David Gilmour has long been known to conclude a tour with a flourish, be it playing in the middle of the lagoon in front of St Mark’s Square in Venice with Pink Floyd in 1989, or at the historic shipyards of Gdansk in 2006. However, in 2016, he surpassed himself even by his own standards by bringing his show to a place firmly etched in world history, and in the history of Pink Floyd – at the amphitheatre in Pompeii, the site trapped in the pyroclastic flow of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.
In 1971, of course, his old group, under the direction of Adrian Maben, shot their legendary Live At Pompeii film, which captured them playing in an amphitheatre, empty, save for the crew and a few local kids. In 2016, it couldn’t have been more different – Gilmour brought his entire touring operation along to perform a spectacular show in front of a paying audience. It was to be a time when ghosts were laid to rest.
Gilmour first had the idea of returning to Pompeii in 2015 as he was touring Europe and then South America.
“I don’t get out on tour very often and I like to create a special occasion for people, so it’s nice to play in beautiful old places that have a special vibe to them,” Gilmour says. “We started at Pula in Croatia in an absolutely spectacular amphitheatre, which is a place I’d never been to before, and we continued that idea all over Europe. In these beautiful places, you know there’s a whole added element of specialness that the building gives to it. Hopefully the audience will remember it forever.”
Playing venues such as this is not without enormous logistical issues. “Luckily I don’t get to hear about most of them,” Gilmour laughs.
Production manager Roger Searle and lighting man Marc Brickman scope each location out, months in advance.
“Roger is brilliant and completely unflappable,” Gilmour reveals. “He gets everything done and if you ask him to do something, he always says ‘yes’, never ‘no’. We need people like him.”
The South American leg of the Rattle That Lock tour was a key experience for Gilmour. The continent has a reputation for audience intensity and complex logistics, with tales of payments not being made and legs of tours having to be cancelled.
“Through all those years of our Pink Floyd touring, no one ever managed to convince us it was worth going through all that, so we never did. But times have changed and things are now far more professional. We were playing to up to 50,000 people a night, which for me as a solo artist was quite a surprise, but the audiences are so fantastically enthusiastic, polite and welcoming. There’s a more even split between men and women, which is refreshing. Many people have told me, over the years, how great the South American audiences are and I would go, ‘Yeah, sure, it’s just the same as everywhere else really.’ But they were right – it really was a treat.”
The Rattle That Lock tour lent itself to extraordinary venues and, as it progressed, it seemed to lead to one in particular.
“I don’t want to get completely stuck only in amphitheatres, but someone suggested we try for Pompeii again. The minute the idea of playing there was mooted, I said, ‘Go for it. Absolutely.’ I said, ‘We’ll never get it.’ I didn’t think they’d allow it.
“So we sent our trusty team off to negotiate with the town of Pompeii. It turned out that the mayor and the townspeople were thrilled with the idea and were very keen to expedite it. They all made it work fantastically well.”
Playing Pompeii was a huge statement. Although Gilmour did not watch the original, fabled 1972 film again, he was aware that by revisiting, and adding an audience, it would become a full-blown spectacle.
“The statement element of it came along a little bit later. I don’t think we originally were that concerned – it was just one of a number of places we were playing. At some point, we thought we did okay with it back in ’71 without an audience – maybe it would be fun to do the DVD there. We recorded and filmed shows all over the world, but we thought this one would be something extra special, which indeed it was. The two shows went really well.”
Whereas original director Maben had to negotiate minefields with local authorities to get the group to play there in 1971, now the world had turned sufficiently for Gilmour to be welcomed with open arms. After all, a significant number of tourists visit the World Heritage Site every year because of the Floyd connection.
The Avis trucks that trundled in back in 1971 were now replaced by fleets of equipment, all of which had to be wheeled carefully down aged paths so as not to damage the legendary structure.
“All of that had to be negotiated,” Gilmour says. “Things like the fireworks and pyro are designed to look exciting and haphazard. You want it to look dangerous but it’s very carefully done and controlled and our people know exactly what they’re doing. It’s a highly professional system, and so no damage was done to the site. You have to convince people that you are that sort of organisation.
“We’ve been through that in the 70s. That highly dangerous sort of stuff was, in fact, highly dangerous in those days. Health and safety didn’t exist, pretty much, and there were a lot of very shaky moments on major tours. But these days, it’s very slick.”
The spectacular concerts in July 2016 obviously opened doors in the minds of the media to Pink Floyd again, but Gilmour wasn’t especially worried. “You can’t worry about the media – they’re going to find something to obsess about. And the story of ‘will we, won’t we’ comes up time and time again and will never go away, I suspect, however convincing I try to make the argument.”
