26th Favorite: The Dark Side of the Moon, by Pink Floyd

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The Dark Side of the Moon. Pink Floyd.
1973, Harvest. Producer: Pink Floyd.
Bootleg Cassette, 1984.

IN A NUTSHELL: The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd’s wildly successful album, is another record from Floyd that demands to be heard in its entirety, first song to last. Roger Waters may have written most of the songs, but this is a David Gilmour tour de force, both for guitar and vocals. It’s a timeless record deserving of its many accolades and commercial success. The themes of being human in a modern world still resonate today, nearly 50 years after its release.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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How To Get Drunk Like A Rural Pennsylvania Teenager In The Mid-1980s
Step 1: Make The Decision To Go Get Drunk
Teens around Pennsyltucky (where I grew up) in the mid-80s, having grown up in the 1970s, had a unique perspective on cigarettes, drugs, alcohol and all things mind-altering. The attitudes were, by today’s standards, a little crazy. For example, seeing kids 10 or younger walking down the street smoking cigarettes would elicit a “tsk, tsk” sort of reaction from most grownups, equivalent to the reaction you’d get if a kid drank coffee. People just didn’t worry much about tobacco use. My high school had a “smoking lav,” where students could – with parental consent – puff away to their lungs’ content. My cousin and I routinely, as pre-teens, sneaked off to buy snuff at the local convenience store, where no questions were asked – then we put a bit inside our lip, got lightheaded and nauseous, then stashed the remainder in a stone wall near our grandma’s house and fell asleep at her house watching horror movies on Dr. Shock.

Most adults were less blasé about alcohol, but even so by high school there was a small but significant percentage of parents who didn’t give a shit if their kids got drunk. Many of them bought the beer for “partying.” Their attitude was “it’s just beer, what’s the big deal?” Most of them had been drinking beer since their own pre-teen years.

NOTES: 1.) 70’s rural PA concern over wine-drinking by boys was 20, but only due to a believed correlation to homosexuality.
2.) Today’s concern level for coffee grows exponentially with sugar and fatted milk product addition.

“Drugs” were less well-understood by the adults around me. Most of them were either too old or too square to have been truly a part of the Woodstock generation, so marijuana was considered a huge jump in seriousness-levels over beer. TV shows and music of the 70s sometimes presented drugs in a rather matter-of-fact way, but most often the message all around was “Drugs are Horribly Evil!” In the late 70s, my mom conspicuously left an anti-drug magazine around the house, and it scared the daylights out of me. Many families were very religious, as well, especially as compared to today, and that religious emphasis on good vs. evil provided a moral backdrop for some on the evil of drugs.

So – Step 1: Make Decision … Many kids make this decision anywhere from 6th grade on. For me, I was a dorky kid who was scared of making my parents mad and worried about accidentally dying, so my decision to use alcohol came much later than many of my peers. I was out of high school before I had my first beer. Drugs were out of the question.

Step 2. Decide Who to Get Drunk With
The normal thing for most people to do would be to hang out with only one’s closest friends while drinking. These are the people you like, the people who are fun, the people most likely to be forgiving if you do something stupid, the most likely to help you out if you do something stupid and dangerous. I only had two friends who I knew used alcohol – most of my close friends were kind of dorky like me. So I hung out with them the summer after graduating high school, and eventually an opportunity arose.

Step 3. Figure Out What Type of Alcohol and How to Get It
Procuring alcohol posed a multivariate problem, the solution of which required careful consideration of impinging factors, each influencing the others producing a variety of, at times, seemingly irreconcilable possibilities. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn expert teen drinkers from 1980s rural Pennsylvania went on to careers planning and executing successful Clinical Studies of emerging biotechnologies and pharmaceuticals1.

Liquor was easiest, in some ways, as many kids could easily swipe a little from their parents. It was also cheapest, although it was customary to give the thief a few bucks for the effort. It was also gross to drink, generally didn’t last long, and induced vomiting at a rate higher than other comparators. As for wine, well, come on, nobody was bringing wine anywhere. (SIDE NOTE: This was the beginning of the wine cooler era, which did show up at some drinking events. Wine coolers were an example of goods in which the commercials and embarrassing celebrity endorsements were far more memorable than the products they advertised. Wine Coolers were also the “Hard Lemonade” of the era – a drink clearly aimed at the underage market.)

Beer was the winner. In Pennsylvania, the only way to buy beer was (and may still be) to either a) go to a bar and buy a six-pack2; or b) go to a Beer Distributor to buy cases and kegs. This would initially seem like a barrier for teen drinkers – having to go into a store for beer as a (generally) obviously not-yet-21 customer. However, there were countless middlemen (older siblings/ cousins/ random weirdos/ parents) willing to make the purchase for you for a fee. Also, plenty of bars and beer distributors were more concerned with making a buck than with laws and safety and were happy to pretend that some dude, barely able to grow a few whiskers and wearing a “Class of ’85” t-shirt in 1985, who arrived in a station wagon with a “Proud Parent of an Honor Student” bumper-sticker, was likely older than 21. You didn’t even need a fake I.D. Just pick out the cheapest beer possible, and go.

