Album Assignments: The Dark Side Of The Moon

There’s a rhythm we start with, well before we’re born. A heartbeat. As soon as birth arrives, there’s a new rhythm — the breath. As life continues, more rhythms are introduced. Work has its rhythm, of hours, of days. The relentless ticking of clocks follows us through every minute. Patterns recur, both on the personal level and on larger scales. History repeats itself, like clockwork, and we can feel the heartbeats of economies, of political systems, of ecosystems. Often, we get to see the painful repetitions, the swinging pendulums of human cruelties and human stupidities, human tribalism and self-destruction. Rhythms follow us all the way to the grave, into which we’re lowered accompanied by the tolling of bells. In the meantime, it’s a wonder we don’t go mad. Sometimes we do.

The Dark Side Of The Moon opens with a heartbeat. It’s a syncopated rhythm — thumpTHUMP, thumpTHUMP, thumpTHUMP. As the heartbeat gets louder, new rhythms fade in, a kind of micro-overture for what’s to come — clocks, cash registers, jackhammers. There are voices muttering darkly, unsettling laughter. And finally, screaming.

That’s when the music starts. The palette is electric guitar, bass, drum, and organ. Like everything on this album, they are mixed exquisitely with each other, and they sound perfect. And then come the words, which begin with, “Breathe.”

The Dark Side Of The Moon album cover

Pink Floyd obviously has the big topics on its mind — life, the universe, and everything. The Dark Side Of The Moon might be the grandest Grand Statement in all of rock. Can you think of a grander one? I mean, it starts out with the fundamentals of living — heartbeat, breath — and then systematically steps through the fundamentals of life, starting from the individual and personal, then expanding to cover humanity itself.

That cycle of big life topics starts with work. At the end of “Breathe”, David Gilmour sings:

Run, rabbit, run
Dig that hole, forget the sun
And when at last the work is done
Don’t sit down it’s time to dig another one
For long you’ll live and high you’ll fly
But only if you ride the tide
And balanced on the biggest wave
You race towards an early grave.

These lyrics are clearly setting the stage for a song about work, ambitition, and the ways that they can throw a life out of balance. And indeed, “On The Run” is such a song, but it makes that statement entirely without the use of lyrics. Something extraordinary about The Dark Side Of The Moon is its facility for conveying concepts with pure music. Well, it’s extraordinary for me, anyway. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I struggle with instrumental music — it very easily fades into the background for me. Such is not the case with “On The Run”, nor any of the instrumental parts of this album.

The most prominent part of the song is the intense, fast, merciless rhythm of it. Every note and instrumental effect lays on top of a repeated pattern of very quick notes (hemidemisemiquavers, perhaps?) that convey a feeling of intense pressure and onrushing deadlines — certainly a feeling I’m familiar with in my own work. Desperate running footsteps in the background underline this feeling, and chaos builds and builds throughout the song until it all ends in a massive explosion — the “early grave” we heard about earlier.

But we’re not ready to think about death yet. Instead, as the debris settles from the big boom, we hear a new rhythm: ticking. (Usually the ticking comes before the boom — not this time.) The clock sounds increase until every alarm rings at once, waking us from the nightmare of high-stakes career-induced implosion. Instead, the lyrics talk about the very opposite — “ticking away the moments that make up a dull day / You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.” “Time” is all about wasted time, a lifetime squandered until even the song itself gives up in frustration, its coda returning to the tune of “Breathe.”

The narrator of this section is more like the running rabbit from that song — home only occasionally, cold and tired. “Far away across the fields,” he hears “the tolling of the iron bell.” What bell could that be? Well, in the English countryside, it’s most likely to be a church bell, isn’t it? Those bells ring for a variety of reasons, but a bell tolling is more specific. When the bell tolls, it tolls for death.

