Prog-rock heroes Pink Floyd are a symbol of creativity, ingenuity and 70s/80s nostalgia for fans all across the globe.

Today I’ll be reviewing their song ‘Learning to Fly’, the 2nd track of their fantastic 1987 comeback album ‘A Momentary Lapse of Reason’.

Story Behind the Song

‘Learning to Fly’ was the promotional single behind the first Pink Floyd album after member Roger Waters left the band. The song was mainly written by guitarist David Gilmour who had a very strained relationship with Waters, and so this song marks the band’s transition to a new era of creative freedom.

Gilmour collaborated with a few other musicians and songwriters for this one, including keyboardist Jon Carin who provided the chord progression and producer Bob Ezrin who helped consolidate it into a finished song. Gilmour tried working with a few different songwriters including Eric Stewart and Roger McGough, but eventually chose Anthony Moore of the band Slapp Happy to co-write both ‘Learning to Fly’ and ‘On the Turning Away’. Gilmour later admitted that he found songwriting difficult without the help of Waters, which is possibly why this song (and the album overall) has quite a strong change of style compared to the previous Pink Floyd sound and was now more similar to their original founding style. It is not a concept album, but rather one that follows a collection of themes.

This album also saw the return of keyboardist and founding member Richard Wright who was asked by Waters to leave the band a few years prior while they were recording ‘The Wall’ (1979). Wright provided some small contributions with background performances on a Hammond organ and Rhodes piano.

Around 1985, Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason both began taking flying lessons, and they bought a de Havilland Dove airplane together. ‘Learning to Fly’ humorously includes actual flying instructions in the lyrics, as well as a recording of Mason as the over-dubbed pilot’s announcements halfway through the song. Though they were both enthusiastic pilots, both Gilmour and Mason were supposedly quite scared of flying. Maybe this song was their way of overcoming that fear, while also facing the fear of ‘flying’ as a band without Roger Waters?

How Did It Do?

Released first as a single, ‘Learning to Fly’ reached number 70 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 (and number one on Billboard Album Rock Tracks). This was one of very few Pink Floyd songs to make it into the Hot 100, though unfortunately, it didn’t make it into the U.K. top 40 singles charts in the band’s home country.

Critics were quite impressed by the production and instrumentation of the album overall, though some criticized Gilmour’s songwriting. Either way, it outsold their previous album ‘The Final Cut’ and proved very popular on their world tour in the two years following.

The song also came with a strange but oddly inspiring music video. It was directed by Storm Thorgerson who also designed many of their album covers. Filmed on a mountain near Calgary, Alberta, it shows a young man working in a field cutting wheat with a scythe while a red airplane (a Beech Model 17 Staggerwing) flies overhead. The man (inspired by the plane?) then straps feathers to his arm, jumps off a cliff, and turns into a flying hawk.

The music video went to No. 9 on MTV’s Video Countdown and won the band’s only MTV Video Music Award for ‘Best Concept Video’.

The song DID go and still IS among MY TOP 5!

Song Breakdown

‘Learning to Fly’ starts with a strongly inspirational and upbeat intro. It is classical 80s with a gritty guitar melody and satisfyingly stompy percussion sample. The intro repeats twice, alternating between two familiar-feeling chords with Wright’s keyboard contribution heard subtly in the background.

[Verse 1]

Into the distance, a ribbon of black

A black ribbon is most often a symbol of death and mourning (like the loss of Waters?) though in this context the ‘ribbon of black’ could also be a runway stretching into the distance before the pilot.

Stretched to the point of no turning back

Gilmour and Waters’ relationship definitely has been stretched to the point of no turning back, and they have no choice but to go their separate ways. This is a really great yet simple line to represent the state of the band when this song was written.
And it’s like a precursor to something that I fell in love with…

A flight of fancy on a windswept field

A ‘flight of fancy’ is usually a metaphor for an unrealistic dream. Is it an unrealistic dream for Pink Floyd to take off minus one band member? I sure hope not! This lyric also, of course, sticks with the flying theme, plus matches the field in the music video.

Standing alone, my senses reel

Gilmour is now ‘alone’, feeling overwhelmed with a lot more responsibility. Will he be able to handle it?

A fatal attraction is holding me fast

How can I escape this irresistible grasp?

This lyric is a little more confusing. Maybe the ‘fatal’ attraction is towards flying? I was definitely enamored by it.

Gilmour’s vocals are smooth and full of power. Though the lyrics may be more ‘basic’ and not appealing to hardcore fans who enjoyed Waters’ pessimistic post-punk poetry, they definitely hold their own. A simple, motivational song with simple, motivational lyrics is a brilliant thing.

[Chorus]

Can’t keep my eyes from the circling sky

Tongue-tied and twisted

Just an earthbound misfit, I

The pilot is fascinated with the sky! He finds it inviting and wants to aim higher into it. But he is ‘earthbound’. Humans are not naturally designed for flying, so they don’t quite fit in with the sky…and he wants to. Breaking free from boredom, routine and…gravity!

