It was 50 years ago that rock fans headed into record stores, spied a stark, black album cover with a single beam of light refracted into colors through a prism, and soon thereafter heard music unlike anything that had come before it.
As the photo accompanying this column illustrates, “Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd has become so ubiquitous in the half-century since its release that there is almost nothing new or unknown I could write about it.
“Dark Side” is among the bestselling records of all time, remained in the Billboard Top 200 album charts for a staggering 15-plus years, and contains several of the best-known and most-played songs of the “classic rock” radio format. It is the pinnacle of progressive rock released in the early 1970s, when rock had become the dominant style of music.
So let’s reflect a bit on what happened just before Pink Floyd’s career-defining record was released on March 1, 1973, and the impact it had on rock music and the band afterward.
The memories of a man in his old age,
Are the deeds of a man in his prime.
You shuffle in the gloom of the sick room,
And talk to yourself as you die.
No, those aren’t lyrics from “Dark Side of the Moon,” but they come from an interesting Roger Waters song (“Free Four,” off Pink Floyd’s “Obscured by Clouds” 1972 album) that foreshadowed the main themes he would explore on the band’s next album.
Madness. Mortality. And society’s contribution toward both. The lyrics of “Dark Side” would be a bit heavier, deeper and universal than, say, Sammy Johns crooning about making love in his Chevy van.
Waters wrote about things that can drive people in general (and his former bandmate Syd Barrett in particular) to madness: the passage of time, the pressures of traveling and earning money, political conflict and war, and of course “the Great Gig in the Sky,” one’s own death.
The other members of Pink Floyd — guitarist David Gilmour, keyboardist Richard Wright and drummer Nick Mason — rose to the occasion with the band’s best music since Barrett blazed a psychedelic trail on their 1967 debut, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” before fading in a haze of drugs and mental illness.
Not only does the music of “Dark Side” build on Pink Floyd’s recent side-long pieces such as “Echoes” and some taut jamming on the often overlooked “Obscured by Clouds,” it also was perfected in concert for months before being recorded. Listening to live Pink Floyd bootlegs from early 1972 (they’re waiting for you on YouTube) shows how songs such as “Time” and “On the Run” (previously known as “The Travel Sequence”) evolved into their familiar and perfect forms.
Augmented by Dick Parry’s saxophone solos on “Money” and “Us and Them,” vocalist Clare Torry’s wails of horror (or is it pleasure?) on “Great Gig in the Sky” and soulful female backing vocals on “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse,” the Floyd’s music ranges from smooth to driving.
A mix of subtle sound effects and taped commentary about the songs’ topics (such as violence: “You give ’em a short, sharp shock and they don’t do it again …”) enhance the music and lyrics, generating a musical mix that still sounds good 50 years later.
Forward he cried from the rear, and the front rank died,
And the General sat, and the lines on the map, moved from side to side.
A problem with producing something universally acclaimed to be the pinnacle of one’s career is that there’s only one way to go from the top of the mountain.
This is not to say that Pink Floyd didn’t make great music after “Dark Side” — in fact, many critics who look back on the band’s 1970s output argue that their next release, “Wish You Were Here,” is a better album musically and (perhaps) lyrically.
But the couplet from “Us and Them” referenced above, and the song’s title itself, foretold the future splintering of the band. “Dark Side of the Moon” was the first Floyd album to specify that, while crafting the music remained a group effort, “all lyrics (written by) Roger Waters.”
The bassist’s views about alienation, war and other shortcomings of humanity would come to dominate latter Pink Floyd albums “Animals,” “The Wall” and “The Final Cut.” (All but the last of those are excellent records, by the way!)
Due in large part to the dominant success of “Dark Side of the Moon,” Pink Floyd and other classic rock bands from the late 1960s and early 1970s would be seen as bloated behemoths and easy targets for the ire of punk rockers in the Sex Pistols, the Clash and other late-1970s rock rebels.
Mason, Floyd’s drummer and later the producer of British punk rock band The Damned, saw this as a natural evolution from the 1960s hippies weaned on the Swinging London scene to the spiky-haired, leather-wearing punks of recession-plagued Britain in the late 1970s.
“The thing had become Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and Pink Floyd, and Yes — huge, massive dinosaurs rumbling across the earth,” noted Mason, as reported in Nicholas Schaffner’s excellent Pink Floyd book, “Saucerful of Secrets.”
“(Punk rock) was about energy and wanting to perform, not about who’s the greatest musician in the world. It was absolutely necessary,” he said, before quickly adding: “You don’t want the world populated only with dinosaurs, but it’s a terribly good thing to keep some of them alive!”
There’s so much more I could write about “Dark Side” and its impact on music, but as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of rock’s greatest records, I will simply urge you to pull out one of the 45 million copies of the album that have been sold to date worldwide (no, I’m not exaggerating) and give it a listen, sequentially, from “Speak to Me” all the way through “Eclipse.”
As Schaffner notes in his book, “Dark Side of the Moon” provides music for generations of listeners to enjoy, with lyrics that give them something substantial to think about.
The time is gone, the column’s over, thought I’d something more to say. …
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