March 24, 2013

Shine on you crazy diamond

With all the posting I've been doing this year about the 30th anniversary of all the pop music released in 1983, I actually came close to forgetting that there are other musical milestones that I wanted to highlight as well. Fortunately, Google Calendar has reminders for that, and a couple days ago, one of them popped up to remind me:

March 24, 1973—40 years ago today—one of the most groundbreaking, influential, and best-selling rock albums of all time was released: Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon.

Apart from hearing "Another Brick in the Wall" on the radio, The Dark Side of the Moon was my first experience with Pink Floyd. I listened to it, then The Wall, on the same night.

Even if you've never heard it, you've surely seen it. The black album cover, with its triangular prism breaking a single beam of white light into a full spectrum, is iconic. The band's keyboardist, the late Richard Wright, had asked for a design that was simple and bold, and the design group Hipgnosis certainly delivered. A thin beam of white light strikes a prism, which separates it into a six-band spectrum. The spectrum continues inside the album gatefold, with the green stripe representing the pulse of a heartbeat. On the back cover, a second prism recombines the six colours into a single white beam, which wraps around the album spine and turns full circle.

The Dark Side of the Moon is one of the most recognizable album covers in existence; in fact, it was the project that really put Hipgnosis and designer Storm Thorgerson on the map. (Hipgnosis designed every Floyd album cover from 1968's A Saucerful of Secrets to the 1981 compilation album A Collection of Great Dance Songs, with the exception of The Wall. Thorgerson also worked on several other Pink Floyd covers following Roger Waters' departure from the band and the dissolution of Hipgnosis in 1983.)

But what's the point of having an album if all you're going to do is admire the cover art?

Dark Side is a concept album, with all the tracks centring around the things that drive people crazy: time, death, greed, conflict, boredom, and insanity, to name a few.

The album begins with a heartbeat.

  • As "Speak to Me," the first track progresses, the heartbeat fades in and is gradually joined by other sound effects, including clocks, cash registers, and insane giggling. This track is a sort of overture for the entire album, as all these sounds occur elsewhere.
  • "Speak to Me" segues into "Breathe" (each side comprises a single, continuous piece of music), a slow, mellow number with lots of pedal steel guitar. This song stresses living one's own life: instead of "hanging on in quiet desperation," we should "breathe in the air / don't be afraid to care."
  • Next is a musique concrète piece titled "On the Run," about the stresses of travel. It is an instrumetal, consisting of a continuous loop from a synthesizer arpeggiator, overlaid with various sound effects: running footsteps, engines, helicopters, and the occasional muffled announcement over a loudspeaker. The producer of this cut plays the mixing board like another instrument. You can always tell when you see someone listening to "On the Run" through headphones: they'll be staring off into space, as their eyeballs follow the helicopters and footsteps panning back and forth between their ears. The track ends with the sound of a plane crash; in live performances, a model airplane would crash and burn on stage.
  • "Time" is, not surprisingly, about time slipping away, and people not realizing it before it is too late. It begins with a montage of alarm clocks ringing. As a teenager, I would often fall asleep to Dark Side of the Moon; invariably, the clocks would wake me up. This is possibly one of the creepiest experiences I have ever had. Don't do this.
  • "The Great Gig in the Sky" is the next cut, and as the metaphorical name suggests, it's about death. The piece is not an instrumental, nor is it a song: it is a vocalise, with guest singer Claire Torry using her voice as an instrument.
  • The album's second side opens with another sound-effect montage of jangling coins and cash registers introducing "Money," which, like "Time," is pretty self-explanatory. It's a satire on greed, as the self-absorbed narrator brags that he can buy football teams and private jets. "Money" is played in an unusual time signature of 7/4 or 7/8, which is a marked change from the typical slow 4/4 that most Pink Floyd songs tend to find themselves in.
  • Next comes "Us and Them," a slow number similar to "Breathe," about conflict. It portrays relationships in terms of dichotomies: "us and them," "me and you," "up and down," and so forth.
  • The last instrumental on Dark Side is the piano-based "Any Colour You Like," about the apparent lack of choice. The title is taken from the claim Henry Ford is said to have made about the Model T: "you can have any colour you like, as long as it's black."
  • "Brain Damage" is about the onset of insanity, and is supposedly inspired by Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd's original frontman. In 1967-68, Barrett had become more and more erratic, to the point that the band became exasperated with his behaviour. Eventually they replaced him with guitarist David Gilmour, while Roger Waters became the band's lead singer and principal songwriter. Barrett's antics were brought on by his heavy drug use, which may have aggravated an existing mental illness. It is from this song, with the repeated lyric "I'll see you on the dark side of the moon," that the album gets its title.
  • Finally, "Brain Damage" runs into "Eclipse," the album's climax. It ends the work on a somewhat more optimistic note: all these bad things are part of unviersal human experience. We're all different people, but we share this in common.

The album ends as it begins: with a heartbeat.

If you've never heard The Dark Side of the Moon, you owe it to yourself to buy it (or beg, borrow, or steal, to quote "Eclipse"), sit down in a quiet room and listen to it through a decent set of speakers or headphones. See if your eyes don't follow the footsteps running through your head during "On the Run." And when you reach "Brain Damage," "Eclipse," amd the lead-out heartbeat, as yourself if it isn't the most satisfying ending to an album, ever.

There's no dark side of the moon, really. In fact, it's all dark.

(Yes, the choice of a lyric from a different Pink Floyd album for this post's title was deliberate. It just seemed fitting. I suppose that when Wish You Were Here's 40th anniversary comes round in 2015, I'll have to borrow a lyric from Animals, or something.)