Album of the Week, May 10: The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd

FloydDarkSideBy 1973, Pink Floyd had established themselves as a solid band, turning out album after album of well-crafted space rock peppered with interesting experiments. They recorded one album and a couple of singles featuring charmingly naive psychedelia before founding vocalist Syd Barrett’s fragile mental health sidelined him. The remaining quartet — bassist/vocalist Roger Waters, keyboard player Richard Wright, percussionist/drummer Nick Mason, and guitarist/vocal David Gilmour (brought in at first to bolster Barrett) — picked up on the bolder instrumental work from that first disc. From 1968 to 1972, they churned out eight albums (including their soundtrack work), becoming a cohesive, impressive musical unit. Nothing in that solid record, however, prepared the public for what came next.

Title The Dark Side of the Moon
Act Pink Floyd
Label Harvest Release Date March 1, 1973
Producer Pink Floyd
U.S. Chart  #1 U.K. Chart  #2
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Speak to Me
  2. Breathe (In the Air)
  3. On the Run
  4. Time
  5. The Great Gig In the Sky
  6. Money [#13]
  7. Us and Them
  8. Any Colour You Like
  9. Brain Damage
  10. Eclipse

The Dark Side of the Moon is one of the best — and most successful — albums of all time. What made it so different from its predecessors was a complex blend of factors, all guided by the shared musical vision of a band at their creative peak.

THE APPROACH: Unlike other Floyd discs, Dark Side was largely presented in live shows starting a year before the band entered the studio. Most of the tracks had been tweaked and polished live, giving the Floyd a strong set of recording-ready material. The songs were also crafted around a central theme of the stresses of modern life, making this an early concept album that set the stage not just for Pink Floyd’s future but for a whole subgenre of progressive, thematic rock. Each side was also recorded as a continuous piece of music, underscoring the thematic unity.

THE COLLABORATORS: Pink Floyd began producing themselves — with occasional assistance from early producer Norman Smith — starting with their third release. They tended to play and sing all their own work, relying on minimal outside input other than minor vocal bits. For Dark Side, they brought in engineer Alan Parsons, whose experience on classics like Abbey Road and Let It Be prepared him to help the group realize their musical vision. He also brought in vocalist Clare Torry, whose vocal contributions to The Great Gig In the Sky were substantial enough to earn her a co-writing credit in a court settlement decades later. Other backing vocalists — Lesley Duncan, Doris Troy, Liza Strike, and Barry St. John — added critical texture and color to the sound. Dick Parry’s sax work was also a smart, necessary touch. By expanding the participants and trusting Parsons’ hand, the band enhanced their sonic palette without diluting the power or vision.

THE TOUCHES: In addition to the smart use of added vocalists and musicians, the album features some wonderful effects. Parsons contributed an array of sound effects that he had collected, including the multiple clocks that open Time. The group experimented effectively with their instruments, using treated bass, unusual percussion, and early analog synthesizers to create even more sonic variety. The album also features a series of spoken word contributions, answers to questions that Waters had written on cards and presented to friends, colleagues, and other people in and around Abbey Road studios at the time. The inclusion of these very human moments, carefully woven into the fabric of the songs, emphasizes the themes without detracting from the music.

THE SONGS: None of those other factors would matter much if it weren’t for the songs themselves. Pink Floyd crafted ten brilliant musical moments and sequenced them together to create a stunning whole. Each individual track holds its own but means much more in context. The three instrumentals — fewer than on most Floyd discs — are smart and meaningful on their own, serving as more than rock show-off moments or simple bridge work. The other seven tracks range from powerful, thoughtful epics like Time and Us and Them to poignant snapshots like Breathe and Brain Damage. Round that out with the otherworldly power of The Great Gig In the Sky and the unlikely 7/8 greed-bashing hit Money and the sum of the parts is pretty impressive, not to mention the whole.

THE RESULTS: The Dark Side of the Moon made Pink Floyd international superstars. It was their first US #1 (ironically stalling at #2 in the UK), but more impressively remained on the Billboard Top 200 Album list for 741 weeks. That kind of lasting presence is a testament to how well the music holds up and how powerfully it speaks to listeners more than 40 years after its initial release. The term “classic rock” is a bland reference to almost anything with a blues-derived rhythm section recorded between 1965 and 1979. The Dark Side of the Moon, on the other hand, is truly both things — a bold reinvention of rock and a classic in the musical canon of the rock era.

FURTHER LISTENING: After the brief Barrett years, Pink Floyd’s sound fits into three basic eras.

  • PRE DARK SIDE – the albums that developed the band’s sound and approach during their very busy 1968 – 72 period. It’s fairly easy to trace the elements as they come together during these years. The most successful was Atom Heart Mother and the finest overall album was Meddle.
  • THE CONCEPT YEARS – After 1973, Pink Floyd slowed down quite a bit, releasing only four albums over the next decade. Each is another thematic release, varying widely in effectiveness. Wish You Were Here is a charming, more low-key successor to Dark Side. The Wall is a sprawling, ambitious, slightly tortured epic that works in spite of itself and offers some of the band’s very best music. Animals is the weakest of the lot, although musically cohesive; The Final Cut has standout moments as it shows the fissures that would splinter the band in short order.
  • THE POST-WATERS YEARS – For over 30 years Pink Floyd has soldiered on without founder Roger Waters. While they’ve survived better musically than he has, his absence took a needed spark from the proceedings. Modern Floyd is a pretty solid arena rock band with very talented players.

About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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