With a new album excitingly on the way, Lewis tells us why Dark Side is STILL one of the greatest recordings of all time. No arguments.
Who made it?: Pink Floyd (Producers), Harvest/Capitol.
Who’s on it?: David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Richard Wright, Roger Waters.
Recorded at: Abbey Road Studios.
Released: 1 March 1973.
Most music historians, journalists, critics, and lovers alike cite 1976 as the best year for mainstream music. However, three years earlier saw the release of the decade’s most pivotal, groundbreaking and successful album, and for over forty years, The Dark Side of the Moon has been the crowning achievement of concept albums. Broken down into statistics and numbers alone in regards to success, Pink Floyd’s eighth studio album is an incredible achievement. After topping the Billboard Top LPs and tapes chart, it subsequently remained there for an extraordinary 741 weeks from 1973 to 1988, and as of today, it is estimated to have sold fifty million copies worldwide, making it the second-most successful album after Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It has twice been remastered and re-released, been covered in it’s entirety by an assortment of other acts, and is frequently ranked as the greatest album of all time.
Statistics and numbers aside, what made Dark Side so good and how did it endorse Pink Floyd to become one of Britain’s most endearing and successful rock bands of all time? To begin with, Floyd were already seasoned recording artists with seven albums to their name within five years and were already distinguished by their use of philosophical lyrics, sonic experimentation and complex live performances. Having emerged from the London underground in 1967 under the creative leadership of founder Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd stood out from other bands such as Led Zeppelin, The Kinks and The Rolling Stones with an excessive take on progressive, experimental and psychedelic rock, and a love of extended instrumental expeditions. However, when Barrett departed in 1969 due to a mental collapse aided by excessive drug use, Floyd struggled to re-establish their artistic footing and lost major ground on other popular acts of the time. That all changed when, in mid-1972, Floyd teamed up with engineer Alan Parsons at Abbey Road Studios to create the record that would transform the band from a cult act into a global phenomenon.
Dark Side of the Moon fully showcased a band that had finally defined itself creatively and musically. Previous Floyd albums such as 1970’s Atom Heart Mother and the following year’s Meddle suffered greatly from filler, throwaway songs and enthusiastic compositions depleted by poor production. The Beatles will claim that they produced the first “concept” album with Sgt. Pepper (and the Rolling Stones will back that claim to eternity), but unfortunately for the Fab Four, their efforts don’t come anywhere close to Floyd’s with a greater exercise in musical and lyrical content, and the sheer scale and reach of the cerebral nature that Dark Side excels in. After all ten tracks and 42.59 minutes of running time, the album shows no weaknesses, no filler and no shoddy production; just music that disseminates a record with textual and conceptual richness, demanding the listener’s involvement in their philosophical and abstract world. From start to finish, you can’t separate any track from the album due to them being so inextricably bound together into a seamless music experience.
It’s intriguing to note that Dark Side is sometimes considered a quintessential psychedelic album because, in many ways, its really a contradiction of psychedelic music. It’s not that the production isn’t elaborate (and this was exemplary use of studio effects for its time) or that the music isn’t extended into lengthy labyrinthine passages. It’s that the overall mood is so unrelentingly sullen. Encompassing and combining themes and emotions including greed and insanity, as well passionately exploring the nature of human experience, the album shows that if psychedelia means anything, it’s that the music has always represented a way for listeners to embark on a mind-expanding journey of self-discovery. With Dark Side of the Moon, that’s simply not possible. The record more or less tells the listener what to think and what to feel. The album is devoid of anything that could be considered uplifting or invigorating, but audiences everywhere fell for its nefarious charm and have done since.
