Mar 01, 2023
By Austin Saalman
With the release of The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd’s penetrating exploration of madness and excess, the influential English rockers were catapulted from a revered psychedelic act to an international phenomenon. In an era of elaborately grandiose sonic experimentation pioneered by the likes of Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, and The Beatles a decade prior, Pink Floyd’s groundbreaking eighth studio album and mainstream breakthrough, about which all worth writing has perhaps already been written, managed to set yet another standard of musical innovation in the 1970s, placing the band at the forefront of the blossoming rock revolution. Dark Side’s impeccable polish—courtesy of the band and then-EMI engineer Alan Parsons—enshrouds the album in a certain glacial chill, permeating even its heaviest cuts and contributing to a consistent sense of atmosphere throughout, effectively wedding the manic technical ambition of the decade’s prog movement with the fluid dreamscapes of the art school psychedelia Pink Floyd began developing in the 1960s.
Even now, The Dark Side of the Moon, when heard in its entirety, remains a distinctly vivid work of art, its signature “quiet desperation” and “dark forebodings” having emerged from a personal place: the group’s anguished separation from founding member and early psychedelic rock figurehead Syd Barrett, whose descent into mental illness and drug abuse in the late 1960s had resulted in his eventual ousting from the group and virtual resignation from society. Bassist, co-vocalist, and primary lyricist Roger Waters, who steered the album’s creative direction, had, however, not yet finished lamenting his former bandmate’s undoing, which he had been referencing for several years by then, namely on such earlier tracks as 1970’s softly devastating “If”—“If I go insane/Please don’t put your wires in my brain.” Indeed, themes of madness, paranoia, and disassociation occasionally surfaced in Waters’ lyrics, but it seems as though, after years of rehearsal, he finally brought the band’s collective trauma to the forefront on The Dark Side of the Moon, crafting a cohesive narrative that pays tribute to the mythology surrounding Barrett’s manic brilliance while simultaneously reflecting on the group’s experience of losing him.
Famously, The Dark Side of the Moon opens with the sound of a beating heart, juxtaposed with the sounds of clocks ticking and paper tearing, and fittingly, the album’s first utterance is the nonchalant declaration: “I’ve been mad for fucking years. Absolutely years.” Such dialogue— excerpted from recordings of Waters asking individuals around Abbey Road Studios, where the album was recorded, questions such as, “Do you think you’re going mad?” and “Are you frightened of dying?”—appears throughout the album, and initially included responses given by Paul McCartney, whom Waters had encountered while in the studio. This overture, entitled “Speak to Me,” sets the mood with its disembodied laughter and fragmentary references to madness, a sonic premonition of what is to come, before bleeding into “Breathe (In the Air),” one of Dark Side’s key tracks. The album’s first proper “song,” “Breathe” is a trippy yet chilly meditation on work, reality, and mortal existence, with guitarist/co-lead vocalist David Gilmour proclaiming: “All you touch and all you see/Is all your life will ever be.” The track, in its airily stoned beauty, serves as a desperate lament for the value of human life in a society focused on hedonistic consumption and piteously misguided competition for success, with Gilmour concluding: “Long you live and high you fly/But only if you ride the tide/Balanced on the biggest wave/You race towards an early grave.” This is followed by “On the Run,” the album’s first instrumental cut, which finds the group’s late keyboardist Richard Wright seemingly attempting to outrace death itself to the sound of a frantic EMS synthesizer. Wright later revealed the song to be an ode to the chaos of air travel and the resulting fear of death he experienced in such moments. Thanatophobia and the inevitability of death remain among Dark Side’s central themes, and “On the Run” introduces their impact in a frenzied rush.
The notions of shaping one’s own destiny and acceptance of one’s mortality are explored in greater depth on the poignant “Time,” the first of Dark Side’s three epic cuts. Here, the listener is bombarded by a now-iconic barrage of chiming clocks—courtesy of Parsons, who recorded them separately in various antique shops—before being treated to the sonic bliss of the group’s union, though Gilmour’s funky guitar licks distinguish themselves. Lyrically, the track remains among the album’s boldest, as the listener experiences the summery lull of youth giving way to the frantic pace of age. “No one told you when to run,” sings Gilmour, reflecting on the moments as they pass. “You missed the starting gun.” Whereas “Time” explores the ephemeral nature of mortal existence, Wright’s stunning “The Great Gig in the Sky” addresses transcendence: the transcendence of commodity, fear, and ego. “And I’m not afraid of dying,” proclaims Abbey Road studios janitorial “browncoat” Gerry O’Driscoll against Wright’s gliding piano melody. “Any time will do, I don’t mind. Why should I be afraid of dying? There’s no reason for it—you’ve got to go some time.” Though perhaps less appreciated than other, more popular Dark Side cuts, “The Great Gig in the Sky” is no less a masterpiece of psychedelic rock and remains oddly comforting in both O’Driscoll’s frank wisdom and singer Clare Torry’s impassioned vocal performance, which stands among rock’s most intense. The gentle insistence that “I never said I was frightened of dying…,” as murmured by Patricia “Puddle” Watts (wife of roadie Peter Watts), near the track’s conclusion brings the experience full circle, its entire progression representing death, one’s passage into the vast abyss, senseless and no longer sentient. Or perhaps it represents madness, the threshold of a strained psyche since crossed, at which point perceptions splinter and the self disintegrates.
