Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Top 100 Albums - #23: The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973)

Pink Floyd's fourth entry on the chart is The Dark Side Of The Moon, their critical and commercial breakthrough which has so far sold in excess of 40 million copies.¹
Following the departure of Syd Barrett in April 1968, the Floyd entered a period of experimentation and extended pieces, as they struggled to find a new sound. The first post-Barrett album, A Saucerful Of Secrets (1968), contained only one of his compositions ('Jugband Blues') and was poorly received compared to its predecessor. Now settling into life as a fourpiece, the band spent 1969 creating the soundtrack to Barbet Schroeder's More and touring in support of their double album Ummagumma. This and the follow-up, Atom Heart Mother (1970), kept the band in the limelight, the latter being an ornate and overambitious recording employing a full orchestra and conceptual composer Ron Geesin. It became their first No. 1 album in Britain, but has since savaged by the band. Finally, on Meddle (1971), the Pink Floyd sound began to coalesce together, and the fans agreed, heralding the 23-minute 'Echoes' as a masterpiece. After the release of Obscured By Clouds (1972) - another Barbet Schroeder commission - the band were poised to take the world by storm.

Anyone who is even faintly familiar with this album, or the mythology surrounding it, cannot help but feel a strange sensation upon starting it. After a few seconds of agonising, despairing silence, the famous 'heartbeats' kick in and we creep slowly forwards into 'Speak To Me/ Breathe'. The first minute is a sound montage, sampling all the sounds which would become motifs of the album, including the first of the famous 'voices' (I've been mad for fucking years and all that). When 'Breathe' eventually begins, we are exploded out of this madness into a calming, reassuring groove which sees all four instruments working in harmony. Nick Mason keeps the beat simply and solidly, while Roger Waters' bass strums appositely, providing the harmony part for David Gilmour's wailing lap steel. The lyrics serve to delicately introduce the album's purpose, as "an expression of political, philosphical and humanitarian empathy that was desperate to get out".²

With 'On The Run', our pulses are send racing as the mood shifts from one of philosopical balm to deeply seated fear. The song is anchored by the throbbing, distorted synthesiser beat, sampled and sped up. It pulses through the mix like some strange being, whom you are always aware of but is always just out of sight. The voice of a female announcer mumbles around you as footsteps resound and vehicles doppler shift their way across your subconscious. The song was inspired by the band's fear of flying, caused by relentless touring. And sure enough, by the time the aeroplane crashes at the end of the track, your own heartbeat has quickened, you feel frightened, and you begin to understand the album's message - that it's okay, it's natural, it's human to feel this way.

'Time' begins ominously. If you allow yourself to drift into a state of rest, having escaped your fate, your bliss is brutally shattered by the chiming of the clocks. It may have been shamefully parodied on 'One Slip' later in the Floyd's career (see my review of A Momentary Lapse Of Reason (1987, #62), but here it serves its purpose beautifully, creating a delicate, edgy feeling in the listener into which the band can express their feelings. Once Mason has had his minute-and-a-half of freedom, the whole pieces takes on a life of its own. Waters' lyrics about the passage of time and the feeling of being lost in life are beautifully delivered; Gilmour takes the stricken verses, while Rick Wright blends beautifully with the female singers, delivering the killer line Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way with all its inate English charm.

We stick with Wright for the next track, 'The Great Gig In The Sky'. It is a testimony to his abilities that, in a piece packed with beautiful lap steel and that vocal solo from Clare Torry, for the first minute at least you only want to listen to him. He doesn't play the grand piano, so much as stroke it with a series of feathers, ending up with something bittersweet, something graceful - something wonderful. When Torry finally comes in, your concentration does shift, but you are always aware of Wright's organs underneath her. It is as though you are drowning in a sea of sound, and she is the siren mourning your loss. No-one has ever matched her performance live, and on record it remains frighteningly beautiful.

'Money' probably ranks as one of the greatest songs of the 1970s. It is certainly one of the most original and unusual hits, with its unwieldy 7/8 time signature and equally unwieldy length. The opening, with the cash register, tape loops and fabulous bass line, is of course well-known and loved. But there is so much more to it than that. The band sound tight and together across this album, but this takes unity to a new level. There is no excess fat here at all - no drawn-out guitar solos, no overly clever drum fills, no John Entwistle-style bass noodling. Instead, what we get is four musicians playing off each other tone-perfectly, coming and going at the right time without a second's argument or hesitation. Even a seasoned stoic cannot help but be enslaved by the rhythm Waters creates and Mason exemplifies. The saxaphone solo is brilliant, the change in time signature is the very definition of seamless, and the lyrics are simple but sensationally clever, conveying so much by saying so little:

Money, it's a crime
Share it fairly
But don't take a slice of my pie
Money, so they say
Is the root of all evil today
But if you ask for a rise
It's no surprise
That they're giving none away

This is not just the best track on the album; it's arguably one of the greatest tracks of all time.

