The inside story of Pink Floyd's final studio album
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Coming back to life…
On David Gilmour’s houseboat studio, a sleeping giant has been roused, with the sound of “splangs” and “twank bass”. The Endless River is, as producer Phil Manzanera describes it, that most delightfully unexpected of releases – “A Pink Floyd album for the 21st Century !” In a series of studios around London, Uncut traces the secret sources of The Endless River, and discovers how a 20-year saga became a tribute to the Floyd’s fallen comrade, Rick Wright. “It’s very evocative and emotional,” says Gilmour, “and certainly listening to all the stuff made me regret his passing all over again.”
On an afternoon in mid-August, Astoria – the houseboat studio owned by David Gilmour – seems deceptively quiet. Moored at the end of a sloping garden along a quiet stretch of the River Thames, Gilmour’s handsome Edwardian vessel is usually shut up during the summer holidays. But not, it transpires, this year. On closer inspection, signs of activity become apparent. In a large conservatory at the top of the riverside garden, coffee mugs and a small frying pan are stacked in a sink ready for washing up, while a spaniel lolls on a wicker-framed sofa, content in a warm patch of sunlight. Meanwhile, the boat itself – nearly a victim of the floods that hit this stretch of the Thames earlier in the year – is open for business. There are lights on in the elegant, mahogany-panelled cabins. The windows are open out across the river, and a breeze gently ruffles the thick curtains in the control room itself, set back at the stern of the boat.
This is where Pink Floyd worked on A Momentary Lapse Of Reason and The Division Bell, and where Gilmour himself recorded his most recent solo album, On An Island. Lately, however, Astoria has been the site of another astonishing – and entirely unexpected – development in the remarkable life of Pink Floyd. Today, a length of masking tape is stretched across the 72-channel analogue mixing console, marked in thick, black, felt-tip writing to identify each separate channel. It begins, “side 1”, then “tools”, “bass”, “baritone”, “leslie gtr”, “lead gtr”, “swell melody”. It is possible to discern other words transcribed along the tape: “wibbly”, “twank bass”, “splangs”, “end rhodes + ebow”, “o/h”, “amb”. It becomes apparent that these seemingly arcane signifiers are in fact tantalising evidence of the achievements that have taken place here over the last two years. Nothing less remarkable, that is, than the creation of The Endless River – the first new Pink Floyd album since 1994’s The Division Bell.
Arranged across four sections (called “four sides”), it is an instrumental album – with one song “Louder Than Words” embedded within Side Four – that largely privileges the band’s spacey, ruminative qualities. Reassuringly, the elements for which they are best known – ethereal synths, acoustic passages, melodic guitar solos, exploratory digressions, sweeping organ – are all very much to the foreground. But critically, there is also another story here. The Endless River is a splendid tribute to one of their fallen comrades, the band’s co-founder and keyboardist, Rick Wright, who died on September 15, 2008, aged 65. Indeed, the source of The Endless River lies in material originally recorded in sessions for The Division Bell by Wright, Gilmour and Nick Mason. “When we finished the Division Bell sessions,” says Gilmour, “we had many pieces of music, only nine of which had become songs on the LP. Now with Rick gone and with him the chance of ever doing it again, it feels right these revisited tracks should be made available as part of our repertoire.”
The work here on Astoria – and also at Gilmour’s studios in Hove and on his farm in West Sussex, as well as other studios across London – has largely been carried out under a veil of secrecy. In collaboration with producers Phil Manzanera, Youth and Andy Jackson, Gilmour and Mason have edited and reshaped unused Division Bell material and fashioned new parts for The Endless River, quietly going about their business undisturbed. That was, until July this year, when the threat of a leak prompted Gilmour’s wife, Polly Samson, to break the news on Twitter of this marvellous new undertaking. “Btw Pink Floyd album out in October is called ‘The Endless River’,” she tweeted. “Based on 1994 sessions is Rick Wright’s swansong and very beautiful.”
“It is a tribute to him,” acknowledges Gilmour. “I mean, to me, it’s very evocative and emotional in a lot of moments. And listening to all the stuff made me regret his passing all over again. This is the last chance someone will get to hear him playing along with us in that way that he did.”
“I think the most significant element was really hearing what Rick did,” agrees Nick Mason. “Having lost Rick, it really brought home what a special player he was. And I think that was one of the elements that caught us up in it and made us think we ought to do something with this.”