Oh By The Way: The Dark Side Of The Moon

>> Saturday, August 02, 2008

I've been putting this one off--for a good little while now, and I shouldn't have. But writing about The Dark Side Of The Moon is just a little bit intimidating to me. Listening to this remaster, even, even that was a little intimidating to me.

This is one of those records that became a definitive album. It established Pink Floyd, after eight albums, as one of the largest bands in the world. It became a reference record for audiophiles, a record you almost had to own if you were serious about sound, even if you weren't that wild for the music. And, of course, there's the number of copies it sold: DSM spent 736 consecutive weeks on Billboard's Top 200 charts before falling off (i.e. from 1973 to 1988)--for a little while, only to return to add 800 more weeks to its longevity as a best-selling record. Worldwide, DSM has sold well over 40 million copies.

And listening to it now, as I write this: this is a beautiful recording, this is a perfect album. This is a gorgeous recording. This is--this may sound ridiculous, hyperbolic--this is the beauty of electronically-transmitted sound, of the recording studio and the recording arts. "Time" is playing right now, the reprise of "Breathe" at the end, and this organ and these singers could be in the room with me despite the passage of some thirty-five years since this recording was released to the world.

When did I first hear this music? I don't even know how old I was, still in elementary school, junior high? It was probably junior high. My Mom bought a copy of The Wall when it came out--I would have been seven at the time--and I'd sit in front of it, enraptured. And I think it must have been a few years after that, my Dad borrowed a copy of DSM from a friend or a neighbor or someone and taped it onto cassette.

This was the first album I bought with my own money. The first album I ever owned was John Williams's Star Wars soundtrack when I was six; I asked for it for my birthday, very specific that I didn't want one of the storybook records they make for kids with the dialogue and read-along book, I wanted the music, and my parents were too stunned to say "no," but the double album had to stay on their record shelf and I had to ask them to play it on their turntable (more than fair enough). A few years later I had saved up a chunk of allowance and I think I must have had my own turntable--I'd inherited my parents' old one when they upgraded, actually--and I was ready to buy a record for myself and I knew what I wanted. I'd spent tons of time listening to The Wall and I wanted a Floyd record, that other one my Dad had borrowed and taped.

So my Mom drove me and my wad of cash to a record store. Might have been Camelot, I can't remember anymore. (And I can't remember how much the album cost, either--twelve bucks, maybe? Nine and ninty?) And they didn't have it. We asked the clerk, and found out the store's last copy had just walked out underneath another customer's arm right when we walked in. Okay. Well there were other record stores in Charlotte. So we went to the next nearest one.

Guess whose last copy of which last album was purchased moments before we arrived?

Third time was the charm. Third record store had a copy left--this would have been the early '80s and DSM came out in 1973, and you still had to hunt down a copy, not because nobody carried it but because everyone was still selling out their stock. But we finally got a copy, my first album acquired with my own hard-earned hard cash, and the vinyl went on the turntable and the posters went up on my wall, and that was how I got my first of three copies of Dark Side Of The Moon. That was the vinyl copy, and I still have it, and there was the 24k gold Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab copy, and I still have it, and now there's the Oh By The Way edition I'm listening to now--we're not counting the live version on P*U*L*S*E; and there will be more copies, won't there? The audiochip and holocube and brainwire copies, if I live long enough.

By 1972, Pink Floyd had recorded seven albums and flirted with widespread success that never quite came. That's not to say they weren't successful--a few songs had charted in the U.K. after Syd Barrett's departure, and a track from Obscured By Clouds ("Free Four") managed to chart in the States--but they were filling auditoriums and civic halls, maybe drawing crowds at the occasional festival.

The band was at a point in their career where they wanted to knock one out of the park. That may not seem quite fair. It's not that they weren't trying their damnest on the previous records, and "Echoes" (the second side of Meddle) was a homer. But they thought they could do better.

They'd been working on a kind of musical look at a man's life with a live set that was usually referred to as "The Man And The Journey." Most of this was composed of earlier bits and pieces--the songs "The Embryo" and "Cymbaline," for instance--but the idea for doing an extended musical suite about birth, life and death was right there in their heads and had been for a while. In '71 or '72, Roger Waters began piecing together some lyrics and musical frameworks; he had a tune and chorus for "Time" fairly early, for example, but it needed work.

They began to rehearse some of the bits and pieces they had live, and this is important to note because it was something they couldn't do later. By January, 1972, Pink Floyd was playing something that was recognizably "Dark Side Of The Moon" even though they weren't calling it that and some of the songs went differently than they later would. There was an instrumental about dying that was called "The Mortality Sequence" or "The Preacher" (after an audio clip of a radio evangelist that sometimes went with it) that sounded almost nothing like "The Great Gig In The Sky," but "Mortality" came after a reprise of "Breathe" and right before "Money," right where "Gig" would go on the album and it shared a vibe.

