The 50 greatest Pink Floyd songs ever

20. Learning To Fly

If there was a grain of truth in rock-press snipes that 1987’s A Momentary Lapse Of Reason was “fluffy tour merch”, then Gilmour’s four-way co-write with producer Bob Ezrin, Anthony Moore and Jon Carin flew close to vintage Floyd. 

The song’s clear-blue-sky feel was no accident (the guitarist had recently taken up aviation lessons), while the Bowie-esque soundscape suggested the post-Waters band still had a creative future. 

“It was a turning point,” recalled Ezrin. “It felt like a complete Floyd work, and that made everybody feel gratified, because that was what we’d been told by Roger we were incapable of doing.” 

19. Mother

Trading vocals, Waters and Gilmour slipped readily into character as smothered child and indulgent parent – while Mason struggled with the shifting time signatures and vacated the drumstool for Toto’s Jeff Porcaro (“Nick, to his credit, had no great pretence about it,” said Waters. “He just said, ‘I can’t play that’”). 

Superficially pleasant, with a swooping Gilmour solo, Mother had teeth, with Waters’ lyric examining the ruinous influence passed from one generation to the next (“Mama’s gonna put all of her fears into you”). 

In concert, the Gerald Scarfe-designed puppet said it all: a monstrous 35-foot matriarch that made the audiences feel as suffocated as Pink. 

18. Run Like Hell

With its addictive echo-chamber judder and slashes of crystalline guitar, The Wall’s second single was a rare moment for the radio jocks of 1980 to pounce on. 

More fool them: the accessibility of the music belied a lyric examining the troubled headspace of the concept album’s anti-hero, Pink, as he imagines himself a fascist dictator sending in the hammers (“They’re gonna send you back to mother in a cardboard box”). 

Run Like Hell might have sounded like Kristallnacht set to a disco beat, but this Waters/Gilmour co-write was one of the final flashes of creative synergy before the Floyd’s principals unravelled.

17. High Hopes

Those who sneered at the ‘facsimile Floyd’ on A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, the band’s first album without Waters, had to think again after The Division Bell, on which Gilmour found his lyrical voice – less angry than Waters, certainly, but more perceptive in many ways.

High Hopes is about setting out in life and gradually understanding how the past will inevitably affect your future. Yes, Gilmour had help from his writer wife Polly, but the places that he name-checks in Cambridge where he grew up are real enough, and the bell that tolls throughout the song is a familiar sound to anyone who grew up amid the spires of the university.

The lyrics have been scrutinised for references to the feud with his childhood friend Waters, but in fact they rise above it to offer a more generalised observation. This is an older, more reflective Pink Floyd, one that ironically harks back to the early-70s Floyd before the distortion of the dark side took over.

Although the album’s title is featured in the lyrics, it took an outsider, Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy author Douglas Adams, to suggest it. In their last-minute panic to find a title the band had completely overlooked it.

16. Brain Damage

David Gilmour supposedly had to convince a reluctant Roger Waters to take the lead vocal on Brain Damage, his sensitive meditation on mental collapse that came to signify the undoing of Syd Barrett. 

Waters turned out to be the perfect fit, his vulnerable tone gliding over a serene melody and soft harmonies from a quartet that includes Lesley Duncan and Doris Troy. The manic cackle that interjects belongs to Floyd’s then-road manager, Peter Watts. The composition’s origins were rooted in the Meddle sessions of 1971, with Waters’s working title – The Dark Side Of The Moon – eventually being used to name the album it finally appeared on. 

One couplet in particular addresses Barrett’s gradual dissociation from the rest of his bandmates: ‘And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes/I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.’

15. Welcome to the Machine

As if to reinforce its theme of the music industry as a corporate behemoth that prizes financial reward over creative expression, Welcome To The Machine is built around the relentless synth pulse then decorated with David Gilmour’s acoustic guitar patterns. 

Roger Waters, who also brings a bank of tape effects, wrote the song as a commentary on Floyd’s own disaffection with aspects of the business. The narrative deals with the routine manipulation of a rock-star wannabe by the powers that be: ‘Welcome my son, welcome to the machine/Where have you been? It’s alright, we know where you’ve been/You’ve been in the pipeline, filling in time.” 

It’s a strikingly powerful song, made all the more compelling by time signatures that refuse to stay still for too long. “With a number like that you don’t start off with a regular concept of group structure,” explained Gilmour, who called the track “a form of collage using sound”.

14. Another Brick In The Wall (Pt. 2)

A quarter-century before it topped the international singles charts, the seeds for Another Brick In The Wall (Part Two) were sown at the Cambridgeshire High School For Boys, where Roger Waters enrolled in 1954. “I hated every second of it, apart from games,” the bassist told Mark Blake. “The regime at school was a very oppressive one. It was being run on pre-war lines, where you bloody-well did as you were told, and there was nothing for us but to rebel against it. Most of the teachers were absolute swine.”

Naturally enough, when Waters came to air his myriad grievances on 1979’s The Wall the British educational establishment got it in the neck, with the narrative finding protagonist Pink fantasising about a mutiny against his abusive schoolmasters. Fittingly, according to Nick Mason the original music was “a funereal, gloomy thing”, until producer Bob Ezrin (having overheard Chic recording Risqué in New York) encouraged David Gilmour to absorb the prevailing disco scene. “So I forced myself out,” the guitarist recalled, “and listened to loud, four-to-the-bar bass drums and thought: ‘God, awful.’ Then we went back and tried to turn one of the song’s parts into one of those so it would be catchy.”

