Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon at 50
Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon at 50
When war takes everything from you, what do you do? You write The Dark Side of the Moon.
On March 1st, 1973, Pink Floyd released their seminal album The Dark Side of the Moon. It is now fifty years old. The consequences of its release, both cultural and historical, are innumerable and still felt half a century later. The album confronted universal concerns: time, psychosis, and death. Yet it was this bold approach to uncomfortable topics, via sonic landscapes and bizarre sound effects, supported by blues and gospel rebar and instantly recognizable cover art, that changed music forever. The Dark Side of the Moon is known internationally, and intergenerationally, and remains a cultural touchstone for millions of people.
The Dark Side of the Moon is known internationally, and intergenerationally, and remains a cultural touchstone for millions of people.
To understand The Dark Side of the Moon’s delve into such heavy topics (and its unexpected popularity), it’s important to understand the climate in which it was created. In 1973, Britain was still recovering from World War II. Physically, the country was forever altered, and so were the psyches of the people in it. Loss—of environment, stability, and loved ones—was a wound in the post-war British consciousness. Congruently, the album was released at the tail-end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the Cold War, and five years after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
Pink Floyd itself dealt with interpersonal conflict and trauma before the album’s production. All five members were born during or immediately after World War II. Bassist Roger Waters’ father was killed during the Battle of Anzio in Italy in 1944. Waters was five months old. He would be irreparably damaged by his father’s death, and meditations on loss, war, and fascism would appear on all Waters-led Pink Floyd albums until his departure in 1985. Original frontman Syd Barrett left Pink Floyd in 1968 after his deterioration from heavy drug use and mental illness. Members ghosted him right out of his own band, slowly excluding him from performances, and studio stints, and bringing guitarist David Gilmour to the forefront. Their guilt over this split, and how it unfolded, would be explored on their next album, Wish You Were Here.
The Dark Side of the Moon took themes of mortality and impermanence head-on. Empirical philosophy might never have been uttered before on a rock-n-roll album; “Breathe” argues that “all that you touch and all that you see/is all your life will ever be”. Dismal, sure, but a perspective that makes sense from four boys born on a small, dreary-weathered, war-battered island. Track Four, “Time”, posits that childhood is swift, its end abrupt, and life (however sensorily limited) can never be fully appreciated until most of it is gone. Whatever brand of morose philosophy Pink Floyd pushed here was antithetical to contemporary prog/psychedelic ideas of accessing expanded consciousness via psychedelic drugs. You’re born, you muddle through, and before you know it, you die.
College dorm rooms are plastered with the same poster: the iconic prism.
The album was a gamble of popular reception, but this was never a group too concerned with being popular. And in the turmoiled era of its release, listeners responded. Perhaps, for the first time, against a backdrop of overly cheery ideas of Western triumph and recovery, they saw their thoughts and fears represented. On The Dark Side of the Moon, people felt validated.
“Money” begins an emerging political theme within Pink Floyd’s discography, criticizing a Western capitalist/consumerist society, with football teams, caviar, and Lear jets in tow. It hit back at the hedonism of the 1960s and 70s, an epic continued ideologically, yet perhaps less critically, on the Eagles’ 1975 track “Hotel California”. (It is worth noting that Waters’ father was a Communist, and Waters himself a self-proclaimed leftist—his current, controversial political views are a discussion for another time—although, ironically, he seems unable to part with being rich. His 2013 “The Wall” tour is one of the highest-grossing tours of all time and no doubt funded his private jet and South England and Hampton, NY homes.)
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When people think of “progressive rock” or “psychedelia”, it is The Dark Side that comes to mind. It is the furthest-reaching, most well-known psychedelic album to date. You got stoned to it in high school, and your grandmother saw it live in 1973, stoned, too. Aspiring thirteen-year-old rockers get their hands on a bass for the first time and beg to learn the opening hook of “Money”. College dorm rooms are plastered with the same poster: the iconic prism, created by Hipgnosis, a collaboration between artists Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell. Gilmour’s distorted Black Strat became enshrined on The Dark Side—consider the soaring, yearning solo in “Time”. It sounds a little like childhood. His sound was instantly recognizable, emulated, and imitated but never perfectly recreated by any other guitarist afterward. The Dark Side of the Moon ranks consistently as one of the best-selling albums of all time. With the “50th Anniversary Edition Box Set”, sales are only expected to rise.
It’s a lyrical admission of guilt over Barret’s ostracized fate, kicked out of his own creation.
Ghosts of Syd Barrett linger deep in the album’s grooves. “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse” reveal “the dark side of the moon” to be a metaphor for lunacy, and the concepts hold cosmic hands over the album’s consciousness. Peaceful lulls on “Time”, “Us and Them”, and “Great Gig in the Sky” explode into swells of sounds, clocks, and keening, wordless laments. In “On the Run”, listeners can never rest, apprehensive and awed, until we, too, wonder what it might be like to stare into the eyes of insanity.
But the album’s heartbroken center is in the middle of “Brain Damage”.
“And if the band you’re in,” sings Waters, “starts playing different tunes/I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon”. It’s a lyrical admission of guilt over Barret’s ostracized fate, kicked out of his own creation. If the band you’re in starts playing different tunes, they will be too ashamed to tell you.
And then The Dark Side of the Moon is over, and it is too proud to beg for forgiveness, but it is guilty, and whatever lunatic or madcap it danced with, however briefly, is left behind in the dust.