Classic Rock March 2003.
(Transcript thanks to Natalie Lyons)
WHAT’S THE BIG IDEA?
DARK SIDE OF THE MOON – PINK FLOYD
Thirty years on, Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ remains far and away the most successful concept album ever made (one of the most successful albums full-stop). Its 30 million sales dwarf all other contenders, including later Pink Floyd albums ‘Wish You Were Here’, ‘Animals’ and ‘The Wall’ – which many fans might argue are actually better concept albums. But the rest of the world just doesn’t agree.
But it’s not just the sales of ‘Dark Side’ (and only three albums have sold more: Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’). No album has spent longer in the charts: it was virtually a permanent fixture in the US Billboard album chart for almost 15 years, and would still be there now if they hadn’t sneakily changed the rules in the late 80s and made the album ineligible. Even so, the album has spent more than twice as long in the chart as its nearest rival, James Taylor’s ‘Greatest Hits’.
Three decades after its release, ‘Dark Side…’ still notches up sales of more than a quarter of a million annually, and this year it will sell considerably more, thanks to the release of the 30th anniversary dual-layer Super Audio CD (which means it sounds better, basically), remixed for 5.1 surround sound. And if there was an album suited to showing off the capabilities of surround sound, it’s ‘Dark Side…’. Indeed, it was one of the first albums to be released in quadraphonic sound – a format long-since consigned to the technological dustbin, along with the eight-track cartridge, Betamax video and the Digital Compact Cassette.
So what’s the secret of ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’? Why is its appeal so broad, so timeless? It’s a question even the band have trouble answering.
“I don’t think we ever really understood,” Floyd drummer Nick Mason confesses. “There are elements that you would never have perceived at the time. It was partly about timing and partly about the songs being relevant to people at that time, and that sort of gave it a lift that then brought it to the attention of another bunch of people, and so on.”
Roger Waters, who was the dominant (though not yet dominating) force in the band when they recorded the album, has his own theory: “The music’s quite compelling, but I think there’s something more. Maybe it’s the simplicity of the ideas that appeal to a generation going through puberty and trying to make sense of it all.”
There’s certainly something in Waters’ theory, particularly if you accept (as most women do) that most men never get far beyond puberty. And like most adolescent obsessions, men can repeatedly return to the record and still get a thrill from it.
Released in March 1973, more than a year after Pink Floyd had previewed most of the music at London’s Rainbow Theatre, ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ caught the prevailing mood perfectly: there was a rapidly expanding market for rock music as new generations came on board; stereo had just become affordable for the majority (rather than just hi-fi buffs); and cannabis was becoming widely available and widely consumed. ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ was the perfect stereo album, and its pleasures were notably enhanced with the aid of a lengthily inhaled jazz cigarette or two.
It was also headphone heaven; you could lie back and listen to the heartbeat at the beginning of the album gradually getting louder, mingled with a disembodied Scottish voice saying: “I’ve been mad for fucking years”, and a maniacal laugh, before being blotted out by helicopter noise whirring from one ear to another. That in turn collides with a screaming female voice, before everything subsides and settles into the slow, deliberate beat and soothing guitars of ‘Breathe’.
Just as you’ve relaxed into the track, however, it suddenly shifts gear, and you’re being carried along by a rapid hi-hat rhythm and a repetitive eight-note electronic riff while atmospherics, voices, footsteps, airplanes and bits of feedback fly by on either side of your head.
It all ends in a dull explosion and more running footsteps. As the explosion dies away there’s the reassuring tick of a clock, which just has time to lull you again before a cacophony of alarm clock bells assaults your senses and leads into the heavy, ponderous chimes of ‘Time’. You are now eight minutes in to the album, and there’s another 35 to go.
The sonic experience of listening to ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ is as vivid now as it was. Others have constructed more sophisticated soundscapes, but none have had the same immediacy. And nobody seems to play around with stereo like Pink Floyd did back then.
As a concept album, ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ was pretty loose. “The concept grew out of group discussions about the pressures of real life, like travel or money, but then Roger Waters broadened it into a meditation on the causes of insanity,” Nick Mason explains.
Pink Floyd had spent the beginning of the 70s groping for a new direction after losing their creative spirit Syd Barrett to drugs and a mental breakdown. Floyd may have lacked the instrumental prowess of fellow progressive rockers ELP, the wondrous stories of Yes, the androgyny of David Bowie or the art-school pose of Roxy Music, but their albums ‘Atom Heart Mother’ and ‘Meddle’ – the latter with its side-long ‘Echoes’ epic – had at least given the band a growing musical identity.
Waters’ decision to write all the lyrics for ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ gave the music a focus. ‘Breathe’ and ‘On The Run’ evoke the stresses and strains of everyday life; ‘Time’ and ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ cover the fear of ageing, loss and dying; ‘Money’ returns to the remorseless struggle to survive; and ‘Us And Them’ hones in on power struggles and violence. Isolation, paranoia and mental breakdown are the unrelenting themes of the last three tracks, ‘Any Colour You Like’, ‘Brain Damage’ and ‘Eclipse’.