Step 4. Decide Where to Go
Although parents in the mid-80s were less likely to get their collective panties in a bunch over alcohol use than today’s grown-ups, the consequences of being caught drinking or drunk as a teen were clear (possible arrest, parents being informed, etc.), and the extreme consequences (your angry parent has heart-attack at news of arrest, etc.) were always in the back of my nervous, rule-following mind. So one had to be careful about where to go. Of course there were parties hosted by kids with out-of-town parents, and parties hosted by kids with scary, let’s-buy-booze-for-the-kids parents, but both of these seemed tailor-made for a police bust. For my money, the ideal place to go in rural PA was the woods. And the place to be seen in the woods (although technically not, as it was always super dark, but more on that in a bit) around my town was an old fire-watching tower called “Governor Dick.”

Governor Dick was named for a formerly enslaved man called Governor Dick who lived in the woods around Mt. Gretna and worked as a “collier,” or charcoal maker, back in the early 1800s. He apparently provided charcoal for the old Cornwall Furnace, an important ironworks in US revolutionary times, and was so well-liked that they named a section of the woods for him. He probably never guessed that 180 years later his phallic-sounding name would be commemorated with a phallic-looking tower and associated with barfing teen-aged drinkers all around the Lancaster-Lebanon area.

You’d park somewhere (somebody always seemed to know where) and you’d walk through the dark woods (somebody always seemed to bring a flashlight) and you’d stumble over roots and stumps (somebody always seemed to fall and get mildly injured) and try not to drop the cases of beer (somebody always brought bottles instead of cans) and eventually emerge in a clearing with one big tower in the middle and a million empty beer cans around it. Then up the tower, lugging that beer, where drinking commenced.

Looking back, I find it amazing that a) the cops didn’t follow the trail of beer cans (somebody always had to drink on the walk to the tower) and come visit the tower every 90 minutes; and b) nobody ever fell off – including the kids who always drunkenly dangled over the edge. (Somebody always drunkenly dangled over the edge – in those days there was only a waist-high railing encircling the top of the tower.)

Step 5. Play Some Music
Somebody always brought a boom-box; somebody always brought cassettes. The great thing about cassettes was that you could stash a few in your pockets, or girls could put some in their purses, and you’d have a lot of music handy. Sure, it wasn’t as easy as pulling songs out of thin air with a pocket computer, but it seemed pretty fuckin’ awesome to us. Key cassettes to bring along included Led Zeppelin’s symbols-titled release, popularly known as Led Zeppelin IV; The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; and The Eagles Their Greatest Hits 1971 – 1975. (I hung out with a bunch of classic rock enthusiasts.) These were great drink-along, background music songs, for getting loud (Zep), getting weird (Peppers) and singing along (Eagles). But at the end of the night, when the drinking had slowed and most of the crew had begun hiking back through the deep, dark woods; when any craziness and danger had ceased; when the alcohol had massaged our emotions, and the folks who smoked weed had finished smoking their weed, one of the three or four of us who remained would pull out The Dark Side of the Moon, (somebody always pulled out The Dark Side of the Moon) and we’d just sit there and listen.

As with other Floyd albums, like The Wall and Animals, The Dark Side of the Moon is a record that pretty much demands to be listened to in one sitting, beginning to end. I don’t think I’m being very controversial in saying that Pink Floyd albums, particularly ones from the 70s, have far more impact as a singular artistic statement than as a collection of songs – even though many of the songs are brilliant in their own right. Founder and sometime bandleader, bassist Roger Waters, was fond of grand themes and he has stated that Dark Side of the Moon was “an expression of political, philosophical humanitarian empathy that was desperate to get out3.”

Maybe so. The album begins with “Speak to Me,” featuring the wondrous sounds of human life: a heartbeat; voices. Then it quickly degrades into the unsettling reality of more depressing sounds: a cash register, crazy laughter, finally screams.” At which point “Breathe” begins.

Guitarist David Gilmour picks a lovely riff, Waters plays cool bass octaves and drummer Nick Mason plays some Ringo-esque drums behind nice keyboard work from Rick Wright and mournful pedal steel guitar by Gilmour. The band plays a nice long intro before Gilmour’s voice enters on lyrics from Waters that give a rather bleak peek into what lies ahead for a young adult: a life of toil, questions, futility. It’s clear why so many teens and young adults connect with this record. The song also demonstrates quickly that headphones are probably the best way to experience this masterpiece4. Gilmour’s subtle harmonies and guitar voicing, Wright’s organ flourishes, the “surround sound” production … it all is tailor-made for headphones.

