In terms of albums that have meant a lot to me, Dark Side of the Moon would definitely take the top spot. Winding back to about five years ago (I think), the family and I are all out shopping in Chichester (lovely city and very easy to find your way around) and Dad and I are in HMV. He grabs a copy of Dark Side, says “That’s a good one,” and buys it.
Prior to this point, I’m not a musical person. I occasionally listen to chart stuff and feel spectacularly underwhelmed by it all. I’m dimly aware that Dark Side is supposed to be one of the best recordings ever made, so when we get home, I go into the living room and put our new Dark Side CD into the DVD player so I can listen to it on the surround sound. Initially, there’s silence. Then, somewhere out of the silence, a heartbeat emerges. Dum-DUMM. Dum-DUMM. Dum-DUMM. Slowly more sounds join the heartbeat, a cash register, ticking clocks, snatches of disjointed voices, manic giggling getting steadily louder and louder and louder. A woman starts screaming. It hits a crescendo – just as it sounds like it’s all about to explode – and is split apart by a lovely guitar chord, and the start of the song. So begins Pink Floyd’s masterpiece, The Dark Side of the Moon, and simultaneously, I decide I am definitely into music.
To someone who had only ever listened passively to fairly generic chart music, the first listen of Dark Side was both refreshing and alien. What, you mean a song doesn’t have to go verse-chorus-verse-chorus-different bit-chorus? You can muck around with sound effects and layer textures and it’ll all still sound alright? You don’t just have to have a song as a standalone song, it can flow into the other songs to make a single long musical piece?
Dark Side does all of these things; a set of songs revolving around the theme of things that send people mad. They are, in order: endless work, hectic travel, the march of time, the prospect of death, money, war, choices and, more physically, brain damage. The album, as it would have originally been on vinyl, plays as a single continuous piece of music.
The sound collage that opens (unnecessarily titled “Speak to Me”) segues into “Breathe,” a deliciously languid song. On top of layers of sound so deep it’s like an ocean, David Gilmour has slathered it in slide guitar. It’s like listening to musical whalesong. Then, in his lovely lilting voice, he sings about stress, in stark contrast to the song.
The relaxing atmosphere is hurried away by “On the Run,” an instrumental track built around a rapidly oscillating synthesiser and an urgent hi-hat beat. Strange sounds echo on the fringes, an indistinct speaker voice and hurried footsteps. It’s not dissimilar to the sort of soundtrack you’d get on a 60’s sci-fi show (Terrible Metal Men came from OUTER SPACE!). Disjointed laughter flies at you out of the dark. Unlike “Breathe,” it’s certainly not a relaxing song to listen to.It’s cut short with a laughter, then the sound of a plane exploding. Bit of a shock for people’s first listen. Keep an eye out for it.
A cacophony of different clocks striking heralds the next song, “Time.” How appropriate. After a long, ominous intro, on top of a clock tick and occasional chimes, the song begins properly. “Time” is a favourite song of mine. The lyrics – warning of the dangers of wasting time when young – are spot on, and the driving, insistent guitar in the verses is excellent too. The choruses, like Breathe, are so deeply layered with keyboards and choirs you can swim in them. The middle of the song is bridged by one of Gilmour’s fantastic guitar solos, stepping up through different levels of urgency and passion. His guitar sounds like it’s singing.
“Time” stops abruptly, moving into a reprise of “Breathe”. It’s done so well, you don’t even notice the song’s changed. This is very shortlived, after a single verse, “The Great Gig in the Sky” begins.
“The Great Gig in the Sky” is a very special song, because it manages to speak about one of the most troubling human topics, death, without saying a word. Opening with gentle piano chords and more slide guitar, it then jumps into a remarkable vocal performance. The story goes, that the band grabbed a student off the street, stuck her into a recording booth and told her to sing something, anything. She howled at the top of her lungs for two minutes then emerged from the booth apologising that she’d ruined their song. The band were stunned. The student, a one Clare Torry, was paid £30 for her time, and the vocal went on the record. No words, just a wailing, animal howl pushing the human voice to its limits. I’ve seen someone sing it live and it’s very impressive to hear someone make that noise. Incidentally, Torry worked out that given the album’s success £30 might have been a bit of a raw deal for her so she managed to sue EMI with the result of getting a writing credit on the song.
Ker-ching! The next song, “Money,” is one of Floyd’s most famous ones. It works around a bass riff, in 7/4 time. Seven beats to the bar. It’s an odd time signature, by all means. It makes it very recognisable. It’s a rock song, but done on the band’s own terms. I think it’s very good but overrated. I like the next song a lot more.
“Money” fades away on top of a maddening loop of interviews with roadies, to be replaced by a slow organ introduction. The next song, “Us and Them,” is sweet and serene and beautiful, and it’s about war. I know, odd combination, isn’t it? The band wanted to juxtapose images of people being shot to pieces in a foreign field somewhere (in slow motion) with beautiful music. It works very well and it’s an incredibly emotional song. It rises to a crescendo during the choruses, which what sounds like a ten-thousand strong choir howling in the background. There’s a beautiful saxophone solo as well.
Immediately after “Us and Them” we go into “Any Colour You Like.” The closest thing to filler on the album, it’s a three-minute synth-and guitar jam. The effects on the guitar are so heavy it’s difficult to tell which instruments are making which noises. Quite nice and funky though.
The last full song on the album, “Brain Damage,” is probably the most conventional song on the album, built along guitar picking and some swirly organ. It’s fragmented, though, with the sound of demented giggling, which is just a tiny bit unsettling. Worse, somehow the sound has been mixed in such a way that the giggling sounds like it’s happening right next to your ear, rather than at a safe distance. If you’ve ever watched any of those godawful Salad Fingers cartoons on youtube, you’ll know what I mean.
And to finish! The album’s grand finale is a short song called “Eclipse” which more or less sounds like all the elements of the album coming back to take their bows. It was used to close the Olympic opening ceremony (London, obvs.) It’s a spectacular finale, just before the curtain comes down. As everything fades, we’re left with that heartbeat sound that the album started with, fading away into nothing.
Dark Side was hugely different and significant when it first came out, and it was hugely significant to me. It sounds different. It sounds pioneering, and special (and very very good). It’s moving and powerful. And it opened me up to a whole world of music, so it absolutely has to be in my top ten.
Video time. This is Pink Floyd’s appearance at Live 8 in 2005, which was hugely significant as it was the first and only time all four members played together as a band since their particularly vicious breakup. The idea being, if they could bury the hatchet surely the G8 summit could bury the hatchet with one another? Or something like that. From Dark Side, they play Speak to Me/Breathe, and Money, as well as their best hits, Wish You Were Here and Comfortably Numb, the latter probably being the best version of it every played. Enjoy: