What a difference a little re-imagining can do. A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Pink Floyd’s first album without Roger Waters and first of two (more to come?) albums that serve better as soundtracks to IMAX movies than as any sort of rock album (no, I don’t believe in the power of the rock. I have no romantic delusions about rock music.) brought a number of inconsequential tracks to Pink Floyd’s discography. They all sounded pretty much the same and went on and on (and on). The only semi-standout track would be “On the Turning Away.” (“Learning to Fly” is ok, but it’s not in the same league.) But even though it’s the (semi)standout track on the mediocre album, it’s good, but not great.
This is where record producers come in. I’m not fully claiming to understand what they do (and I doubt that the televised sessions from the Ashlee Simpson Show are an indicator of what they do for 99% of the bands out there), but a simple musical re-arrangement establishes the transition between “good” and “epic.” Maybe David Gilmour did all this re-arranging himself, but it seems like it could easily be the producer saying, “Why don’t you try it like this live?” There are no huge differences: no sitar, no new words, no new guitar solo, no trimmed guitar solo, and so on. But the live recording from Delicate Sound of Thunder completely trumps the original.
Let’s take a listen:
I’m not sure if Pink Floyd invented it, but here’s yet another extremely quiet, extremely slow (deliberate might be a better word?) start to a song. The stereotypical late-era-Pink Floyd organ/synthesizer is doing its thing just like in the studio version. The organ takes longer getting through the opening chords as the performance is taken a bit slower than in the studio. The original version clocks in at 5:42 while this live version tips the scales at 7:56. The slower tempo is the first step in really establishing the song as a successful epic.
The singing starts. Because it’s a live version, the audience is heard cheering (of course they have to chear at the beginning of the actual singing because the beginning of the song itself just sounds like pointless synthesizer-playing). Also the first words are, “On the turning away,” so everyone in the audience knows what song it is. During this verse, the sense of scale of the live recording (the sense of scale missing in the studio version) is first heard. By moving the vocals “back” in the soundscape and capturing some of the echo and reverb of the live venue, the song finally has the “presence” that the studio version lacked.
The second verse starts, and the first big musical change is heard. A standard electric bass doubles the bass line of the organ. It’s a minor change, but it adds more texture to the song. Initially (and on the studio version), there was nothing interesting happening below the vocal track. The organ played a rather subdued (sonically) unfocused bass line, and the song didn’t sound empty, but with a lackadaisical vocal line, only a bit of guitar strumming, an equally lackadaisical vocal harmony line, and that same organ part, the song was stuck on “ponderous.” With the abrupt, focused sound of the electric bass, the song can feel faster while still maintaining the same deliberate tempo.
This little electric bass section was played by an electric guitar in the studio. Moving the (rather inconsequential) part to the bass spreads out the range and blends directly into the bass part played by the organ in the next section.
The newly-found sense of scale is on full display as the song seemingly wraps up (just like the studio version), but to really space it all out, drops the drums, guitar (electric and acoustic), and that bass guitar leaving just a the vocals, the organ, and a newly found choir. Starting singing merely texture (mainly aah’s) with the organ against Gilmour’s vocals, the choir swells and seemlessly begins singing the lyrics in just about a billion-part harmony at “coldness inside,” halfway through a line begun by Gilmour. (That’s some pretty sophisticated arranging.) And the acoustic guitar is brought back in for a tiny flourish (more texture) as the organ, choir, and Gilmour revel in the echo of the space and take their sweet time wrapping up the chorus.
Guitar solo, etc. begins. Just about spot-on with the studio version except the bass guitar is brought to the front of the soundscape, more forward than even the lead guitar (a risky decision), and the chorus sings along (ooh’s and aah’s) with the organ’s chords.
Traditional live rock performance where they can’t figure out how to end the song, and they all beat their instruments until the guitar player (probably) made some sort of big chopping motion with his instrument, signifying the end.
“On the Turning Away” from Delicate Sound of Thunder receives 5 stars due to its successful “reboot” of the original version of the song. To be honest, I could do without the lyrics (the “turning away” refers to people with money ‘turning away’ from those in need. Spare me. I’m sure that David Gilmour uses his heated garage to house homeless people, not Aston Martins.). In spite of that, this version includes some of the best 45 seconds ever committed to a record (3:33 – 4:16). Perhaps one of the most successful mulligans of a studio recording ever.