35 Years Ago: Pink Floyd Takes Off Again With ‘Learning to Fly’
Unspoken fears that were guiding David Gilmour's private and professional lives eventually commingled on the first Pink Floyd single he worked on without Roger Waters.
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 down, taking lessons to become a pilot – and then discovering the spark for Pink Floyd's first-ever Billboard rock chart No. 1.
His initial trepidation, in both cases, gave way to a soaring sense of opportunity. "'Learning to Fly' is about breaking free," Gilmour later told Only Music, "and the actual mechanics of learning to fly an airplane."
Gilmour joined in time for Pink Floyd's second album, 1968's Saucerful of Secrets, and played a central role in crafting a new sonic approach. By the end of the '70s, however, he'd begun to recede within towering Waters-centric narratives that defined 1977's Animals, 1979's The Wall and 1983's The Final Cut. When Waters announced he was quitting, he wasn't alone in assuming that would mean the end of Pink Floyd.
Instead, Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason – who'd also decided to take flying lessons – elected to move forward. "Learning to Fly" would help them finally take off, but into a very uncertain future: Waters had filed suit in an attempt to stop Pink Floyd from continuing without him. The record label was understandably concerned about how they'd fare. Gilmour and Mason hadn't even returned keyboardist Richard Wright to an official spot in the lineup.
All of it would eventually be resolved, 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 Billboard in 2019. "It's almost prophetic about what was about to happen: 'We've got to learn to start over again without one of our contributors,' which was Roger. Sometimes when you’re backed into a corner your best work comes out."
Like most of its parent album, A Momentary Lapse of Reason, "Learning to Fly" was co-credited to several non-Pink Floyd members – and each made key contributions. Gilmour may have been free of his longtime 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 on his houseboat studio, the Astoria. The larger concept for "Learning to Fly" started, however, in 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'd call up and tell someone, and they'd say, "Dave's not coming in today, 'cause he's learning to fly." That became "the starting point," Gilmour added, for "something a bit wider."
Moore helped direct Gilmour's theme, with its artful descriptions of flight ("Can't keep my eyes from the circling sky, tongue-tied and twisted, just an earth-bound misfit, I") and easy-to-decode references to inner-band politics ("A soul in tension that's learning to fly, condition grounded but determined to try"). Mason completed things by placing an actual radio transmission at the midpoint of the song: "Propellers, fully forward. Flaps set 10 degrees."
Carin and Ezrin played roles in completing Gilmour's accompanying music. This song's distinctive rhythm track came from one of Carin's demos, and he's also been credited with a notable chord progression – though Carin has been careful in at least one contemporary interview to say that Momentary Lapse was "99% Dave." Ezrin had a history of working with Pink Floyd that dated back to The Wall but had moved over into the Gilmour camp for 1984's far-sleeker About Face as relations 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 "rigid and intense," Ezrin told Penthouse in 1988.
With all of 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 Lapse of Reason, that meant bringing along a small army of sessions players in a continued radical modernization of Gilmour's sound. "Learning to Fly" arrived as the lead single on Sept. 14, 1987, with five extra musicians, four background 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,'" longtime Pink Floyd recording engineer Andy Jackson told Uncut in 2019. "In '86, digital was very much at the forefront. [Dire Straits'] Brothers in Arms had just come out and that had a very particular sound – and that was one bar Bob said we should be aiming for."
Listen to Pink Floyd's Remix of 'Learning to Fly'
A large portion 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 in Saucerful of Secrets. "You have to find a new way of working, or operating and getting on with it. We didn't make this remotely like we've made any other Floyd record. It was different systems, everything."
By the time the Later Years box set arrived three decades later, however, they'd begun to think better of it all. "Like most people, we got trapped in this '80s thing," Gilmour told Mojo in 2008. "We were a bit too thrilled with all the technology that was being thrown at us."
Mason said their willingness to bring in so many outside contributors traced back to lingering worries about starting over again. "There was a sense of trepidation over what it would be like without Roger, so we slightly over-egged the pudding in terms of lots of session players," he told Uncut. "Some of it was overproduced, with far too much stuff on it."
Deadline pressures also meant there was little time to change directions. "Momentary Lapse had been recorded under considerable stress and time constraints," Mason remembered in 2021, "and indeed some of the final mixing was done at the same time as rehearsals for the forthcoming tour."
Now firmly in 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 very much of the time," Jackson told Uncut, "which means of course that as time progresses, it ends up sounding dated."
"Learning to Fly" opens up even further, once loosed from its more mechanical underpinnings. Gilmour's vocal sounds warmer and more confidential. Wright's keyboards encircle the verses and then gently guide everything toward a much smoother midsong crescendo. Mason's fills provide a consistently familiar counterpoint to Gilmour's guitar work that was sorely missed.
"I enjoyed rerecording 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, that positive tidal wave of technology just might have provided too many digital opportunities to overwhelm the band feel."
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