For Gilmour, walking back into that amphitheatre after a gap of 45 years was unforgettable. “It brought back all sorts of memories of the times we had there and the Heath Robinson sort of setup we had then. We had a Brenell 8-track tape machine sitting at the back and hundreds of little wires and a little mixing desk. It’s amazing that we got anything as good sound-wise out of it as we did, doing take after take in the blazing sun. There are a lot of memories and ghosts in that place.”
Adrian Maben was there, as well as historian Mary Beard. “Entirely coincidentally, Adrian was there with an exhibition of photos from 1971. It was not connected to our visit. It was booked to be there anyway. We had talked about getting someone there to talk about the place itself. Mary was mentioned. It turned out that she was coming to the concert anyway. Things serendipitously just fell into place.
“Mary paints it as rather more prosaic than our idea of what it might have been like. Somehow that makes it feel even more real and more alive than watching Spartacus or something. The audience would have been sitting there with no beers, no refreshments and no loos.”
Gilmour’s performance chimes with Beard’s philosophy that sites like Pompeii are there to be enjoyed.
As the original performance and film has had an indelible impact on a whole generation, Gilmour had to go through the modern-day duties of meeting local dignitaries, being whisked off into the modern town and given the freedom of the city by the mayor.
“There are a number of people there who had been kids when we did the 1971 show with Pink Floyd who had managed to wheedle their way into the amphitheatre to watch. They said what a significant memory in their childhood that was, and for me to come back was such a thrill and a treat for them.”
The strict capacity limit in the amphitheatre gave the show a special resonance, one that translates well to the film. “I was unusually nervous, but we got to the end of the first night and thought we’d cracked it. It was really good and the second night was even better. You may be doing exactly the same set, but they can have a completely different vibe. It’s one of those weird, magical things when you really don’t know what you’re going to get.”
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As one would expect, the show – as anyone who caught the tour would testify – was outstanding: the balance of new and old, of supporting players and the star wrapped in a major league son et lumière.
“Putting it all together and fitting everything into that venue was a challenge for Marc Brickman. We had drones filming from about a mile away and you see a tiny little circle in the distance with light and smoke sort of pouring out and pulsing. It’s spectacular, and beautifully shot.”
Of course, being a Gilmour show, there are some bombastic moments.
“I haven’t managed to grow out of those yet!” he laughs. “I keep thinking that bombast is a thing of the past, but it still sneaks back in.”
One such moment is when the band don sunglasses during Run Like Hell. But as with a great deal of Gilmour’s work, it’s borne out of practicality.
“There are the strobes that Marc is using at that moment and you actually cannot see a thing. With the flashing, it makes your brain do strange things and it’s easy to forget where you are. Someone wanted to wear sunglasses and we thought, ‘Yeah, let’s get everyone to do it and it’ll be just like Wallace & Gromit when the rocket takes off to go to the moon and all the mice put their sunglasses on.’”
With a show in two halves that builds to a climactic finish, Gilmour added The Great Gig In The Sky to the set for Pompeii. “And of course, we did One Of These Days, which we hadn’t been playing on the tour. That’s the only song that we played there back in 1971.”
Pompeii is a place of ghosts, and it would have been impossible for Gilmour not to be touched by their presence.
“There are songs that Rick [Wright, Floyd keyboardist] wrote [The Great Gig In The Sky], and there’s A Boat Lies Waiting, which is about Rick, for which I wrote the music and Polly [Samson, Gilmour’s wife] wrote the words, which we put into a sequence.
“Wish You Were Here always reminds me of Syd [Barrett] when we play it. And in a place like Pompeii, those things are heightened because of the time we spent there all those years ago, and because of the special occasion. These things all come on to you while you’re performing and hopefully heighten the emotion of the occasion for the audience as well.”
Gilmour had around six shows before Pompeii to break in his new touring band, which he introduced after the first leg of the tour, with only himself, bassist Guy Pratt and vocalist Lucita Jules remaining constant. The group gelled well.
“There are a number of songs that have moments for improvisation. I get to do most of it, of course, but Chuck [Leavell], Greg [Phillinganes], João [Mello] and Chester [Kamen] are the new people on this leg of the tour and they all get their moments to stretch out.
“I’m into perfection in a way, but at the same time, I don’t want the songs played perfectly as on the record. I want it to be live music. I want people who play with me to have some autonomy to be able to change something that suits them and suits the mood of the moment. And, of course, if that goes wrong, we discuss it afterwards! But I would rather that we go for something and enjoy actually playing, rather than holding them tight to a format.”
