“(Roger Waters) created a story, basically a theater piece, about what it was like to live in the modern world.”
David Fricke, journalist
“The way Dark Side of the Moon articulates some of the early adult disenchantment is absolutely timeless.”
Robert Sandall, journalist
“Dark Side of The Moon was an expression of political, philosophical, humanitarian empathy that was desperate to get out.”
Three years from now, it would mark five decades since Roger Waters penned his dissertation on the human condition. Since its release, Pink Floyd’s 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon has shaken how we listen to music. Remaining in the Billboard charts for 741 consecutive weeks, it is one of the most influential albums ever made, deserving of the title “legendary”.
It is often revered as the unmatched epitome of concept albums, as it is rife with coherent ideas roofed under the same theme. Possessing a great narrative, the album flows like one long song. While it had a commercial appeal, it could take you to much deeper places if you listened to it more carefully.
The phrase “the dark side of the Moon” is normally used to describe the mysterious and the unknown. It’s the side of the Moon that we couldn’t see, because it faces away from the Earth. So, figuratively, to be “on the dark side of the Moon” could mean that you’re in a position that’s seemingly unreachable for most other people. You’re alone with your thoughts, as you face the black expanse of space.
Prior to working on the album, Pink Floyd’s singer and primary songwriter, Syd Barrett was forced out of the band due to his mental illness — Prompting bassist Roger Waters to step up to the songwriter’s plate.
“After Syd was gone, the music became more of a kind of soundscapes than songs,” as journalist Nigel Williamson wrote. Under Waters’s wing, the band abandoned their psychedelic brand, and moved on to writing songs that were more philosophical in nature. “It was the beginning of empathy,” Waters said, as they decided to write about “real people, real emotions, real life”.
Then 29 years old and married, Waters was still struggling with the many issues that had plagued him since adolescence. At the root of it was being drummed a conventional idea at an early age by his mother, that life, especially in getting an education and a job, is ultimately a preparation.
He said, “I suddenly realized then that year, that life was already happening. I think it was because my mother was so obsessed with education and the idea that childhood and adolescence, and everything was about preparing for life that was about to start later. And I suddenly realized that life was not going to start later. It starts at ‘dot’ and it happens all the time. And at any point, you can grasp the reins and start guiding your own destiny. And that was a big revelation to me. It came as quite a shock.”
He gave an analogy for the life he did not want to live, saying, “If you got the tube at Goldhawk Road, there was this inspired bit of graffiti. It said : ‘Get up, go to work, do your job, come home, go to bed, get up, go to work…’ It was on this wall and seemed to go on for ever, and as the train sped up, it would go by quicker and quicker until — Bang! — You suddenly went into a tunnel.”
Waters had the idea to write a whole album revolving around the concept of madness in the modern world, articulating on “the pressures and difficulties and questions that crop up in one’s life and create anxiety.” Gathering the band together, Waters instructed them to make a list of things that drove them mad.
The album explores madness in philosophical terms — On one side, a person would be mad if she lives her entire life reacting to modern pressures such as money, and subjecting only to society’s definition of what a “good life” should look like. And on the other side, as the album further discusses, society would consider a person mad if she doesn’t conform to their usual ways of thinking.
Wanting to include “honest, human voices” in the album, Waters interviewed the studio crew and roadies. They were people who weren’t used to being interviewed, and this helped in getting the most candid responses. Waters prepared notecards with questions written on them, starting from the most innocent, such as, “What’s your favorite color?” and “What’s your favorite food?” to stronger ones, such as “When was the last time you were violent?”, followed by “Were you in the right?”
We could hear a voice in the album clearly utter, “I’ve been mad for years, absolutely years”.
With the song Speak to Me, the album begins with the simple sound of the human heartbeat, then followed by voices, the ticking of clocks, the ringing of a cash register, maniacal laughter, and screaming — All of which we would encounter again throughout the album. The heartbeat, which bookends the album, represents life, and the other sounds portray the gamut of emotions and experiences that are pinwheeled in life itself : Time, fear, greed, failure, insanity.
We then settle into Breathe, an exhortation for us to simply “breathe in the air”, and to “not be afraid to care” — To empathize with our fellow human beings, and to just remember what it means to be human. And in a view confirmed by Waters, this song also invites us “to be prepared to stand your ground and attempt to live your life in an authentic way”.
As we segue into On the Run, we hear the racing of footsteps, an airport announcement, and fast-paced synthesizer notes in the background — Capturing the rush and anxiety that sum up modern life.
In Time, we hear the ticking and chiming of clocks, and a slow-tempo instrumental sequence, which altogether last for about 2 minutes. The tempo then heightens as the song takes a more upbeat turn. The song’s structure could be a metaphor for its message — We often go through our days in boredom and lazily waiting for inspiration. Only once too much time has passed, we work ourselves to the bone to make up for the time we had lost, and the potential we had in us that we’d laid wasted. As the lyrics say, “The time is gone, the song is over, thought I’d something more to say.”
Moving on to The Great Gig In the Sky, we are welcomed by the gentle piano and steel guitar, before Clare Torry’s vocals kick in. Even though this song doesn’t have lyrics, we’d know from the interview excerpt that it is about death. In recording this song, the band asked Torry to “Think about death, think about horror”. With her wailing and screaming, she conveyed sorrow, pain, and death — As if they were thoughts and emotions too large to be sung in words.
The next track, Money starts with the sound of a cash register and loose change. It expresses human greed and how we would do anything to get wealthy. In a mocking tone, the lyrics indulge in the wealthy life — New cars, caviar, buying yourself a football team whenever you want. From a musical aspect, an interesting thing about this song is its unusual 7/4 time signature — It even changes to 4/4 during the guitar solo and a few other parts of the song. And it somehow works beautifully.
