According to Roger Waters, when vocalist Clare Torry walked into the studio to record the ethereal wailing on the epic instrumental track “Great Gig In the Sky,” she was told, “There’s no lyrics. It’s about dying – have a bit of a sing on that, girl.” She nailed it in two takes, cementing her place in the canon of rock history.
“Great Gig in the Sky” is the fifth track off Pink Floyd’s groundbreaking concept album “The Dark Side of the Moon,” a 42- minute and 49-second meditation on the stages of human life. The album explores themes of loneliness, greed, the passage of time, mortality, consumerism, love, mental illness and the hazards of social identity thinking. The five tracks are a luscious, layered sonic journey exploring some of the weightiest aspects of the human experience, book-ended by the sounds of synthesized heartbeat.
“Great Gig In the Sky” began as chord progression composed by Pink Floyd keyboard player Rick Wright, which the band referred to as “The Mortality Sequence” or “The Religion Song.” In the March 1998 issue of Mojo magazine, Wright spoke of his own mortality anxiety, expressed most acutely through his flight phobia. “For me, one of the pressures of being in the band was this constant fear of dying because of all the traveling we were doing in planes and on the motorways in America and in Europe,” he said.
Before the band recorded “Dark Side of The Moon,” they performed the song live as an organ instrumental accompanied by spoken word samples from the Bible and clips of religious speeches by conservative British writer Malcolm Muggeridge. By the time they went into the studio to record it in 1973, they had replaced guitar as the lead instrument with a piano. Then, after tinkering with recordings of NASA astronauts communicating on space missions, they decided to bring Clare Torry in to record vocals. I can’t imagine any words being as emotive or emotionally piercing as Torry’s velvety wailing, alternately desperate, fearful, and ecstatic over the course of a few seconds.
The only words that ended up on “Great Gig In the Sky” are words spoken by Gerry O’Driscoll, the Abbey Road Studios janitorial “browncoat” and Patricia ‘Puddie’ Watts, the wife of Pink Floyd road manager Peter Watts. During the recording of “Dark Side of The Moon,” bassist, co-lead vocalist, and lyricist Roger Waters went around Abbey Road studios recording people’s answers to questions like, “Are you afraid of dying?” Snippets of Gerry O’Driscoll and Patricia Watt ended up making the cut. O’Driscoll is heard at the beginning of the track saying “And I am not afraid of dying. Any time will do, I don’t mind. Why should I be frightened of dying? There’s no reason for it. You’ve got to go sometime.” Later on in the track, Patricia ‘Puddie’ Watts’ says faintly, “I never said I was frightened of dying,” right before Torry’s voice comes back in with one of her more ecstatic vocal riffs. I know no other song rock song about mortality that allows for and successfully expresses such a range of feeling.
Read the full lyrics of the song “Great Gig In The Sky” here. You can also watch a live performance of the song in the video below.