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Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon

[1]2,258 words

Every year is getting shorter; we never seem to find the time.

The world-famous British psychedelic outfit Pink Floyd released the seminal work The Dark Side of the Moon on March 1, 1973, inspiring endless musicians around the world and ultimately leading to the rise of loose women wearing T-shirts with a prism on it during their nights out on the town. The Dark Side of the Moon was a watershed moment in music history, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any critic worth their salt decrying the record outside an attempt to be contrarian. The praise is deserved; irrespective of one’s upbringing, any person who has grown up in the West is likely to find something that speaks to their soul in this record. Whether that’s a result of misunderstanding the album’s intent, as may be the case with anarcho-capitalists gleefully belting out “Money” on a karaoke night, or on account of certain immutable truths being touched on, such as the feeling of one’s life being stolen by the clock on “Time,” the fact remains that this album has earned itself a place in just about anyone’s heart.

Without a doubt, this record gave the band some of their staying power. Even the use of synthesizers, something Pink Floyd had scarcely dabbled in prior to Dark Side’s release, felt wholly authentic and real to the listener. The record’s premise, dreamt up by bassist Roger Waters as a concept album based on the “things that made people mad” following the departure of former bandmate Syd Barrett due to his deteriorating mental state, touched on themes that drove many people quietly crazy. It includes snippets of interviews with people like the record studio’s doorman or friends of the band, touching on topics such as death, violence, and their own regrets, mixed into the ambience of a few tracks’ quiet moments. Between the album’s concept and the introduction of a disquietingly raw element of human emotion, The Dark Side of the Moon was bound to carry with it the hallmarks of a classic record, an honor it holds to this day.

The opening track, “Speak to Me,” contains what sounds like a human heartbeat – actually a specially-treated kick drum – and the whispers of Chris Adamson, who was then touring with the band, saying, “I’ve been mad for fucking years – absolutely years.” The heartbeat slowly grows louder, mingling with the sounds of Adamson’s voice, and then competing with a racket of cash registers and ticks to create a cacophony growing in tension until a reversed piano chord breaks the ice for the next track to begin. “Speak” is an anomalous, albeit perfectly suited opener, offering nothing in terms of leitmotifs or structure, but immediately showing the listener what the album is about. The lack of regular instrumentation, in many ways, sets us on the edge of our seats, anxious to hear the first familiar strums of conventional rock music. In many ways, it drives us mad.

“Breathe (In the Air)” comes on the heels of the racket that ensued in the previous track, smashing the tension it built. “Breathe” serves as the entire album’s structure, with the same chord progression acting as a refrain in later tracks to ground the listener in a fashion that would be echoed by many concept albums to follow. The lyrical subject of the song is both existential as well as personal, featuring requests that an unnamed person leave, but not leave Waters, touching upon a base urge that many people (especially Europeans during times of displacement, like the paranoia and uncertainty of the post-hippie ‘70s) feel when they’re battling difficulties: to pack up and go. This record’s masterfulness is on remarkable display in “Breathe,” as it is the first track to feature a full range of instrumentation and vocals. The band created a highly spacious, four-dimensional sound through the use of multi-track recording to create a quadraphonic effect that can be heard in every song. The end result manages to be both crystal clear, yet full of reverb and airy orchestration that fills every space in the listener’s ear.

“On the Run,” the track following “Breathe,” makes use of the final residual harmonics of the previous track as its introduction. An arpeggiated synthesizer loop soon begins to dance atop the hurried hi-hats, modulating and compressing itself over the song’s 3 minutes and 45 seconds, and playing with the veritable smorgasbord of other noises that spin about the song: electronic rotors, voices, and shapeshifting drones. For a band which was enjoying huge mainstream success, “On the Run” is surprisingly experimental in nature; at times, one could even argue that it is difficult to listen to at times, especially towards the end, where every sound is dropped in favor of a shaking thunderclap that eviscerates its structure and gives way to the faint clicking of “Time.” This song is, in many ways, on the run.

Immediately following “On the Run” is one of the album’s most famous songs: “Time.” The aggressive clattering and ringing of alarm clocks, bells, and even Rototoms creates a wholly unsettling symphony of noise that quite fittingly wakes the listener up following the relative smooth sailing of the previous track. The clattering metal slowly tires itself out, however, leaving only a vaguely tom-like beat to follow, which is soon accompanied by squared-off strums of the guitar and atmospheric melodies to float about, almost aimlessly, all to the constant tick-tick of the drums, much like a drum. When Waters enters with his now-iconic “ticking away the moments that make up a dull day,” the song’s transition to a more traditional rock structure is almost unnoticeable to the ear. The lyricism borders on depressing; forays into the psyche about a man simply waiting, watching the time pass, and hoping something might change in his life are chillingly relatable, just as much now as then. Walls of sound ensue during a droning, almost symphonic guitar solo, before Waters joins in again. The track’s enduring lines towards the end, touching on how one thought he’d have something more to say at the end of his life, give way to a refrain of “Breathe,” as well as “Water”’s final ruminations on the passage of time. Despite its length of 6 minutes and 53 seconds, “Time” seems to pass quickly on account of its myriad transitions and elements; likely, this was deliberate.

“The Great Gig in the Sky” opens with Gerry O’Driscoll, the studio doorman, stating flatly in his Irish accent that he’s:

. . . 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.

