35 Years Ago: Pink Floyd Finally Goes Live on ‘Delicate Sound of Thunder’
The album was recorded at the end of a year-long tour in support of A Momentary Lapse of Reason, so the band could be expected to be on good form. Delicate Sound of Thunder also marked a new era after bassist Roger Waters’ ugly departure three years earlier.
There were bound to be changes in Pink Floyd’s approach, along with their sound, as David Gilmour took control. Co-founding keyboardist Richard Wright also returned after being fired by Waters and subsequently put on salary for the troubled tour in support of The Wall – although, for contractual reasons, he was paid as a session musician rather than a full member.
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They were touring in support of A Momentary Lapse of Reason, which started out as Gilmour’s third solo album. He eventually began to feel (or had been persuaded) that it was better to continue the Pink Floyd name, and then endured a pitched legal battle with Waters to make it happen. With his own musical ambitions steering the LP, A Momentary Lapse of Reason then became perhaps the most polarizing of Pink Floyd’s catalog.
Wright once admitted that “it’s not a band album at all,” although A Momentary Lapse of Reason featured more of the classic ‘70s Floyd sound than Waters’ contemporary solo release Radio K.A.O.S. All of these issues ended up swirling around Delicate Sound of Thunder, which was built out of tapes from five nights in August 1988, at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, N.Y., then mixed at Abbey Road.
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Post-Production Edits Were Initially Denied
Despite its intentions, hard-pressed fans who’d lived through Pink Floyd's split with Waters might have found themselves confused by several aspects of the album. Delicate Sound of Thunder was a victim of the technical experimentation of the ‘80s, with a heavily reverbed mix that left some listeners with a cold feeling. There were also a small number of studio additions that were originally denied – including sections of acoustic guitar and backing vocals that led others to doubt the validity of the entire work.
Delicate Sound of Thunder featured many more performers than Pink Floyd's 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 added layers that perhaps over-complicated the experience.
The concert set list presented tracks from A Momentary Lapse of Reason and a set of catalog tracks, both of which appeared to make sense in terms of order. But the album omitted several 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 the disjointed results.
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Huge Sales and a Trip to Space
Some argued that Gilmour appeared uncomfortable or distracted during some of the shows, which is understandable. After all, he was presenting his version of Pink Floyd in the rawest format he felt possible, as hinted in the double meaning of “Learning to Fly.”
A video version of the show that launched the following year did a better job of focusing on the high points of this new direction. The Delicate Sound of Thunder concert film addressed some established listeners’ concerns while offering a hindsight view of the album version. Pink Floyd finally seemed capable of moving on after Waters, while still nodding to the ‘70s.
Notable criticisms aside, Pink Floyd's first live LP sold three million copies in the U.S. alone, becoming the point at which many ‘80s fans jumped on the caravan. A 2019 remix cleaned up some of its long-standing issues. More importantly, Delicate Sound of Thunder 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 after his battle with Waters.
In the perfect illustration of rising high from a challenging start, Delicate Sound of Thunder became the first rock album to be played in space. 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 its release. The cassette was still aboard when Mir burned up on re-entry in 2001.
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