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Music

How David Gilmour's fear of flying inspired this Pink Floyd song

@SamWKemp

The best songs work on two levels. The beauty of good songwriting is that, by using a simple metaphor, an artist can convey something far deeper and far more involving than the lyrics would seem to indicate. Take The Beatles track ‘Blackbird’, for example. While on the surface it might seem to depict little else than a blackbird with broken wings, the song is often regarded as being about the civil rights movement. Sometimes the deeper subtext is intentional; other times, it is inferred by listeners. Either way, reading into the lyrics of our favourite songs is an essential part of music culture. One brilliant example of a track that functions on two different levels is Pink Floyd’s 1987 effort ‘Learning To Fly’ from their A Momentary Lapse Of Reason album.

The song was primarily the work of David Gilmour, who, for many years, suffered from a fear of flying. For a man who had been performing in venues around the world for over a decade, one wonders how he managed it. In a bid to get over his fears, the guitarist threw himself in the deep end and decided to learn how to fly for himself. He hoped that, in gaining an understanding of the inner mechanics of a plane, he would be able to alleviate his anxiety.

So, around the time Pink Floyd were writing the songs that would come to form A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, Gilmour took up flying lessons. ‘Learning To Fly’, as the name suggests, was written during this period. As a result, the song contains a unique combination of aeronautic technical jargon and subtle metaphor. Lyrics such as “propellers, fully forward flaps, set, 10 degrees,” for example, are combined with lines like “no navigator to find my way home”. Many listeners have subsequently taken the song to be a metaphor for breaking free.

When he was working on ‘Learning To Fly’, Gilmour asked for the assistance of lyricist Anthony Moore. Moore had also worked on Floyd’s track ‘On The Turning Away’, and Gilmour had great faith in his ability. Moore noticed Gimour’s burgeoning passion for flying and suggested he incorporate some of the phrases he might hear whilst airborne. Gilmour loved the idea and quickly pursued it.

The track’s music video, directed by Storm Thorgerson, attempted to capture the deeper meaning behind David Gilmour’s lyrics. In it, we see a young man cutting wheat with a scythe in an open field. Suddenly, a plane flies overhead and, soon enough, the man has decided to jump off a cliff with nothing but feathers strapped to his arms. In taking a leap of faith, the video seems to say that the young man liberated himself from the mundanity of everyday life.

When the track was released, the song failed to chart in the UK. In Spain, however, ‘Learning To Fly’ peaked at number one in the Los 40 Principales charts. The song’s commercial success in Europe enabled Gilmour to pursue his interest in flying and vintage aircraft even further. This passion eventually led to Gilmour starting his own company called Intrepid Aviation.

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