The Classics Series:
Pink Floyd- The Dark Side of the Moon
I am not sure whether it is a good thing that the best albums...
(from all time) are from a certain period. Depending on which polls you look at- the range is usually from the early-‘60s to the mid-late-‘90s. You would be hard-pressed to find an album (on said lists) that originate from the past 15-20 years. Perhaps the best music ever created has already passed: maybe there are some classics yet to come- we will see some genius in our lifetime, yet. Whatever the solution/answer; there are certain albums that will always come out on top. Music is a subjective thing that can create pitched battles and debate. For me, personally, my top-5 albums would run, thus: 1) The Bends- Radiohead; 2) Grace-Jeff Buckley; 3) Superunknown- Soundgarden; 4) Graceland- Paul Simon; 5) Rubber Soul- The Beatles. Inside the top 10 you can add Kate Bush and Miles Davis: my tastes are quite ‘varied’ I guess. Whilst my assertions are solid and unwavering; I will always have a special room reserved for Pink Floyd.
Here is a band that influenced and changed music radically. Up until their formation- 1965 and prior- there was nobody quite like them. The London-formed Psychedelic/Progressive-Rock band arrived into music with a huge bang: although, that said, their first couple of albums were quite modest (by their standards). Pink Floyd were founded in 1965 when students Syd Barrett, Nick Mason, Roger Waters and Richard Wright met. Led by Barrett, the group gained notoriety touring the capital in the late-1960s. The band’s debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, was received with immense critical praise. With songs being written and composed by Syd Barrett: the music world had never really witnessed anything like it. In 1967, the Psychedelic-Rock genre was just coming into effect: Barrett was the proponent and master that inspired others to be more experiment and ‘out there’. If you needed any proof- as to Barrett’s unique talents- you just need to look at the songs themselves. Gnomes, fairies and interstellar space travel sat alongside one another. Barratt’s lyrics saw a childlike humour and abandon sit with something experimental and strange. Charming, short tracks were balanced with longer, experimental passages from the band. With The Beatles recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at the same time- they were just down the hall from Pink Floyd- the London group would drop one of the greatest debuts ever. Barrett would subsequently suffer a deterioration of mental health: he would leave the group in 1968.
In the ensuing years- with their leader no longer part of the band- Pink Floyd struggled to find their sound and edge. Consistency and quality eluded them to a degree: they were never able to match the dizzying heights of their debut. It was until Meddle arrived- in the autumn of 1971- that the band started to regain focus and grab attention. The group were transitioning between the Syd Barratt-led psychedelic sound (of the late-‘60s) and something more progressive and traditional. Unlike earlier albums, Meddle saw each band member contribute to the song-writing. The album was recorded between touring commitments- at studios around London-and saw the band arrive with very little direction. Arriving at Abbey Road Studios- equip with 8-track recorders- the band relocated to AIR and Morgan in West Hampstead- which they found more conducive to their visions and demands. After settling on studios, the business of material proved quite tricky. Sessions would often begin mid-afternoon (and last to the early hours) and see very little music being committed to tape. Although the band would start with simple guitar riffs and ideas: eventually they were able to craft an album that was seen as more cohesive and appealing than its predecessor, Atom Heart Mother. David Gilmour really came into his own as a guitarist- a fact that did not escape critics at the time- and the entire looked like they were getting things together. Experimental, epic tracks (the album closer, Echoes, runs in at over 23-minutes long) blended with more focused, shorter numbers. If Echoes allowed the group to combine and flex their muscles; the album’s first side was marked by fearlessness, attention to detail and inspirational song-writing. Struggling with Barrett’s departure; Pink Floyd were starting to regain form and identity: playing with sonic textures and mood. Gilmour assumed a lead role- he dominated the vocals on the album- and would help shape a new era for Pink Floyd.
Following from the success of Meddle; the band followed it with Obscured by Clouds. Based around their soundtrack to film La Vallée: it marked a downshift for the band and a dip in quality and consistency. Having already started work on The Dark Side of the Moon; the band would sojourn to Paris and begin recording. The band’s drummer Nick Mason recalled how hurried and fraught the sessions were. Constricted by deadlines; the band managed to create a 16-track album that did not impress critics and fans at the time. A lot of the instrumental tracks seemed aimless and too light: never engaging enough to grab attention. The more successful numbers on the record- Blues rockers like The Gold It’s in The… and Free Four- were to provide a glimpse into The Dark Side of the Moon. Those songs- investigating death and life; the haunting and beautiful- showed Pink Floyd were not completely spent. In fact, Obscured by Clouds has gained retrospective acclaim: in no small part due to its influence on their soon-to-follow masterpiece. Acting as a soundtrack- and really not a typical Pink Floyd album- it, at last, showed the band were busy and full of ideas. After the rather ‘spotty’ creative period of the early-‘70s: few people would guess where the band was heading next.
