Some things to consider if you’re coming to this new:
I have no idea who, exactly, that sentence might apply to. If you’re in this thread, and you’ve stuck with it through all that’s gone before, I’m guessing it’s because you’ve heard at least some part of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ before. And, more than likely, you’ve heard pretty much all of the stories about it, and the semi-mythological aura it has. Contemplating that, I did wonder what on earth I could bring to the table here.
But that hasn’t stopped me so far.
Anyway, before we get down to the album itself, there is one final piece of pre-‘Dark Side’ business to take care of. As is well documented, this album came together over a couple of years of writing and refining things while completing other projects – you can hear pieces of it on the ‘Zabriskie Point’ soundtrack, for example, and the band were playing a version of it (sometimes called ‘Eclipse’, sometimes called ‘A Piece for Assorted Lunatics’) in early 1972; a full year before the album came out. Unusually, the recording sessions were spread out over this period as well, rather than being crammed into a couple of weeks of intensive writing and recording. Most of the other things which were happening during that year I’ve already looked at, but in that last few months before the release of the album which would permanently change everything about them, Pink Floyd were providing live music for Roland Petit and the Marseilles Ballet. They did at least a week of live shows, effectively being the orchestra for a piece which had been constructed to fit some of their existing music – there had been talk of composing something new for the ballet, but no-one seems to have been able to get their heads round what that should sound like.
You can see some excerpts here, although the sound is pretty ropey:
There were more performances of the ballet, although mostly with recordings rather than the full live experience. Nothing about what was going on in their lives at this point suggested that they were about to produce an album which would be one of the cornerstones of 20th century popular culture. Sure, they were going about the recording differently than before, and there was definitely a sense of purpose about what they were doing; it seemed that having tried all the other options available to them, they were going to seriously apply themselves to making a concept album; but it still looked a lot like this was going to be just another Pink Floyd album.
Concept albums were all the rage in the early seventies; while you can trace the idea back to Sinatra in the fifties (‘Songs of Swinging Lovers’ and ‘The Wee Small Hours’ are concept albums), the rise of ‘albums bands’ in the late sixties led to an explosion in the form – while everything from ‘Sergeant Pepper’ onwards gets tarred with the ‘concept album’ brush; I think it’s not unreasonable to insist that an actual concept album has an underlying theme – ‘Pepper’ may have started life as a concept, but beyond the segue into ‘A Little Help From my Friends’, not much of it survived the recording process. Albums like The Pretty Things’ ‘S F Sorrow’ or the Small Faces’ ‘Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake’ sit more squarely in the definition of concept album – there doesn’t have to be a story as such, but there should be an overarching theme, a cohesiveness to the whole thing.
Of course, you also have to look at things like ‘Tommy’; concept albums which do set out to tell a recognisable story – you might call those ‘rock operas’ (personally, I’m not wild about that label, but it serves a purpose) – we’ll come back to those in a while…
You can argue until the end of time about what does or does not count as a concept album, but you can’t deny that the period during which Pink Floyd were working on ‘Dark Side’ was the apogee of the form – it seemed everyone was having a go at producing an album which could stand as a single, cohesive piece of work, from ‘Ziggy Stardust’ to ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’; from ‘Thick as a Brick’ to ‘Three Friends’ (you should check out Gentle Giant, by the way…). The Who were about to release ‘Quadrophenia’, which is definitely more on the ‘rock opera’ end of the scale, while Mike Oldfield was about to release ‘Tubular Bells’ – not a traditional concept album in that it lacks actual songs, but which is definitely a single, unified piece of work.
Into this atmosphere comes an album of songs about the anxieties and stresses of everyday life…
So, is it any good?
After all this time, my favourite stat about it remains the fact that it stayed on the US album charts for 741 weeks unbroken; it finally dropped out of the chart some time in 1987. Albums which aren’t any good don’t get that kind of reaction. It may not be to your taste; you might not care for this particular period in music, or be turned off by the lyrics, or a hundred other things which can irritate the listener, but you can’t for a moment claim that it’s no good. In an enormously subjective area, one thing we can objectively say about ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ is that it has stood the test of time; it is, without doubt, a good album.
So, instead of arguing about the quality, perhaps I should take a moment to consider what exactly it is which makes it what it is. Just why does it work so spectacularly well?
I think one of the keys is that it is relatable. Roger Waters wrote a suite of songs which didn’t just catch the mood of the time – political and economic upheaval – but remain universal concerns. You may not agree with all his opinions, but he is writing about things which touch us all – what Douglas Adams would later describe as ‘Life,, the Universe, and Everything’ – the anxieties and uncertainties which come with life in a modern Western society. He worries about time slipping away, he worries about the fragility of sanity, he worries about fitting in and the way in which people pit themselves against one another; these are things we can all understand. In addition, when the music rather than the words does the talking, the concerns are still there – the pressures of travel (particularly, it seems, air travel; the entire band hated flying); the fear of death. You don’t listen to ‘Dark Side’ to be cheered up necessarily, but you might listen to it to be reassured that you’re not the only one who feels this way.
