Dark Side of the Moon | Photo by Lawren | Flickr.com
A few weeks ago, I mentioned my love for concept albums, especially ones that get their point across without seeming too heavy-handed, in my article covering “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye.
The portions of those albums that segue easily from one song to the next (like the medley on “Abbey Road” or most of the aforementioned Gaye album) are components that I also adore.
This week’s review is a concept album that more than likely has been my favorite listening experience while writing this series: “The Dark Side of the Moon,” the eighth studio album from British progressive rock band Pink Floyd.
Released on March 1, 1973, “The Dark Side of the Moon” is a concept album that touches upon the themes of death, greed, time and mental illness. The record was supported by two singles upon its debut: “Us and Them” and “Money.” It also features snippets of interviews with the band’s road crew and studio personnel throughout its duration.
“The Dark Side of the Moon” is one of the best-selling albums of all time, with 45 million copies sold worldwide. It is also one of the most highly-praised albums ever made, appearing on lists of the best and most influential albums from several prominent critics and music publications, and the record helped make Pink Floyd a household name.
The album’s influence has led to the creation of a few urban myths about the album, mostly involving its synchronization with popular movies. Read on in this week’s Retro Rewind to find out what they are, whether the syncs were intentional, and much more.
Pink Floyd was formed in London, England in 1965 by vocalist/guitarist Syd Barrett, drummer Nick Mason, bassist Roger Waters and keyboardist Richard Wright.
The band derived their name from two blues musicians that Barrett was fond of, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. Guitarist and vocalist David Gilmour became a member of Pink Floyd in 1967, and Barrett exited the group in 1968 due to declining mental health.
Between 1967 and 2014, Pink Floyd recorded a total of 15 studio albums together. They are one of the most commercially successful artists ever, selling over 250 million albums globally, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. The band also received the Polar Music Prize from Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf in 2008 due to their influence on modern music.
Opening side one of the album is the instrumental track “Speak to Me,” which features sounds of a heartbeat, cash register, and a clock, in addition to crazy laughter. All of these are later heard again in the album.
The song then smoothly transitions into “Breathe (In The Air),” a rich and melancholy track that comments on life’s madness and the little things that are ever-present in society.
Next is “On the Run,” another instrumental that conveys the anxiety of traveling in the modern world which was influenced by Wright’s fear of flying.
Following this is “Time,” which opens with blaring clocks ringing in the listener’s ear. This track talks about how time’s passage can have a choke hold on an individual’s life, and finishes with a reprise of “Breathe.”
Ending the first side of the record is “The Great Gig in the Sky,” a composition by Wright and British singer Clare Torry that acts as an allegory for death.
As “The Great Gig in the Sky” fades into silence, the “cha-ching” sound of cash registers opens up “Money,” a track that takes aim at greed that is arguably Pink Floyd’s most successful song. “Money” gallops along utilizes the 7/4 time signature.
Meanwhile, “Us and Them” deals with depression and isolation. The instrumental “Any Colour You Like” is nearly identical in chords and beat to “Breathe,” and deals with the absence of choice in society.
This fades into “Brain Damage” and its distorted arpeggios. The song itself talks about mental illness and is heavily based on Barrett’s mental volatility. This inspiration is especially evident in the lyric “and if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes…”
Finally, the album closes out with “Eclipse,” which focuses on harmony in society and ends with a heartbeat sound reminiscent of the opening track.
This ending also features this spoken clip from the doorman of Abbey Road Studios, Gerry O’Donnell: “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 final lyrics of “Eclipse” and the album are “and everything under the sun is in tune, but the sun is eclipsed by the moon.”
“I don’t see it as a riddle,” explained Waters in the book “Pink Floyd: Bricks in the Wall.” “The album uses the sun and the moon as symbols; the light and the dark; the good and the bad; the life force as opposed to the death force. I think it’s a very simple statement saying that all the good things life can offer are there for us to grasp, but that the influence of some dark force in our natures prevents us from seizing them. The song addresses the listener and says that if you, the listener, are affected by that force, and if that force is a worry to you, well I feel exactly the same too. The line ‘I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon’ is me speaking to the listener, saying, ‘I know you have these bad feelings and impulses because I do too, and one of the ways I can make direct contact with you is to share with you the fact that I feel bad sometimes.’”
Work on “The Dark Side of the Moon” began at Abbey Road Studios in June 1972. The first song recorded was “Us and Them,” created on June 1. “Money” was next, with its recording session occurring six days later.
A break followed the creation of two more songs, “Time” and “The Great Gig in the Sky,” so that the group could get ready for an American tour. They resumed studio work in early 1973 and recorded “On the Run,” “Any Colour You Like,” “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse.”
Saxophonist Dick Parry was hired to play on “Us and Them” and “Money,” and a quartet of female vocalists was booked to sing on “Time,” “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse.”
Loops of effects were created by Waters with various money-related objects, which were featured prominently on “Speak to Me” and “Money.” Synthesizers were also added into Pink Floyd’s sound during the album’s creation, using an EMS VCS 3 during the recording of “Any Colour You Like” and “Brain Damage” as well as a Synthi A with “On the Run” and “Time.”
