Photo courtesy of Rock.com|
In July of 1988, while the popular music scene is ruled by solo popstars like Michael Jackson, glam metal bands like Def Leppard, and rap groups like N.W.A. and A Tribe Called Quest, Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” quietly slips off the Billboard 200 chart- 736 weeks after its release in 1973.
It’s a record that has never even been approached- much less broken- by another album, it’s closest competition being “Legends,” a greatest hits collection by Bob Marley and The Wailers, which managed a relatively slight run of 386 weeks.
But more than enough has been said about the albums legacy, its effect on popular music as well as popular culture, and the guys who made it in the years since its release. Now let’s take it back to 45 years ago exactly, to March 1, 1973. Before the Pink Floyd sound conquered the world, before the image of a beam of light refracting through a prism went up in every college dorm in the world and before people cooked up conspiracies about what happens when you play the album over “The Wizard of Oz.” The moment when people first got home from the record shops with the newest album by a mildly successful British progressive psych-rock group, ventured past its minimalist yet all-encompassing cover art, dropped the needle, and heard it-
The heartbeat. Almost inaudible at first, the rhythmic thrumming emerges out of the quiet darkness, increasing in volume as it is joined by a myriad of other sound effects foreshadowing themes and moments to be found later in the album- the grinding of machinery, the ticking of a clock, helicopter blades, crazed laughter, and far off voices talking about madness. The manic sound collage, listed on the album as “Speak to Me” builds into a near cacophony before a hysterical scream and a single backwards piano chord bring the whole thing crashing down into the lush, dreamy guitar work of David Gilmour on “Breathe (In the Air),” the first real track of the album. Gilmour sings the albums opening salvo, “Breathe, breathe in the air. Don’t be afraid to care”, inviting the listeners to open themselves to the album as the slide guitar unwinds behind him, adding to the dreamlike quality of the song.
They don’t let you get too comfortable, however, before the true colors of the album emerge on the second track- “On the Run,” an electronic soundscape built around synthesizers and drones. Propelled sickeningly forward by the quick rhythm of the synths and drummer Nick Mason’s clipping beat on the hi-hat cymbal, the track, allegedly inspired by keyboardist Rick Wrights fear of flying, is eventually permeated by the sounds of an airport terminal, deranged laughter, and helicopter blades, which blend in against the synth backdrop. The sound eventually fades, leaving only the sound of running footfalls and panicked, heavy breathing, but that too fades into a long stretch of silence. Just when you think the band may have fallen asleep, the intro to the next song comes quite literally crashing in, as a mass of clock sound effects- ticking, chimes, alarms- gives way to a quiet “tick-tock”-like beat created by Roger Waters playing muted notes on his bass guitar.
The band methodically layers on guitar, organ, more percussion, piano, but the arrangement remains sparse for the more than two-minute long hypnotic introduction part until the song drops open with a drum fill from Mason, bringing the whole band crashing back in to one of the album and the bands biggest hits, “Time.” On an album filled with deep and extremely clever lyricism by Waters, the conceptual leader of the band who truly came into his own with this album, “Time” boasts some of its best, commenting on the inevitability of the march of time, and the human struggle to keep up. Gilmour once again takes the vocal at first, getting off now-classic lines such as “The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older, shorter of breath, and one day closer to death.” The song truly soars when vocal duties are passed to Wright for the chorus, where he sings “You are young and life is long, there is time to kill today. And then one day you find ten years have got behind you, no one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.”
For all its clever lyricism, however, the most powerful moment to be found on the album may be the evocative, atmospheric, yet wordless final song of side one- “The Great Gig in the Sky.” Built around a powerful piano melody by Wright, and accompanied by slide guitar, the track starts of quietly and even peacefully, but the hammer drops soon enough, revealing the incredible, wordless vocal contribution of Clare Torry, which immediately becomes the lead instrument. The band invited the 25-year-old singer into the studio to provide a vocal for the instrumental piece, instructing her to fill her mind with horrific thoughts of war, death, and suffering, and simply wail. The finished product is a completely arresting and hypnotic piece of music, which makes it morbid point without the aid of lyricism, and shuffles off into silence as the album spins to a halt.
In contrast to the restrained methodology of most of the transitions on the album, the abrupt sounds of cash machines, torn pay-stubs, and jangling currency introduces Waters’ iconic walking bassline for “Money,” the radio-friendly smash hit single of the album, and by far the biggest hit for the band by that time. Easily the most rock-oriented track on the album, Gilmour makes the song his own, taking lead vocals, with Waters’ delightfully satirical lyrics about wealth and excess, and delivering one of his greatest guitar solos of all time. The song builds into a relatively loose blues-rock oriented jam before fading out into “Us and Them,” a quiet, jazzy meditation on the absurdity of human conflicts. The quieter verses, the last of the album to be sung by Gilmour, are filled with great lines like “Us and them, and after all, we’re only ordinary men” and “With, without, and who’ll deny it’s what the fighting’s all about?” The song occasionally builds into soaring chorus, made up of lyrics such as “And the general sat, and the lines on the map, moved from side to side.” The song quickly but seamlessly transitions into “Any Colour You Like,” a free-jamming instrumental interlude which begins with Wright’s hypnotic keyboard only to be interrupted by Gilmour’s searing guitar, which takes the track home, and sets the stage for the grand finale.
Often taken as one big final song, the final two tracks, “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse” build to a finish worthy of the incredible album before it, and, due to the lyrical content, which deals with madness and stress, have been seen as Pink Floyd’s tribute to their original guitarist and singer, Syd Barret, who was forced to leave the band shortly after the release of their first album, 1967’s “Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” due to his deteriorating mental health. The lyrics, finely sung by Waters himself, make reference to lunacy and lobotomy, with one of the most haunting and enduring phrases being “The lunatic is in my head, the lunatic is in my head, you raise the blade, you make the change, you rearrange me ‘till I’m sane, you lock the door, throw away the key, there’s someone in my head, but it’s not me,” while the choruses resolve to lines which reference the title of the album, such as “and if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes, I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.”
Following a short organ interlude at the end of “Brain Damage,” they truly take the album home with the ever-building musical arrangement, set to Waters’ relentless verses of “All that you give, and all that you deal, and all that you buy, beg, borrow, or steal,” culminating with the closing line “and all that is now, and all that is gone, and all that’s to come, and everything under the sun is in tune, and the sun is eclipsed by the moon.” With the final emotional and sonic peak, the album washes away, revealing the heartbeat sound once more before it too fades into the darkness.
Throughout the remainder of their enormously impressive career, the Floyd would go on to create more top selling albums, perhaps ones with even more grandiose concepts and even bigger hits, but they would never do anything as concise, monolithic, and seamless as this one. Nobody would.