It's been forty years since the release of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, and twenty five since it initially left the Billboard Top 200 album chart. That very fact alone points to the unrivaled influence and enduring quality of what is frequently cited as the greatest album of all time.
Representing the nadir of Floyd's illustrious output, the album's success, and indeed even its existence, is little short of miraculous. The band had endured a tumultuous existence up to that point; beginning as a psychedelic rock/pop act led by the enigmatic Syd Barrett, the band were forced to rediscover themselves following the drugs-related departure of their talisman. Several years in the space rock wilderness ensued, with decidedly hit and miss results, before the epic "Echoes", which occupied the entire second side of Dark Side's predecessor Meddle, hinted at the synergy between melody and transcendental jams that would be realised to an astonishing extent on the following record.
These troubled beginnings did nothing to betray the sheer cohesiveness and focus that was to be found on Dark Side of the Moon. Whilst the band's playing is as tight as ever, with guitarist David Gilmour's solo on "On the Run" and keyboardist Richard Wright's magisterial "The Great Gig in the Sky" particular highlights, Floyd went well beyond what was at the time the traditional port of call, bringing in numerous electronic innovations to lend the album an ethereal, kaleidoscopic quality. From the short riff played on a child's keyboard and then sped up until unrecogniseable to the troubling voices that mutter about violence and madness, the exhaustive layers and combinations reach sonic heights that have not been touched since, and plow into uncharted territory with abandon - territory that few, if any, artists have dared to approach again.
The lyrics, largely devised by bassist Roger Waters, are, in his words "an expression of political, philosophical, humanitarian empathy". He also acknowledges, however, that "I'm amazed I got away with it, because it's so lower-Sixth". In truth, Dark Side of the Moon is somewhere in between these two evaluations, touching upon various themes and allowing the listener to read as much (or as little) into the lyrics as they want. There's very few cohesive and definitive statements (other than the paradigm of "us and them"), but this vague meandering only serves to heighten the apocryphal nature of the album.
Dark Side of the Moon represented a turning point in the Floyd's (as they were known in their earlier days) career. Led by the success of the single "Money", Dark Side was the record with which the band broke America, achieving huge critical and commercial success that would continue throughout the decade. Two comparative successes followed in the intervening four years. Wish You Were Here, a more thematically precise although less melodic effort took aim at many of the same targets as Dark Side, such as mental illness and the "us and them" mantra (in the form of the stinging attack on record company executives "Have a Cigar").
Animals lurched in the other direction, back toward the musical cohesion and thematic muddiness of Dark Side, although never quite reaching the same heights. Nevertheless, these three albums became widely recognised as the centerpiece of the band's "classic period" before reinventing themselves once again, as Waters assumed the leadership and led the others begrudgingly toward an altogether new, equally ambitious project in the form of The Wall. By this point, the band was disintegrating rapidly; relations had begun to fray whilst recording Wish you Were Here, exacerbated by a highly distressing visit by the now unrecognisable Barrett, to whom the album eponymously referred to.
Modern music history is littered with examples of the greatest works being produced under the most stressful and strained conditions; The Beatles' Abbey Road, The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and Fleetwood Mac's Rumours were all produced as their respective creators tore themselves asunder. Dark Side of the Moon is quite the opposite, as it was conceived at the optimal point between the band realising their talents and working together as a unit, before the two factors diverged once again.
There's no greater testament to Dark Side's legacy than its staying power. Its special effects, many of which have since been appropriated by other artists and can now be produced in five minutes on a computer rather than through days and weeks of meticulous preparation and practice, still retain their intrigue and resonance. "Timeless" is a phrase bandied about almost to the point of obseletion, and is frequently used to describe albums that are anything but, those with their nexus firmly planted at a very exact moment. Dark Side of the Moon has scarcely aged, still sounding as mesmeric as it ever has, but it can't be truly called timeless as, in truth, it never really had a "time" - upon its release and to this day, it sounds like something befitting an age we've yet to arrive at.
With the modern popular musical landscape looking increasingly alien to the sounds of the past, Dark Side of the Moon presents a lasting bridge between the two. Its themes, although only sketchily broached, are the kinds that will resonate with generations to come; alienation, instability, youthful disenchantment. As thought provoking a musing on modernism as there has ever been, and a work that keeps finding new ways to relate, and new secrets to unfurl.Suggest a correction