Thirty years ago this month, 120,000 rock fans gathered at the grounds of the Knebworth House in Knebworth, England, for one of the biggest all-star concerts in the history of the U.K. The lineup featured Tears for Fears, Status Quo, Cliff Richard and the Shadows, Robert Plant with surprise guest Jimmy Page, Genesis, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins solo, Dire Straits, Elton John, Paul McCartney, and Pink Floyd.
Picking an act to close out the night probably wasn’t easy, but the organizers ultimately went with Pink Floyd. They hit the road in 1987 to promote their comeback LP A Momentary Lapse of Reason and proved that they could pack stadiums even without Roger Waters. They’d been off the road for nearly a year when Knebworth came around, but they put the band back together for a seven-song set heavy on Seventies classics like “Money,” “Comfortably Numb,” and “The Great Gig in the Sky.” “Sorrow” was the only selection from their newest album.
As a surprise, they brought out vocalist Clare Torry for “The Great Gig in the Sky.” (Check out video of the moment right here.) She delivered the haunting, wordless vocal performance on the original Dark Side of the Moon version, but she hadn’t done the song with them in concert since a one-off 1973 benefit performance with Soft Machine.
Back in 1973, Torry was brought in to Abbey Road studios near the end of the Dark Side of the Moon sessions to help them finish the song. Keyboardist Richard Wright had written the instrumental portion, but they didn’t quite know where to go from there.
“The only person that really said anything [to me] was David Gilmour,” Torry told writer John Harris in 2005. “That’s my abiding memory. I don’t remember really speaking to any of the others. I went in and they just said, ‘Well, we’re making this album, and there’s this track — and we don’t really know what to do with it.’ They told me what the album was about: birth, and death, and everything in between. And I said, ‘Well, play me the track.’ They did that, and I said, ‘Well, what do you want?’ They said, ‘We don’t know.’”
On her first attempt, she tried out some generic lines like “Ooh-aah, baby, baby — yeah, yeah, yeah,” but they told her to try some longer notes and really lock into the emotion of the song. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘I really, really do not know what to do,'” she said. “And perhaps it would be better if I said, ‘Thank you very much’ and gave up.’ It wasn’t getting anywhere: it was just nothing. That was when I thought, ‘Maybe I should just pretend I’m an instrument.’ So I said, ‘Start the track again.’”
She then closed her eyes and delivered an emotional howl from the depths of her soul. The band told her to try it one more time, but halfway through she stopped. “I realized that I was beginning to be repetitive; derivative,” she said. “It didn’t have that off-the-top-of-the-head, instantaneous something. It was beginning to sound contrived. I said, ‘I think you’ve got enough.’ I thought it sounded like caterwauling.”
She left the studio that day not knowing if they’d use anything she did. It wasn’t until she bought the album and saw her name in the credits that she knew she made the cut. They gave her nothing more than thirty quid and free tickets to their concert at Earl’s Court for her efforts.
In 2004, she decided to sue the band for songwriting royalties. The matter was settled out of court and they’ve never talked about the resolution publicly, but the song is now credited to Wright/Torry.
Over the years, Pink Floyd and Roger Waters have played the song with numerous backing singers. They’ve all put their own wonderful spin on it, but none can quite compare to Torry’s original rendition. The royalties she now receives are well-deserved.