By 1973, Roger Waters, whom had replaced Barrett as Floyd’s frontman, had entered the beginning of his bleakest and most austere phase as a lyricist and was responsible for most of the writing on the album. Though gloomy, this was poetry in motion from Waters, and throughout Dark Side, he excelled in his grim pastures. The satire of excess and greed in “Money” is biting and derisive, but it is in no way mind-expanding. There are also many references to Barrett’s dissolution throughout the album, most notably on “Brain Damage,” a song about mental illness that’s so bleak, it will surely inspire listeners to doleful reverie rather than romantic idealism. “Breathe” with the lyrics, “All you touch and all you see is all your life will ever be,” and “Time,” a cry on the pressures of life slipping by without people realising, also conveys this great understanding of the difficulties their former leader faced and that their then-modern life was leading to madness.
Similarly, though the music is artfully constructed and produced, this is where Dark Side of the Moon excelled over other albums at the time. In fact, the seemingly conflicting musical content on the album heavily influenced Led Zeppelin’s double album Physical Graffiti. Using some of the most advanced recording equipment and techniques available at the time, the album displayed what could be eloquently achieved with four intelligent musicians, utilising electronic instruments and wielding an armoury of sound effects with confident mastery and finesse. Achieving feats of trippy, unnatural sounds and musical transportation that are all the more amazing because digital production tools were still decades away, Floyd managed to create an album that sounded years before its time. “Speak to Me,” the album’s ninety-second long instrumental opener commences the record’s virtuosity and sets the tone for the effects-laden masterpiece, with a gradual fade in of a synthesized heartbeat following through to an enthralling, richly-layered mix of looped sounds effects, demoniac laughter (thanks to Peter Watts, Floyd’s road manager) and snatches of grasping speech. “On the Run” is another example of how well Dark Side keeps the listener engaged throughout an instrumental. Pulsing synthesizer sounds govern once again, incorporating snippets of tape loops, distorted sound effects, and a wonderfully fitted drum beat. “On the Run” reaches its culmination in what sounds like a nuclear warhead in flight to its intended target, before running seamlessly into next track, “Time.”
The Dark Side of the Moon, even after forty years, remains an essential album. Its not their most endeavouring effort or even their most easily accessible; The Wall gets that nod as a complex double-album that’s burdened with pop hooks. Its not their heaviest attempt, with the 1977 Animals holding that characteristic. Nor is it Pink Floyd’s most dulcet offering due to Wish You Were Here being much more evocative in that regard. Dark Side, however, is the album where Pink Floyd became the band they needed to be and what the 70s needed them to be. Fully progressing from the previous decade’s reminders of grappling with their drug-induced issues and figuring out how to write songs and record them. It’s a redefinition as consequential as any in the history of music, and deservedly became the second biggest album in recording history. It’s rare when one album documents artists expressing so well their creative stride and it’s even rarer when that album becomes one of the most influential and best-selling in music history. Given that it is a fully-fledged concept piece makes it even more remarkable. It remains an essential part of any music collection – no matter what decade you were born in. If you don’t believe me, just ask Tool, Dreamthreater, Queensrÿche, Rush, A Perfect Circle, and Radiohead, and the thousands of other bands to have been influenced by Floyd’s 1973 masterpiece.
- The album was originally released in a gatefold LP sleeve designed by Hipgnosis and George Hardie. Hipgnosis had designed several of the band’s previous albums, with controversial results; EMI had reacted with confusion when faced with the cover designs for Atom Heart Mother and Obscured by Clouds, as they had expected to see traditional designs which included lettering and words. Designers Storm Thorgerson andAubrey Powell were able to ignore such criticism as they were employed by the band. For The Dark Side of the Moon, Richard Wright instructed them to come up with something “smarter, neater—more classy.” The prism design was inspired by a photograph that Thorgerson had seen during a brainstorming session with Powell.
- As the quadraphonic mix of the album was not then complete, the band (with the exception of Wright) boycotted the press reception held at the London Planetarium on 27 February 1973. The guests were, instead, presented with a quartet of life-sized cardboard cut-outs of the band, and the stereo mix of the album was presented through a poor-quality public address system.
- Some of the profits were invested in the production of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.