Monday, February 10, 2014

Pink Floyd -- "Great Gig in the Sky" (1973)

How can a record that has a singer be an instrumental?  

I'll tell you, boys and girls -- just hold your horses for a moment.

Michael Jackson's Thriller is usually considered to be the biggest-selling album of all time, but Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon isn't far behind.  It appeared on Billboard's top albums chart shortly after it was released in 1973, and stayed there for an astonishing 741 consecutive weeks -- that's over 14 years.  

If you were in high school or college in 1973 and you didn't buy this album, either you had a boyfriend or girlfriend who did own it or there's something seriously weird about you.

The Dark Side of the Moon was not only enormously popular among fans but also highly admired and respected by musicians.  I've met quite a few really talented professional musicians in the course of doing 2 or 3 lines over the past four-plus years, and I've never heard one of them say anything negative about this record.

Richard Wright
"Great Gig in the Sky" started out as a chord progression composed by Pink Floyd keyboard player Richard Wright.  When the group decided to record it, they tried adding various spoken word samples -- for example, snippets of recordings of NASA astronauts speaking during space missions -- but they weren't happy with the results.

Finally, just as they were finishing up work on the album, the band decided to have a female singer improvise a vocal to accompany the instrumental track.  The album's engineer, Alan Parsons, suggested they hire Clare Torry, a 25-year-old backup singer.

Here's the rest of the story, told in the form of quotes from those involved that appeared in a 2003 Rolling Stone piece celebrating the album's 30th anniversary:

Roger Waters
Roger Waters (Pink Floyd singer/songwriter and co-founder):  ["Great Gig in the Sky"] was something that Rick [Richard Wright] had already written.  It's a great chord sequence. . . . I've no idea whose idea it was to have someone wailing on it.  Clare [Torry] came into the studio one day, and we said, "There's no lyrics. It's about dying – have a bit of a sing on that, girl."

Alan Parsons
Alan Parsons:   [Clare Torry] had done a covers album; I can remember that she did a version of "Light My Fire."  I just thought she had a great voice.  When the situation came up, they started head-scratching, saying, "Who are we going to get to sing on this?"  I said, "I've got an idea – I know this girl."  She came, and in a couple of hours it was all done.  She had to be told not to sing any words: when she first started, she was doing "Oh yeah baby" and all that kind of stuff, so she had to be restrained on that.  But there was no real direction – she just had to feel it.

David Gilmour
David Gilmour (Pink Floyd guitarist):  Clare Torry didn't really look the part.  She was Alan Parsons' idea.  We wanted to put a girl on there, screaming orgasmically.  Alan had worked with her previously, so we gave her try.  And she was fantastic.  We had to encourage her a little bit.  We gave her some dynamic hints: "Maybe you'd like to do this piece quietly, and this piece louder."  She did maybe half a dozen takes, and then afterwards we compiled the final performance out of all the bits.  It wasn't done in one single take.

Clare Torry
Clare Torry:  I went in, put the headphones on, and started going "Ooh-aah, baby, baby – yeah, yeah, yeah." They said, "No, no — we don't want that. . . . Try some longer notes," so I started doing that a bit.  And all this time, I was getting more familiar with the backing track.  That was when I thought, "Maybe I should just pretend I'm an instrument."  So I said, "Start the track again."  One of my most enduring memories is that there was a lovely [headphone] balance.  Alan Parsons got a lovely sound on my voice: echoey, but not too echoey.  When I closed my eyes — which I always did — it was just all-enveloping; a lovely vocal sound, which for a singer, is always inspirational.

So that's why "Great Gig in the Sky" -- which is dominated by a singer -- is an instrumental.  (The next 2 or 3 lines will make this point even more dramatically.)

By the way, Clare Torry was paid only 3o pounds for her performance -- which was the flat daily rate for a studio musician.  In 2004, she sued Pink Floyd and its record company, claiming that she was really the co-writer of the track and should receive songwriting royalties.  The case was settled out of court, and all CDs manufactured after the date of the settlement give writing credits to both Wright and Torry.

Here's "Great Gig in the Sky":

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

No comments:

Post a Comment