The mania continues with gritty blues rocker “Money”—the group’s indictment of consumer capitalism and perhaps the album’s signature cut—and culminates on the album’s sprawling centerpiece “Us and Them.” Arguably Dark Side’s most splendidly affecting cut, this ode to disassociation showcases the best of Pink Floyd’s abilities as a group, as well as Parsons’ inimitable studio wizardry. Though Waters later claimed the song to be a critique of rampant consumerism, unjust war, prejudice and racism, and lack of interpersonal communication in the modern world, it is difficult not to interpret “Us and Them” as being, in some sense, about Barrett’s decline and descent, given its dreamlike imagery and deeply paranoid undertones. “Us and them/And after all/We’re only ordinary men,” Gilmour insists, his spacey vocal delivery reverberating against the track’s icy backdrop. Dick Parry’s melancholy jazz saxophone accentuates the track’s atmospheric bleakness with a sense of romanticism, casting the soundscape in various shades of blue as Gilmour delivers such penetrating lines as, “‘Listen, son,’ said the man with the gun/‘There’s room for you inside.’”
“Us and Them” represents a seminal moment for Pink Floyd, its grand explosiveness forever rendering it a staple of classic prog, as well as one of the band’s major artistic achievements. The cut segues into the album’s second—and finest—instrumental track “Any Colour You Like,” a rich piece of synthesized space rock on which Wright and drummer Nick Mason shine. This is followed by the Waters-sung “Brain Damage”—perhaps the album’s most frank discussion of insanity and chaos. Here, against the track’s menacing sway, Waters documents the various stages of a nervous breakdown, insisting, “The lunatic is in the hall/The lunatics are in my hall.” Such lines as, “The paper holds their folded faces to the floor” and “You raise the blade/You make the change/You rearrange me till I’m sane” impart an eerie eloquence and mark the beginning of Waters’ maturation as a lyricist. It is during this track’s explosive chorus that he sings Dark Side’s key lines, and perhaps two of rock’s greatest: “And if your head explodes with dark forebodings too/I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.” The proclamation, made amid a psychotic episode, is oddly consoling, a declaration of unity among the mad. Soon, Waters and the lunatic merge to the sounds of disembodied laughter, with the former confessing, “There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.” The listener, however, suspects that Waters and the Lunatic have been one all along. Dark Side closes with the apocalyptic “Eclipse,” which sums up the album’s aim, Waters concluding: “And everything under the sun is in tune/But the sun is eclipsed by the moon.” The album closes with the same heartbeat with which it opens, suggesting the cyclical passage of humanity and its maddening nature—dark, delirious, enchanting, eternal, or perhaps revealing that the entire album is just one, in an unending stream of the protagonist’s intermittent lunatic hallucinations.
Upon its release, The Dark Side of the Moon was greeted with critical acclaim and transformed Pink Floyd into international superstars. It became one of the top-selling albums of the 1970s, and the now-iconic prism on its front cover—designed by Aubrey Powell and Storm Thorgerson of Hipgnosis, frequent Pink Floyd collaborators—quickly imprinted itself as a significant, easily recognized symbol of popular culture. Though Pink Floyd would produce two slightly stronger efforts—1975’s Wish You Were Here and 1977’s Animals—The Dark Side of the Moon eclipses either in terms of mainstream popularity, remaining the group’s top-selling and perhaps most frequently cited album, and a seminal release of the progressive and psychedelic rock genres. Fifty years ago, Pink Floyd united at Abbey Road to process, at long last, the collective loss the group had experienced with Syd Barrett’s departure and his replacement by David Gilmour, emerging with a groundbreaking masterwork—the group’s first—that would quickly transform the lives of each member, bringing them fame and fortune, as well as paving the way for future musical innovations. Despite the notoriety garnered by the band’s often volatile internal relationships and acrimonious split from Waters, many of Pink Floyd’s 1970s gems retain their charms, and The Dark Side of the Moon holds up, its prism refracting the luminous vision of its collaborators for all to see.