Pink Floyd, 'The Dark Side of the Moon' At 40: Classic Track-By-Track Review
A song-by-song journey through Pink Floyd's ambitious psychedelic masterpiece, which was released 40 years ago.
"'The Dark Side of the Moon' was an expression of political, philosophical, humanitarian empathy that was desperate to get out," Pink Floyd's Roger Waters states at the start of the "Classic Albums" retrospective dedicated to the record. Revered as one of the greatest rock albums of all time, "Dark Side" -- which tackles weighty themes of greed, conflict, religion, mortality and mental illness -- was first released in the U.S. exactly 40 years ago on March 17, 1973.
Despite only reaching the No. 1 spot for one solitary week, the album continues to hold the record for the most weeks charted on the Billboard 200 (over 800 weeks!) and was a constant feature on the Billboard 200 from its initial release until 1988 – returning to the chart in late 2009 after Billboard revised its chart eligibility rules regarding older releases. It is estimated to have sold over 45 million copies worldwide, while its artistic legacy is arguably even greater.
Recorded at London's Abbey Road Studios between May 1972 and January 1973, and having been developed and rehearsed during a series of live performances in the months preceding, "The Dark Side of the Moon" is the ultimate expression of Pink Floyd's sonic artistry – an Olympian psychedelic concept album that, despite being very much of its time, still retains the ability the dazzle and astound in the digital age.
Lyric writer, bassist and principal architect Roger Waters deserves much of the credit for its record-breaking success, as do bandmates David Gilmour (vocals and guitar), Nick Mason (drums) and Richard Wright (keyboards and vocals), who were all similarly at the top of their game. "There was something about the symbiosis of the musical talents of the four of us that worked really well," Waters told Billboard in 2006, looking back on the record. The ground-breaking work of engineer Alan Parsons meanwhile, can be heard in the myriad of tape loops and then-revolutionary effects that run throughout the album's hypnotic grooves.
A landmark record in every respect, including its now iconic prism sleeve (courtesy of Storm Thorgerson), "The Dark Side of the Moon," which was the band's eighth studio album, transformed Pink Floyd from ambitious art-house hipsters to international superstars, while influencing virtually every rock band of the past forty years. It also famously inspired an unsubstantiated theory about the album's deliberate synchronicity with "The Wizard of Oz." But the album needed no help to imbue listeners with inner visions. Here's our exploratory, mind-warping journey through the deepest reaches of each song on Floyd's 1973 studio masterpiece.
"Speak To Me"
"Speak To Me" and "Breathe (In The Air)"
Beginning with the gradual fade-in of a synthesized heartbeat, "The Dark Side Of The Moon's" 90-second long opening instrumental collage perfectly sets the tone for the psychedelic masterwork that follows. A mesmerizing, richly-layered mix of looped sound effects, maniacal laughter (courtesy of Pink Floyd's road manager Peter Watts) and snatches of speech ("I've always been mad, I know I've been mad, like the most of us are"), "Speak To Me" culminates with the soaring, pained vocals of Clare Torry, as later heard in "The Great Gig In The Sky." The song is credited solely to drummer Nick Mason – a "gift" from main songwriter Roger Waters that he later came to regret when band relations soured.
"Breathe (In The Air)"
"For long you live and high you fly, and smiles you'll give and tears you'll cry" sings Gilmour on the appositely-named "Breathe (In The Air)" – a track so gentle, light and leisurely-paced that's the aural equivalent of floating through England's Kew Gardens on a helium-filled pillow. Waters' melodic bass line and Mason's subtle percussion underpin a luscious bed of echo-laden guitar, electric piano, double-tracked harmonies and lap steel. A one-minute reprise of the song, featuring its original third verse, is located at the end of track four "Time."
"On The Run"
"On The Run"
Pulsing synth sounds dominate the album's second, longer instrumental, which, once again, incorporates snatches of tape loops, distorted sound effects, and a metronomic drum beat with a succession of space-age squelches, blips and beeps. Darker in tone that the album opener, "On The Run" reaches its apex in what sounds like an aircraft crashing before running seamlessly into...
