1973 was a big year. The Sears Tower was officially completed that summer, the Winter saw the infamous Roe v. Wade verdict handed down in the supreme court, and Billie Jean King won the battle of the sexes tennis match. And in March of 1973, Pink Floyd released their titular Prog-rock masterpiece to rave reviews and unprecedented commercial success, and the world of music would never be the same.
It’s fitting that Pink Floyd chose the prism as the cover for Dark Side of the Moon, as the visual fits almost all meanings one could derive from the piece. Many see the image as a representation of the beauty in diversity, others as a metaphor for the change the record could produce in the listeners life, and a few fans even see the prism as a metaphor for acid and how the drug would change one’s perception of the world. An undoubtedly accidental manifestation of the image can be found in the effect which the album had on the bands career, propelling them from underground visionaries to absolute superstardom. Myself, I see the cover as a representation of the many ways which listeners may view the album. As a piece of performance, Dark Side showcases four of the greatest musicians to ever live in their primes, along with a multitude of guest artists who fill out a well versed instrumentation pallet with wonderful performances of their own, most notably “Great Gig in the Sky.” From a lyrical standpoint, Waters and Gilmour are at their best, writing on massive topics with perfect precision. During a recent lecture on what makes a piece of music “Classical,” however, my Professor presented me with a brand new prism through which to examine this record when he stated that a piece of “classical” music conveys emotion through its form, not through lyrics. So lets take yet another look at the record that changed the world, removing lyricism, and instead focussing in on the underlying musical composition that makes this album so memorable.
While Dark Side delves into a multitude of topics, some of the overarching themes it covers are life, death, stress, and change. Of course, none of these topics are new to Pink Floyd’s discography, but the album frames them in a very different way than previous efforts, most notably pitting life and death against each other and drawing up opposing sides on which every other topic falls. There’s a reason that the album begins and ends with a singular heart beat, but just like in life, it’s what happens in the middle that matters.
As the first heartbeat enters, its quickly drowned out by chaos. Screaming, loud instrumentation, dissonance. It’s often said that this chaos could represent birth and the first breaths of life, which could very well be true, and if it is, even more power is found in the song “Breath” for its soft, enjoyable music. This is our first much needed break from chaos and its very enjoyable. As with many tracks on the album, I’d be perfectly happy to listen to this melody for the entirety of the album, but it’s brought to a close by the hectic follow up, “On the Run.”
Here, much like the opening track, what we hear isn’t necessarily pleasant. Instead, it’s a fast-tempo, repetitive synth piece that, by most interpretations is meant to represent the stresses of touring and a busy lifestyle. It’s fitting that the song is devoid of lyrics, because the band doesn’t want you to hear about their stress, they want you to feel it, and you do. The track is effective, but its groove is eventually disrupted too, this time by a painfully loud chorus of alarm clocks. This pattern continues throughout the album. Long tracks which establish a groove which listeners would love to stay in as long as possible, always disrupted by unpleasant, and often dissonant explosions of sound which cause stress and even sometimes can be painful to listen to. When people say that this album is visceral, this is what they mean. You feel the record as much as you hear it. So why? What does this pattern of comfort and discomfort mean? Well, its life.
There’s an overall purpose to this masterpiece. There’s a reason that the record resonates so well with listeners, even 44 years later. There’s an explanation for the unprecedented commercial appeal of the record. That is that Dark Side of the Moon is meant to, in its lyricism comment on life, and in its instrumentals, mimic life. The album begins with chaos, as does life, but quickly fades into comfort and predictability. We, as listeners, want to stay in these comfortably moments, but we aren’t aloud to for very long. Constantly, we’re disrupted by jarring dissonance and painful chaos. Just when it seems like we don’t want to listen any longer, the record finds something in all the madness to latch onto and creates a brand new groove that brings us in to our next stage of life.
This is why everyone who hears it can connect to this album. For the young man who’s just beginning college and living on his own, the chaos can represent his worry and fears. For the middle aged woman, the chaos can represent divorce, or death of a parent. Listeners feel this album because it mimics life at its most basic level, as a series of long, blissful grooves, interrupted by loud and dissonant moments of chaos, from in which one can become lost, but the important part is that the album, like life, doesn’t grind to a halt in these moments or dwell on them for too long, but instead, it keeps moving, and it invites its listeners to do the same, because regardless of the power in the moments of tension, there’s always something great just around the corner.