In Us and Them, the album starts to bring society into the picture. The song questions the conflicts in the world, and depicts the feeling that one is at odds with the rest of society. While she thinks society is mad for sending people off to war, society looks down on her as mad for not conforming to popular stance. Using dichotomies, the lyrics touch on “Those fundamental issues of whether or not the human race is capable of being humane,” as Roger Waters explained.
Next, in Any Colour You Like, there aren’t any lyrics. But as Waters proffered, the song is about the lack of choice that we have as a society in changing how things are, while we’re constantly being deluded into thinking that we do have choice. In simpler terms, it’s like someone selling you a car, and tells you “You can have any color you like, but there’s only blue”. He commented, “Metaphorically, ‘Any Colour You Like’ is interesting, in that sense, because it denotes offering a choice where there is none. And it’s also interesting that in the phrase, ‘Any colour you like, they’re all blue,’ I don’t know why, but in my mind it’s always ‘they’re all blue’, which, if you think about it, relates very much to the light and dark, Sun and Moon, good and evil. You make your choice but it’s always blue.”
In Brain Damage, the song brings forth the question, “Who gets to decide who is mad?”. A picture used in the song is a person sitting on the grass — Is that person mad for breaking the rule of not touching the grass, or is society mad for making up a ridiculous rule? While Waters admitted that the song had a little to do with Syd Barrett, he opined that the song is about “defending the notion of being different.” The song is also a reach out to other mad people out there who think differently, telling them that they’re not alone. It calls out, “If your head explodes with dark forebodings too, I’ll see you on the dark side of the Moon.” In this song, we hear the maniacal laughter.
Lastly, in Eclipse, the album ends on an optimistic note, saying that we may be mad, but there’s still hope. Giving his own interpretation of the song, Waters said, “I think it’s a very simple statement saying that all the good things life can offer are there for us to grasp, but that the influence of some dark force in our natures prevents us from seizing them. The song addresses the listener and says that if you, the listener, are affected by that force, and if that force is a worry to you, well I feel exactly the same too…I know you have these bad feelings and impulses because I do too, and one of the ways I can make direct contact with you is to share with you the fact that I feel bad sometimes.”
We are not alone in our madness, the album wants us to know. Waters remarked, “When I say, ‘I’ll see you on the dark side of the Moon’, what I mean is, ‘If you feel that you’re the only one…That you seem crazy because you think everything is crazy, you’re not alone.’ There’s a camaraderie involved in the idea of people who are prepared to walk the dark places alone. A number of us are willing to open ourselves up to all those possibilities. You’re not alone!”
As the album ends, we hear the heartbeat again.
Reminiscing the making of the album, drummer Nick Mason said, “It was one of those really good moments that most bands do experience where everyone is on one side, and everyone likes the idea. And there’s an agreement to, more or less, who’s going to do what.” Keyboardist Richard Wright asserted that “On Dark Side, I think, it felt like the whole band was working together. It was a very creative time. We were all very open as well.”
In Pink Floyd’s entire arsenal of albums, Dark Side of the Moon could be their most productive. It reflects a time when the band was in their best synergy, when they were all laser-focused on a common goal.
The album was written during troubling times, especially with the Vietnam War raging on and the Watergate scandal dominating headlines. People responded to the album on emotional levels, and that’s exactly what makes great art.
David Fricke praised the album, saying “It was actually a really grim time. And (Waters) wrote a very grim record but did it with music that was extremely uplifting, compelling, and bewitching..What he was feeling as an individual mirrored almost exactly what a lot of other people were feeling at the time of their own lives.”
Mark Blake, a biographer of the band wrote, “Dark Side of the Moon seemed to mirror the troubled world around it..Like so much of Roger Waters’s future work, it bleated and moaned and harangued the listener, while also grabbing hold of them and reassuring them that all would be okay in the end. It was a sad but uplifting experience.”
Perhaps another reason why the album was so successful was that, as rich as it was in ideas, it didn’t take away any of the listeners’ imagination. Very much like the sfumato effect in painting, the band made their music as simple as it could be, and left gaps for the audience to fill in their own thoughts and imagination.
And of course, the album’s influence on the world hasn’t waned one bit. Instead, it has only become more relevant. Complimenting Waters’s songwriting, guitarist David Gilmour said, “The ideas that Roger was exploring apply to every new generation. They still have very much the same relevance as they had.”
Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins ruminated on the album’s influence best, on behalf of its listeners. He said, “In the early 1980s I was riding in a friend’s car and he goes, ‘Have you ever heard Dark Side of the Moon?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard it.’ They were like, ‘No, have you actually sat and listened to it?’ So we just drove around and around and listened to the album…
“From a geeky audio perspective, Dark Side of the Moon is a landmark. But when I was a kid it wasn’t so much about the sound. It was about the emotional experience. It was kind of an out-of-body thing. It taps some inner loneliness and alienation, but it does it in this way that sort of has a humanity to it. That’s what I think is so brilliant about it. It both alienates and isolates you, but you don’t end up feeling bummed out when it’s over.”
It must have been an amazing feeling for Roger Waters, knowing that he and his band were responsible for creating a timeless masterpiece. He remarked, “I had a very strong feeling when we finished the record that we had come up with something very, very special.”
As soon as the album was finished, he brought it home and played it to his wife, Judy. She listened in silence, and just as it ended, she burst into tears. “I took that as a very good sign,” said Waters.
With Money topping as a hit single and conquering the airwaves, the album had undoubtedly brought the band into the limelight and turned them into international standouts.
Pink Floyd was now on the rise.