Issue #198: About Face by David Gilmour
March 20, 2020
Released On March 5, 1984
Released By Harvest & Columbia Records
Jimmy Page and David Gilmour were the first guitarists I ever paid close attention to, and “Stairway To Heaven” and the coda to “Comfortably Numb” are the first guitar solos I ever fell in love with. Two decades later, they’re still my two favorite guitar solos in all of music. Depending on the day, either one can occupy the top spot. I know: they’re perennial favorites to the point of being cliché, but you can’t argue with their excellent composition or their superb execution or their gorgeous tone(s).
Speaking of tone, if there was a reason I preferred one solo over the other, it’s that. Gilmour’s guitar tone on The Wall is right up there with Eddie Van Halen’s on Van Halen as the greatest ever. It’s a searing cry, especially on “Comfortably,” that somehow remains restrained to the level of the song and the album. It’s regal without being overbearing. It’s the voice of reason cutting through the confusion. It’s someone desperately asking for help without shouting. It’s a thing of beauty.
I’ve been a fan of Pink Floyd for more than two decades, dating back to my middle school years, but I only got into Gilmour’s solo stuff during the 2010s. Given the gems contained within, that’s my mistake. Since he helped write Pink Floyd’s finest song (“Wish You Were Here”), I should’ve tried his solo work sooner. When I finally got around to it, I started at the beginning with his eponymous debut. It’s about what I expected from him — a proggy, guitar-centric endeavor.
When I heard About Face for the first time, it was jarring. It barely resembled what I expected — David Gilmour II, basically — and as such I was surprised as to how much I enjoyed it then and still do now. (A quick side note: the title is a dead giveaway that I clearly ignored.) Instead, what I heard was a tightly constructed pop-rock album where Gilmour chased every ’80s trend he could. About Face is such an ’80s album that if someone asked me what music in the ’80s sounded like, I could use this by itself as an explanation and it would be a pretty good start.
Much like Commando and the music video for “Money For Nothing,” everything about this album screams the 1980s: the damp guitar tone, the oddly technical percussion, the spritely brass, the machine warm bass, the hazy spectral vocal production. Hell, even the ocassionally topical lyrics about Reagan’s foreign policy and John Lennon’s murder could’ve only fit on an album from this particular decade. So yeah, sure: all of this makes the album sound dated.
But being dated isn’t necessarily bad. About Face is a satisfying listen if you look at it through the correct prism: namely, that it’s a well-written pop artifact from its time. The cold and brittle production gives the album personality, and that’s especially true if you assume (like I do) that at least a handful of the songs might’ve been constructed around, or maybe because of, that very production. And to be fair, if there was any attempt to make a mainstream pop record during the ’80s, it was probably gonna sound like this to some degree.
Thankfully, the change in direction and sound didn’t stop Gilmour from creating some (more) fantastic guitar solos. The one at the end of “Murder” is Gilmour at his flashiest and most fun. “Let’s Get Metaphysical” ranks among his best and most expressive performances as a musician in his entire catalogue, solo or otherwise. The best two minutes on the record, rather fittingly, are the final two: The seamless transition from acoustic to electric during the solo from “Near The End” is a marvel, as is the solo itself. That coda of the song and album makes it feel like a spiritual sequel to “Comfortably Numb”.
So I guess we’re back to where we started. Ultimately, About Face is a neat album in both senses of the term. It’s a slick and tidy effort, and it’s a fun and delightful left-field curio from a hall-of-famer. It’s articulate and emotional without being heavy-handed about either, and it’s something that sticks with you without request. In other words, it’s a lot like the way David Gilmour plays on “Comfortably Numb”. I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That
A driving force behind one of music’s most progressive forces capturing the essence and totality of a musical decade.
