times since then, but yeah, it’s a nice song, and one can definitely hear DB & PF were on the same frequency at one point.

  14. ronpluylaar says:

    Darn..we already had that ! OK, I’m stumped…now I’m wondering what I am still missing in my Bowie collection…..

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