Waters would pursue these themes with a vengeance on later Pink Floyd albums, driven by his hatred of authoritarian leaders and their bureaucratic henchmen, and his rage at the death of his father right at the end of World War II. Over it all lurked the spectre of Syd Barrett, looking back at Waters and the rest of the group from the dark side. On ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’, these themes were still relatively unsophisticated and easier to follow.
The songs and basic structure for the album came together fairly quickly, over a period of about six weeks. The band even had the album title, before discovering that another, lesser-known British band, Medicine Head, had released an album called ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’. For a while Pink Floyd called their planned album ‘Eclipse’, but when Medicine Head’s album failed to make any impact they reverted to Plan A.
The recording was long – they spent six months in the studio in between tours of Europe, America and Japan, but it wasn’t laborious. Floyd guitarist David Gilmour reckons that playing the songs live before recording them made a big difference. “you couldn’t do that now, of course. You’d be bootlegged out of existence. But when we went into the studio we all knew the material. The playing was very good. It had a natural feel. And it was a bloody good package – the music, the concept and the cover all came together. And it was the first time we’d had great lyrics.”
It also turned out to be the last time that every member of the band made a major contribution to a Pink Floyd album. Rick Wright’s keyboard textures are a vivid part of the sound, notably on ‘Any Colour You Like’. He also wrote two of the album’s standout tracks, ‘Us And Them’ and ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’. The latter was ornamented by Clare Torry’s truly breathtaking wordless yet expressing vocalising, and brought the first half of the album to a powerful conclusion. This, remember, was in the days of vinyl, when you had to take off the headphones, stand up, knock over the ashtray and turn the record over – probably feeling a little dizzy at the same time – all of which broke both the continuity and the spell.
Nick Mason’s writer credit on the opening ‘Speak To Me’ – the instrumental overture – was a “gift” from Waters, but his drumming was a solid foundation for the band to work on. And while David Gilmour’s writing credits were fairly modest, his measured guitar playing was magnificent throughout. But he could let rip when he wanted, as the solo on ‘Money’ shows. He also sang about half the songs.
Even as the band were beavering away on ‘Dark Side…’ in the studio, recording technology was evolving around them rapidly, and they took full advantage of it to heighten the sound quality of the music and the various effects. They used the new VCS3 – the latest synthesiser on the market, albeit still quite primitive – to generate the helicopter noises, and Rick Wright used it inventively on ‘On The Run’. Halfway through making the album they switched to the new Dolby sound reduction system to give the music greater clarity and separation.
But the real masterstroke came late on when Waters decided to link the tracks with bits of speech. “I still glow with pleasure at how well that worked,” he says. “I devised a series of about 20 questions on pieces of card. They were in order, and ranged from obscure questions like ‘What does the phrase The Dark Side Of The Moon mean to you?’ to a series of questions that related to each other, like ‘When was the last time you were violent?’ and then ‘Do you think you were in the right?’ We asked people to just go into an empty studio, look at the top card, respond to it, move on to the next card and respond to that, and so on until they’d done all the cards.”
Pink Floyd’s road crew were willing guinea pigs for Waters’ experiment – that’s the road manager’s voice you can hear at the beginning of the album. But passing strangers also took part. Paul McCartney, who was recording at Abbey Road at the same time, was roped in, along with his wife Linda, although their replies were not used. The final snippet as the album fades – “There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact, it’s all dark” – comes from the doorman at Abbey Road, Jerry Driscoll.
Things only became fraught as the band approached the final mix. By now they knew they were on to something, but after months in the studio worrying about the nuances they were beginning to lose the wider perspective on the work as a single whole. The arguments dragged on, and eventually they brought in Chris Thomas, who had engineered The Beatles’ White album, as an impartial set of ears.
Meanwhile, album cover designers Hipgnosis, who had worked with Floyd since 1968’s ‘Saucerful Of Secrets’, were coming up with various ideas. Designer Storm Thorgerson remembers that Hipgnosis came up with seven or eight ideas for the ‘Dark Side…’ sleeve, but the one the band chose was sparked off by Rick Wright, “who wanted something simple, clinical and precise”.
Thorgerson also says the cover related to Pink Floyd’s concerts and use of light shows as much as to the album title or concept.
The gatefold sleeve was designed so that the light rays on the inner sleeve joined up precisely with the outer sleeve. (Hipgnosis deliberately missed out one colour of the spectrum – purple – as they didn’t think it would show up against the black background.) But nowhere on the front cover, back cover or the spine did it say Pink Floyd or Dark Side Of The Moon. And even on the inner sleeve the only reference you could find was ‘Produced by Pink Floyd’ in the credits. The title didn’t appear until you got to the record label – unless you happened to scan the lyrics on the inner sleeve and came across the last line of ‘Brain Damage’: ‘I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon’.
Stuck inside the sleeve along with the record were two posters: a grainy, green-filtered photograph of the pyramids (another prismic shape), and one featuring the band, with an attempt to make the Pink Floyd name as difficult to read as possible.
On its release in late March 1973, ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ quickly shot up the British chart to No.2 – just one place higher than their ’71 album ‘Meddle’ had reached. In America it was their first album to chart, and it hit the Number One spot in April for one week. But the band had already been touring for a month in America, and had played the album on two tours there the previous year. The word was out on the street, but the US record company didn’t pay much attention until they noticed that although the album had dropped down the chart it was refusing to leave. It never did.
THE DARK SIDE OF THE RAINBOW?
Hugh Fielder explores the urban myth that there is a strong connection between ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ and the movie The Wizard Of Oz.
The connection between the ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ album and The Wizard Of Oz film goes back to the mid-90s, when Pink Floyd fan websites started getting excited about the synchronicities that happen when you watch the movie and listen to the album simultaneously.
It works like this. Put ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ into the CD player and The Wizard Of Oz movie into the DVD or video. Start playing the movie, but pause it when you get to the MGM lion’s third roar. Turn down the sound on the TV, then start the CD and continue the movie together.
Around a couple of minutes in, during ‘Breathe’, Gilmour sings ‘Look around’, and seconds later Dorothy turns around. But that’s just the start. Depending on just how much attention you’re paying, the synchronicities tumble forth: Dorothy breaks into a trot just as the band sing ‘No one told you when to run’; the chimes in ‘Time’ coincide with the arrival of the Wicked Witch Of The West, and stop when she dismounts from her bike.
‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ starts just as the tornado begins, and lasts for the duration of the storm. When it finishes (and bear in mind this was the end of side one of the original album), the black-and-white part of the film also ends, and the ‘ker-ching, ker-ching’ at the start of ‘Money’ heralds the colour section of the movie with the munchkins dancing in time to the music (kind of); the scarecrow starts dancing just as the band are singing ‘The lunatic is on the grass’.
Finally, as the album ends to the sound of fading heartbeats, Dorothy is leaning over the Tin Man, banging on his chest to see if he has as heart. These are just the highlights. More than 70 examples of synchronicity between ‘Dark Side…’ and The Wizard Of Oz have been found so far, and you can rest assured that the search is continuing.
Some of you may have already spotted a potential flaw in this theory: namely that the CD doesn’t last as long as the movie. The obvious answer is to play the CD again. Opinion is still divided on exactly when to press play the second time, but you should be able to notch up at least another 30 synchronicities. By which time you’ll be on your third play of the album.
Mind you, some radical splinter groups have opted for playing ‘Animals’ or ‘Meddle’ instead once ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ has finished. They are now compiling an alternative gospel of latter-day synchronicities, but they are largely ignored by the true ‘Dark…’/Oz believers.
That’s the evidence. And it can’t all be coincidence, can it? So it must be deliberate. There are two main conspiracy theories to explain it. One is that the whole band was ‘in on it’, the other is that it was Roger Waters’ plot, and the rest of the band was unaware of it.
The search is now on for the smoking gun. The ‘Roger did it’ faction believe they have found theirs in an interview with engineer Alan Parsons, who states categorically that at no point during the recording of ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ did he ever hear anyone mention The Wizard Of Oz. With a logic that would satisfy any witch hunter or UFO spotter, this proves that Waters acted alone… because he didn’t mention it to anyone else.
But wait. The ‘It was the band’ brigade have found their smoking gun too: if you gaze closely at the cover of Pink Floyd’s ’95 live album ‘Pulse’, you can just make out a girl wearing a pair of red shoes. Dorothy’s red shoes! Look harder and you can see the Wicked Witch Of The West’s bicycle and the Tin Man’s axe. The fact that these three icons are also associated with Pink Floyd songs dating back to the 60s is simply irrelevant synchronicity. But the fact that Waters had left be band long before ‘Pulse’ proves that he could not have done it alone.
Now that’s been settled, the search has widened. Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ album accompanies Blade Runner with satisfying results; ‘Meddle’ is doing well as a soundtrack to Fantasia; and ‘Echoes’ looks good with Contact. In fact, pick a Floyd album, choose a movie, and there’s a website out there waiting for you.
But what on the whole subject from the band themselves? David Gilmour has spoken of “Some guy with too much time on his hands”, and Waters finds it “amusing”. But it’s Nick Mason who has really let the cat out of the bag: “It’s absolute nonsense,” he replied when asked about it. “It has nothing to do with The Wizard Of Oz. It was all based on The Sound Of Music.”
The truth is out there…