It also is the sound of a band who have figured out their strengths, and are playing to them. No more forcing Gilmour to write lyrics; no more solo pieces; everything gets worked on together, and the clearest indication of this is the way the singing duties are shared out – voices are allocated to songs according to whose voice fits, with the result that Waters’ voice is not heard until the end; it gives a sense of something changing and evolving as you go through it.
The sound effects and noises off serve the overall sound; they still sound unusual, even unique (who else was interviewing their crew and putting the results in between tracks?), but they are there for a reason, whether to illustrate or to serve as counterpoint. Voices weave in and out of the overall texture throughout, creating cohesion and driving a narrative, even when the elements don’t immediately appear to line up.
It has a logical structure. This and the next three Floyd albums have bookends – pieces of music or sounds which tie the end back to the beginning, but more than this, ‘Dark Side’ has in ‘Speak To Me’ an overture, and in the ‘Brain Damage’ and ‘Eclipse’ a musically and lyrically satisfying, powerful conclusion – this album doesn’t fade out with a relatively weak track tacked on at the end; it comes to a point with a song which appears to come to terms with what happened to Syd (is Roger apologising? Perhaps), and a song which uses a driving musical progression to tie together the image of the sun as life-giver and that of the moon as symbol of insanity in a final despairing cry. There really aren’t many better climaxes to albums anywhere, and then the heartbeat starts again, and you just want to flip it over and go back to the beginning.
It is produced. This may seem like an obvious thing to say about an album, but it has – in my view – been a weakness of Pink Floyd albums up to now. Initially forced to work with Norman Smith, who plainly didn’t understand them, the band took on production responsibilities for themselves fairly early on. There were always engineers and tape operators around, but the band – never the greatest at agreeing among themselves – were left with the final responsibility for how things sounded, and it often seemed that individual parts were polished at the expense of the whole. Listening to the 2016 remix of ‘Obscured By Clouds’ has served only to underline this point for me; it’s a much better album than it sounded in 1972.
The bulk of the album was recorded with Alan Parsons – soon to go on to fame and fortune as purveyor of concept albums in his own right – as engineer, and he definitely gets them and what they are trying to do; the layering of instruments, vocals and effects is down to him being able to fit together exactly what the band wanted. Subsequently, however, in a move which to my mind elevates this album from merely ‘great’ to ‘part of the cultural pantheon’, Chris Thomas was given the masters, and asked to make it sound as good as humanly possible. This was the missing final step on previous albums; the band would reach a mix which they were all reasonably happy with, and that would go into production. For this, they decided to let someone else have a go at making it better, and Chris Thomas is the unsung hero of this album; it is his mix which brings out all the various elements in just the right proportion; it is his ear which found the perfect balance between the musical factions, and it is his polish which sets this apart from its peers.
Finally, the collaborations on this are utterly perfect – Dick Parry’s peerless saxophone raises ‘Money’ above the lyrics which verge on cliche, and fills ‘Us and Them’ with a colour which Gilmour’s guitar alone could never do; it has a longing to it which elevates the sentiment above the mundane. Clare Torry’s voice on ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ is so perfect it defies human description. You can find out for yourself the sordid tale of how she was denied a creative credit on it for decades, but the performance itself, so full of naked emotion and raw feeling lives forever; you can copy it, but you’ll never touch what she dragged out of herself that day.
And, of course, the way Hipgnosis packaged the whole thing. So wedded to the sound is the image that it’s hard to imagine anything else representing it. Indeed, when presented with options to choose from, everyone involved looked at the prism and said ‘that one’. It doesn’t explicitly relate to anything on the lyrics, but it just fits perfectly.
I first heard it when I was about 13; I’ve played it constantly for over forty years; I’ve owned all sorts of versions of it. It has lived with me through all my fluctuating musical tastes, and I’ve always come back to it as something which is capable of demanding, and getting, my full attention whenever it is on. I must listen to it at least once a month these days, and I have never once felt the urge to skip a track, or turn it off halfway through; I’ve never felt like I couldn’t be bothered to get up and turn it over; I’ve never – not for a moment – tired of it. Obviously, it gets a 10.
Is it perfect?
No, in all honesty. First of all – imagine musical perfection having been attained in 1973; the idea that nothing better than this could ever be produced would be profoundly depressing. Also, in my weaker moments, I kind of wish that someone had persuaded Roger to have one more crack at the words to ‘Money’; it’s fine, and full of memorable lines, but I think the satire doesn’t quite sit with the tone of the rest of it. I think that, in the time of oil shortages, power cuts and the three day week (look them up, kids), there was something more to be said about the pursuit of money, but it’s a minor quibble, and I’d hate to think that further tinkering might have made it worse.
The first time I heard this, I knew my life would never be quite the same again. Just because I was an impressionable teenager doesn’t mean I was wrong.