Some band operate solely within the studio, while others find far more acclaim when they take the stage. For Pink Floyd, the prog-rock heroes, they managed to do a pretty damn good job at being brilliant at both. Creating some of the rock world’s greatest albums — sprawling masterpieces that range in tempo, emotion and sentiment — the group always managed to deliver sensational moments when the spotlight hits.
The band were pioneers of not only their prog-rock sound but pushing stage shows to a new level of brilliance. They were world-famous for their extravagant live performances and lavish sets, but they also brought with them a bursting catalogue of incredible songs and transportation moments of deafening rock genius. Below, we’re picking out six of our favourite Pink Floyd performances of all time.
It wasn’t just visuals that the band brought; they also pushed forward with surround sound quality and continuously opted to improve the experience of those attending rather than produce the same old stage show for each tour. “Yes, we did all sorts of strange things, you know, for live concerts as well, we used to make up tapes for the audience to come in by,” remembers David Gilmour.
“We had one half-hour-long tape, which we’d play for the half an hour the audience was coming in just before we started our show, and things like that,” he continues. “Just tapes of bird noises in quadraphonic sound, you know, with birds singing, and pheasants taking off in the distance, and swans taking off from water, a tractor driving down one side of the room, and an aeroplane going over the top, and all these things carrying on, all just from just different sound effects records, you just stick them in and you create a type of mood.”
It was this attention to detail that Floyd carried over from their work in the studio on to the grandest of stages. If there’s one thing Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason and Richard Wright knew how to do, it was put on a show.
Best Pink Floyd performances of all time:
6. Live 8 (2006)
Few expected Roger Waters and David Gilmour to reunite for very long but a whole nation was enamoured to notice when they did settle their differences for a mutual humanitarian cause — Live 8. The Hyde Park concert saw the likes of Paul McCartney performing with U2 as well as a solo set from the former Beatle. The Who also took to the stage as did The Killers, Snoop Dogg, Madonna and a bizarre duet of T. Rex’s ‘Children of the Revelation’ from Elton John and Peter Doherty. Despite the big names in attendance, it was Floyd’s reunion that was the show-stealer.
For Bob Geldof to get the band to reunite was a coup. With the broken relationship of Pink Floyd members Roger Waters and David Gilmour well documented, the pair hadn’t communicated in years let alone shared a stage. In fact, while the preparations were going ahead, the two had become so distant that after Waters was approached about possibly reuniting the outfit he had to ask organiser Bob Geldof for his former bandmate’s phone number.
With only twenty minutes afforded to the band, choosing what songs to play was incredibly hard. Floyd finally settled on four songs which were The Dark Side of the Moon’s ‘Breathe’ and ‘Money’ followed by ‘Wish You Were Here’ before concluding their set beautifully with ‘Comfortably Numb’. It will likely be the final time we ever see Gilmour and Waters as Pink Floyd.
5. Knebworth (1990)
One of the most impressive gigs of all time, Pink Floyd’s 1990 show at Knebworth will go down in the history of the iconic venue as a definitive moment in time. It’s a piece of the band’s iconography that can now be solidly stowed away on your record shelves but it lives longest in the memory of those who attended it.
The group were on the bill, having headlined the Silver Clef Award Winners Concert at Knebworth House, Hertfordshire, back in June 1990. The show was a mammoth one and featured live performances from Paul McCartney, Dire Straits and Genesis. Nick Mason remembered of the evening: “There is something special about Knebworth. We all still have fond memories of playing there in the ’70s, and this show was no different. As a North London boy, this was almost a home game, but with the added delight of being the re-assembly of the band after a fairly mega tour that had lasted for well over a year.”
The set was superfluous in every aspect. It not only added to the mystique and magnitude that often came alongside Floyd shows but it entirely confirmed the band as heroes among rock fans everywhere.
4. Venice (1989)
When the announcement for Pink Floyd’s date in Venice in 1989 was made, nobody could’ve predicted the impact of the gig—not only on the band’s infamy but on the government of Venice.
