Hear me out: We’ve long accepted that Dark Side of The Moon a cornerstone of classic rock. But what if it was in truth, a subpar collection of songs that’s been coasting on its reputation for nearly half a century?
I’ve never liked Pink Floyd much. But lately, I’ve come to appreciate Dark Side, an album released 45th years ago on March 1, 1973. Part of the reason is that three years ago, I turned 40. I’ve learned that trashing and dismissing stuff in your youth that you don’t like can be annoying and naïve. I felt I needed to give Dark Side another chance. Lately, I’ve been buying ‘70s and ‘80s records I never had before, to see if I missed something. Recently, I bought Huey Lewis’ Sports, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, R.E.M.’s Green, and Led Zeppelin IV. Now I have Dark Side of The Moon. Up next: maybe Blood on the Tracks.
It took a long time for me to even admit I liked anything about Pink Floyd. Johnny Rotten once bought a Pink Floyd t-shirt just so he could draw “I hate” next to the band’s name. As a young man, I was never a punker, but Floyd always bothered me. At 18, I would have chosen Never Mind the Bullocks over Dark Side any day. It wasn’t about politics. I just found Floyd boring. They didn’t rock. When I was in high school, any drummer who didn’t approach the heights of a Bonham, Baker, or a Moon wasn’t worth my time.
Floyd seemed so laid-back, calm and cold. Floyd bothered me the same way that the Dead bothered me. Floyd seemed lugubrious and labored. I also hated that Floyd fans in high school thought they were cooler than you. Then there were the dummies in college who tried to synch Dark Side with The Wizard of Oz. How was that cool?
But lately, I have come around to liking Dark Side more than I ever thought I would. The reason is simple. It helps me sleep.
Not because, as I just said, I generally find Floyd boring. It’s just that Dark Side is the perfect go-to-sleep album. I’m usually asleep by the end of side one. Maybe now I understand what those stoners knew back in 1973: Dark Side chills you out.
Yeah, I know it’s an album about Syd burning out. Yeah, I know it’s about death, insanity, and the inevitable passage of time. Sad, anxiety-inducing stuff. But it does help me rest. And I really need that in the days of raising two kids and a 24 hour Trump news cycle.
For the longest time, had you asked me what I thought of Dark Side, I would dismissively have said: “there’s, like, three songs on it.” That’s not fair, of course, but there’s some truth in it. Side one only makes one attempt at narrative songwriting. The first track, “Speak to Me/Breathe” is essentially a shorter version of classic radio staple “Time,” which is track 3. In between these two songs is “On the Run,” which features sound effects and runs on a synthesizer keyboard. Side two is more word heavy, with “Money,” “Us and Them,” and “Eclipse,” making up the real songs. But is this enough to make Dark Side the classic of classics?
First, let me say what I still find annoying. The first hurdle is “Great Gig in the Sky,” which starts out with some cool, understated, Radiohead-like piano chords. Not bad. But then Clare Torry starts singing caterwauling. Why is she screaming? Turns out, Torry’s was added to the album at the last minute and the band wanted her to simulate orgasm. But it sounds like the kind of sex you’d have with Freddy Krueger’s business hand.
The next hurdle: “Money.” The song raises an interesting philosophical dilemma. Did I always hate “Money” or did classic rock radio make me hate it? I raise this Plutarchian question whenever I hear “Money” or “Black Dog” or “Hotel California.” But, really, there’s so much to hate about “Money.” A band pretending they don’t like money. The undanceable 7/4 time signature. The oh-so ‘70s keyboards. The chunking cash register Are You Being Served? sound effects.
Okay, now the good stuff. I’ve always liked “Time,” even if the intro goes on too long. Gilmour’s solo is stellar. I also like “Us and Them” and the instrumental that follows it. The album ends with a bang, which is more than I can say for any Radiohead album.
What I really appreciate on Dark Side is the steel guitar. I’m a sucker for steel guitar. It’s one of the greatest sounds in the history of sounds. Gilmour’s playing—on a Fender Duo 1000 double neck steel from 1962 that he bought in Seattle a few years before Dark Side was recorded (thanks, Wikipedia)—isn’t fancy. Not fast either, but the use of steel guitar is tasteful, colorful, and effective, giving the album the spacey, “oh man I’m so high right now” vibe that puts the album over the top as a sound piece.
Listening to it, now, I can appreciate Dark Side less for its lyrics—unexceptional for the classic rock period—than its production values. Love it or hate it, it’s a great sounding record, with flawless production. A landmark of sonic achievement, it was cut in the hallowed walls of Abbey Road Studios. The Beatles, of course, had made history there (Oasis would later), and for Floyd, the place also proved magical.
Dark Side of The Moon became one of the greatest selling albums of all time, staying on the Billboard chart for 15 years straight, selling an estimated 45 million units. The cover art became iconic. Any album that moves so many copies, whether Thriller, Rumors, or Zep IV, will inevitably get overplayed and be open to accusations of being overrated. I can appreciate Dark Side now. I don’t find it very exciting or moving, or any of the things that great music does for me. But I would never again dismiss it.
What about the rest of the Floyd catalog? Given my interest in Dark Side, I thought I’d give Wish You Were Here another go. I was into it, then “Welcome to the Machine” came on. God, I hate that song. But in the band’s defense, it’s been a long time since I listened to the Sex Pistols.