Review Summary: The perfect blend of immediacy, existential despair, insanity, and just damn good music.
Modern life is a bunch of bull. It has always been bull. You wake up. You have breakfast. You travel to work. You either get stuck in traffic in the car, or on the buss, or you are subject to train delays. You work nine to five in an office for a company you don't care about. You go to lunch. You watch people from afar. You go back to work. More work and more apathy. You are just that little bit late coming home. You have dinner. You barely have time to spend with your loved one, if you even have one. Go to bed. Rinse, repeat.
That's the definition of madness. Doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. Maybe that is the English way, a silent desperation for things to be different whilst sticking rigidly to routine so as not to rock the boat. Trust me, I'm English, I know this too well because I do it too well. It drives me up the wall, and this has been ongoing since I turned from a child without responsibility into a man who suddenly had to do everything. Which means, yes, I've been mad for years.
Surely Pink Floyd were no different. After all, come 1973 when they released their most famous album and one of the most popular of all time - The Dark Side of the Moon - they had changed quite a bit since their early days. Syd Barrett was no longer in the band, and with his departure, his fascination with childhood regression and innocence was replaced gradually with a growing cynicism that would be taken to extremes by the end of the decade. It is an album whose concept only appears high and mighty to those who either revere it too much, or those who don't get it.
Really, The Dark Side of the Moon's concept is pretty damn simple to understand. It's about how modern life drives people barmy. The true wonder is how seamless it is, how easy going the music is, how it slips through difficult and arguably taboo subject matter with calm and relaxing music. You can just put the album on and its forty-two minutes fly by, yet you can still remember every moment. You can still decipher every note.
The opening Speak to Me offers the first piece of the puzzle. Every sound effect you will come across on this album is played back, from the heartbeat, to the cash machines, to the laughter, to the dialogue, to this sense of foreboding tension. You hear the sound of a lady screaming as if about to meet her untimely demise, before a whoosh sweeps the listener into a trance with Breathe, one of the best album openers ever. It sounds like literally coming into being, Roger Waters' bass thumping on octaves, David Gilmour's slippery guitars against Nick Mason's jazzy, cool-breeze of the drums, how Richard Wright's keys just soar and levitate. The slide guitars that pop up occasionally. And then, after a brief bridge, comes harmonised vocals that act as a narcotic against thinking too much and living too fast:
Come the second verse, the music sounds a little more dynamic, much more intense as Gilmour implores the listener to "rabbit run/dig that hole in the sun". There are more organ and synth noises that subtly creep into the mix, before a repetition of the more bittersweet bridge, as Gilmour warns the listener that they're "rac[ing] towards an early grave."
And with that, the game is afoot. On the Run is another interlude, this time one that is much more kinetic and full of more solid movement than the free-flowing Breathe. Its entire existence is to serve as a furthering of the album's concept - you hear announcements of planes leaving, you even hear one, you hear businessmen laughing and joking as they wait to go on board. All the while, the repetition of it all drives home the point well - for me, I use the bus all the time to get to work, and it's almost as if the monotony of the journey was written for On the Run, not the other way around. A precursor to Waters' fascination with crashing planes leads to a mass explosion and a whimpering ambience for the last thirty seconds, before an alarm clock sounds and scares the hell out of me.
Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock. The clock is going on and on in Time. A single note strikes, drums avoiding snares at all costs, twinkles from Wright again. It's pretty dark and foreboding, uncertain of how things will go. It feels like millennia before the main chord sequence comes, and when it does, Mason signals the song proper with a simple fill. Offbeat guitars enter, the bass starts to slink along, the keys start to decorate. And Gilmour opens his mouth, more intense and agitated than on Breathe, with his guitar bending and sliding in a delicious fashion, before the sound of backing singers, quiet and minimal, and Wright's voice provide further exposition, being the messenger to Waters' doom and gloom: "no one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun".
The guitar solo that follows is one of the best of all time. Gilmour bends, he snarls, he cries, he lets it all loose against the clock. It's a monumental achievement in playing, and try as I might to play it or cover it, I can't. The bends are insane. After it roars out of life, Gilmour is back behind the mic, going on and on about things are the same except you're older - "shortness of breath/one step closer to death". Even Wright sounds tired, "hanging on in quiet desperation is the English Way" - that lyric right there is so bloody true - and he runs out of steam, slowing down, "thought I had so much more to say".
The reprise of Breathe then drives the point further home how interconnected these songs are, how the narrator of Time is now breathing, coming to the same epiphanies as the previous one. There is pleasure in Gilmour's voice as he "warms [his] bones beside the fire", before almost warning against the "iron bell", the "broken magic spell". An organ note of Bm hangs in the balance, until...
Richard Wright behind a piano. Since his death, there has been a lot of retrospective praise for him. Most of it is due to his work on songs like The Great Gig in the Sky, which he got a credit for, and so he bloody should have gotten. It's easily the most intense and cathartic song across the entire album, and it doesn't have any words - aside from the spoken word sample. It starts off with introducing the slide guitar and the bass against the piano, sticking first with Bm to F to A# to Am w/ added F. The main chord progression, Gm to C, brings a sense of familiarity to the piece. Another bridge - F, A#, D#, C7, F - with that infamous sample;
"And I am not frightened of dying, any time will do, I don't mind.
Why should I be frightened of dying?
There's no reason for it, you've gotta go sometime."