With the track now driven by a crisp, airtight beat, Ezrin was convinced Part Two could be a hit. But with only one verse and chorus it still wasn’t long enough to release. When the band refused to write another pass – reportedly telling the producer: “We don’t do singles, so fuck you” – Ezrin simply duplicated the existing material. Yet he still felt he was missing a trick: “The question is, he said, “what do you do with the second verse, which is the same?”

Then came the lightbulb moment that ensured Part Two’s ubiquity. As the producer of Alice Cooper’s 1972 hit School’s Out, Ezrin had brought in a children’s choir – to anarchic effect. Now, with the Floyd away in America, he dispatched recording engineer Nick Griffiths to Islington Green school, where music teacher Alun Renshaw provided some 20 pupils to record the iconic gang-chant ‘We don’t need no education’ at the band’s Britannia Row Studios, their vocals multi-tracked to give the sense of a mob. “I called Roger into the room,” Ezrin remembers of the grand unveiling, “and when the kids came in on the second verse there was a total softening of his face, and you just knew that he knew it was going to be an important record.”

Released on November 16, 1979, Part Two was a runaway hit for a band widely perceived as dinosaurs in the wake of punk, reaching No.1 in 16 countries. Yet its success was soured by dissenting voices, from Islington Green’s headmistress, Margaret Maden, who distanced herself from the song and barred pupils from appearing on Top Of The Pops, to The Daily Mail (“It seems very ironical that these words should be sung by children from a school with such a bad academic record. The grammar is appalling too…”).

13. Have a Cigar

When the time came to record Have A Cigar, Waters’s singing was showing its limitations. This time though, their friend Roy Harper was drafted in to sing. “Roy was recording in the studio anyway,” recalled Waters, “and was in and out all the time. I can’t remember who suggested it, maybe I did, probably hoping everybody would go: ‘Oh no, Rog, you do it’. But they didn’t. They all went: ‘Oh yeah, that’s a good idea.’ He did it, and everybody went: ‘Oh, terrific!’ So that was that.”

It was an instantly regrettable decision, and although Waters reluctantly conceded a credit on the album, there was certainly no question of payment. Tape engineer John Leckie recalled Waters saying to Harper that they must make sure he get paid for his efforts. “And Roy said: ‘Just get me a life season ticket to Lord’s.’ He kept prompting Roger, but it never came. About 10 years later, Roy wrote a letter to Roger and decided that, due to the success of Wish You Were Here, £10,000 would be adequate. And heard nothing at all.”

Have A Cigar is Waters’s cynical take on the music industry, and contains the immortal line: ‘Oh by the way, which one’s Pink?’ 

“We did have people who would say to us: “Which one’s Pink”’ and stuff like that,” Gilmour recalled. “There were an awful lot of people who thought Pink Floyd was the name of the lead singer, and that was Pink himself and the band. That’s how it all came about. It was quite genuine.” In many respects Waters was biting the very hand that was feeding him.

12. Breathe

As the first song on The Dark Side Of The MoonBreathe is a sea of tranquillity: gentle wafting rhythms, lush guitars, a gliding lap steel, lyrics that conjure up the calm of those first minutes after waking up, before you remember all the things you’re meant to be doing.

And yet you already know this peaceful feeling is misleading. The opening heartbeat, the murmuring voices – ‘I’ve been mad for fucking years’ – and maniacal laughter that gets drowned out by a surge of Apocalypse Now-style whirring helicopters, have already given you the sense that Breathe is a temporary lull. And so it proves.

The song’s perfectly realised mood is born of familiarity. Along with several other songs on the album it was performed under the collective title Eclipse for almost a year before it was recorded. “It made a big difference,” explains David Gilmour. “You couldn’t do that now of course, you’d be bootlegged out of existence. But when we went into the studio we knew the material, the playing had a natural feel.”

And while Waters later had misgivings over the simplicity of the lyrics – “It always amazes me that I got away with it really because it’s so Lower Sixth. You know, ‘Breathe, breathe in the air/Don’t be afraid to care’” – the simplicity of the words helps create the song’s atmosphere.

11. Pigs (Three Different Ones)

On an album that railed against everything, Pigs (Three Different Ones) looked at figures representing all the worst elements of the establishment; the ‘dragged down by the stone’ businessman from Dogs reappears; a ‘ratbag’ that Waters had spotted at a bus stop near the band’s Britannia Row Studios, who may or may not be Margaret Thatcher, the then-leader of the opposition Conservative Party; and finally, the unloved moral watchdog Mary Whitehouse, the head of the National Viewers and Listeners’ Association.

Daryl Easlea

Daryl Easlea has contributed to Prog since its first edition, and has written cover features on Pink Floyd, Genesis, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and Gentle Giant. After 20 years in music retail, when Daryl worked full-time at Record Collector, his broad tastes and knowledge led to him being deemed a ‘generalist.’ DJ, compere, and consultant to record companies, his books explore prog, populist African-American music and pop eccentrics. Currently writing Whatever Happened To Slade?, Daryl broadcasts Easlea Like A Sunday Morning on Ship Full Of Bombs, can be seen on Channel 5 talking about pop and hosts the M Means Music podcast.