The Dark Side of the Moon was an immediate success, topping the Billboard Top LPs & Tapes chart for one week. It subsequently remained in the charts for 741 weeks from 1973 to 1988. With an estimated 50 million copies sold, it is Pink Floyd’s most commercially successful album and one of the best-selling albums worldwide. It has twice been remastered and re-released, and has been covered in its entirety by several other acts. It spawned two singles, “Money” and “Time”. In addition to its commercial success, The Dark Side of the Moon is one of Pink Floyd’s most popular albums among fans and critics, and is frequently ranked as one of the greatest albums of all time. On 22 March 2013, the album was preserved by the Library of Congress into the National Recording Registry, calling it “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant, and/or reflect life in the United States.”
Like Diana Nyad, I’ve swum against the tide before, and it looks like I’m going to do it again with The Dark Side of the Moon. I accept all responsibility and await your condemnation of my lack of taste, my poor sense of aesthetics, my obviously limited intelligence and my innate inability to perceive the obvious. Feel free to dismiss me as yet another dumb blonde if you’re into that kind of thing.
The truth is, I think it’s boring.
I’ve often wondered why The Dark Side of the Moon has never moved me in the least. After all, I gave Wish You Were Here a very positive review and will probably do the same for Animals if I ever get around to reviewing it. Overcoming my lassitude, I gave The Dark Side of the Moon the usual three-times-through, hoping to discover something I was missing or to find a phrase, a lick or a tiny bit of melody to stir my passions.
Nope. The needle didn’t move from the last reading. I still think it’s generally a boring piece of music. Occasionally it rises to the level of pleasant, and sometimes I can admire the technical aspects of the recording. I think one song is excellent, but in the end, I find The Dark Side of the Moon rather lifeless.
Allow the dumb blonde to explain.
Lyrics: With one exception, the lyrics never rise to the occasion. The language is more abstract rather than concrete, creating a huge distance between the listener and the writer. We don’t get the vivid lines we hear in Wish You Were Here or Animals (“You radiate cold shafts of broken glass”), but meaningless dribble in tortured syntax (“Long you live and high you fly/And smiles you’ll give and tears you’ll cry”). There are way too many filler and cliché lines, like “Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today” and “The time is gone, the song is over/Thought I’d something more to say.” I didn’t like the fact that they ripped off Thoreau without giving credit (“Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”). They make some decent points about the evils of the system, about the absurdity of war, about the emptiness of work in a modern society, but none have the emotional impact of songs by other artists (The Kinks, Jethro Tull, John Lennon, etc.) who dealt with the same subjects. To be fair, decent lyrics were not all that common in the progressive rock scene of the early 1970’s, as Yes and Genesis demonstrate so vividly with their often unintelligible gibberish (though “The Musical Box” by Genesis is superb). The one exception on The Dark Side of the Moon is “Brain Damage,” a song that thematically belongs on Wish You Were Here anyway. That’s a great fucking song.
Music: The instrumentals range from pure filler to annoying. “The Great Gig in the Sky” is the worst, and while I’ve read reviewers rave about Clare Torry’s wordless vocal that allegedly evokes the experience of facing death, I hear an over-the-top example of vocal excess that occasionally calls up memories of seagulls squawking in the skies over San Francisco (the other possibility is that Clare was a screamer, scratcher and biter who was getting fucked front and back during the recording session). Too much of the music relies upon the vague feel of major-seventh chords, which also encourages that dull, oscillating two-tone melody that dominates the album. In “Time,” David Gilmour’s energetic vocal doesn’t work with the lyrics, which describe living a dull life (he should have studied Ray Davies, who is a master at matching a character’s mood to music). Pink Floyd also had a habit of extending the empty space between lyrical lines to the point of absurdity, and much of the length of the songs on The Dark Side of the Moon consists of unnecessary measures of nothingness. They used empty space much more effectively on “Pigs (Three Different Ones),” where the extra measures after the vocal lines communicate the seething anger of the narrator, a pattern of burst-catch breath-burst. If Pink Floyd had covered “She Loves You,” it would have gone on for ten and a half fucking minutes.
Minor Annoyances: I hate the sound effects. Fucking hate them. The ringing cash register, the bells and alarm clocks, the barely intelligible conversations—fucking hate them all. The transition between “Any Colour You Like” and “Brain Damage” is clumsy. Nick Mason’s drum part on “Money” is far too busy, very surprising for a drummer who spends most his time working with consistently slow tempos. Maybe he was bored.
Pluses: I love David Gilmour’s voice, even when I don’t care for the songs he’s singing. His lead solos are always a highlight on any Pink Floyd record. Roger Waters does some very nice vocal work throughout the album, and the harmonization on the record is simple but effective. “Brain Damage” is brilliantly written and performed, and the laughter is chilling (the one sound effect I liked). Dick Parry plays the saxophone competently, if unremarkably.
In the end, The Dark Side of the Moon is not offensive like Exile on Main Street, another album everybody loves that this dumb blonde considers a turkey. It’s certainly better than Let It Be, a good half of The White Album and three-quarters of Abbey Road (nope, didn’t like Abbey Road either).
