They were a cult favorite before it, and who knows? They may have succeeded without it. It is nonetheless fact that Dark Side Of The Moon made what we commonly know to be Pink Floyd, and in March 2013, it celebrates forty years on the run.
I hate to use the word “iconic” because it has become a lazy, de facto way for writers to otherwise say “recognized” and, yet, there is no other way to describe Dark Side of the Moon. It is one of a select few albums you know by sight, even without text on the cover. The image of a strand of light entering a prism to be refracted into a rainbow out the other side has been the source for not just issues and reissues of the album, but has appeared on book jackets, posters, t-shirts, stickers, and just about any other memorabilia you can imagine.
The album’s theme has been a source of debate in the past four decades. It is, clearly, indebted to one-time original guitarist Syd Barrett even though the album’s follow-up Wish You Were Here would be much more so. However if there is a concept to hang above the whole, it is more than just various forms of madness: paranoia, ecstasy, greed, violence and partisanship that leads to violence. The album may be the “dark side of the moon” but is more the dark side of humanity. The problem is that the record has become so synonymous with drug culture and the idea that this is a “trip” album, the finer points of what is actually being said can be lost. I think that’s an unfortunate thing for the collection, though it is straining to say an album known as one of the best-and-longest-selling LPs ever suffered anything but fortune.
I’m not even a drinker, so there is an entirely different experience some listeners have with Dark Side of the Moon that I do not. The album plays out like two separate suites, one per LP side. Side one is clearly more orientated toward the psychedelic with ups and downs, Richard Wright’s burbling synths, David Gilmour’s languid guitar and calming voice, screams, crashes, and the culminating, orgasmic “The Great Gig In The Sky.” Side two has more of the song-oriented material including “Us and Them” and the hit single “Money,” with Roger Waters’ big plonking bass thumping into sound effects of cash registers creating a beat, long before digital sampling would make such a thing near commonplace. In other words, for those who have chosen to listen to Dark Side stone cold sober, there is a level of musicality and sonic experimentation at work that the band’s contemporaries simply weren’t practicing.
Who were the contemporaries? Putting aside the various prog rockers of the day and focusing on the practitioners of psychedelia, Jefferson Airplane were well on their way to transforming into Jefferson Starship even if they weren’t aware of it. The Grateful Dead were becoming roots rockers with Workingmans Dead and American Beauty, the freak outs of Aoxomoxoa edging ever into the past. They’d have their own proggish concept album in Terrapin Station, but their biggest hit in the ’70s would be the near-disco funk jam “Shakedown Street.” In other words, everyone was changing, but you have to give credit to The Floyd for taking the effort so seriously and having a point from which to extract more challenging ideas.
It didn’t have to be so. The 1970s was a time for rock artists to walk away from socially conscious themes, many having been burned by the way the world ended up in the face of folk, protest, and flower power. The hippies were getting cynical. Some rejected the mindset and went out to party instead, facilitating the fun and hedonism of glam rock. Others felt doomed by mankind’s inability to better itself, and strains of hard rock took hold with the view that, maybe, a man can be an island, and maybe he has to be in order to survive assassinations, political corruption, war, and prejudice. Pink Floyd would eventually cycle to the latter by the end of the decade with The Wall but hadn’t calcified just yet. It’s rather funny to consider that album’s massive hit “Another Brick In The Wall Part 2″ would take the form of the decade’s feel-good blot-out pop music form of disco.
Even those who cannot stand Dark Side of the Moon are compelled to give credit to how the record sounds sonically. It was for several decades the disc you played when you wanted to show off your audio gear. A lot of that is thanks to engineer Alan Parsons, and he took as much from the experience as he gave. If one listens to the Alan Parsons Project records from I Robot up to the hit Eye In The Sky, a structure appears frequently that mirrors that of Dark Side’s sequencing. There is a reason for it — that sequence works. The careful placement of peaks and valleys, highs and lows, offered an engagement for the listener that was at that time unique. You could fall into Dark Side unlike so many other records. There is also the understanding that, as one of rock and pop’s premier producers, Parsons understood balance as few could. He could bring up the guitars for anthemic moments (like on Pilot’s hit single “Magic”) or take it into the orchestral realm for added color (think Al Stewart’s “Year Of The Cat”). This widescreen, Technicolor approach may not have started with Dark Side, but it certainly ingrained in Parsons ideas of how a recording could and should sound.
I cannot say Dark Side of the Moon sounds as timeless and fresh as it may have only fifteen years ago. It is so very different from modern pop and modern rock for that matter that it has become what many thought it might never be; a curio from another time. Those that toil in the modern prog world tend to go heavier in approach, and Dark Side is not a particularly heavy recording. In fact I’d go as far to say it leans more to jazz than first assumed. Pop music is dominated by the keyboard and synthetic beats. With the infiltration of EDM and the dreaded woop-woop of “dubstep” music today makes noises the far-out synths of ’72-’73 could not possibly achieve. Moreover, the balance is lost, and that was a main goal of Dark Side. It balanced instrumentation in an elegant way and everyone had a chance to step into the spotlight (again, more in the jazz tradition). It was a unification of themes into a single idea, a combination of instruments that were separate yet equal, and these parts merged into a cohesive whole. Perhaps the grand achievement of modern popular music, and it’s greatest failure, is that it is now a celebration of the parts, separate, lacking communication with anything but itself.
Dark Side of the Moon communicated very well and will continue to do so. Yet, forty years on and no matter how great and clean it sounds, the record sounds like a forty year old record. That says nothing negative about the music, but quite a bit about the audience.