20 Years Ago, 'Dark Side of the Moon' Began Its Cosmic
It was 20 years ago today that Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" went to No. 1 on the Billboard album chart. It stayed there only a week. "I thought it was a good record," recalls Roger Waters, the British band's songwriter and bassist. "It happened to strike a certain chord at a certain time with lots of people."
Still, Waters and Pink Floyd had no particular commercial expectations for "Dark Side of the Moon," based on the fact that none of their seven previous albums had so much as dented the Top 40 in the United States. "We'd have danced naked around the Lincoln Memorial if we'd thought it would sell records," Waters says. And that wasn't in Capitol's marketing plan, because there was no marketing plan.
This album didn't need one. Though its stay at the top was brief, "Dark Side" hung around on the Top 200 chart for a while longer -- well, actually, for 724 consecutive weeks (740 weeks altogether). It didn't drop off until July 13, 1988.
That 14-year stretch is considered one of pop music's untouchable records (the next longest run: "Johnny Mathis's Greatest Hits" at 490 weeks). Michael Jackson's "Thriller" may have sold the most copies ever -- 40 million -- but it only spent 122 weeks on the album chart.
Although it is still officially listed as having reached "gold" status for sales of 500,000 copies, "Dark Side of the Moon" has sold more than 25 million copies, including 12 million stateside. The problem is that the Recording Industry Association of America didn't institute its "platinum" status for million-sellers until January 1976, and refuses to certify anything retroactively. When Billboard introduced a back catalogue chart in 1991 (to monitor sales of reissued albums), "Dark Side of the Moon" entered and has been there ever since, currently at that unfamiliar No. 1 spot.
While "Dark Side of the Moon" was charting, disco, punk and new wave all came -- and went. As did Waters, who left Pink Floyd in 1983, later sued the other members to keep them from using the name Pink Floyd, and remains harshly critical of their subsequent work (more on this later).
Twenty years ago, Pink Floyd had envisioned a box containing bumper stickers, posters and other treats, but Capitol was too cheap, particularly since this was the band's last record before switching to Columbia. (In fact, Pink Floyd took a royalty cut so that posters could be included without raising the cost of the original record.) Now Capitol has released a limited-edition commemorative edition of "Dark Side" -- in a box, containing a newly remastered holographic picture CD, a color booklet and postcards.
"Dark Side of the Moon" was released on March 31, 1973, its first notes striking that certain chord (actually bouncing back and forth between an E minor and A major on "Breathe In the Air"). As Waters puts it, "it's gone on striking chords with people." It's become something of a rite of passage for
generations of rock fans, and it still sells more than 1 million copies every year.
Certainly the reviewers at the time didn't spot anything special, including British critics who called it "a stereo fetishist's wet dream" and faulted the album for "too much sound effects, too little cohesive music." In Rolling Stone, the "Dark Side" review ran below those for Judee Sill's "Heart Food," Alice Cooper's "Billion Dollar Babies" and "Best of Bread." The reviewer noted that the record "seems to deal primarily with the feelings and the depravity of human life, hardly the commonplace subject matter of rock," and called it "a fine album with a textural and conceptual richness that not only invites, but demands involvement." It demands involvement right from the start, actually, with the slow cosmic heartbeat of "Speak to Me." The songs that follow -- "Breathe In the Air," "Time," "Money," "Us and Them," "Brain Damage" and "Eclipse" -- do seem obsessed with alienation, the banality of everyday life and the inexorable encroachment of death, a world-weary pessimism that the Times of London attributed to "the melancholy of our times."
"It was more realistic than a lot of pop music," Waters, who wrote all the lyrics, says from London. "The end of the record is pessimistic, except that it allows that all things are possible and that we human beings, individually and collectively, must have our potentials and possibilities in our hands. We make decisions and do things that make our lives more positive or negative -- whether the positive is couched in terms of the amount of love that we exchange with our family or friends, or whether we allow the dark sides of our past to overtake us and make our lives more negative.
"We all fight small battles in that war between the positive and the negative, between good and evil, between God and the devil, however you want to couch it, every day of our lives," says Waters, who turns 50 this year. "I'm obsessed with truth and how the futile scramble for material things obscures our possible path to understanding ourselves, each other and the universe in ways that will make human life more fulfilling for all human beings. That's what 'Dark Side of the Moon' is about, and what most of my records have been about."
When he says "my records," Waters is talking about Pink Floyd's four post-"Dark Side" albums and his three solo albums following the acrimonious split in 1983. Before "Dark Side," the band still operated in the shadow of singer-writer Syd Barrett -- who, along with Waters, keyboardist Rick Wright and drummer Nick Mason, was a student at Cambridge University, where Pink Floyd coalesced in the mid-'60s. (The band took its name from two American blues singers, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.) With their electronic rock and mind-expanding light shows, Pink Floyd became the darling of the London underground, but Barrett lost his mind to drugs and left in 1968, replaced by guitarist-singer David Gilmour.
For the next several years, the band was best known for its exploratory jams and movie soundtracks, its sonic architecture serving as a blueprint for the progressive rock movement. What it lacked was songs.
"Nobody else in the band could write lyrics," says Waters. "There were no other lyricists after Syd. David's written a couple of songs but they're nothing special. I don't think Nick ever tried to write a lyric and Rick probably did in the very early days, but they were awful."