One of the highlights of the tour was the sax playing of young Brazilian Mello, who handled Dick Parry’s legendary parts with great elan.
“He’s a beautiful player, really good. He had his 21st birthday when we were in Brazil, playing in his home town, and it’s kind of special to think of all the different ages playing in a band and feeling like you are part of something together.”
Gilmour thoroughly enjoyed shooting the film, and it shows. It’s directed by Gavin Elder, who helmed the capture of his 2006 show in Gdansk.
“It looks fantastic,” Gilmour enthuses. “I’m dying to go in and watch and hear it in a cinema, with those big bass speakers that make sound travel through a room in a way that speakers in a small room don’t quite have the wavelength for. It’s very special.
“I’ll be sitting there in September watching it in that proper way for the first time myself. A cinema release is the best way of putting it out there – the sound and the occasion, having a lot of people together enjoying that moment. I can’t wait.”
The DVD package, naturally, is crammed with extras: footage from the South American leg of the tour, from other legs, and from a Polish TV broadcast with an orchestra conducted by Zbigniew Preisner. Material from the band’s two sets of shows at Gilmour’s beloved Royal Albert Hall is also included. “The Albert Hall has an atmosphere. I’ve always loved it. If you treat it with respect, it’ll pay you back. It feels like a second home to me. It fits in with my ethos of performing in beautiful and exciting places.”
There will be the customary CD and vinyl sets too, with photographs by Gilmour’s wife and collaborator Polly Samson, director Elder, Polish tour photographer Anna Wloch, and Sarah Lee, who shot the Pompeii gig.
“We have a wealth of material that we have used in the booklets and on the jackets. I’m a big fan of the physical, of the object, of the big thing where you can see what’s written on it and the stories that used to be written inside those covers and on the backs of the covers. It all has to be part of one artistic experience. That’s something we really work at and concentrate on. I want to create something that people can have at home and relive the experience, or live it for the first time if they weren’t there. You can’t cut corners when you’re trying to create something that has that sort of magic to it.”
So with the magic of Pompeii captured on film, what’s next for David Gilmour? He’s stated that he won’t tour without new music, and as we know, that takes him a while to make. “There are several songs that are close to being complete that didn’t make it onto this album for one reason or another. You never know what you’re going to do until you start and when you do, you find that something you absolutely loved before doesn’t fit quite into what you’re trying to do now. You just have to wait and see what comes up. It took 10 years last time. I’m really hoping, without making any promises, that it won’t take 10 years this time, but that I will get back in soon and start working again. Then, following that, I’ll be out again.”
And will Gilmour ever return to Pompeii? “Of course. Most of the places I played I’d go back to. Verona is such a lovely place, we played both times in 2015 and 2016; Orange; Pula; and the great places in America. We did a couple of nights at the Hollywood Bowl – it has a magic to it. Marc Brickman did some new films to project. Usually we project onto the circular screen but you can project film onto the whole of the inside of the Hollywood Bowl’s dome.
“The Chicago Auditorium is a beautiful old theatre that I’d played with Pink Floyd in the early 70s. I had a half-memory of doing it. You think, ‘God, oh I hope I was right, it wasn’t just a fantasy.’ Thankfully, it truly is a beautiful venue. Radio City Music Hall in New York, which we’d also played with Pink Floyd, is one of those special places. Madison Square Garden is always a favourite. It has a great sound and a great atmosphere.”
So, David Gilmour: Live At Pompeii claims Gilmour’s share of his old group’s legacy in the way that Roger Waters did with his live show of his portion, The Wall, several years earlier. However, ironically, the performance, in such heightened nostalgic surroundings, serves to underline the greatness of Gilmour’s music now, more than merely being frozen in time.
With the concert, film, the DVD and audio, does David Gilmour think, in a way, that doing Pompeii again was a nice way of drawing a line under that one part of his legacy?
“Let’s hope so!” he says.
David Gilmour: Live In Pompeii will be shown in selected cinemas on September 13. The live album will be available from September 29 on various formats. See www.davidgilmour.com for details.
The history woman
Ancient Rome expert and Floyd fan Mary Beard relives her most memorable Pompeii experience.
It was on a sunny day last July when classicist Mary Beard found herself in a situation that would have amazed her teenage self.
“If you’d told me at 19 that some 40-odd years later I would have been going round the amphitheatre in Pompeii with David Gilmour, I wouldn’t have believed you!” she laughs.
