He hardly seemed like the bold figure needed to lead the band past the departure of its main songwriter. At the same time, Gilmour had always harbored a fear of flying. He decided to face it all by taking lessons to become a pilot – and that’s when he discovered the spark for Pink Floyd’s first ever Billboard rock chart. 1.
In both cases, his initial apprehension gave way to a soaring sense of possibility. “‘Learning to Fly’ is about breaking free,” Gilmour later shared Only music“and the actual mechanics of learning to fly an airplane.”
Gilmour joined in time for Pink Floyd’s second album, 1968 Full of secrets, and played a central role in shaping a new sonic approach. By the late ’70s, however, he had begun to retreat within towering Waters-centric narratives that defined the 1977s AnimalsThe 1979s The wall and the 1983s Final Cut. When Waters announced his retirement, he was not alone in assuming that it would mean the end of Pink Floyd.
Instead Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason – who had also decided to take flying lessons – chose to go ahead. “Learning to Fly” would help them finally take off, but into a very uncertain future: Waters had filed a lawsuit in an attempt to prevent Pink Floyd from continuing without him. The record company was understandably concerned about how they would fare. Gilmour and Mason hadn’t even returned as keyboard players Richard Wright to an official place in the row.
It would all be resolved eventually, but not yet. “You can hear a sense of urgency and panic through songs like ‘Learning to Fly,'” longtime Pink Floyd package designer Aubrey Powell told me. Billboard in 2019. “It’s almost prophetic about what was about to happen: ‘We have to learn to start over without one of our contributors,’ which was Roger. Sometimes when you’re backed into a corner, your best work will emerge. .”
Like most of its parent album, A momentary lack of reason, “Learning to Fly” was co-credited to several non-Pink Floyd members – and each made important contributions. Gilmour may have been free of his long-term creative entanglements with Waters, but he still needed a good sounding board. In this case, he turned to keyboard player Jon Carin, producer Bob Ezrin and lyricist Anthony Moore.
Watch Pink Floyd’s original video for ‘Learning to Fly’
Gilmour invited Moore to daily writing and recording sessions at his houseboat studio, the Astoria. However, the larger concept of “Learning to Fly” started during a period of absence.
“Several mornings Anthony Moore would be there hard at work and I wouldn’t show up,” Gilmour said in Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey. “I called up and told somebody and they’d say, ‘Dave’s not coming in today because he’s learning to fly’.” It became “the starting point,” Gilmour added, for “something a little broader.”
Moore helped conduct Gilmour’s theme with its elaborate descriptions of flight (“Can’t keep my eyes off the circling sky, tongue-tied and twisted, just an earth-bound misfit, me“) and easy-to-decode references to inner band politics (“A soul in excitement learning to fly, state grounded but determined to try“). Mason rounded things off by placing an actual radio transmission in the middle of the song: “Propellers, full forward. Flaps set 10 degrees.”
Carin and Ezrin played roles in the completion of Gilmour’s accompanying music. This song’s signature rhythm track came from one of Carin’s demos, and he has also been credited with a notable chord progression—though in at least one contemporary interview, Carin has been careful to say that Instant lapse was “99% Dave.” Ezrin had a history of working with Pink Floyd dating back to The wall but had moved over into the Gilmour camp for 1984’s far slimmer About face when the relationship broke down. His reasons were both personal and professional: Gilmour was more willing to work around Ezrin’s family life, while also being far less “stiff and intense,” Ezrin said Penthouse in 1988.
With all that in mind, Ezrin said it was just “far easier for Dave and I to do our version of a Floyd record.” For A momentary lack of reason, that meant bringing along a small army of session players in a continued radical modernization of Gilmour’s sound. “Learning to Fly” arrived as the lead single that September. 14, 1987, with five additional musicians, four backing vocalists and an MTV-ready sequencer-driven bark.
“As Bob Ezrin was prone to do, at the start of the album he came in with a stack of CDs and said, ‘This is what’s happening now,'” recalled longtime Pink Floyd recording engineer Andy Jackson. Uncut in 2019. “In ’86, digital was very much at the forefront. [Dire Straits‘] Brothers in Arms had just come out and it had a very special sound – and it was a bar Bob said we should aim for.”
Listen to Pink Floyd’s remix of ‘Learning to Fly’
Much of the album would be recorded digitally, with many MIDI parts programmed on a Mac. Gilmour was game, at least at the time. “You can’t go back,” he said Full of secrets. “You have to find a new way of working, or operating and getting on with it. We didn’t do it remotely like we’ve done any other Floyd record. It was different systems, everything.”
Before that time Later years box arrived three decades later, but they had begun to think better of it all. “Like most people, we got caught up in this ’80s thing,” Gilmour said Moo in 2008. “We got a little too excited about all the technology that was thrown at us.”
Mason said their willingness to bring in so many outside contributors can be traced back to lingering concerns about starting over. “There was a sense of apprehension about what it would be like without Roger, so we overdid the pudding a bit in terms of a lot of session players,” he shared. Uncut. “Some of it was overproduced, with way too much stuff on it.”
Deadline pressure also meant there was little time to change direction. “Instant lapse had been recorded under considerable stress and time pressure,” Mason remembered in 2021“and in fact some of the final mixing was done concurrently with the rehearsals for the upcoming tour.”
Now in firm control of the band, Gilmour decided to revisit the project for an “updated and remixed” set that would move Mason and Wright’s contributions forward while selectively deleting some era-specific elements. “We were trying to make something that sounded a lot of the time,” Jackson shared Uncut“which of course means that as time goes on it ends up sounding dated.”
“Learning to Fly” opens up even more once it’s detached from its more mechanical foundations. Gilmour’s vocals sound warmer and more familiar. Wright’s keyboards encircle the verses, then gently guide everything towards a much smoother mid-song crescendo. Mason’s fills provide a consistently familiar counterpoint to Gilmour’s guitar work, which was sorely missed.
“I enjoyed re-recording drum tracks with unlimited studio time,” Mason said in 2021. “It was also nice to have an opportunity to enhance some of Rick’s work. Again, the positive tidal wave of technology might have just provided too many digital opportunities to overwhelm the band feeling.”
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