Gilmour is feeling tongue-tied as he struggles to write new songs – lyrics aren’t his strong point. The alliteration on ’T’ here is very satisfying.

On paper, this chorus looks confusingly short. It is, however, lifted up by a large backing choir and followed by a glistening guitar solo which gives Gilmour a chance to shine on what he does best. It leaves you wanting to hear more of this guitar.

[Verse 2]

Ice is forming on the tips of my wings

Back to the airplane theme, ice forming on the wings is a potential danger for pilots as it creates instability. Gilmour is putting those flight lessons to good use! The average non-pilot likely doesn’t know this, but it still paints a picture of danger as we move into cold, unfamiliar territory.

Unheeded warnings, I thought, I thought of everything

No navigator to find my way home

The pilot thought he was prepared for this journey, but perhaps he wasn’t. Something could go wrong at any moment, and he has no navigator, no GPS, no air traffic control (the songwriting help of Waters) to assist him.

Unladen, empty and turned to stone

This line actually continues an older metaphor about stone from the Pink Floyd song ‘Dogs’, both in reference to getting old and reaching the end of a journey.

[Pre-Chorus 1]

A soul in tension that’s learning to fly

Condition grounded but determined to try

To me, apart from Like a Rock, by Bob Seger, the two most beautiful, uplifting lines heard when I was that 20-year-old – fresh out of college – broke, and “learning to fly” …metaphorically, ready to take on my future; determined to succeed! Alone, at that age, with the paths that you see unfolding before you, and determining which one to take – you’re kind of grounded – yet, with that crystal clarity of thought and a sense of purpose.

Just as Gilmour is learning to fly, so is the soul in this song, and so is the new Pink Floyd. The ‘condition grounded’ line is yet more plane terminology too.

The song is beginning to lift in hope again after the pilot’s “stress and despair” of the second verse. We move towards a second chorus.

[Chorus 2, as above]

[Pilot Sample]

Throttle friction lock – set

Mixtures – rich

Propellers – fully forward

Flaps – set – ten degrees

Engine gauges and suction – check

Radios – set

Transponder – set, recheck

Flight instruments…

Altimeters – check both

Navigation lights – on

Pitot heater – on

Strobes – on

Golf romeo-echo ready for departure

Romeo-echo listen out 129 decimal 4

129 4 listening out

Romeo-echo is cleared takeoff, the wind’s north at ten knots

Romeo-echo

So, on the brake. Just be ready, it’s gonna roll this time

Just feel the power gradually, and it…

We have an instrumental break in the song here including Mason’s parroting of phrases he’s heard and used during flying lessons. It’s nice to take a break from the more aggressive guitar and drum sounds used before this point. As an average non-pilot listener at the age of 20, I was very unfamiliar with a lot of the terms used here, so it took away from the relatability of the previous two verses and turned me instead into an observer, watching the experienced pilot at work.

There are some lovely washed-out sounds, synthesizers and pieces of guitar melody which give the instrumental section a kind of futuristic, spacey vibe.

[Verse 3]

Above the planet on a wing and a prayer

My grubby halo, a vapor trail in the empty air

Across the clouds I see my shadow fly

Out of the corner of my watering eye

A dream unthreatened by the morning light

Could blow this soul right through the roof of the night

[Pre-Chorus 2]

There’s no sensation to compare with this

Suspended animation, a state of bliss

The last 4 lines…beautiful, serene almost!
This verse has an almost euphoric feeling to it, I feel as though we are soaring high in the sky without a care in the world. It includes plenty of airplane references like seeing your shadow on the clouds and eyes watering from the intense winds.

The vocals have some spacey electronic effects on them which fit the mood but also seem a bit out of place when compared to the standard macho rock sound we had in the previous two verses. This may just be a trend of music production in the 80s, though.

We finish with one final epic chorus and guitar solo which successfully integrates the whole song together and fades out slowly.

Final Thoughts

While overall this album is probably not considered by many as Pink Floyd’s best work, it doesn’t need to be the “best”. The instrumentation is very impressive, definitely helped by and including the work of guest musicians like Jon Carin. The lyrics of most of the songs are lacking in depth.

This one, though, lifts me up. It taught me about “flight”.

The simplicity and strong photographic focus on the theme of flying and freedom create an uplifting and easy-to-listen-to result with Learning to Fly.

For me, then and now, it is sort of an anthem – an expression of my joy and freedom – through the happiness achieved by flight and the learning and effort that goes into it!
Unparalleled.
Unconquered.

Aniket Warty

Aniket Warty

Adventure Capitalist. I need no sanction for my life, permission for my freedom, or excuse for my wealth: I am the sanction, the warrant, and the reason. The creation of wealth is merely an extension of my innate freedom to produce.
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