Now Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, Beard has presented countless documentaries and written many books on Ancient Rome, but it was after watching Pink Floyd’s Live At Pompeii in ’73 that she developed a passion for prog. At the time, she was on a gap year from her degree at Cambridge, and knew nothing about the band except the enticing title of their new film. She soon discovered The Dark Side Of The Moon and fell in love with the “cleverness of its lyrics. They spoke to my generation,” she says.
“I saw [the film] before I’d ever been to Pompeii, which I realise sounds rather odd… I did go shortly afterwards and it was exciting, but I’m not sure that it absolutely lived up to what I’d seen on the movie! I found out about Pompeii in that live way and I found out about Floyd through that movie. In a funny way, I knew more about Floyd at Pompeii than I did about Floyd as a band, but for a young classicist who wanted to be a hip and sexy young classicist, it was great to see your music being played there. It made a really big impact because of the symbolic importance to me. It made me think that working on the Romans wasn’t just about having your head buried in the past; it was about now.”
Pompeii’s stone amphitheatre was built around 70 BC – 100 years before Rome’s Colosseum – and is thought to have originally seated around 20,000 spectators in its glory days. It lay buried for centuries after Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD and was rediscovered during a lengthy excavation of the town’s ruins which began in the 18th century.
“It’s the earliest surviving amphitheatre in Italy and was a tremendous, hugely expensive building,” Beard explains. “It was once very beautifully painted and there were scenes all around the arena of the kind of things they’d like to imagine happened there. Sadly, a few winters meant that all the painting disappeared so now it seems a very stark building to us and that fits with our idea of the brutal games that went on there, but it would have been more colourful and more splendid in the past.”
As the settlement’s main venue for entertainment, the amphitheatre would have hosted Roman spectator sports, including gladiatorial combat and wild beast hunts, although according to Beard, those beasts were more likely to have been sheep and wild boar than the more exotic lions and tigers often depicted in history books. “I suspect that there would have been the odd bit of singing and dancing there too,” she says. “I doubt that Floyd were the first people ever to sing in the amphitheatre at Pompeii.”
Although the classicist has been to Pompeii many times since her first visit via celluloid, David Gilmour’s return to the amphitheatre last year gave her the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience one of her favourite musicians live in concert at this historic venue.
Not only was she in the audience but she also gave Gilmour and his wife Polly Samson a guided tour through the ancient site. The trio had met previously at social events, but this was the first time they had spent quality time together.
“He’s a very nice guy and we had a good time, but the concert was just amazing! The music and the lights – everything,” Beard enthuses. “What David Gilmour managed to do was tremendous – he captured something of the spectacle of a real Roman extravaganza. The Romans would have wet themselves over those fireworks. We get very hung up, rightly so, on the brutality [of amphitheatres] but they also had spectacular entertainment. It was colourful, and there was music. Even at the gladiatorial games themselves, there were people playing pipes and drums – it was a kind of ‘all your senses are in action here’. David Gilmour recaptured that rather well. It bridged that time gap.”
The appreciation is mutual – Gilmour has been tweeted reading Beard’s books and the classicist is now immortalised as a tangential part of the Floyd family in the Blu-ray edition of David Gilmour: Live At Pompeii. Footage from her guided tour appears on the Pompeii: Then And Now documentary, and an interview with her is reproduced in the sleeve notes of all formats of the release. It’s a remarkable journey that’s far beyond the high hopes of her 19-year-old self.
When you’re in
A look at some of Gilmour’s special guests.
David Gilmour has become known for his revolving door of select guests on his tours. “It’s nice to offer Comfortably Numb to other people to have their take on it so we have done it with quite a few different people. Going back to 2002 when I played the Royal Festival Hall, Kate Bush did it, Bob Geldof did it and Robert Wyatt did it. Of course, in 2006 at the Albert Hall, David Bowie did it, on condition that we did Arnold Layne as well. A great moment. People often just aren’t on the same continent as you at the same time. Bowie wasn’t, in fact – he actually flew over especially. It was very, very kind of him.”
Gilmour’s son Gabriel replicated his piano part from Rattle That Lock’s In Any Tongue at the London shows – the only time so far that father has been able to cajole son onstage.
“He said, ‘I’ve done the Albert Hall – don’t need to do anything else really, do I?”
The currently estranged David Crosby (“a character of the first order”) and Graham Nash (whom Gilmour had first met with The Hollies at Abbey Road in the 60s, on the night Nash left the band) have joined Gilmour too.
“They were on tour and they came to the Albert Hall in 2015 and did two or three songs. They were, of course, on On An Island and sang on A Boat Lies Waiting on Rattle That Lock. Fantastic.
“They have that magic in their voices and allow me to be a part of it on these special occasions.”