30 Years Ago: Pink Floyd Go Live with ‘Delicate Sound of Thunder’
There would appear to have been a lot of clear thinking behind the release of Delicate Sound of Thunder on Nov. 22, 1988. For one, it was Pink Floyd’s first live album, if the first disc of 1969’s Ummagumma is not included. For another, it was recorded at the end of a year-long tour in support of studio album A Momentary Lapse of Reason, so the band could be expected to be on good form. For yet another, it marked a new era in the band’s history after bassist Roger Waters’s departure three years previously.
There were bound to be changes in Pink Floyd’s approach, along with their sound – and indeed there were: David Gilmour was in control of the band. Keyboardist Richard Wright, who had been fired by Waters in 1979 and subsequently put on salary for The Wall's tour was also back – although, for contractual reasons, he was paid as a session musician rather than a full member.
A Momentary Lapse of Reason started out as Gilmour’s third solo album, but he’d come to feel (or been persuaded) that it was better to continue the Floyd name, and had endured an angry legal battle with Rogers to make it happen. With his own musical ambitions steering the LP, it remains the most polarizing of the band’s catalog. Wright once admitted that “it’s not a band album at all,” although it featured more of the classic ‘70s Floyd sound than Waters’ second post-Floyd release Radio K.A.O.S.
That was the background to Delicate Sound of Thunder, built out of tapes from five nights at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, N.Y. in August 1988, then mixed at Abbey Road. Despite its intentions, hard-pressed fans who’d lived with the prospect of Pink Floyd having disintegrated in the split with Waters might have found themselves confused by several aspects of the album. It was a victim of the technical experimentation of the ‘80s, and featuring a heavily reverbed mix which drew accusations of a “cold” feeling. There were also a small number of studio additions which were originally denied – including sections of acoustic guitar and backing vocals that led some people to doubt the validity of the entire work.
It featured many more performers than the audience was used to: Percussionist Gary Wallis seemed to spend a lot of time unnecessarily shadowing what Nick Mason was already providing; second keyboardist Jon Carin, saxophonist Scott Page and backing singers Rachel Fury, Durga McBroom and Margaret Taylor all added layers that perhaps over-complicated the anticipated experience.
And while the concert set list had presented tracks from A Momentary Lapse of Reason followed by a set of catalog tracks, both of which had appeared to make sense in terms of order, the album omitted several key numbers – “Signs of Life,” “A New Machine,” “Terminal Frost,” “On the Run,” “The Great Gig in the Sky,” “Welcome to the Machine” and “One Slip" – which left those who’d attended shows aware of a disjointed result.
Some also noted that Gilmour appeared perhaps uncomfortable or distracted during some of the performance, which is understandable. After all, he was presenting his own version of Floyd in the rawest format he felt possible – as hinted in the double meaning of “Learning to Fly.”
Listen to "Learning to Fly" From 'The Delicate Sound of Thunder'
With time to reconsider, the video version of the show, launched the following year, made a better job of focusing on the high points of the band’s new direction. It also addressed at least some of the established listeners’ concerns, while offering a hindsight view to the album version that demonstrated how Floyd was capable of moving on after Waters – and that they had a handle on a direction that nodded to the ‘70s while moving on. The live LP proved to be a point at which many ‘80s fans jumped on the Floyd caravan. More importantly, it marked the full-fledged return of Wright, who hadn’t contributed much to the studio LP, and later admitted he’d suffered a crisis of confidence as a result of his battle with Waters.
As the perfect illustration of rising high from a challenging start, Delicate Sound of Thunder became the first rock album to be played in space, when the crew of the Soviet Union’s Soyuz TM-7 took the cassette (minus case, to save weight) on their flight to space station Mir, four days after the LP’s release. The cassette was still aboard when Mir burned up on re-entry in 2001.