Pink Floyd were well practiced by the time they came to record their ninth LP and, after struggling to find their sound following the departure of their cofounder Syd Barrett, they returned to London’s Abbey Road Studios in the summer of 1972 with a determination to push the boundaries of what was sonically achievable. The result of these ambitions was one of the greatest albums ever made.
Dark Side of the Moon is the Pink Floyd record, more than that; it’s the Progressive Rock record, remaining in the billboard chart for 741 consecutive weeks. To date, the album has sold over 45 million copies world wide making it the third best selling album of all time. Its commercial performance makes it hard to believe that a number of Floyd’s LPs released in the run up to Dark Side of the Moon were often thought to be too experimental by audiences at the time. Only 3 of their first 8 records made the top 5 in the UK charts, giving weight to the age old idea: ‘if in doubt, release a concept album.’
And what a concept album it is. The band’s bassist, Roger Waters was the chief architect of the lyrical themes present in the album, and is largely responsible for the record’s huge success. Not only do his lyrical themes ring true in the context of the early 1970s, but they have matured well over the decades and are as applicable to daily life now as they ever have been, 47 years later. It’s hard, for example, to hear ‘Money’ and not draw comparisons to today’s consumerist, dog-eat-dog world, or to hear ‘Time’ and not think about how we all too often let days simply pass us by. It’s the LP’s focus on the pressures put on people’s daily existence that provide it with a reason to be present in everyone’s life. Put simply; the album thrives on its relevance to this day.
The record is sonically groundbreaking too. Sound engineer, Alan Parsons, forged the framework of the album with multi-layering techniques, embellishing them with synthesisers and sound effects to hold together a floaty yet clear and well-structured psychedelic feel. It is these techniques that provide the album with the majority of its overall sound. Soundbites from various recordings create an atmosphere of inner-thought, crafting a feeling of intimacy with the listener.
The intimacy of the album is further guided by Nick Mason’s and Waters’ instrumentation. Mason masters the art of subtle presence with his drumming, forming the backbone of most of the tracks on the album. While Waters’ soft base lines ride on the wave of the slow moving sound, adding depth and solidity to the album. The manipulation of atmosphere and sound became common place in popular music after the release of Dark Side of the Moon but it’s important to remember that sounds like these were nothing short of revolutionary at the time of its release.
The vocals are shared between bandmates, Dave Gilmour and Richard Wright, with Gilmour certifying himself as the band’s best vocalist. His carefully crafted and dragged out lines significantly add to the album’s psychedelic feel, creating a distant yet intimate and comforting sound. The band also booked a foursome of female vocalists to contribute on a number of tracks. Clare Torry contributes the best vocal on the album. Her improvised emotive wailing on ‘Great gig in the Sky’ gives the last track on the first side of the record an almost tangible energy.
As well as providing some of the key vocal sounds on the album, Gilmour also provides guitar sounds that dominate segments of the LP; weaving elements of blues and heavy rock into the fabric of the album’s overall sound. Gilmour often provides an intensifying, energetic feel to the more lively parts of the album; nowhere better is this showcased than on ‘Money.’ He also takes a backseat with his guitar, complementing the softer and slower sounds created by Mason’s drums, Waters’ bass and Richard Wright’s keyboard, this subtlety can be heard on ‘Breathe (in the Air)’ among others.
The band even use jazz sounds on the record. Saxophonist, Dick Parry, plays on ‘Money’ and ‘Us and them’ providing the tracks with unique jazz-fusion style tones. Such sounds had never really been heard before on a record of this kind but they add something you never realised was missing, and they remain intriguing and captivating to this day.
Perhaps the most compelling thing about the sound of the record, however, is the way in which each track drifts into the next. A deep sense of continuity is created throughout the whole album, taking the listener on a journey. It’s an album that’s meant to be experienced as a whole, an album far greater than the sum of its parts. When the hypnotic grooves are left to spin, the album can be truly appreciated as the single, collective piece of art that it is. It is the way in which the album is, in its entirety, a mould of the themes and the sounds it creates that makes it one of the best albums ever recorded. From the moment it was released, it was clear the band had achieved their aim of pushing the boundaries of popular music, and the album was to form the foundations of many other albums that were to take inspiration from it. And that, in simple terms, is what the best music succeeds in doing.