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Released as the second single from the album, it reached number one on the Billboard Album Rock Tracks chart in early 1988. In the United Kingdom, the song charted at number 55 on the UK Singles Chart.
The song, a power ballad, references issues of poverty and oppression, lamenting on the tendency of people to turn away from those afflicted with such conditions. It ends on a hopeful note, with the last stanza beginning, "no more turning away ...". It is also a song that recovers the mysticism of songs like "Wish You Were Here" or "Us and Them", but this time treating topics like the suffering of people; the phrase "weak and the weary" portrays the suffering of people as a big problem in today's world.
The music video for the track featured a live recording and concert footage filmed during the band's three night run at The Omni in Atlanta, Georgia in November 1987 directed by Lawrence Jordan (who has directed concert films for Rush, Mariah Carey and Billy Joel). Promotional videos for "The Dogs of War" and "One Slip" also used footage of this concert. The video made it to number nine on MTV's Video Countdown in January 1988.
The song was the fifth track from the album performed when A Momentary Lapse of Reason was played live from 1987 to 1989. The track was also performed sometimes during the band's 1994 Division Bell Tour, as the song was a U.S. rock radio hit. Although a live version did not feature on the Pulse live album nor video which documented the tour, a version composed of bootleg footage appears among the bonus features of the DVD release of the film.
A live performance of the song was featured on both the video and double CD releases of Delicate Sound of Thunder.
The five-disc deluxe and vinyl editions of David Gilmour's Live in Gdańsk also contain a recording of Gilmour singing "On the Turning Away" in Venice on 12 August 2006. Halfway through the song, Gilmour forgets the lyrics; however, he laughs it off, and with a little support from the crowd makes a recovery. Gilmour had decided to perform the song on the spot during the concert as a one-off, having not rehearsed it previously for the tour (nobody in his band had played the song since 1994, except Phil Manzanera and Steve DiSanislao, neither of whom had played the song even once.)