The Dark Side of the Moon is considered Pink Floyd’s greatest accomplishment. Although Barrett was long-gone and departed: the 1973 album (the band’s eight) explored mental illness in addition to time, space and greed. Whereas early Pink Floyd albums saw long instrumental passages: The Dark Side of the Moon was a more lean and tight album. At the time, studios like Abbey Road were more equipped to deal with the group’s desires and ambitions. Prior to recording the album, the band met to discuss their future sounds and themes. Keen to recognise Barrett’s legacy and mental health- coupled with the stresses of touring and recording demands- The Dark Side of the Moon would address themes that made people mad: a singular creation that was more direct and unifying. Previous Pink Floyd albums were marked by varied themes and rather oblique lyrics. Waters was keen to record something that deals with a single issue- explored in a number of ways- and ensure their words could be understood and interpreted by all. Waters would record early demos at his house in Islington: every band member participated in the album’s recording; ensuring it was one of their most together and unifying work. Knowing they were going to push the limits and produce something epic: the band got very serious about recording equipment and hardware. A 28-track mixing desk was purchased with a new P.A. system. This was the first Pink Floyd album recorded on tour- the band would hire three lorries to transport their kit around- and it was to prove a masterstroke. Whether inspired by the cities and people they saw; maybe the band was more together and focused: whatever the reason (Pink Floyd) were at their peak and in tremendous form. Although their tour of North America and Europe was lengthy; there were few interruptions to the recording process.
The Dark Side of the Moon is charcaterised by the transition from experimental instrumentals- defined by Barrett’s writing and leadership- to music that was more honed and less psychedelic. Despite the band abandoning Barrett’s musical template and ideals: his legacy and influence can be heard throughout the record. From the philosophical deep lyrics to the addressment of mental health deterioration: Barrett, essentially, was an uncredited writer/producer. Each side of the album is marked by a continuum: the songs flow into one another and acts a concept piece. Early songs like Breathe and Speak to Me contrast the mundane nature of life with the ever-looming threat of madness and disintegration- the need to live life and show empathy. Transitioning to the airport-based On the Run highlights the stress of travel- made more personal by Wright’s fear of flying- while Time shouts against those obsessed by life’s mundanity and insignificances. Ending with a flourishing, heavenly evocation of death and transition: The Great Gig in the Sky stands out as the album’s defining moment. Not just the most curious creation by Wright- coming into his own as a songwriter- but Clare Torry’s extraordinary, peerless, vocal performance. Over the course of one side, the band had covered so much ground and addresses a myriad of concerns and themes.
If listeners were unmoved and motivated by the opening half- that compelled people to stop fixating on the unimportant; lend more credence to life’s importance and brevity- the second side would leave no doubt. The change-rattling opening to Money focused on greed and corruption. Mocking consumerism and greed that pervaded society: it stands as one of the album’s most celebrated (and, ironically, most commercially successful) moment. Us and Them is a harrowing investigation of isolation and depression. Any Colour You Like is an ironic track that highlights the lack of choice (one had at the time) in modern society. Brain Damage is the most Syd Barrett-related track across the album. It is a testament to their brother’s breakdown and disintegration- looking at the wider issues of depression and mental health. Eclipse looks at alterity and unification: encouraging people the commonality and togetherness of mankind. An album defined by dichotomy, duality and conflict: The Dark Side of the Moon was the band’s most extraordinary and vital work. Few albums at the time had addressed such vital themes: capitalism and greed; embracing the beauty of life; stop focusing on the stupid, unimportant things in life.
It was not just the lyrics that resounded with critics at the time. In terms of composition, the most advanced recording equipment of the time was used. Abbey Road’s 16-track mixes allowed the band to let their minds run wild: as such, The Dark Side of the Moon is one of the most vivid and sonically ambitious records in their cannon. From the tape loops and sound effects of Money; the metronomic effects of Speak to Me: this was one of Pink Floyd’s most daring and imaginative albums. Clinking coins and tearing paper (Money); the chimes of antique clocks (Time); the bass drum simulating a human heart (Time, Eclipse; On the Run and Speak to Me) are memorable sounds from a defining record. From the instrumental and sonic experimentation: the band was equally daring when it came to vocals. The band employed more harmonies- Wright and Gilmour could harmonise their voices; they had very similar tones- and Clare Torry’s contribution is perhaps the defining moment of the album. When Torry arrived in the studio; Gilmour took charge of directing the session. Trying to explain the concepts of The Dark Side of the Moon; Torry improvised a wordless vocal run in the booth. Backed by Wright’s emotive piano line: Torry was initially embarrassed by her ‘flair’ in the recording. Wanting to apologise to the band; Torry was surprised to find they loved the performance. It is really not hard to see why: the end result is one of the most breath-taking vocals of all-time. If Torry’s singular performance was hard to top; the group were much more daring and bold when it came to vocals. Waters wrote a series of flashcards with questions printed on them. Handing them to staff and occupants of the studio: their answers were recorded and used throughout the album. The Irish doorman, Gerry O’Driscoll provided the immortal words: “I am not frightened of dying. Any time will do: I don't mind. Why should I be frightened of dying? There's no reason for it – you've got to go sometime”- appears on The Great Gig in the Sky. Elsewhere, answer snippets were peppered throughout the album: giving it a real human touch and providing some of the quirkiest and most noteworthy moments.
