Celebrating The Dark Side of the Moon – a 50-year legacy
Posted on 15th February 2023 at 15:46
Photo by KarleHorn - source: Wikimedia Commons
On 1 March 1973, Pink Floyd firmly cemented their place in music history when they released The Dark Side of the Moon. It was an introspective concept album that was also technically ambitious, featuring experimental synthesiser sounds, tape loops and philosophical quotes as part of the music’s many layers. That may not sound like a recipe for popular success, but today it’s one of the best-selling albums of all time, beloved by critics and music fans around the globe.
As the music world celebrates the record’s 50th anniversary, we look at how it was created, and what’s behind its enduring popularity.
Pink Floyd were already a successful psychedelic act when The Dark Side of the Moon was released, having graced the top 10 in 1967 with their very first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. But a year later lead guitarist and vocalist Syd Barrett left the band, struggling with his mental health. His bandmate and childhood friend, Roger Waters, became the lead vocalist in Barrett’s place.
It was Waters who had the creative vision for The Dark Side of the Moon in 1971. And having witnessed his friend’s battle with mental health, it’s perhaps little wonder that the record dealt with themes such as stress and anxiety, as well as death, conflict and greed – in Waters’ words, “the different pressures that apply in modern life”.
The compositions use clever instrumentation and recorded samples to bring some of these pressures to life. Early in the album, the instrumental track On The Run uses synths mixed with the sounds of helicopter blades to bring to life anxieties about modern travel – inspired in part by band member Rick Wright’s fear of flying. It’s a sound that’s very far from the average chart-topping fare.
From the stage to the recording studio
For many recording artists, new material is worked on privately, with the creative process happening in rehearsal rooms and studios until the finished product is deemed ready for release. Live tours are often used to promote a new album to the public. But with The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd flipped this process on its head – first taking their songs on tour and developing them in front of live audiences, before settling down to record them.
This approach wasn’t without its challenges. On the first date of the tour, at the Brighton Dome in January 1972, the band suffered technical setbacks that forced them to abandon their performance of Money – which would go on to be the album’s most successful single – midway through.
As the tour continued, so did the writing – the closing track Eclipse wasn’t performed for the first time until a show in Bristol the following month. In an interview with Classic Rock, drummer Nick Mason later reflected: “It was a hell of a good way to develop a record. You get really familiar with it; you learn the pieces you like and what you don’t like. And it’s quite interesting for the audience to hear a piece developed.”
A record for audiophiles
The Dark Side of the Moon was never going to be a straightforward album to record. The album features an array of layered sounds recorded in different ways – such as snippets of speech between and during the tracks, with the voices belonging to whoever was nearby and could be roped in to help out at the time. The unscripted quotes came from the volunteers’ answers to questions on flashcards, which asked about some of the themes of the record.
A recorded cash register sound, rattling coins and tearing paper were spliced together to create the iconic 7-beat loop that kicks off the first bars of Money. Meanwhile, engineer Alan Parsons was testing out quadrophonic audio mixing – a technique used to produce ‘surround sound’ – and the chiming clocks that we hear at the start of Time were recorded at an antique shop as part of this test.
It’s perhaps the quality of the sound recording that has helped the album continue to rack up sales over the decades. Even half a century on, any audiophile will tell you that The Dark Side of the Moon is one of the best albums for showing off a high-end sound system.
An immediate and lasting impact
The album made a huge impact on its release, catapulting Pink Floyd from their status as a moderately successful band and turning them into international superstars. Since then, the album’s tracks have been covered hundreds of times. Many guitar players have picked up a copy of the tablature to attempt their own versions at home, and some of its songs have even been given a classical treatment by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
The Flaming Lips’ frontman Wayne Coyne is among the many musicians who have named the album as one of their favourite records of all time. In 2009, his band collaborated with other artists including Stardeath And White Dwarfs, Henry Rollins and Peaches to release a cover of the full album. This was followed with Flaming Side of the Moon – an echoey, psychedelic soundscape designed to be played alongside Pink Floyd’s original, adding yet more layers to the album.
But what is it about the record that keeps people coming back to it? Speaking to The Quietus, Coyne gave a musician’s answer:
“It’s a weird record, it has passages that are just weird bleeps out of a synthesiser. …These combinations of chords and notes just aren’t typical. …They use these very simple build-ups and harmonies, and they nail it on that record 20 different times.”
Meanwhile, writer Simon Hattenstone explained in the Guardian how he connected emotionally with the album as a teenager, after experiencing his own mental health struggles brought on by inflammation of the brain: “Now I was getting better, and Dark Side of the Moon helped me make a mad sense of everything that had happened.”
But perhaps the best person to explain its success is Roger Waters himself, who is quoted as saying: “Maybe it’s the simplicity of the ideas that appeal to a generation going through puberty and trying to make sense of it all.” Whether today’s teenagers would typically turn to The Dark Side of the Moon may be up for debate – and more recently, Waters has announced his intention to re-record the album, suggesting that he feels the original record is not quite complete just yet. But its themes are just as relevant now as they were in 1973, and clearly, there is still a huge audience for this ground-breaking record.
Further reading and listening
Classic Rock has an in-depth account of the making of the album: https://www.loudersound.com/features/the-making-of-pink-floyds-dark-side-of-the-moon
Writer Simon Hattenstone expands on his love of the record in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2011/aug/26/dark-side-moon-pink-floyd
You can read Wayne Coyne’s full explanation of his thoughts on the album in The Quietus: https://thequietus.com/articles/06410-flaming-lips-wayne-coyne-interview-favourite-albums?page=9 and you can hear The Flaming Lips’ companion piece on Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/theflaminglipsofficial/flaming-side-of-the-moon
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