David Gilmour is one of my top five guitarists, with a liquid tone, expansive melodic sense, and a burning intensity that makes the most of the Stratocaster’s sustain. I had always liked him, but he firmly entered the pantheon one July 4th weekend about a decade ago. I was playing a bootleg of Pink Floyd’s 1977 show in Oakland, CA to a full house as the grill cooled, everyone chatting away but digging the blistering take of Animals. Then, after the band switched to Wish You Were Here, Gilmour hit a note that silenced the crowd — and held it for about 30 seconds. Nobody breathed or took a bite until he finally let it fade. It was a moment! But I had never listened to this album, though I remember seeing it in the stacks of record stores, probably sneering at Gilmour’s immaculately distressed leather jacket as I looked for the new Grandmaster Flash or Gang Of Four 12″. Gilmour as a solo artist didn’t cross my mind again until 2006, when he released the fairly egregious On An Island, his gorgeous playing the only mitigating factor amongst the muzak-like textures and regrettable pap of his wife’s lyrics. It wasn’t until Ben Bridwell and Iron & Wine released Sing Into My Mouth, their fantastic covers album, in 2016, that I thought of Gilmour outside of Pink Floyd again. They had included “No Way Out Of Here,” the Kenny Baker song originally recorded by Unicorn on their second album, which was produced by Gilmour in 1976. He also made a version of this gloriously yearning tune on his first solo album, which I tracked down at the time. But I still avoided About Face and I have to admit I was expecting the worst of ’80s excess when I clicked play. But much of it was a pleasant surprise, with only one or two tracks — especially “Blue Light” with those horns — causing a full cringe. He even hits Floydian heights of emotion on “Out Of The Blue,” its elegiac chords nicely limned by Michael Kamen’s sensitive arrangement. At the time About Face was released, there was much noise made about the fact that Pete Townsend had written lyrics for two of the songs, Love On The Air” and “All Lovers Are Deranged,” but it isn’t something you would be likely to notice without checking the credits. “Deranged” does have an uncharacteristically passionate vocal from Gilmour, matched only by his ripping guitar solo. Man, the guy can play! “You Know I’m Right” has some lovely moments of an almost Steely Dan-like sleekness, although the Fairlight CMI synth almost sinks it. Gilmour’s solo, which snarls like an Animals outtake, is one for the ages, however. Less durable, perhaps, is Cruise, its lyrics seemingly a paean to Reagan’s cruise missile bases in the U.K. — and when it slides into an immaculate white reggae groove you may find your mind further boggled. In the final analysis, as a solo album by an artist who never really needed to make a solo album, much of it is quite good and illuminates some of the virtues he brought to Pink Floyd: his warm, husky tenor, his generally empathic outlook, and, above all, that magnificent guitar.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
Enjoy that crisp, ’80s horn sound with some visual cues.
David Gilmour’s label must have been licking their chops in anticipation of the release of About Face in 1984. And why not? It seemingly has all the trappings of a mid-eighties super album: a fresh faced frontman, Pete Townsend writing the songs, and Steve Winwood on the keys. It’s foolproof, right? Can’t lose. And yet here we are, thirty-six years later, and this is the first time I’ve ever heard of David Gilmour or About Face. So what’s out of the ordinary here? The opening electric guitar strums and power chords of “Until We Sleep” take me right back to the prime of Miami Vice. In contrast, the slow, dramatic build of “Out Of The Blue” makes for a near picture perfect per ballad of the day. But there’s something exceeding dark about this album in the lyrical content. For some reason, there’s a sense of impending doom: “Hold back the fire, cause this much is true / when all’s said and done, the ending will come / from out of the blue.” Look at some of the other titles, for example, “Murder” or “All Lovers Are Deranged.” Not exactly the sunniest of dispositions here. But perhaps the best example is the closer “Near The End.” I feel like this record, especially, is ten years ahead of its time: “And when you feel you’re near the end, and what once burned so bright is growing dim. and when you see what’s been achieved, is there a feeling that you’ve been deceived?” This isn’t an eighties pop record, it’s a nineties grunge record.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
My favourite Pink Floyd song was always “Wish You Were Here,” and a lot of my other favourites were probably because David Gilmour was singing the lead, or maybe because growing up, my dad always talked about how his favourite Pink Floyd singer was David Gilmour and I didn’t know enough to form my own opinion. But while I’m old enough now to have formed my own opinion, I can say that I think my dad was on to something. I love Pink Floyd, always have, and I think a huge reason why is David Gilmour — his lyrics, his writing, his voice, his style. This entire album reminds me very much of the album A Momentary Lapse Of Reason. I know that this is a solo effort and has nothing to do with Pink Floyd, and it’s actually a little clear. It’s not as dreamy, not as… well, not as Pink Floyd for lack of a better description. But I am totally okay with that. This is a great album. It’s beautifully written and wonderfully executed. His voice has always moved me, has always resonated with me, and this album is no exception. For someone who has always been a fan, but has never heard his solo work, I am very pleased that I have come across this. (To be honest, I’m shocked that I hadn’t sooner). In this time of negativity and panic, it is hard to try and stay positive when everything around you seems to be falling apart and slipping away. The track “Out Of The Blue” is definitely a song that I related to with what is going on, but not in a negative way. The lyric “when all is said and done, the ending will come from out of the blue” really stuck with me. Not an ending as in our human race will end (we aren’t there yet), but the end of the hysteria, the end of the panic, the end of worry about this disease. The end will come as quickly as it began. We just have to weather the storm.