And that’s certainly the case of the weird synthesizer piece “On the Run.” It’s got a pulsing, video game sound with footsteps, crazy voices, loud engines, and finally … a car crash? I don’t know but it sounds cool, and finally devolves into ticking clocks and alarms that signal the beginning of the brilliant song, “Time.”

“Time” is a song that reminds me, if I ever happen to forget, that David Gilmour is one of the most remarkable guitarists in rock music. After the clocks chime (a rather obvious sound-effect for the song, but so what? It sounds great…) there is a long, ominous build-up of metallic-sounding, echoing low notes coupled with Mason’s toms and Wright’s subtle organ, and this compelling introduction really sets up the entry of Gilmour’s voice, at 2:30, to sound all the more powerful. Gilmour also plays so many cool, bluesy riffs that it makes one’s head spin. Background oohs and aahs give way to Gilmour’s first solo at 3:30. He’s got such great tone and control, and I love at 4:28, when he eases back into the chorus chords, with the background vocals. It’s a solo that does so much in a minute and a half, and when it’s done he continues to throw in cool stuff like the little descending figure at 5:00, behind the vocals. The lyrics are another sort of warning to youth about time slipping through one’s fingers. The song nicely brings back a reprise of “Breathe” to end it. Keyboardist Rick Wright actually sings the chorus on “Time,” and he’s the main creative force, structurally, of the next song, too, “The Great Gig in the Sky.” Vocalist Clare Torry was asked to improvise over the track the band had already laid down, and what she delivered was masterful. It’s at once both uplifting and heartbreaking, and seems to say as much about the human condition as the lyrics in the other songs.

The song also features snippets of voices, which are heard throughout the album. Various everyday people were asked to respond to questions about topics like death and violence and their responses (such as “Why should I be frightened of dying? There’s no reason for it – you got to go sometime.”) have become as memorable to fans as any of the songs.

The song that is memorable to even non-fans is the international smash, “Money,” which opened Side Two, back when albums had sides …

Floyd have a long history of using everyday sounds, like TV shows and chanting soccer crowds, in their songs, and the use of a cash register ringing – in 7/4 time, no less! – on “Money” is one of their best efforts. Despite the odd time signature, the song is a basic blues song, with a Pink Floyd twist. Gilmour’s vocals on a snarky commentary on “the good life” are outstanding. Waters’s bass line is one of the most recognizable in rock, and Mason’s drumming is particularly excellent. The song switches to 4/4 time for Gilmour’s guitar solo (at about 3:00), and it’s Mason who holds it all together. His playing is once again Ringo-ish throughout Gilmour’s terrific soloing, which has a cool breakdown part at about 3:48 then blasts into overdrive again at 4:30. By the way – let’s not forget the amazing saxophone solo by Dick Parry. “Money” continues the album’s prodding of young adult minds grappling with the question of “what it all means,” and fades out to more snatches of conversation, blending quietly into another Big Question song, the lovely “Us and Them.”

Dick Parry’s sax provides a gentle entry into Gilmour’s vocals. I was typically half-asleep by this point up on that tower, but concentrating on lyrics that made me think that Pink Floyd was opening my eyes to everything. (“For want of the price/ of tea and a slice/ the old man died” Ahhh, youth.) The harmony vocals from Wright are great, and at about 4:50 he plays a terrific piano solo, which also features the classic spoken words “… if you give him a short, sharp shock …” in the background. The song takes you away, it’s powerful and perhaps a bit overblown, but I still like it.

It gives way to “Any Colour You Like,” a headphone song if there ever was one. This song gave one time to reflect on the previous song, and paved the way for the double-barrel album closer, two songs strung together: “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse.”

These two songs together may be my favorites on the album, although “Time” and “Money” are near the top as well. These are the only songs on which Floyd mastermind Roger Waters sings lead, and he does a great job on lyrics about the feeling of going crazy and a final summation of life, really. The backing vocals by the women vocalists provide a grandeur to the songs that probably helped embed the feelings deeply into that young adult brain of mine up on top of that tower.

Luckily, I never fell off of that tower. I eventually got my alcohol consumption under control without a major horror story – only a few embarrassments. I left the booziness behind, but not the album. When “Eclipse” starts, at about 3:50, with Wright’s organ cadenza, I’m transported on the sound-waves to my youthful self. I still feel moved by Waters’s list of the contents of one’s life. I understood that list differently as a 19-year old than I do as a 50-year old. Back then I thought, “Is that all there is?” Now I think, “Boy, I packed a lot into life so far.” But the feeling is the same – the feeling of being human. The Dark Side of the Moon is an album that stays with you for life.

Track Listing:
“Speak To Me”
“Breathe”
“On The Run”
“Time”
“The Great Gig In The Sky”
“Money”
“Us And Them”
“Any Colour You Like”
“Brain Damage”
“Eclipse”

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