After railing against materialism, Waters turns his attention to war, as he would often do in his career. 'Us And Them' is more jazzy and nuanced than 'Money', which isn't really suprising when we discover that Wright is behind this one as well. Like so much of the group's compositions for the album, the finished result was almost an accident. Wright composed a similar piece for the film Zabriskie Point (1970), but it was rejected, shelved and then rediscovered during the recording. The piece rolls along gently, creating a summery feel which lulls you into a false sense of security wherein the lyrics can pounce. Mason's drums serve more as a garnish than an anchor, as Wright delivers that magical 'third chord' - a DmM7 - which sets the piece apart. Waters' lyrics are again deceptively simple, but they get the grey cells going so that everyone can find something different in lines like With, without/ And who'll deny it's what the fighting's all about?.

Out of all the tracks on the album, 'Any Colour You Like' is easily the hardest to like. It's not terrible in the traditional sense, and in many ways it's very listenable. But it has the feeling of the band treading water, taking their foot off the pedals and freewheeling while Waters was thinking of something else to say. This has the feel of 'The Travel Sequence', a jam from their live shows which was eventually replaced with 'On The Run'. Like the jam, this feels aimless - there are no lyrics (which is not a problem in itself) but there is little in the way of melody even to reflect the title (a reference to the erroneous words of Henry Ford, "you can have it any colour you like, as long as it's black").

'Brain Damage' is a return to form, or at least to some kind of unified message. As with so much of Pink Floyd's work, the spectre of Syd is hovering over this: the opening lines, The lunatic is on the grass, are both a chilling reminder of his fate and a tirade against conformity. Waters sings for the first time on the album, and his unique voice suits this piece better than Gilmour's or Wright's. Although he had sung on previous Floyd songs - like 'Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun' - he sounds more professional here. More confident as well. This song begins to tie up the themes of the album, returning to some form of empathy and reassurance after ranting against the 'virtues' of the world - and of course, introducing the mystical image of the dark side of the moon as a place of refuge for those who don't quite fit in with what the world expects of them.

'Eclipse' serves as a natural, favourably formed coda to close the album. The lyrics are one long list of reassurances from Waters about the human condition, again seeming to say: It's okay to feel this way. Musically, it sees the climax and coming together of all the ingredients for one last assault on the senses. It rises and rises more and more, becoming richer and brighter all the time until the final shimmering organ chord from Wright brings things slowly to an end. Soon the heartbeats start up again, the music fades out, and we are left with the immortal words of Abbey Road doorman Gerry O'Driscoll: "There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact it's all dark".

Writing about The Dark Side Of The Moon is a frustrating experience. There is almost nothing which can be said about it which is new, interesting or enlightening. Many claims made about it are becoming less and less contentious: it is one of the greatest albums of all time, in terms of sales and critical reception. It is a hugely significant cultural and musical milestone. It is a masterpiece of production. It is, in many ways, the epitome of Pink Floyd, with all four members working together and coming through with the goods. But one thing it is not is the greatest Floyd album. All the components of a great record are here, and the end result is a sumptuous delight, a thought-provoking, soul-searching three-quarters of an hour wrapped up in the language of arty pop songs. But as we shall soon discover, subsequent Floyd efforts took this formula further, consolidating and developing it into something equally memorable. Hence the best way to view The Dark Side Of The Moon is both as a milestone in its own right, and - more importantly - the foundation for every single one of the Floyd's subsequent creations.

4.00 out of 5

¹ Bill Werde, 'Floyd's 'Dark Side' Celebrates Chart Milestone' (May 5 2006), Accessed on August 20 2008.
² 'The Making of The Dark Side Of The Moon Part 1', Accessed on September 21 2008.

1 comment:

thomaswales said...

Not your number one album? I'm shocked given your previous enthusiasm for it!

Good to see some proper musical analysis - mentioning the chords et al. The D minor major seventh does indeed sound good... although the previous D minor suspended second and E minor suspended second (with D bass) are all essential to the mix.

Oh, if only all your reviews discussed the actual musical side of things! Lol.