The inside story of Pink Floyd's final studio album
Events moved swiftly after that. Jackson’s diary records that they gathered in Gilmour’s home studio in Hove a week later, on November 11: a momentous date, as it turned out. This was the first time Gilmour and Mason had recorded new Floyd music since the Division Bell sessions. Says Mason, “With encouragement from Andy, Phil and Youth, David and myself either re-recorded, or added some parts. Despite an element of trepidation, I found it to be a really enjoyable and satisfying experience, rather like uncovering lost gems.”
“I remember one of those early times, when we all met up here,” says Jackson, perched near his beloved Neve 88R console in Astoria. “Nick was very concerned about, ‘I only want to do this if we make something good.’ We’re taking some stuff from 20 years ago – because it’s got Rick on it – but is it actually up to standard? As it got fleshed out, and turned into the album proper, everyone got revved up about it.”
“I think David and Nick are both in a really good place at the moment,” adds Youth. “Also because Rick’s no longer with us, there’s a poignancy to them being together that seems to transcend all the problems they’ve had in the past. There were concerns as to whether they’d be into it, or whether Nick would be up for it. But Nick was core to the project, and the amazing thing is that whenever those two play, whatever they’re playing, they sound like them. They can’t help it.”
In fact, Mason’s drums were the first element to be officially recorded for the album on November 11. “Nick was just great, straight away,” remembers Manzanera. “It sounded like what Robert Wyatt calls ‘Pink Floyd time’. It was just magic.”
The sessions lasted for three days, overdubbing guitars and recording drums; the following week, they were back in Hove for two days, then back at Astoria on Wednesday, November 20, to review the material. The process of adding new overdubs continued into early 2014. In total, Jackson estimates the work took 30 days. “It became an interactive process of mixing and recording. You put drums on this, flesh this bit out, this bit needs a guitar solo. Then you assimilate that, do a layer of mixing to make it sound like a record and then go, ‘Great, but this has revealed that we now need this…”
“It was really about illustrating Rick’s genius,” adds Youth. “So we navigated around his keyboards to give them as much spotlight as possible. Although it was quite a delicate and time-consuming task, it works really well and they adjusted to it. It was a joy to see David and Nick playing together and joking with each other between takes – to see their rapport with each other, all harnessed to Rick’s playing. Their humour is very dry. One day, I wanted some more gongs.
Nick asked his drum tech, ‘Where’s my gong?’ His tech said, ‘I think it’s in that drum shop in Camden.’ Nick had helped this guy keep his drum shop going a few years ago and donated some kit that he kept in the window, including the gong. The gong arrived, David came in and said, ‘Where’s that from?’ and Nick replied, ‘Oh, a shop in Camden. I lent it to them, and they’re lending it back.’ So they started joking about the gong. I remember David and Nick giving each other a hug, and David giving Nick the affirmation of his drumming being amazing.”
One of the key elements of The Endless River is “Louder Than Words”, the album’s one conventional song. Introduced on a bed of stately keyboard melodies and acoustic flourishes, a more solid structure gradually emerges to carry Gilmour’s first new Pink Floyd vocal in 20 years. With lyrics co-written with Polly Samson, “Louder Than Words” is concerned with providing an appropriate full stop to the Pink Floyd saga, embracing the full history of the band across nearly 50 years – as Gilmour sings, “We bitch and we fight… but this thing that we do… it’s louder than words… the sum of our parts… the beat of our hearts… it’s louder than words”. Manzanera describes it as “a comment on their methods of working over their whole careers; it seemed like a fitting summation of the complexity of the music.” Jackson considers “it’s about the dynamics of being in bands, which I’ve always thought of as Big Brother on wheels. You become best of friends and worst of enemies all at the same time.”
The song was recorded during the latter part of the Endless River sessions, at Gilmour’s home studio in Hove. “Both Phil and myself had been pushing David to get the lyric and get the vocal,” recalls Youth. “Everyone around him was saying how he hates doing vocals, and he always leaves them to the last minute… He does this amazing thing when he’s composing and gets a melody. He does this skat vocal. It is absolutely perfect. Apparently, that’s how he did ‘Comfortably Numb’. I’ve never heard a singer skat a lead vocal so exact, with the right emotion and everything. So we had this skat vocal, and then we waited for Polly and David to come up with the lyrics.”
“David had come up with a concept that when he went into the chorus, he would go low and the backing singers would go an octave up from him,” continues Jackson. “He’s a big Leonard Cohen fan, and that’s something Leonard does a lot. Because the studio was in his home, he’d try it every day until he got all the lines he wanted. He ended up just doing it alone. It had been a while since he sang, so he had to get his voice limbered up, a bit every day. It’s now the closing part of the album, but it was originally the end of part three. We rejigged three and four, moved some sections around. It made a lot more sense at the end of the record. It’s a bit like, ‘You have been listening to…’”
Additional work followed – Youth recorded backing vocals with Durga McBroom in his south London studio, while Manzanera recorded clarinet and sax contributions from Gilad Atzmon at Astoria. Youth remembers Guy Pratt also returning to record new bass parts. Jackson is keen to stress the fluid nature of the work. “There was a very blurred line between mixing and recording. It was a constantly interactive process. We were still working on it quite recently. I’ve got August 6 in my diary, I was in here and David’s saying, ‘Maybe we should cut one cycle out of that bit.’ Meanwhile, it had already gone to James Guthrie in California for mastering. ‘You know that bit you just did? You’re going to have to do it again…’ There’s odd bits of dialogue on the album and even really late David wanted to get rid of one. Which meant I was having to put it back on the board and remix a section. That was August. You wouldn’t have done that in the past because you couldn’t. Pandora’s Box is well and truly open.”
Considering the extraordinary circumstances around its genesis, and the processes diligently undertaken to complete The Endless River, Phil Manzanera muses that this is “a Pink Floyd album for the 21st Century”.