…If you're going to call a song "Time" you'd best have an abundance of clock noises in there, right? Thankfully, Pink Floyd doesn't disappoint with the opening salvo of this standout cut exploding into life with a deafening jolt of alarm sounds and chimes (initially recorded by engineer Alan Parsons as a quadraphonic test). From here, the mood gets progressively somber care of some atmospheric rototoms and ominous chord slabs until Mason's drums herald the song's true beginning. A true collaboration between all four main band members, "Time" alternates between bluesy guitar hysterics and its lighter, soulful bridge sections with aplomb. "Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way" is also a genius lyric.
"The Great Gig In The Sky"
"The Great Gig in the Sky"
Built around a Richard Wright piano chord progression, working titles for "The Great Gig In The Sky" included "The Mortality Sequence" and "Religious Theme," while early live versions of the track are said to have incorporated taped Bible readings. For the final studio version session vocalist Clare Torry was brought in to improvise over the top and it's her emotive, orgasmic wailing that lends the songs its lasting power and dynamism. Having been initially paid the standard studio rate of £30 (approx $45 at today's exchange rate) for her contribution, Torry sued Pink Floyd and its label EMI in 2004 for a share of the song writing royalties. An undisclosed settlement was reached the following year with Torry's name thereafter listed alongside Wright's as the track's vocal composer.
One of the most famous, most instantly recognizable Pink Floyd songs, "Money" was the only "Dark Side" track to enter the Billboard Hot 100, charting at No. 13 in 1973. A rhythmic mesh of cash register sound effects and Waters' marching blues bass line - in unorthodox 7/8 time at the song's beginning, later changing to 4/4 - forms the bedrock for what later becomes an epic, swampy rock wigout, complete with a justly celebrated guitar solo from Gilmour. Dick Parry's work on the tenor saxophone is equally impressive. The song's lyrics, meanwhile, are lent added contemporary relevance through their tongue-in-cheek commentary on greed and capitalism. "Money it's a crime. Share it fairly but don't take a slice of my pie," sings Gilmour, who, like his former Floyd bandmates, would become plenty wealthy thanks to the success of "Dark Side."
"Us And Them"
"Us and Them"
The longest song on the album and one of its best, the 7-minute-plus "Us And Them" was originally written by Wright as an instrumental sequence for the 1970 feature film "Zabriskie Point," but was rejected by director Michelangelo Antonioni because it was too sad. Resurrected during the sessions for "Dark Side," Waters' suitably mournful lyrics touch on themes of warfare and civil rights, and the third verse concerns its author passing a "down and out" tramp in the street and doing nothing as "I've got other things on my mind."
"Any Colour You Like"
"Any Colour You Like"
The record's third and final instrumental sequence, "Any Colour You Like" (credited to Gilmour, Mason and Wright) begins with a pastoral synthesizer score and subtle percussion before segueing into Gilmour's scratchy, harmonizing guitar solo. By the song's end, it's a full-on, fret board pummelling psychedelic funk jam.
Inspired by the mental breakdown of Floyd founding member Syd Barrett, Waters began working on a version of what was to become "Brain Damage" when the band was recording 1971's "Meddle" album. Originally entitled "Lunatic" or "The Lunatic Song" and then "The Dark Side of the Moon," before settling on its final title, the song begins with a cascading guitar arpeggio before the introduction of its famous first line: "The lunatic is on the grass," which referred to Waters' childhood memory of a 'fenced off' public square in Cambridge, England, between the River Cam and Kings College Chapel. The lyric: "And if the band you're in starts playing different tunes" is believed to reference Barrett's tendency to play the wrong song mid-set near to the end of his time in the group. Waters would later claim that the song's soaring chorus, in which he exclaims "I'll see you on the dark side of the moon," was about "defending the notion of being different."
Essentially "Brain Damage Part II," "Eclipse" begins with a dramatic drum fill before Waters (singing lead) delivers an impassioned rundown of "all that you give... deal, buy, steal, create, destroy, eat, meet, slight, fight ... is in tune. But the sun is eclipsed by the moon." Echoing the album's beginning, the final sounds that you hear are the synthesized heartbeat from "Speak To Me" and Abbey Road doorman Jerry Driscoll intoning, "There is no dark side of the moon really. As a matter of fact it's all dark." What does it all mean? Arguably everything and nothing, and therein lies the true genius at the heart of "The Dark Side Of The Moon."