Arriving in the glamourous canal city, the band had planned to play a free concert in the middle of the famous St. Mark’s Square to coincide with the celebration known as ‘Feast of the Redeemer’. The council of the ancient city was not impressed by this flagrant disregard for precious architecture and tensions grew. In fact, the city’s superintendent for cultural heritage ‘vetoed the concert’ just days before its scheduled July 15th date, “on the grounds that the amplified sound would damage the mosaics of St. Mark’s Basilica, while the whole piazza could very well sink under the weight of so many people.”
The parties eventually reached an agreement when the band agreed to lower the decibels of their earth-shattering live show from 100 to 60. That wasn’t the only concession, however, as the band also agreed to play on a floating platform in a canal some 200 yards from the square, in the tradition of the city. The spectacle was filmed by the state-owned television RAI and was broadcast “in over 20 countries with an estimated audience of almost 100 million. It was a landmark event that shocked the world and confirmed Pink Floyd were still the masters.
3. Pompeii (1971)
Ok, so we’ve taken a little bit of license on this one as the show at Pompeii wasn’t only performed for just the crew but over the course of four days as the group assembled footage for a landmark concert film. Live at Pompeii is the now-iconic 1972 concert documentary film directed by Adrian Maben. Featuring the band performing at the ancient Roman amphitheatre in Pompeii, Italy, the film gained notoriety as the band ran through a full set despite not having an audience to perform for.
The footage was filmed around the amphitheatre across a four-day period in October 1971 and has subsequently been re-released on video numerous times in the years that followed. While the lack of a crowd and the constructed way the film came together could see it tumble down the list on a technicality but to ignore the film’s impact is to remove a serious piece of Floyd’s iconography.
It’s a piece of work that typifies what made Pink Flouyd great and also provides a fascinating social document on the band just before their prog-rock rocket ship launched.
2. Pulse (1994)
Following the departure of Roger Waters, Pink Floyd created some of their most harmonious work of all. Though it may not have reached the heights of their early work, albums like The Division Bell serve a purpose in their canon and still elicit as much acclaim as can be expected. But perhaps the defining moment of that era is the live show known as Pulse.
Previously the band had always introduced an impressive stage show, but this one took things up a notch. Including far more special effects than they had ever used before, the tour served 5.5 million people in 68 cities as they took their new songs on the road. Grossing £150 million, it is still one of the most wildly successful tours of all time. But the crowning achievement was, and always will be, the music.
The show, with all its success, did allow for one treat for Floyd fans — a complete Dark Side of the Moon experience. The entirety of the album was played for the first time since 1975 and ensured that this set of shows would never be forgotten.
1. The Wall (1980)
There isn’t much to say about Pink Floyd’s The Wall that hasn’t already been said. The rock opera, easily the best in that field, transcended into a searing album, a unifying anthem and the kind of film that will make your skin crawl and your feet stomp. Taking it and all of its components to the stage for a tour wasn’t just unfathomable but unpredictable. However, for Floyd, it simply had to be done.
The band were well aware that a traditional stage show wouldn’t do. Instead, they pushed set designers to the limits and, during the first portion of every show, the stagehands would build a physical wall for the audience to gawp, gasp and be intimated by. While, as Nick Mason says, the show didn’t provide “much spontaneity,” it was also true that “we’re not known for our duck-walking and gyrating around onstage.”
The logistical nightmare of the stage show meant that the tour only consisted of 31 dates across 16 cities, but, boy, did they make every one of them count. “The first couple of bricks would terrify people in the front rows,” said Gilmour. “The audience would think they were going to be killed.” It would also provide Gilmour with his favourite live moment as he stood atop the mammoth wall structure and wailed on the guitar.
Perhaps the greatest moment is when witnessing The Wall‘s finest song, ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ performed by all four members of the band as they let the music and the crowd run wild.