This is the rhythm that leads us into “The Great Gig In The Sky”, its gentle slow piano echoing those tolling bells. The rhythm of that piano emphasizes the first and third beat, inscribing the opposite of the opening heartbeat. TONEtone, TONEtone, TONEtone. There are some words at the beginning — a spoken clip of Abbey Road doorman Gerry O’Driscoll declaring he’s not afraid to die. Those words aside, this song is the pinnacle of the album’s ability to portray concepts clearly without the use of lyrics. Clare Torry’s vocals aren’t just technically incredible (though they are that, too) — they inhabit both the terror of death and the peace of it, so completely that it feels like she’s been through it. It’s criminal that she was only paid 30 pounds for that contribution, and quite right that she reached a settlement with EMI and the band giving her co-writing credit with Richard Wright.

Thus ends side one, a full one-act play, the complete journey from birth to death. It feels like a self-contained album on its own, and it’s hard to imagine what more there is to say. Side two answers with the ring of a cash register, opening what I think of as Act Two. “Money” is a companion piece to “Time”, appropriately, and like “Time” it opens with practical sound effects before launching into a brilliant loping bass line from Roger Waters. Like “Time”, it personalizes the big concept with a specific point of view, in this case greed.

“Money” is the song that moves the album from a personal journey to a view of humanity at large. We’ve already been from birth to death, but there’s a bigger picture to see than one person’s life and experience. Money only works as a social construct — there’s nothing to it unless there’s someone else with whom to exchange it, so it’s the fabric of a society, not of a life.

That sets the stage for “Us And Them”, the broadest statement on the album. I keep wanting to say it’s the high point, but I’m not sure there is a high point on this album. It’s a sustained high. In any case, Waters’ dazzling lyrics take in the sum of human folly, incorporating all the ways we separate from each other — race, class, religion, views, anything we can do to declare another human the “other” — and the consequences such alienation brings, in war, in death, in suffering. The general who watched as “the lines on the map moved from side to side” is the, well, general view of a critique that Waters will make very specific in works like The Final Cut and “When The Tigers Broke Free.” It’s a stark portrait of human madness, which opens the door for the album’s final act.

To get there, though, we have one more instrumental passage to traverse, this one without any clear thematic hints like those in “On The Run” and “Great Gig In The Sky.” “Any Colour You Like” is a synth and guitar odyssey that serves a couple of purposes. First, it bridges the gap between Act Two and Act Three, the social commentary and the exploration of madness. Second, it invites the imagination to fill in the blank for whatever we may think was missing from the first two acts. Birth, life, work, time, death, money, alienation, war — what’s missing? You may think it’s love. You may think it’s power. You may think it’s a lot of things, and this song lets you fill in any color you think is missing from the full rainbow of the album.

SACD album cover for The Dark Side Of The Moon

And when it ends we get what Waters saw as the missing piece: madness. This was a topic much on the band’s mind, as they lived an insane 1970s rock star lifestyle and had already seen mental illness claim their former bandmate Syd Barrett. “Brain Damage” is about both personal madness (the lunatic in my head) and societal madness (the lunatics in the newspaper.) It’s about the futility of trying to excise that madness, and the odd comfort of knowing that we’re all in it together — that there is no dark side of the moon, really, because as a matter of fact it’s all dark.

All of it. With a transcendent drum intro from Nick Mason, “Eclipse” brings all the grand statements to a shattering peak by encompassing everything in our experience — a long series of statements that include the full totality of that experience, a totality embodied by its title and final image: the sun eclipsed by the moon. Whoever we are, whatever happens to us, the darkness will find us.

And then, finally, we return to that heartbeat, the sign of life, and perhaps the sign of hope. Even when the sun is hidden, there is still life.

Robby assigned me this album in honor of the eclipse, and I have to say it was pretty amazing to be listening to it on the day that totality crossed the United States. With the folded faces of more and more lunatics appearing in my hall every day, with “Us And Them” at a greater intensity in my country than I’ve ever seen, with work frenetic and time slipping by, and with madness afoot in the land, this album resonated profoundly for me, and I’m clinging to that heartbeat at the end, as the rhythms of life continue undiminished by it all.

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