Whilst some critics were tepid towards the album’s release- lambasting cliché lyrics and an imbalance between sides one and two- the sales figures told another tale. The Dark Side of the Moon stayed on the Billboard chart for 741 weeks; it has gone on to be the seventh biggest-selling album of all-time- behind Michael Jackson’s Thriller- and certified 11-times platinum. If some reviewers (when the album was unveiled in 1973) were a little unsure of the album; subsequent reviews have isolated just what a milestone (the album) was. The most focused and dense albums of Pink Floyd’s career: it would provide the band’s members with extraordinary wealth and opportunity. As a creative piece; The Dark Side of the Moon changed Rock music and ranks as one of the most influential albums ever. Radiohead’s OK Computer is seen as a ‘90s version of The Dark Side of the Moon: both albums address the struggles of the modern world and themes of isolation and loss.
Two years later; Pink Floyd would create another masterpiece: the staggering, Wish You Were Here. The five-song album saw a sort-of return to the lengthier, experimental tracks of old: Shine on You Crazy Diamond bookends the album and- both parts combined- top-in at 26 minutes. After the celebration and applause lent to The Dark Side of the Moon: the band’s bond and unity were starting to fray. Some critics had addressed The Dark Side of the Moon in sour tones- the band did not employ a publicist to filter the bad reviews out- and there was a feeling of negativity in the ranks. Whereas The Dark Side of the Moon assessed the vitality of life and societal issues: Wish You Were Here documents the band’s weakening and a critique aimed at the music industry. Shine on You Crazy Diamond nodded to their fallen brother, Syd Barratt: the group remember him fondly and feel the hole he had left. Pink Floyd had found extraordinary wealth and the fulfilment of childhood dreams: they had reached their goals and became drained by touring demands. Although the group struggled with new material- Waters began to conceive the album’s concept soon enough- Shine On’ became the album’s celebrated centrepiece. Welcome to the Machine and Have a Cigar are attacks on the music industry- pouring scorn on the fat cats and idiot up-comers who would ask inane, clichéd questions- and showcase an angrier band who were tired of the pressures they faced.
Again- and like The Dark Side of the Moon- Wish You Were Here was met with muted praise. Some critics found the album lacked imagination and the depth of its predecessor. Some were, perhaps fairly, sensitive at the attacks towards the industry at large- feeling the band were taking pot-shots at critics in the songs. Wish You Were Here, if anything, is heled in higher esteem by some critics: noting how its clear soul and sincerity was a testament to a band that could create magic against the backdrop of turmoil and uncertainty. Whichever side you fall on- or whether you prefer albums like The Wall- you cannot deny the strength and influence of Wish You Were Here. I am shocked Pink Floyd managed to produce the album at all. Given the success and money that arrived with The Dark Side of the Moon: the band became jaded, worn and directionless. Few modern-day groups could produce such a wondrous turn-around.
Absolute Radio listeners just voted The Dark Side of the Moon their favourite album ever- for the second time- and it shows what a legacy the album has. The texture, melodies and depth (of the album) spurred the band to up their game and become more adventurous. Who knows what music would sound like were it not for The Dark Side of the Moon. In the ‘70s it transformed the scene and marked Pink Floyd as one of the world’s most astonishing and bold acts. Just have a listen to modern music and you can still here the album resonating and striking. The band are still playing but have never reached the giddy heights of the early-mid-‘70s. The love The Dark Side of the Moon receives shows (the record) is not just a product of its time. The themes explored are relevant and vital today: as the world becomes more obscure and dangerous; the tales of isolation and embracing the good seem ever-pressing and vital. Whether you escape in the ambience or let your imagination surrender to the compositional brilliance: there is something for everyone within The Dark Side of the Moon. As much as I play the album, I can never get the bottom of the multi layers and ideas. It is a record that always reveals something new and suits a multitude of moods. Few albums promise that, and for that reason, Pink Floyd’s masterpiece remains one of music’s…
MOST timeless wonders.
Speak to Me
On the Run
The Great Gig in the Sky
Us and Them
Any Colour You Like
Breathe; The Great Gig in the Sky; Money; Brain Damage
The Great Gig in the Sky