A few quiet moments pass before one of the album’s most exquisite moments, Clare Torrey’s operatic wails. Torrey was a seasoned pop vocalist brought in for the purpose of recording this interlude. Torrey was not instructed on what to do by the band; rather, she was simply told of the album’s premise and themes and sent into the studio to record over the instrumental version of this track. The end result was nothing short of profound; without words, Torrey bellows in a range from the pits of her stomach to the tops of her falsetto vocals over the top of an undulating chorus of drum, piano, and atmosphere, seemingly shouting into the air in a primal, raw fashion at the frustrations that plague both her and millions of others. The song ends with a precious, quiet, and meandering handful of minutes, where Torrey slowly fades away, allowing her voice to putter out with the remains of her breath. For a song without any sort of lyricism, “Great Gig” manages to convey a surprising array of emotion and turmoil. In many ways, it leaves one to wonder why they bothered with words at all.

“Money,” the album’s (rather ironic) commercial hit, is a tongue-in-cheek take on the ills of greed. An introductory marque of cash registers, coins falling into a jar, and bills being dispensed soon meets a particularly invigorating bassline before a delayed pluck of guitar sends the track into familiar, and quite danceable territory. This track is a rather poignant example of Poe’s Law in some respects, given that Waters verbalizes satirical desires to feel powerful on account of his purchasing power, ranging from musings on purchasing a football team or flying first class to mocking the arguments of those who believe money is the root of all evil. You’ll hear this song in just about any Boomer-frequented jukebox bar in Europe or North America, usually accompanied by gleeful singalongs by patrons on whom the song’s irony is lost. It is beautifully composed, but its true credo in several respects is in exposing the true baseness of the average, modern individual, blissfully unaware of the chaotic nature of the world he lives in. “Money” is a fantastic song to hear in any circumstance, but it makes an even better backdrop for observing just how far gone the current age is. As a fun experiment, try asking an enthusiastic “Money” singer what other songs on this album they enjoy; you may very well find they can’t even name the artist.

“Us and Them” opens with familiar voices ruminating on life; in this case, it’s Roger “The Hat” discussing a fight he was in, only to conclude that he couldn’t remember much given that he was “really drunk at the time.” “Us and Them” establishes a curious dichotomy in each of its verses, playing on opposites like the rear and front of a battalion, or the black and blue of a bruise; despite the seemingly obvious distinctions Waters makes with each line, a prevailing sense of confusion or uncertainty washes over the song. Instrumentally, moments of booming unison and relatively resigned piano take turns, furthering the sense of opposites created by the lyrics. The saxophone used here also creates an exciting sense of texture, standing out against the otherwise uniform orchestrations as a sort of bulwark against muddiness. The song ends with a meditation on how each person’s life in an industrial society is starkly different; one group pushes papers, ostensibly on war or the price of tea, and the other fights their battles for them, whether it’s on a field in Europe or in a warehouse. Waters now seems to be asking the listener: Are you one of us? Or one of them?

“Any Colour You Like,” an instrumental interlude that follows the structures laid out in the previous song, proceeds in a straightforward fashion, backed by guitars and pedals. This is the song most appropriately called an interlude, since it doesn’t serve much of a purpose but to separate “Us and Them” from “Brain Damage,” albeit absent the curiosities in other “interludes” like “Great Gig,” –  but it is pleasant nonetheless. It is a necessary diversion, giving the listener more time between refrains of “Breathe,” and works well in the context of hearing the entire album.

“Brain Damage” opens with “Breathe”’s leitmotif, which remains mostly unchanged throughout the song. Waters speaks over the top about unsettling scenes that range from men speaking in his head that aren’t his own personality, and the world outside seeming to change without regard to the person experiencing it. Perhaps most poignant is the line “if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes,” widely believed to be a reference to Barrett’s departure. “Brain Damage” plods on at a pace that isn’t hurried, but is fervent in its messaging. Precious little can be gleaned from the lyrics, an overture that falls right into place on a track about losing one’s mind. Its placement as the penultimate track on the album gives the sense of it being the logical conclusion of the album’s themes – whether it’s personal strife, the inescapable passage of time, a greed-filled society consuming itself, or the ambiguity that spontaneously emerges in the midst of false dichotomy. According to Waters, they’ll all drive you insane.

“Eclipse,” the song’s final track, has a harrowing message. Following an unchanged verse pattern over the top of female backing vocals, insistent drums, and a modified version of the “Breathe” refrain, Waters goes on about everything one sees, touches, tastes, hears, and smells. He offers nothing in the way of commentary on these subjects. Rather, he merely notes their existence, the sum of our actions as human beings, and the impact they have on the world – and how in spite of their seeming importance to us when they occur, they will all come to a stop when the Sun is eclipsed by the Moon. This metaphorical eclipse can be taken literally, given that the world indeed seems to stop in its tracks and hold its breath when a solar eclipse passes over us; recently, when such an eclipse sent its shadow across the United States, millions of people dropped everything to stare up at the sky and see it happen, revering at the cosmic proportions of such an event and how small it made their daily struggles seem in comparison. The line could be taken to mean something else, too. Perhaps the eclipse is the end of an age, and along with it, the end of things we thought we’d held dear. In our present climate, marked by the trials and tribulations of a system that seems hellbent on destroying all that was sacred just one generation ago, this eclipse feels even realer than it did when Waters first described it to us in 1973.

The Sun may be eclipsed by the Moon, but in its wake, what did we really lose?