But it’s so . . . dull.
Okay, that’s enough. Little Miss Airhead needs her sleep, and thanks to The Dark Side of the Moon, I’m feeling pretty drowsy.
Pink Floyd was such a dysfunctional band it’s a wonder they ever managed to record a note. This was particularly true during the period of Wish You Were Here, with Roger Waters in full domination mode, David Gilmour and Nick Mason in conflict and everyone burned out and snitty from the overwhelming success of Dark Side of the Moon. Recording was interrupted by tours, delayed by arguments and hampered by an engineer who managed to ruin some backing tracks, requiring hours of tedious re-recording (see the Wikipedia article for more details). The album itself is a tribute to the group’s difficult history, as it deals with the downsides of musical success and the mental collapse of their original frontman, Syd Barrett.
It is therefore fortunate for the listening public that the band’s members seem to have a genetic disposition that enables them to shine brighter when facing adversity. Wish You Were Here is a remarkable piece of work, one I prefer over both Dark Side of the Moon (a bit too obvious a choice) and Animals (a bit too uneven).
In case you’re wondering, I didn’t think much of The Wall and I’ve never found their early stuff particularly compelling.
“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is the long musical piece that unites the work and establishes the major musical and lyrical themes. The piece is divided on the album into two tracks (I-V and VI-IX), a brilliant decision that unites the entire work (believe it or not, the band had to vote on whether or not to make the split). The first of the two “Diamond” tracks is more of a classical tone poem; the second more progressive rock opus with a little bit of funk.
The first track subtly grabs your attention, immersing you in slow build of organ and synth and wet fingers playing with the edges of wine glasses. When I listen to Part I, I can’t help but compare it to the then-contemporary work of the Electric Light Orchestra, who were in the process of abandoning the original goal of giving their music a more classical sound. Even in their best work, ELO never approached the pure orchestral beauty that Pink Floyd created here.
Gilmour’s guitar establishes the bridge between I and II, beginning the second part with the memorable four-note theme (simple, but terribly effective; what I’ve referred to as “The Count Basie Effect”). Gilmore has multiple attention-grabbing solos throughout the piece, but never overpowers the fundamental theme. Part III continues the theme with synth and only in Part IV do we hear the sound of vocals. The words, the harmonies and the laughter produce a rather chilling effect, echoing the theme of mental disturbance. The centerpiece of Part V is the introduction of baritone and tenor saxes, a beautiful example of layering and differentiation that makes “Diamond” such a satisfying experience.
We then hear the sounds of industry in the intro for “Welcome to the Machine.” I have always found this song disturbing because it asks the question, “Are our passions and dreams merely the product of mass manipulation?” Pete Townshend had already dismissed the notion of true rebellion with the line, “Meet the new boss/same as the old boss,” and Ian Anderson described an endless cycle of the young battling the old in Thick as a Brick. How much of who we are is core and how much is just following the script? The multiple time signatures here call up images of self-confusion, reinforcing the song’s meaning.
The Wikipedia article referenced above mentioned that Roger Waters believed he had made a mistake enlisting Roy Harper to do the lead vocal on “Have a Cigar.” He didn’t. This song really needed to be performed by an outsider for maximum effect, and Harper does an outstanding job in the character of boorish music mogul.
An even more exceptional vocal awaits us in one of my favorite songs of all time, “Wish You Were Here.” David Gilmour simply nails this beautiful and haunting song. The contrast between the low-fi and hi-fi acoustic guitar makes the higher fidelity notes jump out at you. The song’s final despairing line, “What have we found: the same old fear,” is a brilliant if uncomfortable revelation that gives one pause for thought.
We then return to the beginning, with parts VI-IX of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” This section is more contemporary-sounding than the first track, with more bass and an urban feel. Richard Wright’s keyboard work is also prominent in Part VIII and provides for a solid segue into the “funeral march” of Part XI. The fadeout is sprinkled with bits of tunes from the Syd Barrett era, but even if you were ignorant of the connection, the soundscape is still very appealing.
The essence of Wish You Were Here is tension. There is tension in the music and tension in the lyrics, and very little in the way of resolution. There is no happy ending; things are what they are; the situation has been presented. You hear the contradictions in the lyrics to “Diamond”—“random precision,” “you painter, you piper, you prisoner,” and “you miner for truth and delusion.” As much as we hate to admit it to the world, we are all brimming with these contradictions, these tensions. We hang on to our facades knowing that the construction that keeps them together is as fragile as can be. Wish You Were Here allows those contradictions to exist without attempt at correction, an artistic decision that better reflects the human experience than the happy ending.
Of course, the ultimate contradiction is that there is wisdom in the vision of the madman, in that “miner for truth and delusion.” In that sense, Wish You Were Here is the musical equivalent of “Jubilate Agno,” the work of the insane genius Christopher Smart. When you read that poem, you know two things: one, that you are dealing with someone “not in his right mind”; and two, that those “not in their right minds” often have greater insight than the rest of us. Wish You Were Here allows that uncomfortable possibility to exist.