And while it can be frustrating, stressful, and anxiety inducing, I always find that I turn to music in any time of crisis in my life and this is no different. The only difference here is that I am not alone in this. We are not alone. We are all in this together, even if we have to be apart. We will get past this if we stay calm, and do what is necessary, but we must not forget to help each other, look out for everyone, not just ourselves. I’m sending love to everyone and hoping the magic of music can help you get through a difficult time.
Chelsea Kostrey (@chelseakostrey)
Retrophile & Festival Enthusiast
Under the shadow of a bona fide Hall Of Fame group, Gilmour still blossoms on his own in this fantastic record.
I’d be interested to know what is considered a rite of passage for a music fan. The consensus, I mean. Obviously The Beatles. Elvis. Nirvana. London Calling. Thriller. “A Change Is Gonna Come.” ““Heroes”.” Pink Floyd is one too, thanks in large part to David Gilmour’s legendary skill. People talked about Pink Floyd with such reverence when I was growing up that by the time I got around to listening to Dark Side Of The Moon, it felt like it should be this tipping point in my musical education. And maybe it was. I’m not really sure, but even if it wasn’t, it surely has been for countless music fans worldwide. Now, I’ve always felt that certain rite of passages should have some type of notation — “go here” after you do this. The Beatles would lead you to solo careers, with special attention paid to the grandeur of All Things Must Pass. Elvis leads you to a bevy of overlooked black musicians, with Big Mama Thornton being top of the list. Nirvana leading you to Foo Fighters or perhaps even The Germs. London Calling could give you a fork in the road between punk and reggae, ska, and dub. Thriller opens up a world of other R&B, specifically a pocket of pre-disco ’70s soul. “A Change Is Gonna Come” leads you to Marvin Gaye and to other protest and activist songs, while “”Heroes”” sticks you to the tangled web of Brian Eno. And what of Pink Floyd and Dark Side Of The Moon? You can’t really go wrong travelling further into the realm of prog rock, specifically the area populated with concept records and thematic series. But to me, David Gilmour is an obvious next stop after Pink Floyd. In fact, About Face feels like a rite of passage all by itself, with it’s near-perfect mélange of ’80s styles and concepts that leans heavily on his ’70s work but points into the future with some clear signs to fractured electronica and distressed rock. “Let’s Get Metaphysical” will take you back to the heyday of Pink Floyd with its anthemic emotions soaring out of a lead guitar bolstered by austere orchestration and warm electronica. But then there’s a song like “You Know I’m Right.” It’s built on a guitar line reminiscent of “Behind Blue Eyes,” but considering how many ’90s & ’00s bands would lift and alter it, from Staind to Metallica (“culminating” with that abhorrent Limp Bizkit cover), it clearly felt ahead of its time. Its lyrical tone even feels like a precursor to the grunge movement with its confrontational chorus and verses steeped in a rooted distrust. The opening of the record is ahead of its time as well with this industrial presence looming in the background of “Until We Sleep.” It’s not pronounced by any means nor is it elaborated on, but that warehouse recording ambience and spliced programmed layering would definitely be explored by several Hall Of Fame-worthy musicians over the next decade. Outside of this rite of passage talk, what I really love (and I do mean love) about About Face is how it grabs and holds my attention in a way Pink Floyd rarely ever did. Some of it might be because of the build-up to first listening to Pink Floyd in my youth versus being offered this David Gilmour record in a publication built around the obscure and overlooked. In that vein, let me offer to you that if Pink Floyd was the rite of passage you never felt connected to, About Face might fill that void with its expansive take on rock music that’s emblematic of the ’80s musical zeitgeist, but with strong ties to what preceded and followed it. And even if it doesn’t, you’re still getting a create collection of high-end rock built on emotive guitar tones, cutting lyrics, and detailed arrangement, a combination that could never fail when paired with a legendary musician like Gilmour.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
As Chosen By Each Individual Contributor