Tuesday, March 17, 2009

36 Years Ago Today: Pink Floyd releases 'The Dark Side of the Moon'

'The Dark Side of the Moon' is a concept album by the English progressive rock band Pink Floyd. It was released on March 17th, 1973 in the U.S. and March, 24th 1973 in the UK.
'The Dark Side of the Moon' builds upon previous experimentation that Pink Floyd had explored in their live shows and recordings, but without the extended instrumental excursions that, according to critic David Fricke, had become characteristic of the band after founding member Syd Barrett left in 1968. Guitarist David Gilmour, Barrett's replacement, would later refer to these instrumentals as "that psychedelic noodling stuff." Gilmour and Roger Waters, the band's bassist (and principal lyricist on 'Dark Side'), cite 1971's 'Meddle' as a turning point toward what would be realized on 'The Dark Side of the Moon'.

The album's themes include conflict, greed, ageing and mental illness (or "insanity"); the latter inspired in part by the deteriorating mental state of Barrett, who had been the band's principal composer and lyricist. The album is notable for its use of musique concrète and conceptual, philosophical lyrics, as found in much of the band's other work. The band's most successful release, 'The Dark Side of the Moon' is often considered to be the group's defining work, and is still frequently ranked by music critics as one of the greatest and most influential albums of all time.


'The Dark Side of the Moon' explores the nature of the human experience and according to Waters, "empathy". For example: "Speak to Me" and "Breathe" is about birth and being a child with new earthly experiences; "On the Run", a synthesizer-driven instrumental, evokes the stress and anxiety of modern travel, in particular Richard Wright's fear of flying; "Time" looks at youth misspent, then gone before one even realizes it, and the surprisingly fast approach of death; "The Great Gig in the Sky" explores thoughts of religion and death; "Money" mocks greed and consumerism, with tongue-in-cheek lyrics and wealth-related sound effects; "Us and Them" addresses ethnocentrism, conflict and the belief that a person's self is "always in the right"; "Brain Damage" looks at mental illness and whether "insanity" is only relative, and growing too old to be who one once was; and "Eclipse" ends the album with a grand statement about free will and causality.

Waters is credited as author of all the lyrics on the album, and he created the early demo tracks in a small garden shed-turned-recording studio at his home. It was also there that he recorded the effects loop for "Money", by recording the sounds of various money-related objects, including coins tossed into a mixing bowl from his wife's pottery studio. All four members of Pink Floyd - bassist and principal lyricist Roger Waters, guitarist David Gilmour, drummer Nick Mason and keyboardist Richard Wright - participated in the writing and production of the album, which is a rarity among later Pink Floyd albums. However, it is the first of five consecutive Pink Floyd albums with lyrics credited only to Waters.

Although 'The Dark Side of the Moon' was the planned title of the album, upon the discovery that the band Medicine Head was to release an album of the same name in 1972, the year prior to The Dark Side of the Moon's release, the band changed the album's title to 'Eclipse: A Piece for Assorted Lunatics'. However, the Medicine Head album flopped, so Pink Floyd reverted to the original title.


Recorded by the band and staff engineer Alan Parsons at Abbey Road Studios between June 1972 and January 1973, the album sessions made use of the most advanced techniques available for recording instruments and sound effects in rock music at that time. Along with some Moody Blues albums, it is known for being one of the very first surround sound mixes, taking advantage of the early technology of quadraphonic systems. A quadraphonic surround sound mix of the album was created by Parsons, however, he never completed it to his satisfaction, due to lack of time and multi-track tape recorders.

Alan Parsons pictured mixing 'The Dark Side of the Moon' in quadraphonic sound along with the conventional rock band instrumentation, Pink Floyd added prominent synthesizers to their sound. For example, Roger Waters and David Gilmour experimented with the EMS VCS3 Synthi A and analog sequencers on "On the Run". The band also devised and recorded some unconventional noises: an assistant engineer running around the studio's echo chamber (during "On the Run"); myriad clocks ticking then chiming simultaneously (during "Time"), and a specially-treated bass drum made to sound like a human heartbeat (during "Speak to Me", "On the Run", "Time", and "Eclipse"). The heartbeat is most audible as the intro and the outro to the album, but it can also be heard underneath most of the album—the song "Time" and "On the Run" has the low thudding underneath the rest.

Another novelty of the recording is the metronomic and rhythmic sequence of sound effects played during "Speak to Me" and "Money". This was achieved by Parsons laboriously splicing together recordings of ringing cash registers, clinking coins, tearing paper, and buzzing counting machines onto a two-track tape loop. The sonic experimentation on the album required every member of the band to operate the faders simultaneously in order to mix down the intricately assembled multitrack recordings of several of the songs (particularly "On the Run").

Perhaps one of the less noticeable aspects of the album is the ability of Richard Wright and David Gilmour to perfectly harmonize with each other, such as on "Us and Them" and "Time". In the Making of 'The Dark Side of the Moon' DVD, Roger Waters attributes this to the fact that, along with their talent, their voices both sound extremely similar. To take advantage of this, Parsons perfected the use of other studio techniques such as the doubletracking of vocals and guitars, and other vocal multitracking which allowed Gilmour to harmonize with himself. He also made prominent use of flanging and phase shifting effects on vocals and instruments, odd trickery with reverb and the panning of sounds between channels. Despite Parsons' significant contribution to the success of the album, Pink Floyd have occasionally tried to downplay his role. He said in an interview with Rolling Stone:

"I think they all felt that I managed to hang the rest of my career on Dark Side of the Moon, which has an element of truth to it. But I still wake up occasionally, frustrated about the fact that they made untold millions and a lot of the people involved in the record didn't".

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