At least a few other unorthodox effects were used in the creation of “The Dark Side of the Moon,” including a heartbeat created with a bass drum, an assistant engineer dashing around the studio’s echo chamber in “On the Run,” and a variety of timepieces recorded by engineer Alan Parsons at an antique clock store.
In addition, singer Clare Torry was brought in to contribute vocals to the song “The Great Gig in the Sky” and improvised a melody to Richard Wright’s piano solo. Torry sued the band and their label, EMI, in 2005 for co-authorship credit, settling the case out of court.
The snippets of voices heard in the album come from a variety of sources. Peter Watts, Pink Floyd’s road manager, can be heard laughing maniacally in “Speak to Me” and “Brain Damage,” while his then-wife Patricia gave the lines “I never said I was frightened of dying” and “cruisin’ for a bruisin.”
O’Driscoll, in addition to contributing the album’s closing remarks, spoke the line “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.” The line appeared in “The Great Gig in the Sky.” Notable interviewees absent from the album include Paul McCartney and his wife Linda.
The album’s iconic cover art was designed by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell, who ran the design company Hipgnosis, in addition to artist George Hardie. They were asked by Wright to create an illustration that was “smarter, neater – more classy.”
An urban myth has emerged that proposes a connection between the popular 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Dark Side of the Moon.” When a listener presses play on the album as the MGM lion fades to black, the lyrics and themes will correspond to key moments in the film (such as the scarecrow dance occurring during “Brain Damage”). However, this synchronization was unintentional.
“It was an American radio guy who pointed it out to me,” Parsons mentioned to Rolling Stone magazine in 2003. “It’s such a non-starter, a complete load of eyewash. I tried it for the first time about two years ago. One of my fiancée’s kids had a copy of the video, and I thought I had to see what it was all about. I was very disappointed. The only thing I noticed was that the line “balanced on the biggest wave” came up when Dorothy was kind of tightrope walking along a fence. One of the things any audio professional will tell you is that the scope for the drift between the video and the record is enormous; it could be anything up to twenty seconds by the time the record’s finished. And anyway, if you play any record with the sound turned down on the TV, you will find things that work.”
Podcaster Griffin McElroy joked during an episode of the annual podcast “Til Death Do Us Blart” that when played during a viewing of “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2,” “The Dark Side of the Moon” pairs up with several major moments during the film (including a scene at a security officials’ convention coinciding with “Money” and the death of Blart’s mother happening at the exact moment that the lyrics to “Breathe” kick in). He described this viewing as a “religious experience.”
While researching material for this review, I watched the film with the album playing in the background. Let me just say that the synchronized elements were absolutely astonishing to witness firsthand.
Other media that can reportedly be synced up to “The Dark Side of the Moon” include “Hoop Dreams” and “The Force Awakens.”
What critics thought of “The Dark Side of the Moon”
A press reception for the album was held on Feb. 27, 1973 at the London Planetarium and the record’s stereo mix was played through a low-quality sound system. The press still reacted positively to the music.
Loyd Grossman for Rolling Stone called it “a fine album with a textural and conceptual richness that not only invites, but demands involvement”.
Roy Hollingworth, a critic for Melody Maker, found side one difficult to follow, but loved the second side, mentioning “the songs, the sounds, the rhythms were solid and sound, saxophone hit the air, the band rocked and rolled, and then gushed and tripped away into the night.”
Sounds’ Steve Peacock said, “I don’t care if you’ve never heard a note of Pink Floyd’s music in your life, I’d unreservedly recommend everyone to ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’.”
Retrospective reviews on the album have been universally positive. Stephen Thomas Erlewine, in his review for AllMusic said that “what gives the album true power is the subtly textured music, which evolves from ponderous, neo-psychedelic art rock to jazz fusion and blues-rock before turning back to psychedelia. It’s dense with detail, but leisurely paced, creating its own dark, haunting world. Pink Floyd may have better albums than ‘Dark Side of the Moon,’ but no other record defines them quite as well as this one.”
Rolling Stone and Q magazine have called “The Dark Side of the Moon” the best progressive rock album. In 2006, readers of NME voted it the eighth greatest album of all time, while listeners of Planet Rock ranked it as the best album ever made in 2009. The Observer’s list “The 50 Albums That Changed Music” ranked “The Dark Side of the Moon” at number 29.
Its cover art has also received acclaim; VH1 ranked it the fourth-greatest album cover ever created. The record was also selected in 2013 by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry.
What I think of the album
In total, I have listened to “The Dark Side of the Moon” four times during the process of creating this Retro Rewind, and I completely adore it. I feel that a listener can take in the record over and over again without a sense of boredom, finding new details and interpreting the lyrics and symbolism in different ways as each detail is closely examined.
The album manages to convey its themes in a relatively short amount of time (around 43 minutes), and the lyrics and instrumentation help to bring these themes to the forefront in a concise manner, sometimes without using a single word (see the transition from “The Great Gig in the Sky” to “Money”).
If you’ve never heard “The Dark Side of the Moon” in its entirety, I would highly suggest giving it a listen. Whether it is coupled with another piece of media or heard on its own through a vinyl record, a CD or an online streaming service, hearing “The Dark Side of the Moon” is an otherworldly experience that is guaranteed to please the ears every single time.