The Great Gig In The Sky – Pink Floyd
There are no words. Just the wonderful sound of Clare Torry‘s voice rising and falling like the pure instrument it is over the shifting chords of Floyd’s keyboard player Richard Wright. Track 5 on their magnum opus Dark Side Of The Moon, released in 1973, it still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, and probably always will. This was a monster LP by any standards, probably the only LP at Lewes Priory School to rival Abbey Road in school corridor sightings per day. Others had their moment and faded, these two giant records were beyond fashion and cool, beyond fortune and even taste. They just WERE, like the stones of Stonehenge.
Dark Side Of The Moon became a cliche quickly due to ubiquity, but it never stopped being good. We all loved how sonically rich it was. We loved how it took its time. It was anti-war and anti-money, had wisdom in the mouths of fools and mental patients, it was druggy, paranoid and alive. We all loved the muttering voice at the beginning of The Great Gig In The Sky, “And I am not frightened of dying…why should i Be, there’s no reason for it…you’ve got to go sometime..” mainly because, of course, we all are terrified of dying; we loved a character who returns chuckling at the end of the LP on Brain Damage “the lunatic is in my head…” ; we loved the early electro wobblefizz of On The Run which appears to end in a helicopter crash; the line in Time which would have meant little to a group of teenagers: “…and then one day you find, ten years have got behind you….” but which haunts every adult I know. The production is immaculate: those liquid slide and pedal steel guitar chords, blissful Hammond organ, crisp drum breaks, whispered cymbals, tasteful vocals and major sevenths in abundance. The Great Gig In The Sky was added right at the end of the LP sessions, when the band decided to append an instrumental track of 4 minutes.
The opening chords are rather lush : Bm F(-5) Bb F/A
play it on the piano then you can almost hear that pedal steel guitar Gm7 to C9 sweeping in which is the bulk of the song.
But of course the reason why it stands out is the voice. Clare Torry was a songwriter and session musician (ie paid by the session, or by the day) and the original song was just a group of chords. Pink Floyd’s engineer Alan Parsons suggested Torry, she said no, she had tickets to see Chuck Berry, but came back a few days later and improvised over two and a half takes the track that we hear today.
We listened to it straight, we listened to it stoned, we listened to it tripping. I’ll always associate it with the Ryle’s house “Waterlilies” in Kingston where I had taken refuge from my family, was playing in a band called Rough Justice with Conrad Ryle and going out with his sister Miriam. Miriam was tall, elegant and beautiful, and when she smiled at me it was like the sun coming out. They had a shiny wooden record player with large speakers that you could lie down between if you so desired. In the summer of 1975 Miriam decided that we could not go on dating, mainly due to her parents splitting up – I had become “part of her past” overnight. Miriam and Conrad’s mother, dear Rosemary Ryle (who sadly passed away in 2013) in retrospect took pity on me and said I could stay on at Waterlilies, since I had a summer job at Sussex University Library just down the road in Falmer, but some 30 miles from Hailsham where my family were.
From Kingston Ridge towards Waterlilies, Juggs Lane, and Lewes
Miriam wanted to stay friends and didn’t object, the house was quite a large bungalow so we weren’t exactly on top of one another, but it was a strange and melancholy summer, sprinkled with contentious trips home to Mum, Paul, Andrew and now, aged 3, my new sister Rebecca. “You treat this place like it’s a hotel, only coming back to change your clothes”. Change clothes and pick up that Jimi Hendrix single. Back to work on the train to Falmer. Back to Waterlilies. I remember lying down between those two speakers one afternoon and playing The Great Gig In The Sky at Top Volume when everyone else was out, tears streaming down my face. Miriam was my first love, and she’d broken my heart.
Clare Torry in 1973
But hey, I survived to listen to another Pink Floyd LP. 1995’s Wish You Were Here was the last one of theirs I liked. Call me weird. I spoke to Clare Torry a couple of years ago in relation to a documentary I was trying to raise finance for about Session Musicians – she was reluctant to speak of this song on camera again after so many years, a court case, regular interview requests and so on and so forth. But she was very sweet about it. It’s not hugely unlike what I do for a living – the session musician, the character actor – the Lee Van Cleef image of the hired gun – ride into town, hitch the horse, set up in the saloon, shoot some bad guys, ride into the sunset with a bag of coin. Not the whole bank. No glory. Hit and run. And then the chance, now and again, to really nail something with some great people, play a lick, set up a groove, do a twirl, hit a bullseye. Then glory, then love. Then. Then wait for the phone to ring. Feed the horse. Keep your eye in.
This really is the most incredible performance.
The Making Of The Great Gig In The Sky
Clare Torry being hilarious on making The Great Gig In The Sky