So many trees have been wasted on this LP that there’s perhaps little if anything I alone can add to what’s already been said and discussed. Suffice it to say, this is the most popular album Pink Floyd ever made, and arguably one of the most popular prog-rock records of all time (over forty million copies sold and counting). In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a copy of it floating around the Vatican.
If Pete Townsend is rock and roll’s ultimate teenage psychologist, then Roger Waters must be its greatest psychiatrist, a sort of George Orwell and Friedrich Nietzsche all rolled into one. Few other songwriters in the realm of popular music have explored and written about mental illness and the human condition as compellingly as him. And while Townsend comes pretty close, at least in terms of complexity, most of his material is concerned with the adolescent experience; you know, alienation, insecurity, awkward sexuality, parental loathing, pinball; the sorts of things most people eventually grow out of. Waters however prefers to tackle the ‘bigger’ issues in life, namely war, death, dysfunction, insanity, government corruption, etc. Basically all the important stuff condensed into 40 minutes or so of accessible and memorable tunes. And that is exactly what The Dark Side of the Moon is; an existential masterpiece which should be taken as a whole in order to get the full cinematic experience etched into your psyche in all its epic and dismal glory.
A few seconds after pressing play, the first thing you hear is a faint pulse, a heartbeat, growing louder, then a ticking clock, with voices and human laughter in the background, until suddenly the wail of a banshee leads everyone in. David Gilmour’s guitar is all mood and atmosphere, simple but effective. Likewise the pedal steel, which dips and rises, enhancing the song’s already dreamy ambience. “Breathe, breathe in the air/Don’t be afraid to care” Gilmour sings. Then later, “Run, rabbit run/Dig that hole, forget the sun”. It’s hardly the most cheerful of tunes, but engaging all the same.
The next song, “On the Run” is exactly that, with footsteps criss-crossing between your speakers, and what sounds like a UFO straight out of the BBC sound effects department in clear chase. There’s some laughter at the end, before the whole thing comes crashing down in your living room like Roswell all over again.
“Time” begins with a maddening array of clocks, after which Waters cleverly recreates the sound of a ticking timepiece with his bass, before a menacing boom comes in, like the thunder of an approaching storm. The lyrics aren’t exactly jolly either, “Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day/Fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way”…. “The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older/Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.” Certainly not the sort of thing you’d want to listen to if you’re a having a mid-life crisis. However the highlight is provided by Gilmour, who plays an earth shattering guitar solo that will make your roof rattle.
And if you think things can’t get any more depressing, think again. Because “Great Gig in the Sky” is one of the greatest expressions of existential crises I’ve ever heard, where Clare Torry’s vocal dramatics (or are they hysterics?) take on the persona of life and death in every wail, and a little bit like listening to the beginning and end of the universe in roughly four and a half minutes.
The opening cut of what would have been side two, “Money”, begins with the famous cash registers rhythm section, before Waters’ bass comes bobbing in, followed by Gilmour’s chiming chords. “Money get back/I’m alright jack keep your hands off my stack/Money it’s a hit”, and so on it goes in similar fashion. I tell you what was also a hit; Waters’ cynical dissertation on the capitalist financial system, of which he was a sworn enemy. So, devout socialist composes song about the evils of “money”. Said tune sells by the million, making said socialist song writer a millionaire, who never has to work again. Oh, the delicious irony of it all!
“Us and Them” is like floating through a tranquil atmosphere with your head resting on a pillow. Rick Wright wrote the music, while Waters provided the lyrics. I’m sure that many listeners, then and now, perhaps never really gave much thought as to the song’s meaning, no doubt beguiled by the music. However with lines such as “Forward he cried from the rear/And the front rank died/And the general sat, as the lines on the map/Moved from side to side”, it’s pretty clear that this is another of Roger’s statements concerning the insanity of war, one of his other obsessions.
The funky, spacey instrumental “Any Colour You Like” is another hypnotic, otherworldly composition, dominated by keyboards and guitar. It’s quite a trip, and one which picks you up then drops you down again, but in the most enjoyable way.
Waters has stated, probably more than once, that “Brain Damage” was inspired by Syd Barrett, the band’s original guiding light, and who had fallen into a state of chemically inspired mental and creative paralysis. But whether those demons were drug induced or not, Barrett’s rapid deterioration at the time cast a heavy shadow over the group, none more so than Waters himself, whose preoccupation with their former leader and comrade would haunt him for many years to come.
The album’s climax comes in the form of the brief “Eclipse”, a rousing piece which offers a concise précis of the record’s themes as a whole. And there it ends, just as it began; only now the pulse is fading, and we are left with the philosophical mutterings of an old man ruminating about the “dark side of the moon”.
If The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s… was a “concept” album in name only, then Dark Side… is a concept album in the truest sense of the word, whose overarching themes of despair, mortality and madness mean that it has never dated, unlike other efforts such as Odessey and Oracle by The Zombies, or Nirvana’s The Story of Simon Simopath (and no, not the Nirvana you’re probably thinking of).
Pink Floyd must have known that they were onto something, and so did the rest of the world it seems. Whether the multitudes who have bought it have ever once analysed its thematic contents is another matter entirely. And there lies the genius. That such a profound product as this has managed to find its way into the hearts and homes of millions of people is in itself an extraordinary achievement. Maybe one day some of those individuals will wake up, and realise just how pointless and insignificant their lives really are.