They worked on the album, touring the work-in-progress live and laying down tracks at Abbey Road through 1972 and 1973.

The thing that sticks out for most people are the sound effects. This is something that people consider synonymous with the Floyd these days, but they didn't come on strong until this one. That is, there were some occasional bits and pieces here and there--the announcer at the beginning of "Astronomy Domine," the pastoral sounds on "Fat Old Sun," the tribesmen on "Absolutely Curtains"--but DSM was the first Floyd record where the background sounds went all the way through the album, front to back, creating an omnipresent sonic landscape that the music takes place in. There's that heartbeat at the beginning and end of the album (actually a bit of drumwork by Nick Mason; a real heartbeat is faster), those famous clocks on "Time" and the cash registers on "Money." And of course there are all those voices, the random soundbites of people talking about violence and fear and such.

It's a well-known story, but not everyone knows it: Roger Waters and Nick Mason did up a whole series of questions about death and violence and madness, and had random people they ran across at Abbey Road come into the studio, sit down at a microphone, and read and answer the questions. Wings was recording there around the time, and Paul and Linda McCartney famously sat down and didn't say anything useful, they were too reserved and cautious (and after all the shit they'd been through, who could blame them?), but Wings' guitarist at the time, Henry McCullough, was wide open and the source of "I don't know, I was really drunk at the time" in reference to a fight he'd been in. The studio doorman, Gerry O'Driscoll, provided the album's famous closing line: "There is no dark side of the moon; matter of fact, it's all dark."

There's another sound effect there at the end, around O'Driscoll's last words, that's not intentional and everyone's been debating it for thirty-something years. If you crank the record up all the way during the last heartbeat, after "Eclipse" and around the point where O'Driscoll talks about astronomy, you can hear a string section bleeding through from somewhere. Some people think it sounds like an instrumental version of The Beatles' "Ticket To Ride" and claim to have traced it to a pops album someone was recording at Abbey Road, one of those "Plays The Hits Of" sort-of-things. But I've never seen a conclusive determination. If it is "Ticket," then Paul McCartney sort of managed to end up on the album after all.

Yes, I've tried that Wizard Of Oz bullshit. No, it doesn't work.

The band was having problems with their American distributor, Capitol Records' subsidiary, Harvest. In fact, they'd decided not to renew their contract with them and had already worked something out with Columbia, who would distribute the rest of Pink Floyd's albums in the U.S. But the band didn't mention this to Harvest at the time, in fact were sort of still negotiating or going through the motions for a renewal, and one consequence was that Harvest promoted DSM a lot more heavily than they'd promoted prior albums.

There was that, and there was the fact that the album happened to come out at around the same time a tech cycle was coming around, and a new generation of audio high-fidelity home gear was coming out. The band had outdone themselves on the recording--that thought they could do better that they had--and one somewhat unexpected result was that DSM became a reference record, an album that stores would play to show off gear or that people would buy so they could impress their friends with how awesome their new sound systems sounded. Combined with the extra efforts of Harvest to sell the record, and a chunk of DSM's success is sort of incidental to the album itself.

That success ultimately wrecked the band, and that's the ironic thing. Like I said, in 1972 Floyd was filling auditoriums. By 1974 they were filling arenas. And the sound quality wasn't as good, and the special effects they were using didn't always scale, and instead of a small group of loving fans who stayed attentive during the quiet bits, mainstream success brought hordes of casual listeners who were just there for "Money."

Mainstream success also changed expectations. The band's first impulse after DSM was to record an album of music played on household objects, pots and pans and tables and power tools or whatever; back in the Atom Heart days they could have gotten away with it, too. But you can't really do that when you're one of the biggest bands in the world, and if it wasn't possible to ever quite achieve the commercial success of DSM ever again, the price of that success was that you at least had to do not-much-worse with your next album, and the next. And they didn't, the band continued to put out gold and platinum records and sell out arenas. But they'd never do something balls-out avant-garde arthaus ever again. After abandoning the household objects record (which was probably just as well--it wasn't that good an idea, mind you), they'd never even try.