And then another - A#, D#, A#. And then boom. The song explodes into life, sticking rigidly to its main two chord sequence. Session singer Clare Torry, who was paid a measly fee for the song and since went on to get a handsome cut of the album's sales later on down the line, belts out in a series of vocalisations that do border on wankery at first. With each listen, it's clear this voice is the sound of death and turmoil. The gradual layers of organs complimenting more drum fills, slide guitars going crazy, the bass just cruising along. Toward the end, the familiar sound of her hitting the G note so high and so mightily, as on the album intro, ushers forth a new chord sequence - D, C#, F#, B - directly leading back to the intro. This time, no slides, no drums; just piano, bass and Torry's horror as conveyed in her singing.
This goes on for close to two minutes. It's a long goodnight. Waters bass playing is also contemplative, sometimes playing octaves and slinking along. Wright's playing is fantastic, measured and controlled, enough to rival classical composers' chops. A woman whispers how she's never been afraid of dying. Honestly, I'm not either.
Cash registers clinking and clanking in an odd time signature. Palm muted bass and guitar. Drums pushing forth from the ether with echoing chord strikes, and more organ play. A sleazy number named, appropriately enough, Money. Ironically, a song denouncing the power that comes with wealth - the nonsense of buying a football team - ended up being a huge hit for the band. People would come to their shows just to hear it and leave. In a way, it's fitting, because it's so easy to misinterpret. The band almost know how much this album will make, and are both impressed and horrified by money. How it makes governments do arguably unethical things with it, whether its payouts or obscene tax rates ("keep your hands off of my stacks" may read as greed, and it does, but bare in mind the progressive income tax in Britain at one point was 95%. Yes, 1 for you, 19 for me, indeed). The song revels in its own success, complete with Dick Parry's saxophone and its cock rock, shuffling bridge sections.
Another classic Gilmour solo that is interrupted by a build-up. Jittery, scratchy guitars against hollowing organs are further anchored by Waters' trebly bass and Mason's tom fills, before finally settling back into the groove. Gilmour's guitar mocking the wealthy and, with harsh hindsight, the band itself. People were shocked at the lengths the band went to in regards to discussing their contempt for the music industry, but you can hear it on Money, how self-aware and cynical the band are, conveyed through their music. They ain't riding the gravy train on Money, they're driving it, and the last verse conveys this perfectly, as Gilmour fades out with some vocalisations. The drums are easy going. Then, more soundbites about fighting and conflict, and appropriately enough -
Us and Them. A calming, unnervingly quiet song against the backdrop of lush saxophones, spiralling synth work, repetitious ground bass, and silky guitars. Lyrics about the hypocrisies of war and the generals leading the common man to his death, not unlike politicians driving the working class into the ground. At several points across the song's nearly eight minute track length, there are ascensions in volume across backing vocals, crashing cymbals and loud barre chords. There is also another vocal sample during the song's bridge section:
"I mean, they're not gonna kill ya
So if you give 'em a quick short, sharp, shock
They won't do it again. Dig it?
I mean he get off lightly, 'cause I would've given him a thrashing
I only hit him once! It was only a difference of opinion, but really
I mean good manners don't cost nothing do they, eh?"
And from the aftermath of this battle comes a proposition. Out of the settling dust. Any Colour You Like bursts it in all of its Technicolor glory. Ostensibly a jam with the same chord progression as Breathe, down a whole tone (Dm to G), it showcases Richard Wright's importance to the band. It's the closest thing to funk the album has, and Wright's synthesizers muddy the mix with intent. The rhythm section is tight and muscular, whereas Gilmour's guitar is slippery and gorgeous, falling out of place at times. The track gets further and further into the groove, and after some scat singing and a mini solo from Gilmour, the closing of Breathe - at least in terms of sequence of notes, again down a tone - sours the composition. And so it goes that the listener bumps their head and thus has...
Brain Damage. The soft arpeggios of the open chord, against some bends and slides. The bass playing octaves ever so softly. Mason's hi hat delicately pressed at the right time. Roger Waters, the tall and imposing self-appointed leader of Pink Floyd, opens his mouth for the first time and has the last word toward the end of the record. An ode to lunacy and crumbling self-identity, Brain Damage is the logical conclusion to the album. The narrator(s) are going insane ("the lunatic is in my head", complete with mad laughter). The two choruses, again, are subtle uplifts and crescendos. Ride cymbals, guitar strums, organs, backing singers. Both times, Waters looks forward to the listener joining him as they both go insane, as they both (eventually) become two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl. Also includes a juicy album title drop.
Eventually, with no warning, the Eclipse occurs. A thrashing away with no abandon and an epic, yet miniscule, closing to the record as Waters pulls out one of his favourite tricks: repetition. He'd use this again on future songs such as Dogs. Here, the lyrics represent the end of the mental wellbeing of the listener, finally succumbing to modern life's insanity and being left in the lurch. ("all that you touch...and everything under the sun is in tune/but the sun is eclipsed by the moon")
You hear that heartbeat again. A man's voice. "There is no dark side of the moon really, matter of fact it’s all dark." And then you find yourself compelled to press play again.
Allow me to put this into perspective: The Dark Side of the Moon is not the best Pink Floyd album. The two albums that proceeded it are better. However, as much as I love Wish You Were Here and Animals more, it's clear to me that there was a pre-DSOTM and a post-DSOTM. It's that seminal of an album that it draws its own line in the sand of Pink Floyd's career, and indeed popular music at large. It was the nail in the coffin of the sixties in many ways. It was one of the first albums to finally proclaim, "the dream and utopia failed and this is why, this is the result, and we need to do something about it".
It was also the very first album by the band I checked out. Listening to this album for the first time in the dark, hearing it just oozing cool whilst conveying some damn near unsettling lyrical themes, was a cornerstone moment in my musical life.
Modern life sucked then and it sucks now. In either case, I'll see you all on the dark side of the moon.