I suppose it’s only natural that a pop cultural age in which recycling is key should find more of interest in its past than its present; the annual roll-call of reissues and anniversaries of yesteryear’s landmark releases has become a Heritage Rock hallmark that exists alongside a glut of contemporary mediocrities without a sole original idea in their heads. And as these 21st century musical magpies freely beg, borrow and steal from the giants upon whose shoulders they squat, consumers are faced with a choice: do they buy into the lame imitation or invest in the original source material? The latter may have a vintage of half-a-century or more, but as the dividing lines between then and now that once used to matter so much to each generation have been whittled away by the Spotify playlist, it seems almost irrelevant that an album like Pink Floyd’s ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ is 50 years old this week. It sounds as fresh today as it ever did. Just as the exquisite sonic quality of ‘Abbey Road’ has perhaps enabled that LP above all other Beatles releases to sound permanently fresh to every pair of ears that encounters it, the Floyd’s seminal 1973 release has an unprecedented aural clarity that effectively made it the first Compact Disc a decade before CDs hit the market.
Prior to ‘Dark Side’ arriving, the Floyd had made the journey from Psychedelic pioneers who’d enjoyed a fleeting brush with ‘Top of the Pops’ in 1967 to being one of the leading lights in the turn-of-the 70s hippie underground – anonymous hairy antiheroes, shunning showbiz trappings and producing dark, ambient soundscapes that were apparently ideal for rolling your own to. The band’s exhausting touring schedule helped secure their fan-base, and their gradual abandonment of the 7-inch single for the wider vistas of the LP reflected the period when all the celebrated statements produced in pop played at 33⅓. Their commercial fortunes had survived the Acid-induced breakdown, departure and mental decline of their founder Syd Barrett, eventually resulting in their first chart-topping album, ‘Atom Heart Mother’, in 1970 (yes, the one with the cow on the front cover). Like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd didn’t need to trouble the singles chart or promote their wares by placing photographs of themselves on the sleeves of their LPs. They already had a brand name that sold the music for them.
1971’s ‘Meddle’ was a great leap forward for the band, combining the extended instrumentals for which they had become renowned with a gentle melodic sensibility that was easy on the ears. Side two of the album comprised a solitary track – the dreamy, multilayered epic, ‘Echoes’; it pointed the way to the next album, a record that would elevate Pink Floyd way beyond the lingering remnants of the underground and lift them into the multi-platinum elite of global goliaths. A full year before ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ was released, they premiered it in embryonic form before an audience at London’s Rainbow Theatre, and carried on playing songs intended for the album on the road for months, honing and perfecting them. Recording of the album spanned a lengthy period from May 1972 to February 1973, sandwiched between touring commitments; and it soon became apparent that the tracks would be thematically linked, with the lyrics possessing a provocative directness that had been absent from their previous releases.
1973 was the year in which ‘Prog Rock’ peaked as the thinking man’s alternative to a mainstream pop scene dominated by Glam Rock and teenybop idols like The Osmonds and David Cassidy. ‘Dark Side’ was the year’s first significant release from an act lumbered with the tag, Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ followed in the spring, and 1973 closed with Yes’s bloated double album, ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’ at the top of the LP charts. But ‘Dark Side’ transcended the narrow confines every genre places upon its practitioners and reached audiences who wouldn’t have even heard of Genesis or Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Musically, the record straddles a unique line between impeccably slick musicianship, Musique Concrète-like sound effects, groundbreaking synthesizer experimentation, and loud guitar Rock characteristic of the period; but it never slides into self-indulgence; no instrumental break outstays its welcome and no song goes on too long. With ‘Dark Side’, Pink Floyd achieved a breathtaking balance that blended the deep artistic expression expected of serious creative types in the early 70s with accessible melodies the milkman could whistle. When the album hit record shops in March 1973, it was quickly evident the band had produced a work of art that spoke a universal language to people the world over. Every late 20th century concern that governed millions of post-war lives was condensed into its track-listing; the telling titles of some of those tracks said it all – ‘Money’, ‘Time’, and ‘Brain Damage’.
