Every band wants to do its “Sgt. Pepper” album, an album that not only redefines how the band is perceived, but redefines how music is done. The Stones had one in Exile on Main Street. Deep Purple raised the bar on live albums with Made in Japan. Go back a little earlier, before Sgt. Pepper’s even, and you have Bob Dylan upping the lyrical ante with Highway 61 Revisited.
Arguably, though, there is no more influential album after Sgt. Pepper’s than Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. If this was the only album Floyd ever recorded, their place in rock history would have been assured. This is Pink Floyd at its peak, when the band was functioning as four equal members, each one doing something to redefine its sound. Couple that with the pioneering work by engineer Alan Parsons, and you have an album that was, to put it mildly, revolutionary. British rock had to go punk. American rock had to turn back to its fifties roots after Dark Side. Because four guys from London figured out what everything in the sixties was building up to, then actually did it.
There were a lot of single-worthy moments on this one in the album-oriented rock era (a format that’s been overdue for a comeback since the end of the grunge era). “Money” is the obvious one, but then there’s “Time” and “Brain Damage/Eclipse,” the last pair serving as the albums “title track.” The album started with a simple premise: What can we do that’s different? And then if it sucks, how do we make it good?
From Gilmour’s plaintive guitar (I still say he’s a damn sight better than a hundred “pyrotechnic” players who are all flash, no emotion. Right, Yngwie Malmsteen?) to Rick Wright’s soulful vocal turns to Roger Waters’ poetic take on madness and desperation. Even Syd Barrett is here, if only in spirit. (“And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes/I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon…”)
I could go on and on about the spoken word snippets throughout the album or what was going through Waters’ mind when he wrote the lyrics, but it’s really the musicianship that makes this album. It’s why I prefer A Momentary Lapse of Reason (written for Wright and Mason by Gilmour) and The Division Bell (written by Gilmour and Wright) to The Final Cut (a whiny Roger Waters not foisting his daddy issues on unsuspecting listeners.) The entire album is one long experiment, a jam session in multitrack done over months where even the engineer is a performer. In adding the sound effects, done over several weekends by Waters and Masons in their respective tool sheds, Parsons sweated with his fingers on the reels and the controls as the band literally twisted themselves into pretzel like contortions string tape around the room so they could run things like the cash register from “Money” on a perpetual loop.
“Great Gig in the Sky” with any other band would have been nothing but a demo. Clare Torry’s wordless death wail, however, left the band speechless. They weren’t sure the idea would even work, and Torry thought for a moment when she finished that she’d blown the take. Instead, they recorded one of rock’s greatest vocal turns. Any singer backing Floyd, Roger Waters, or David Gilmour had better have the pipes to measure up (They usually do.) because that is one rough song to cover.
“Money” is really the defining song on this album, not because of the lyrics. (“Time” does more to define the album lyrically.) If you listen to the individual instruments, particularly on the solos, you’ll notice it’s only the bass and the drums that play continuously through the song. The sax solo and Gilmour’s guitar solo, not to mention Wright’s organ line, are all full of stops and pauses. Even today, bands the caliber of Metallica, Rush, and the Foo Fighters usually (not always, though) play all the featured instruments continuously. So Dark Side is unique even in 2013.
How big was Dark Side‘s impact? When the band broke up for the first time in 1983, it was still charting, ten years after its release, and continued to do so for years afterward. Covers of entire albums are rare, but Dark Side and The Wall are two of the most commonly remade. Flaming Lips even did a concert where they covered the entire opus.
And there’s something else about it. I’ve often heard (and even used to say) “Oh, I’ll never get sick of this album or this band.” It’s always wrong. But a friend of mine told me when I was sixteen that, if you love Dark Side, you never get sick of it. It’s one of those albums that’s often in the background when some milestone in your life happens. I listened to it during a lunar eclipse one year and called my cousin at the radio station that was playing it, saying, “You have no idea what it’s like driving around with this on, man!” I’d just watched a jetliner cruise past the reddening moon. My cousin, who was Mike Rose of Akron’s WONE working a rare weekday shift at the time said, “Jim, did you smoke something for this?”
No, but I do know a couple people who lost their virginity to this album (one during that same eclipse. I’m jealous. That would have been a great night to… Um… Never mind.) One writer I know finished his first novel to this album. Another person proposed to his girlfriend with Dark Side on in the background. It’s unobtrusive, very mellow, but at the same time, classic in a way only jazz albums usually are. Most rock albums that reach this sort of stature are very loud, very in-your-face, very rebellious and grandstanding. That’s fine. I love that in Appetite for Destruction and The Black Album and Moving Pictures. But Dark Side is thoughtful if you let the words sink in. It’s relaxing when you don’t. But it always, always, always sticks with you.
That’s a masterpiece defined.