The Dark Side of the Moon Turns 40

The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd just celebrated its 40th birthday. The album, with its iconic cover artwork (a prism and spectrum of light), is recognized by music critics and fans as one of the greatest albums of all time, having spent over 1,630 weeks — 31 years! — on Billboard’s music charts (The Billboard 200 and Top Pop Catalog Albums Chart). Pink Floyd’s magnum opus is also one of the best-selling albums of all times, with an estimated 50 million copies sold worldwide. Like any great work of art, this legendary concept album is visionary and complex, rich in meaning, full of symbolism and nuances — and it has entertained and perplexed music fans for decades. For many fans, it was an invitation to listen to and enjoy music in a heightened altered state. Music aficionados can vividly recall the first time they heard the album; and most pine for a chance to hear it again for the first time. After four decades, thanks to documentaries, books, and interviews with the band members, fascinating stories and trivia about the album have emerged from the dark, into the light.

So what exactly is the meaning of The Dark Side of the Moon? The theme of The Dark Side of the Moon, originally proposed by bassist and songwriter Roger Waters, was the things that make people insane — that mirrored, on one level, the gradual mental breakdown of Syd Barrett, an early band member. Cliff Jones, a self-confessed “Floydophile” and writer for Rolling Stones explains: “The album’s premise is that modern life is a recipe for insanity, and that a human has to fight hard to escape madness.” Another important theme of the album is the dichotomy of light and dark, good and evil. Phil Rose, a very articulate Floyd expert, explains: “Waters [employs] the sun and moon as symbols throughout [the album].. in his own words, their representation of  ‘the light and the dark; the good and the bad; the life force as opposed to the death force.’” Indeed the album is as ambitious, as it is inventive, in its exploration of the human experience, the circle of life: it begins with birth (the sound of a heartbeat) and moves through anxiety, stress, solitude, withdrawal, agony, death, greed, isolation, depression, free will, madness, ultimately arriving at empathy, understanding, and unity. Who said that progressive rock had to be droll or trifling?

The Dark Side of the Moon was actually written and developed a year prior to being recorded in the studio. Some of the album’s melodies and songs were developed from earlier demos and unreleased material created by Roger Waters, David Gilmour, and Nick Mason. The entire album was first performed in concert on January 20, 1972 under the title of “Dark Side of the Moon: A Piece for Assorted Lunatics” (and for a brief time as “Eclipse”). Over the course of the year, as they performed the album live throughout Europe and North America, they gradually refined each of the songs.

The Dark Side of the Moon was recorded at the legendary Abbey Road Studios in London in two separate sessions (May 1972 and January 1973) engineered by Alan Parsons, who had also worked with the Beatles on “Abbey Road” and “Let it Be.” Parsons went on to develop his own successful progressive rock group in 1975, The Alan Parsons Project, releasing 10 albums. Despite many rumors that The Dark Side of the Moon was written as a soundtrack for the film “Wizard of Oz” (claiming 70 to 100 synchronicities between the film and the album, e.g., when Dorothy looks up just as the sound of the helicopter is heard on the song “On the Run”), Parsons stated unequivocally that the film was never discussed during the recording sessions — proof that doing drugs and listening to the album can lead to all sorts of far-fetched ideas and theories.

The iconic album cover was designed by the British design firm Hipgnosis, founded in 1968 by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell. Initially Hipgnosis had designed Pink Floyd’s earlier albums (Atom Heart Mother and Obscured by Clouds); this time around, Richard Wright asked the firm to design something “smarter, neater — more classy” and “simple and bold.” Hipgnosis brought in freelancer George Hardie to work on the project; together, they presented Pink Floyd with seven different design concepts. The prism concept, that was selected by the band, was inspired by a photograph that Thorgerson had seen during the design exploration phase. The prism artwork, created by Hardie, shows six colors of the rainbow, missing the seventh, indigo. In the fascinating DVD documentary, “Classic Albums: The Making of The Dark Side of the Moon” it is revealed that the cover artwork represents three important elements: the album’s lyrics, the band’s stage lighting, and a simple but bold design. Hipgnosis went on to design some of the most recognized album covers in the history of music, including Led Zeppelin, Yes, Paul McCartney & Wings, Alan Parsons Project, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, and ELO. Hipgnosis dissolved in 1983.

The album was released on March 24, 1973, becoming one of the best-selling albums of all time; it stayed on Billboard’s Top 200 Album chart for a record-breaking 724 consecutive weeks. In the U.S. it is ranked in the top 25 best-selling albums of all time; in England, it is the 6th best-selling album of all time.

The amazing gospel-inspired vocals on “The Great Gig in the Sky” belong to songwriter and singer Clare Torry who was invited by David Gilmour to come into the studio to improvise a wordless melody for the song. During the 70s, a rumor circulated that the vocals represented a woman’s orgasm — once again creative thinking by the drug-induced stupor of listeners or perhaps sex-deprived teenagers. The title of the song is, in fact, a metaphor for death and the song expresses the horror of death (undoubtedly, a song that Edgar Allan Poe would have greatly appreciated). Rose elaborates: “[The female who represents humanity] erupts into hysterical screaming, but one is led to suspect that this outburst is not outwardly observable. It takes place purely in her psyche, and we are now able to observe the horror that she truly experiences when she conceptualizes her non-existence. This external/internal dichotomy is suggested by the apparently calm and confident statements [that appear before and after] the outburst which is juxtaposed with the unrestrained singing. We are able to view her mental landscape and witness the true torture  with her state of “quiet desperation” or the repression of her fear.” Heavy stuff to ponder; no wonder, so many Pink Floyd fans quickly reached for their bongs…

For further reading: Which One’s Pink by Phil Rose, Collector’s Guide Publishing (1998)
Another Brick in the Wall: The Stories Behind Every Pink Floyd Song by Cliff Jones, Carlton (1996)
DVD: Classic Albums: The Making of the Dark Side of the Moon directed by Matthew Longfellow (2003)

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