According to Waters, who is seldom reticent in criticism of his former band mates, when he told the others his ideas for "Dark Side," "they went, 'Okay, that's a good idea.' In the 'histories,' it always comes out sounding like 'we' did this and 'we' did that and 'we' decided it was going to be a concept album. "But there was none of that. There was never any question of sitting around and discussing what we might do. I have to say it's not all my work -- I only wrote all the lyrics and two-thirds of the songs. Gilmour's contribution was very slight. The other major influence is Rick Wright, who did the music on 'Us and Them' and the instrumental 'Great Gig in the Sky.' "
Recorded at Abbey Road Studios on its brand-new 24-track equipment, the album came together over a nine-month period, and as it developed, "it sounded special," Waters recalls. "When it was finished, I took the tape home and played it to my first wife, and I remember her bursting into tears when she'd finished listening to it. And I thought, yeah, that's kind of what I expected, because I think it's very moving emotionally and musically. Maybe its humanity has caused 'Dark Side' to last as long as it has."
There was also the sound of it -- the album's only Grammy went to Alan Parsons for "Best Engineered Album of 1973"; it launched his own recording career with the Alan Parsons Project.
One thing that struck Waters when he listened to it recently was "how loud the sound effects -- the cash registers [on 'Money'], the clocks [on 'Time'] -- were mixed. The record very much focuses on important information, so if it's a vocal you can hear it, if it's a guitar solo you can hear it and if it's a sound effect you can hear it. That's because the drums are very quiet all the way through the record. That's one thing about the record that sounds really old-fashioned because these days we tend to have drums up really loud, which leaves less space for other information."
Waters says that 'Dark Side's" sonic reputation -- not only was it the most popular tool to demonstrate hi-fi equipment in the '70s, but it was voted the most popular soundtrack for sex shows in Amsterdam -- is overblown. "I think the sonics derived directly from the ideas and because of the ideas. Space is the important thing in good-sounding records, and certain elements were allowed to exist very much in their own space. That's why the record sounds good." It looked good too, with its now-famous cover, by the Hipgnosis design firm, showing white light refracting into a rainbow prism, homage to the old light shows (it made Rolling Stone's list of the 100 greatest album covers of all time). Oddly enough, "Dark Side of the Moon" almost required a different name because a band called Medicine Head had released a similarly titled album the year before. That album stiffed and Pink Floyd dropped its alternate title, "Eclipse." There also was a downside to "Dark Side."
Though its records had never sold particularly well, Pink Floyd had built a loyal cult following through its mind-bending performances, which attracted reverential audiences. But with the success of "Dark Side," the audience changed not just in size -- the band was now playing in sports arenas and stadiums -- but in character. Instead of listening, it began demanding the group's first and only hit single, "Money."
"That's why after 1977 I refused to play stadiums," says Waters, "because the larger the audience, the whole thing becomes more about commerce and less about communication, music, human feelings and values."
Those same issues exacerbated the tensions that had been building within the band, though Waters says the line in "Brain Damage" that gave the album its name -- "And if the band you're in starts playing different tunes, I'll see you on the dark side of the moon" -- is actually about Syd Barrett. But after "Dark Side," he says, "It started to turn sour."
Waters believes Pink Floyd was finished at that point, but it made four more albums, the most notable being 1979's "The Wall," which also still sells 1 million copies a year. "The Wall" is a musical autobiography whose central image and theme is the absence of communication in the modern world. By then Waters was perceived, by Gilmour in particular, as a dictatorial egomaniac and control freak given to overly serious themes and grand theatrical gestures, and 1983's "Final Cut" was also a final straw. Rick Wright left the band and Waters said he could no longer work with Gilmour and Mason. When those two announced their intentions to record and tour as Pink Floyd, Waters sued them (unsuccessfully) over the rights to the band's name and assets.
That situation had its own ironic precedence in the scathing line from 1975's "Wish You Were Here" album, in which a greedy would-be manager says he loves the band and asks, "Which one's Pink?" The band always had a shadowy public profile, and people apparently didn't know who Waters was or what he did, a fact brought home following a 1975 concert at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium. To avoid the traffic crush -- the stadium is reached by several bridges -- Pink Floyd simply walked back to their hotel through the crowd. "And not a single person recognized any of us," says Waters.
That may explain why Pink Floyd tours still sell out stadiums while Waters plays to half-empty arenas, why his three solo albums haven't done well commercially, while Pink Floyd's 1987 album, "Momentary Lapse of Reason" (which Waters calls "a clever forgery") was double platinum, and why, when Waters staged "The Wall" in a wall-less Berlin in 1990, many papers simply attributed the event to Pink Floyd. "I know David and Nick are in the studio now to record a new album for next year, and that they'll tour," Waters says. "As far as the public is concerned, that is Pink Floyd. The idea of separating any of the work from the brand name is extremely inconvenient, not only to the consumer but to the business, to everybody, really, except me."
That's why Waters isn't all that happy about " Pink Floyd Shine On," the expensive, eight-CD box released in November by Columbia. It does not include 1983's "The Final Cut," his last work with Pink Floyd, but it does include "Dark Side of the Moon," though they knew the Capitol version was already well along. "It was a travesty and if I had any power, it would have never been out," says Waters.
But Pink Floyd is a four-director corporation and Waters is always outvoted. "I don't even go to meetings anymore because I get no say in any of it," he chafes. "None of them have any imagination, they don't understand the work, they have no idea what any of it was about -- and yet they're administering the back catalogue." In other words, don't hold your breath waiting for a Pink Floyd reunion.