Perhaps the most complete concept album of all time, The Dark Side of the Moon was the ultimate redemption for Pink Floyd. Culminating years of progressive and experimental music, this album focused on the most atomic elements of human life (and not just the bright spots) and set it all to the beat of a human heart over a 44-minute journey that leaves the listener contemplating the larger picture from several angles. This album sits in a unique place in rock history, bridging the final days of the late 1960s psychedelic era with the new wave, electronic phase that dominated the late 1970s. It also is the perfect pivot point for Pink Floyd itself, representing their past (the opening sound-collage dominated sequence from the album’s start through the intro to “Time”), their present (more rock/pop oriented with long instrumental passages in the middle of the album), and their future (the ending medley, dominated by Roger Waters).
The concept was first introduced to the band by Waters immediately following the release of Meddle in 1971. Although Waters wrote all of the lyrics, The Dark Side of the Moon was the last complete band effort, with all four members getting composing credits. The music was composed and developed as a suite during live performances throughout 1972, with the band simultaneously recording the material for the album Obscured by Clouds. Recording for The Dark Side of the Moon took place at Abbey Road Studios in London, using some of the most advanced recording techniques of the time. The group, along with engineer Alan Parsons, made great use of multi-track recording, tape loops, analogue synthesizers, and a series of recorded interviews to give the album a completely original and unique sound. Snippets of voices were recorded when staff and other occupants of the studio answered a series of questions printed on flashcards. This in itself proved to be an interesting experiment as responses from Paul and Linda McCartney were not used because they seemed too calculating while the most notable responses came from the studios’ doorman, Gerry O’Driscoll.
Although the album only held the number one spot in the US for one a week, it remained on the chart for an incredible 741 weeks (over 14 years) and has sold an estimated 50 million copies worldwide. Released 40 years ago today, The Dark Side of the Moon tops many lists as the greatest album of all time and is Classic Rock Review’s album of the year for 1973.
The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd
|Released: March 1, 1973 (Capitol)
Produced by: Pink Floyd
Recorded: Abbey Road Studios, London, June 1972–January 1973
|Side One||Side Two|
|Speak to Me
On the Run
The Great Gig In the Sky
Us and Them
Any Colour You Like
|David Gilmour – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Roger Waters – Basss, Snyths, Vocals
Richard Wright – Piano, Keyboards, Vocals
Nick Mason – Drums, Percussion
Each original side of the album is a continuous piece of music. The first side begins with “Speak to Me”, which forms a kind of overture previewing several sound snippets from the album. Drummer Nick Mason receives a rare solo writing credit because the only real instrumentation is his kick drum, treated to sound like a heartbeat. “Breathe” is a natural extension of the moody songs on previous albums with double-tracked vocals by David Gilmour. Slow and methodical, every note and beat counts while Gilmour adds rich in texture with overdubbed electric and pedal steel guitars. The lyrics are as simple and brief as the title and act as a short intro for the journey up ahead.
One of the amazing qualities of The Dark Side of the Moon is how the album instantly yet seamlessly switches moods, such as when it goes from ethereal “Breathe” to the frantic “On the Run”. This an instrumental piece was performed almost exclusively on an EMS synthesizer and is driven by entering an 8-note sequence repeated at a high tempo, with more voices and sound effects on top to make the piece ever-intensifying until it finally crashes at the end with what sounds like a crashing airplane. This leads to the long intro for “Time”, starting with a chorus of chiming clocks which were painfully recorded one by one by Parsons and various antique stores in London and then synced together through multiple tape machines. Next, comes a passage dominated by Mason’s drums with heavy use of rototoms and a backing “tick-tock” sound created by Waters picking two muted strings on his bass. When the song proper finally kicks in, it is a fantastic release into a full-fledged rock song which contains one of the greatest guitar leads ever. The song is incredibly simple, especially during the verse, but sounds so rich due to excellent production and musicianship. It contains deeply philosophical lyrics, sung by both Gilmour and keyboardist Richard Wright along with a chorus of female background singers. This is the final song to ever be credited to all four members of the band and is, perhaps, the best overall group effort in Pink Floyd’s long career.
After a short, one verse reprise of “Breathe”, appended to “Time”, comes the most unique and controversial song on the album. “The Great Gig In the Sky” has no legible lyrics, but instead contains about four minutes of improvised scat vocals by Clare Torry, a session singer who Parsons knew from other projects. Depending on your artistic point of view, this could be the worst or the best song on the album, the most meaningful or most absurd, and if nothing demonstrates why Pink Floyd is an acquired taste. Originally titled “The Mortality Sequence”, it is backed by a beautiful, minor key piano sequence by Wright and Torry added her vocals in one session which she entered without previously hearing the backing track. The band paid her sixty quid for the session and sent her on her way, not really hearing from her again until three decades later when Torry sued Pink Floyd and EMI for songwriting royalties, on the basis that her contribution constituted co-authorship with Richard Wright. Torry won the suit for an undisclosed amount and all pressings of the album after 2005 credit her as co-composer.
Side two begins with “Money”, a song which is a true double-edged sword, at once being one of the most recognizable and accessible Pink Floyd songs and one of the most overplayed and overrated. Still, for a hit song it is quite unique and artistically rewarding, written by Waters in the unusual 7/4 time signature for the verses before breaking into more standard, rock-oriented 4/4 time for Gilmour’s extended guitar solo in the middle. During this middle section the sonic tones are also adjusted, as a sparse “dry” section under subtle guitar licks is bookended by stronger dynamics with heavy use of reverb and chaotic drumming by Mason. The song also features a short saxophone lead by Dick Parry.
Parry and his sax have a more prominent role in “Us and Them”, a song about as moody and surreal as one can get while maintaining top notch rock status. It was released as a single in 1974, but kind of flopped as it failed to reach the Top 100 on the charts. However, but the more macro jury of time has rightfully judged this a true Pink Floyd classic. The tune was originally written on the piano by Wright for the film soundtrack Zabriskie Point in 1969 but was rejected by the film’s director. This slow paced, seven and a half minute song contains more spoken phrases which adds to the overall feel. “Us and Them” directly bridges to “Any Colour You Like”, another reprise of “Breathe” but from a totally instrumental approach. In fact, only Gilmour, Mason, Wright are credited for this composition, as Waters is oddly left out.
However, Waters does dominate the final two tracks on the album, taking on lead vocals as well as solo credit for “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse”. Here the concept of “Dark Side of the Moon” is fully laid out with a sonically superior, perfect wrap to the album. Further, the larger picture of life itself is focused down to a particular individual as the insanity-themed lyrics are based on former band frontman Syd Barrett‘s mental instability, which began following the success of their debut album Piper at the Gates of Dawn in 1967. Waters would re-visit Barrett’s situation in much more detail on the band’s next album Wish You Were Here. Musically, “Brain Damage” contains great layered guitars and a totally unique, synth-organ lead, while “Eclipse” reverts back to a more traditional band jam led by Wright’s Hammond organ. Both songs also contain great female backing vocals. When the main instrumentation fades the sound of the heartbeat from “Speak to Me” comes back to the forefront with one final, profound spoken part by door man O’Driscoll:
“There is no dark side in the moon, really. Matter of fact, it’s all dark. (The only thing that makes it look light is the sun.)”
The members of Pink Floyd have long lamented the duality of feelings they have towards the success of The Dark Side of the Moon. It would work to at once validate them as a top-notch artistic group and fractured them as a cohesive unit. The quartet would have much more success throughout the seventies and maintained headlining status even after Waters departed in the eighties. But they would never again quite reach that moment in time when everything came together to create a true rock masterpiece.
Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1973 albums.