1973: Pink Floyd / The Dark Side Of The Moon

by J A Gray

I remember being about 9 or so and Marcus talking about all these groups with colours in their names.  Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, King Crimson, Tangerine Dream, and Pink Floyd.  And a kind of music that was called “underground”.  It all sounded very strange and yet also enticing.  Then I heard one of his contemporaries playing Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (a story I will be returning to in a later chapter).  I really liked what I heard.  I was especially impressed that Oldfield had done most of it himself.  But I was also very impressed with myself.  I could listen to these long tracks of purely instrumental music and actually digest it, understand it, learn it and enjoy it.  Hey, I could handle grown-up music now!  Words and short songs were for kids.  So I asked Marcus what else was out there that was a bit like Tubular Bells.  Long tracks of instrumental music.  Two of those colourful band names came up again; Tangerine Dream and Pink Floyd.  Tangerine Dream though only used synthesizers.  Synthesizer was a dirty word back then in rockist circles.  They weren’t real instruments apparently.  But Pink Floyd were a proper band.  None of this stuff was Marcus’s bag at all, but he suggested that I might like The Dark Side Of The Moon.

In fact I seem to remember that he bought it for me, for a birthday or a Christmas around about 1976 or so.  I played it once or twice.  And I didn’t digest it, understand it, learn it or enjoy it.  Neither was it an album of especially long tracks.  Nor was much of it instrumental.  I couldn’t really get a line on it at all.  The dark, oppressive cover seemed to be reflected by the music.  It sounded to me to be slow, heavy and actually a bit frightening.  And a scary man kept laughing on it.  I had been particularly averse to the sound of maniacal laughter ever since one of those weeks we’d spent at Glo’s a few years earlier.  We used to share a bedroom and mostly I remember it being a lot of fun.  Marcus was always very good at cracking me up.  He can still do it now.  But he also loved to scare the shite out of me too.  His greatest success in this regard was to wait until the lights were out before launching into a spectacularly slow and spooky rendition of They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!  I would yell and plead for him to stop or put the light back on.  He’d promise to stop.  A few minutes would pass in silence.  And then the torture would recommence.  More screaming.  Mum would come and find out what the matter was and Marcus would snigger into his pillow.  So, yeah, I hated creepy laughter.  It was probably the major factor in my putting The Dark Side Of The Moon aside and forgot about it for a couple of years.

In the meantime punk rock arrived.  In 1977 I was one of a select band of 11-year-old punk rock fans in the Yorkshire market town of Richmond.  As usual it was a case of riding on Marcus’s coat-tails, but the music was fresh and exciting and I was moving forward with it.  I most likely wouldn’t have returned to anything remotely resembling progressive rock for the rest of my teens, but then, around about 1979, I started hanging out with a charismatic lad called Tim and his sidekick Gareth.  Gareth and I fell into submissive roles and Tim was our leader.  He was sharp and funny, but also manipulative and often cruel.  Looking back I can’t believe I took as much crap as I did, but I was a needy lad and young for my age.  I was always willing to look to someone else for approval, direction and style.  Tim wore his blond hair long.  He prided himself on being a hippy.  I met his big brother once.  Chris had really long hair and really was a hippy.  So Tim was evidently under the influence of an older sibling too.  Tim listened to Pink Floyd and Yes and pretty soon so did I.  He even played guitar and the drums.  Marcus was away at University by now.  I was easy meat.

And so it continued for the next three years or so.  We would troop up to Darlington on Saturdays and hang out at this shop called Guru that sold records, posters, badges and joss sticks.  I fully immersed myself in all things hippy and I must admit that I really enjoyed it all.  OK, things did get more than a little out of hand when I found myself buying Roger Dean posters and listening to Genesis records.  And Gong proved to be a step too far – I was so creeped out by The Flying Teapot that I hid it in my cupboard and pretended it didn’t exist.  I remember the song I Am Your Pussy being the final straw.  But the one band whose music I grew to love in this period that I no longer look back on with any sense of embarrassment is Pink Floyd.

We used to have these music lessons at school where we could bring in our own records and play them for the class.  I think we must have finished covering the syllabus early.  I can remember my mate Nick causing a bit of a stink when he brought in The Sex Pistols’ Friggin’ In The Riggin’.  I felt somewhat culpable because I’d introduced Nick to all things punk two years earlier in ’77 and he was still as keen as mustard.  He was clearly testing the boundaries and our very polite and liberal music teacher rightly felt that Nick had taken advantage of his good will.  But most of the time the music played was your standard 70s hairy rock fare, the likes of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.  Tim brought in Pink Floyd’s Meddle, and I was instantly won over by the acoustic guitar rock of songs like A Pillow Of Winds and Fearless.  Tim, Gareth and I went to see the Pink Floyd Live At Pompeii movie which was playing as the b-feature in a double bill with Led Zep’s The Song Remains The Same.  That was in Darlington again.  What a strange universe it is when Darlington is your cultural centre, but that’s the way it was for us in those days.  I started buying up Pink Floyd’s back catalogue.  And I also reacquainted myself with The Dark Side Of The Moon.  Perhaps I was now under the influence of too many joss sticks, but the music started making sense to me.

Pink Floyd had once been Syd Barrett’s band.  Syd was a hugely talented writer of quintessentially English psychedelic pop songs, but soon began to show signs of chronic mental illness, likely brought on by his excessive intake of LSD.  Dave Gilmour was brought in to cover for the increasingly wayward Barrett, but soon they decided they’d be better off without Syd at all.  The post-Barrett Floyd took a while to find themselves and the first few albums by the new line-up are patchy affairs.  There would be strong songs here and there, but they were usually surrounded by disposable filler tracks consisting of directionless noodling or half-baked sonic experimentation.  1971’s Meddle was a marked improvement, but The Dark Side Of The Moon is arguably the first fully cohesive Pink Floyd LP.

This time everything was meticulously planned, and the arrangements, playing and production are all stunningly good.  In fact the production was so imaginative and so expertly engineered that for decades The Dark Side Of The Moon was the default hi-fi demonstration LP.  It’s right up there with Abbey Road for me for its full, fat sound and texture, and it’s perhaps no coincidence that both albums were made at that same studio.  The lyrics, all by Roger Waters, tackle real life concerns.  After years of songs about outer space or inner navel gazing, this was clearly an attempt to say something more meaningful.  The music is similarly focussed, with most of the excess flab cut away.  It’s not that the band had sold out or were trying to be more commercial, but they, and Roger Waters in particular, were making a concerted attempt to make everything count this time around.  It remains most people’s favourite Pink Floyd album.  It catches the band at a unified peak, before Gilmour, Wright and Mason became little more than Roger Waters’s musical servants.  And there was no pressure on them back then – nobody had ever considered the possibility of Pink Floyd making a hit album.  But for the rest of their career they were expected to maintain the standards they’d set with The Dark Side Of The Moon, with variable results.

My first perceptions still held partially true – some of it is indeed more than a little bit dark, oppressive, slow and heavy.  Lyrically, it’s not a fun album.  It’s a concept record (yes, another one of those!) about everyday pressures and stresses and human frailty.  There are songs about old age, death, materialism, war and mental illness (the latter in part influenced by Syd Barrett’s fate) and, in isolation, the sentiments can read cold, desperate and gloomy.  But this is counterbalanced by tight, expressive and dynamic playing, especially the always emotive lead guitar of Dave Gilmour.  Anyone who has ever seen Gilmour interviewed on TV will know how quiet and diffident he tends to be.  Heck, the entire band are almost caricatures of uptight middle class Englishmen – all stiff upper lips and suppressed emotions.  Gilmour expresses himself best through his guitar, either rock hard and filled with bite, or slow and languid and capable of conveying great sadness and pathos.  And also this time around there were strong musical hooks.   You can sing along to these songs.  Money, Time and Breathe became instant American FM radio classics.  That was pretty much the same as a hit record as far as 20-to-40-year old men were concerned.  Money aside, we’re not dealing with an album of upbeat stompers here, but the songs have depth and resonance and the album surrenders its charms and its secrets over time.  To give an apt example, the song Time itself isn’t in a hurry to get anywhere, the intro lasts for 2 and a half of its total 7 minutes duration, but every second of it is made to count, from the clang of the multiple clock alarms and chimes that begin the track so dramatically, through the slow and stately build of the opening instrumental section with Nick Mason’s rototoms to the fore, to the short and sharp drum fill that signals the arrival of the vocals.  Oh yes, the vocals.  By now Dave Gimour and Rick Wright had absolutely nailed their close unison lead singing, all creamy soft English cadences with honey-smoked bluesy undertones.  Their vocals are one of the most recognisable and wonderful features of Pink Floyd records, yet remain curiously neglected by most commentators.

Part way through our final year of school together, aged 16 or so, Tim had a radical change of image.  He had his long hair cut into a feathery and spikey mop and started to wear funky second hand clothes instead of his school uniform.  He denounced all the old music we’d listened to.  He’d clearly decided to have his punk rock Year Zero in 1982, five years after everybody else.  He started running with the arty new wave crowd that I was also on fairly good terms with.  He all but severed any ties with Gareth, his long-serving lieutenant, and before much longer it was obvious that I’d outlived my usefulness too.  Next year I stayed on for sixth form and Tim went to a college out of town with the arty punks.  I don’t think I saw him more than once or twice after this.

I did hear from him though, very much later.  Quite out of the blue, about ten to fifteen years ago, Tim wrote me a letter.  He seemed especially concerned about his behaviour towards me all those years ago.  He wanted to apologise for not treating me with enough love and compassion.  For not being a better friend.  It was a lovely letter, and I really appreciated hearing this from him.  Before long, more letters were arriving from Tim, but these were like the impersonal Round Robins some people like to send out at Christmas, intended for multiple recipients, and filled with glad tidings, cheap sentiments and poorly disguised boasting.  I have always found these things pretty objectionable, and I wrote to tell him that this wasn’t the kind of communication I wanted us to be having.  I never heard from him again.  I’d outlived my usefulness a second time.  Hey ho.  Maybe one of us will give it another go somewhere down the line.  The letterbox remains open.

By the time Tim had left for college, I’d also set aside all things hippy.  I’d rediscovered The Clash and The Stranglers and was also starting to enjoy current music again.  I was buying records by Echo And The Bunnymen, Dexys Midnight Runners and (back when they were actually pretty decent) UB40.  I don’t think I listened to Pink Floyd again for the best part of a decade.  I definitely haven’t listened to Yes or Genesis or gazed adoringly at a Roger Dean poster since.  But some things withstand both the test of time and the fickle winds of change, and these days I welcome back The Dark Side Of The Moon like an old friend who hasn’t been in touch for a while.

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N.B. The Dark Side Of The Moon is currently available, in remastered form, in multiple formats.  The ‘Discovery’ edition includes just the original album.  The ‘Experience’ edition adds a second disc which contains a live performance of the album.  The ‘Immersion’ edition is a box set which adds: a third disc of out-takes and alternate mixes; as well as two DVDs of 5.1 mixes, other mix variants, and some video material; plus a blu-ray disc which duplicates the DVD material; and a whole bunch of fairly pointless extra tat ranging from a book, to a bag of marbles, to an incredibly tacky scarf.

My other nominations for 1973 albums of merit:

Lou Reed / Berlin

Mike Oldfield / Tubular Bells

Todd Rundgren / A Wizard, A True Star

The Who / Quadrophenia

The Wailers / Burnin’

Funkadelic / Cosmic Slop

The Beach Boys / Holland

Alan Price / O Lucky Man!

Fairport Convention / Nine

Paul McCartney & Wings / Band On The Run

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