Even an era in which ‘the concept album’ was so obligatory that the term eventually became an insult never received a statement quite like ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’. It upheld the notion of an LP being much more than merely a collection of unrelated songs to the point whereby picking out isolated tracks feels wrong; it’d be like watching a movie on DVD by simply going straight to favourite scenes. In many respects, it’s the antithesis of the present day habit of iPod swiping. The album has such a cohesive narrative – with each song flowing seamlessly into the next – that one always wants to experience the whole work from beginning to end, as though selecting one number by leapfrogging another would be akin to deliberately skipping a vital chapter in a novel. It may have continued the Floyd’s ability to weave hypnotic sonic tapestries that often made their albums resemble soundtracks to movies that only exist in the listener’s head, refashioning the ‘Space Rock’ elements of their earlier oeuvre via the cutting-edge technology of the 70s; but it didn’t do so by making music that was self-consciously esoteric, the kind of late-night, John Peel excursions into obscurity that would only be of interest to stoned students.
The seductive sound of the album is as melodically irresistible as any of the period’s mainstream pop masterpieces, yet its tracks are segued into one another by employing the more avant-garde process of ingenious sound effects that utilise stereo in a way few artists had done up to that point. Chiming clocks, cash registers, running footsteps, the heartbeat that both opens and closes proceedings, and most of all the disarming snatches of voices that slip in and out of the listener’s ears, create an intense, paranoid atmosphere in synch with the lyrical content. Even session singer Clare Torry’s wordless vocal contribution to ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’, recalling the impassioned, improvised screaming of jazz singer Abbey Lincoln on Max Roach’s ‘Protest’, adds to the overall picture. And, as befitting a time when album sleeves were the great visual artworks of the day, ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ has one of the most distinctive and memorable, with its simple yet effective portrait of a prism serving as a signpost for the decade.
Few albums demonstrate the old adage that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts than ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’, for the four musicians comprising Pink Floyd – Roger Waters, Dave Gilmour, Rick Wright and Nick Mason – drew on their individual strengths and unified them into one remarkable whole that the bitter, petty bickering of Waters and Gilmour in the decades since suggests can never be recaptured. Waters and Gilmour may not be able to be in the same room as each other today, but when they came together as musicians and communicated via their instruments half-a-century ago, something special happened that we can at least still enjoy all these years later. And 45 million punters since March 1973 have done just that.
© The Editor
4 thoughts on “LUNAR TUNES”
Nobody has ever sung ‘Gig’ as well as Torry. Her successors have screamed it out and they all sound dreadful. Why Mr Waters wishes to promote ‘his’ version… I follow him on FB…appears to me to be another way to boost his all ready overinflated ego and perhaps, once again, his political aspirations. His NY tube riding in black is a good allegory. Having said that if I have his energy at 80 I will be very happy.
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Yes, Mr Waters now seems to think the album was somehow a solo LP starring him and a backing band. But it never was ‘Roger Waters and Pink Floyd’. The fact his solo career has appeared to consist of him filling arenas by recycling Floyd material has probably saved him from the economy-price nostalgia circuit.
There are lots of albums that you can can have as background music, and some you can split up on to playlists nowadays (or mixtapes, as used to be. I still have a mixtape or two from prior relationships. Sigh.) However, some albums (not many, to be fair) require, ideally, a pair of headphones, a darkened room and not to be disturbed for the duration. This certainly is one of them. If I’m ever arguing about pop culture transcending into art, Dark Side of the Moon is one of the examples I’ll always give.
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I remember Phil Manzanera from Roxy Music once said ‘Dark Side’ was the first genuine stereo album, and it was probably the first for which headphones are the best way to truly immerse yourself in it.
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