Pink Floyd: Journey to the Dark Side

David Gilmour and Roger Waters on why the the fragile collaboration behind Pink Floyd's masterpiece was doomed to fail

October 13, 2011
Pink Floyd
How 'Dark Side' doomed Pink Floyd.
Illustration by Joe Zeff Design

It could be a new Pink Floyd song, if only that band still existed as anything more than a memory, more than a barely cordial business partnership. David Gilmour is sitting atop an equipment rack in the control room of his opulent houseboat studio outside London, strumming a descending chord progression on an old 12-string Martin as he sings a wordless, wistful melody. "I'm making it up as I go along," he says, playing on. In the window behind him, the Thames ripples under gray, prematurely autumnal skies.

"A few years ago," Gilmour adds in his crisply posh British accent, with vast chronological understatement, "I was doing the same in Number Three control room at Abbey Road, and this came out." He summons the hammered-on intro of 1975's "Wish You Were Here." "That was written and played on this guitar – so you've got to take notice if anything comes out."

"Wish You Were Here" is a rare case in the Pink Floyd catalog: an indisputable, face-to-face songwriting collaboration between Gilmour and Roger Waters – Floyd's bassist, lyricist and creative force during the band's most successful period. "Roger said, 'That's got something, I've got an idea for that,'" says Gilmour, "and then we wrote the chorus and the verses together – he wrote the words."

Though they also share credit on another Floyd classic, "Comfortably Numb," among other tracks, Gilmour and Waters were never anything close to a consistent, Lennon-McCartney-style songwriting team. As Waters told Rolling Stone in 1987, shortly after his acrimonious exit from the band, "We never managed to come to a common view of the dynamic that existed within the band, of who did what and whether or not it was right." After all these years, those questions remain surprisingly fraught, with precious little agreement.

But relations are sufficiently civil these days that Gilmour, Waters and the other surviving member, drummer Nick Mason, have agreed upon what could be their last effort together: an extensive reissue project for Floyd's entire catalog. Every studio album has been remastered, and the three most popular - 1979's The Wall, 1975's Wish You Were Here and their masterpiece, 1973's 40-million-selling The Dark Side of the Moon – are getting the deluxe-box-set treatment with long-lost outtakes, live recordings and video. "We're getting away from that too-precious-for-our-own-good thing," says Gilmour, "of never releasing anything considered as substandard. Everything there is is going to be out in one way or another."

To commemorate the reissues, which kick off with the Dark Side box this month, Gilmour, Mason and Waters all agreed to speak to Rolling Stone, albeit separately. "It's the closest thing to Live 8," cracks Mason, referring to the 2005 benefit that was the last performance by the full lineup, including keyboardist Richard Wright, who died in 2008. Waters and Gilmour also played an acoustic set together for a Palestinian children's charity last year, which led to Gilmour appearing at a London date of Waters' Wall tour, with Mason tapping a tambourine. At both reunions, the band members even shared a hug.

Gilmour eases the guitar back onto a rack with a half-dozen others and eases his 65-year-old self off his perch, settling into an ergonomic chair by the studio's control panel. He's wearing his all-occasion uniform of black sports jacket and pricey-looking black T-shirt and black jeans, with a pair of suede shoes thrown in. He's ready, if not eager, to spend some time talking about The Dark Side of the Moon and Pink Floyd. "It's difficult to plunge yourself back into parallel lifetimes of a long time ago," he says, "parts of which you don't feel comfortable remembering."

Waters see "The Dark Side of the Moon" as "sort of flawless," and he has a point: There were happy accidents in its making – the improvised virtuosity of session singer Clare Torry's wailing on "The Great Gig in the Sky," engineer Alan Parsons' already-recorded tape of a store full of chiming clocks – but Dark Side has a jewel-like perfection that's uncommon among rock albums. It may well be the ultimate artifact of the pre-shuffle era: an album that flows like a single song. "You can project a concept record on Sgt. Pepper or Pet Sounds that's not really there," says one fan, the Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan. "Dark Side is a concept record. It has a narrative theme – beginning, middle and end. It goes somewhere and actually makes fucking sense. There's not a wasted ounce on the thing. You cannot create that kind of perfection – it's a synchronicity issue."

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