Martin Tyrrell writes: Half a century has passed since Pink Floyd released their game-changing album The Dark Side of the Moon. I first caught up with it some five years after the event, by which time it was already deeply unfashionable. Pink Floyd were the definitive progressive rock band – arthouse film soundtracks, an abortive collaboration with Roland Pettit on a ballet based on Proust – and Dark Side of the Moon, with its Hipgnosis sleeve, the quintessential prog album. Now, though, progress was out of favour. I bought it anyway and enjoyed it like a guilty pleasure.
The sound effects became tiresome after the second or third listen, not so much the various voices that fade in and out – Henry McCullough, then with Wings, and the doorman from Abbey Road studios – or the heartbeat motif, but most definitely those clocks that tick and chime interminably at the start of ‘Time’ or the cash registers that lead into ‘Money’. They got in the way of the songs, and the songs were the thing here. This was the first Floyd record with a lyric sheet, and the first where the lyrics – all by Roger Waters, though this was not stated at the time – gave the album a thematic unity its immediate predecessors had lacked. Suddenly Pink Floyd were no longer the band that sang about reaching for peaches in Saint Tropez, and Seamus the dog, and whatever, but the heavy stuff –war, poverty, procrastination and mortality. Also mental illness and anxiety. These lyrics, with their fondness for the chiding second person singular, are earnest and at times inelegant. Far from poetry, they are all the same distinctive and arresting.
Pink Floyd were a sixties band, even if their great acclaim did not come until the next decade. A blues band taken in hand by art student Syd Barrett, who moved them into psychedelia and whimsy before succumbing to one bad trip too many. Their 1967 debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn – the only Floyd album to enjoy enduring credibility – is of this era. The Dark Side of the Moon completes rather than contradicts it, Experience to its Innocence.
Two aspects of The Dark Side of the Moon are, I think, with hindsight interesting. The first is how much it stands out from the band’s previous output. There is little in the half dozen or so Pink Floyd albums that came before it that even hint at what is on the way. A trace of it, perhaps, on the extended piece ‘Echoes’ from Meddle and some thematic foreshadowing on ‘If’ from Atom Heart Mother but otherwise, en bloc, the Floyd albums, pre-Dark Side, sound almost as if each one is the work of a different band. But for The Dark Side of the Moon, those previous albums would be footnotes by now. All except Piper at the Gates of Dawn which, if not literally the work of a different band, is the work of a band that was working to a fundamentally different vision – Syd Barrett’s not Roger Waters’s. Only with Dark Side was an alternative vision and, indeed, sound obtained.
Which brings me to the second thing – The Dark Side of the Moon is a band effort, developed collaboratively in rehearsals and live performances in the year or so before recording and eventual release. The songwriting credits reflect this. All four members are recognised as having contributed creatively and, in a fine egalitarian gesture, the collage of sounds that opens the record was designated a track in its own right, entitled ‘Speak to Me’ and attributed exclusively to drummer Nick Mason. Never such democracy again. (And even at the time, it was strictly rationed. Clare Torry, who improvised the melodic vocal over Rick Wright’s chords to make ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ had to wait until the next century before her achievement was properly acknowledged.)
Roger Waters had allegedly wanted a sparser sound for Dark Side of the Moon, along the lines of Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, but the others had successfully pressed for something more elaborate. This meant an album that played to their collective strengths. David Gilmour and Rick Wright could sing, Gilmour especially. And Gilmour had a nice line in plaintiff, melodic guitar. This pairing – his voice and his guitar – would become the Pink Floyd sound to such an extent that he could revive the band a few years after Waters had tired of it, take it on the road and sound authentic.
The Dark Side of the Moon, Nick Mason later said, was the band’s ‘last willing collaboration. After that everything … was like drawing teeth; ten years of hanging on to a married name and not having the courage to get divorced.’ The Floyd albums that followed, from Wish You Were Here in 1975 to The Final Cut in 1983 are shorter on collaboration, edging ever closer to a Lennonesque outpouring, with, to my ears, diminishing returns.
Writing of Pink Floyd in his 2003 anthology The People’s Music, Ian MacDonald commented: ‘The popularity of their work, in all its disconsolate cheerlessness, is one of the most remarkable cultural facts of late twentieth century British life.’ Had he lived, MacDonald would have seen the classic Floyd line-up (Waters, Gilmour, Wright and Mason) reformed for one last show at Live 8 in 2005 and the joyous reception they got for a powerful and note-perfect performance. ‘Pigs Have Flown’ reads the hopeful, homemade banner one couple holds. The camera lingers on them as they smile and sing together what MacDonald calls those ‘intrinsically depressive utterances’ – songs about the inexorable passage of time, the friends and family lost on the way, the ebbing of childhood hopes. Life, in fact.
Roger Waters cuts the strangest figure at that final concert. I had imagined him dour and melancholic but at Live 8 he came across as downright cheerful, sixty-something and looking well on it, dressed in a light-coloured shirt, bizarrely miming the words as Gilmour sang them, playing his Fender bass like he is all of a sudden living his best life. (The earlier Live Aid, in 1985, had likewise caught him in good humour, prompting him to an uncharacteristic and – as it inevitably turned out – disappointed romanticism in the song ‘The Tide is Turning’). At Live 8, after the band had gathered a tad unwillingly for a group hug, it was Gilmour who brought things back to reality. This was a one-off. There would be no comeback tour or anticlimactic album. Nor has there been. Nor will there be, Rick Wright having died in 2008.
The Dark Side of the Moon has had a relatively low-key commemoration of its half century – a live version from 1974 has been belatedly reissued and, more interesting, a reimagining by Waters, the album remade in full with something like the Plastic Ono Band minimalism he had wanted at the time. ‘Free Four’, a track from the 1972 soundtrack album Obscured by Clouds that sounds in the original positively jaunty, is revisited here, the lyrics of it recited by way of introduction. Stripped of their cheery melody, they darken and grow poignant – ‘You get your chance to try, in the twinkling of an eye, eighty years with luck or even less.’ Roger Waters, of course, turned eighty this year and the two remaining members of the band are there or thereabouts. See also the Beatles and the Rolling Stones who are of the same vintage and who, this year, have returned for what must surely be among their final outings. Enjoy them while you can. The sixties and the people who helped make that decade the peak of (mild) postwar optimism are fading fast.