Success also changed the way the band worked, the dynamic. These were Roger Waters' lyrics that were resonating with so many people, and his overarching concept that was holding the album together, and there wasn't much time anymore to just sit around and jam and see if something happened. Everyone needed a follow-up, and Waters was always a faster worker than David Gilmour or Richard Wright. And you couldn't really jam onstage anymore, anyway, because of all the bootleggers--there'd always been tapers, now there were more and there was a sense they might be a threat to sales, best keep the new stuff kind of top secret until it was done. So it was easier and easier to let Roger do the initial work and just refine it, except that when you're doing all the initial work it can be hard to let go of it. So this was one of the things that killed Pink Floyd, too, even if they still had some great and pretty good albums left in them under the name: that Gilmour and Wright weren't writing enough, couldn't write enough, and Waters was writing too much, and it kind of made sense to let him even when it was sucking the life out of the band's ability to work together as a creative unit.

The Oh By The Way reissue of Dark Side is made of tiny awesome. The original release of the vinyl album was a gatefold, lyrics inside and the prisms outside, one of Hipgnosis' best productions. But that wasn't all: the vinyl also included a pair of posters and a set of stickers. The OBW/DSM replicates the 12" vinyl in miniature: minature gatefold, miniature posters (about 9" x 14") and tiny little stickers (an inch-and-three-quarters wide). Opening this is like having a tiny little reproduction of my childhood, that sense of wonder I'd get opening up a Pink Floyd album.

This is one of the things we've lost with the CD age. The Floyd covers were repositories of information: the labels on the album themselves, the art-rich gatefolds, the lyrics sheets. I wasn't even on drugs, just a bright depressed kid; you could stare at the artwork for hours as you listened to the albums over and over again, feeling that sense of awe and dread that was the essence of 1970s Pink Floyd. This was the anxiety of modern life, the looming dark of the Cold War and bitter realities of the economy, this was the sense that the world was ending or had ended, that maybe we were in the final convulsions or, worse yet, a final dank stillness as we waited for the first shovelful of dirt to hit the lid of the coffin. Reduced to two dimensions and a warbling groove etched into a piece of inky plastic.

I'll need, sometime, to listen to this and the Mobile Fidelity issue side by side. This might be a better remaster. This is so clean, so clear. The way the drum thumps through the heartbeat on "Speak To Me," with just a trace of lisp, the clean wail of Dick Parry's saxophone on "Us And Them," one of my very favorite Floyd songs. The wailing choirs and the creamy, layered guitars. There's nice separation, maybe it's just that it's been too long since I listened to the studio version of this: "Us And Them" is the track that's up right now, and there's Rick Wright's piano right here at my right and David Gilmour's guitar answering mournfully from my left, and then Parry fills up the center space with a sax solo that's hopeful and hopeless all at once.

One of the things (many things) Roger Waters has never been able to recapture in his solo work is the way Gilmour and Wright could harmonize when they sang Waters' words--it's not just the lyrics, it's the delivery, you can make the stupid profound and the profound dull with good or bad playing and singing. Their voices fit together like teeth in the gears of a well-tuned clock.

And there's "Any Colour You Like," a track that I thought was dullish filler when I was young and stupid and is gorgeous and lush now that I'm older and maybe wiser. And there's something else to be said about this record: that this is a storehouse holding the same number of treasures when you're thirty-six that it did when you were sixteen (or even younger when I bought it), but later they're different treasures. I suspect, I certainly hope but I also suspect, this album will have something else for me when I'm sixty-six.

Side One
  • Speak To Me (Mason)
  • Breathe (Waters, Gilmour, Wright)
  • On The Run (Gilmour, Waters)
  • Time (Mason, Waters, Wright, Gilmour)
  • The Great Gig In The Sky (Wright)

Side Two
  • Money (Waters)
  • Us And Them (Waters, Wright)
  • Any Colour You Like (Gilmour, Mason, Wright)
  • Brain Damage (Waters)
  • Eclipse (Waters)


John the Scientist Saturday, August 2, 2008 at 10:32:00 PM EDT  

I love these posts. I'm sorry I don't share your love of PF, but your passion is infectious.

Anonymous,  Friday, November 13, 2009 at 9:38:00 PM EST  

Back in the day,many many,many moons gone by,I've been known to indulge in a variety of psychedelics and it seems I've never done anything strong enough to see the Wizard of Oz connection.I don't get it.
I have to say that I've yet to find a DSotM source on CD that is better than the original vinyl and cassette.The Hungarian version with the 3 bonus tracks I found to sound better than the MFSL and SACD versions.The Quad mix on the other hand,is very good.
I'd like Pink Floyd to re-release their record library so that the discs capture the sound of the original analogue recording.
I really enjoyed your post.

Eric Saturday, November 14, 2009 at 1:15:00 AM EST  

Thanks, Alan!

There really isn't anything to beat the old vinyl. It would be nice, indeed, to see a reissue of the whole analog catalog.

Eric Saturday, November 14, 2009 at 1:16:00 AM EST  

Oh--I forgot to ask: what are the extra tracks on the Hungarian version?

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