If you’re a true audiophile like me and you’ve just splashed out on what you consider to be your ultimate music system, then you’re almost certainly going to want to put it through its paces, right? In this situation, you need an old favourite that you know like the back of your hand, an album you’ve lived with for so long and absorbed so much that it almost feels like a part of your own musical DNA. For me this album is undoubtedly Pink Floyd’s seminal 1973 masterpiece, Dark Side of the Moon.
But why is this album, which is now more than 40 years old, still such an aural delight? Surely another album has been released in the last 4 decades that could more accurately be used to gauge a hi-fi system’s worth? In my honest opinion; no. And here’s why.
“Dark Side” was a watershed moment in Pink Floyd’s popularity and progressive rock music in general and would prove to be one of the most popular, technically impressive and influential albums ever recorded. Unlike most of their previous albums, the record was engineered not by the band themselves, but by Alan Parsons at the famous Abbey Road Studios in London. Parsons supplied the incredibly precise and complex engineering to the record, which set new standards in sonic fidelity. This fidelity was to become as recognisable a part of the band’s sound as Dave Gilmour’s solos. This has played a part in the record’s lasting success, as audiophiles kept replacing their old, worn-out copies with each subsequent re-master, which would pick out fresh sonic details.
Parsons, like one-time Floyd producer Norman Smith, had worked with the Beatles and would go on to found The Alan Parsons Project, a studio ensemble that had a handful of hits. Parsons was also largely responsible for many of the sound effects on the album, most notably the famous clock montage in “Time”. He had recorded the montage to demonstrate the power of quadraphonic sound, which was a burgeoning format at the time (a precursor to surround sound) and the band released a quadraphonic version of the album which was one of the first such records released in the UK. Even though the quadraphonic format was a commercial flop (primarily due to its cost) it did show that the band were always looking for new and exciting ways to enhance their sound. It would also prove a decidedly prescient move, as the album was able to be remixed into 5.1 surround sound for its 30th anniversary.
Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon
Looking at the album objectively, it is still an impressive piece of work. The album introduced many new ideas that have been copied (and never bettered) by various artists in the ensuing years. The forward-thinking nature of the production means that it sounds even better today than it did in 1973. The band also decided to use instrumentation that had not (up to that point) been associated with their sound, such as the extensive use of Dick Parry’s saxophone (which may have been influenced by Atom Heart Mother ‘s orchestral stylings) and female backing vocals.
There are also songs (such as “On The Run”) which were composed entirely on synthesiser. Of course, one of the album’s main selling points was that along-side the lengthy, atmospheric pieces there were some great pop songs such as “Us and Them”, “Money”, “Brain Damage” and “Breathe.” Although it was at its essence a pop song, the albums opener actually used many chords that Rick Wright had “borrowed” from jazz, most noticeably Miles Davis and this just goes to show how varied the album was and how the band’s various influences helped it become such an original and engaging piece of work.
The band was adamant that the album was meant to be taken as a singular “movement,” and that the tracks were only split into so many tracks because of the wishes of Parlophone, their record label. The atmospheric guitar sounds (that were created mainly using slide guitar and extensive reverb) used on their preceding album, “Meddle” were still used to great effect on songs such as “On The Run” and “Any Colour You Like” and added a subtle dimension to the songs.
The pieces of spoken word used throughout the course of the album were taken from interviews the band conducted with the studio staff. Interviewees included local janitors, the Abbey Road doorman, roadie Pete Watts and even Paul and Linda McCartney (though their contributions never made the final cut). The willing participants in this great musical experiment were asked questions such as “Are you afraid of death?” and “What constitutes madness?” The answers were edited and placed at key album moments to really underline its themes and concepts. These little snatches of conversation really give the instrumental sections an added emotional weight and the trick has been copied many times since, but never bettered. Listening to the latest master of the record today, through a top-quality hi-fi system, the brief snatches of dialogue really amplify the mood of the record, especially through a decent set of headphones.
By far the album’s most original and ground-breaking moment was the “On The Run” segment that follows “Breathe”. This track was originally played live (the band were playing DSOTM live months before they began recording under the guise of “Eclipse”) as a guitar orientated jam, but it all changed when Rick Wright came across a synth called the “Synth EA” This was an early synthesiser (the first to contain a sequencer) with a small keyboard type input board attached to it.
Wright played a few bars, turned up the speed control knobs and fed the signal through a high quality studio high pass filter and suddenly he had the pulsating, arpeggiated opening to the song. Not only were they the first band to use this revolutionary machine on an album, they also made it the centre-piece of an entire track. The song also utilised reverse tape loops, which helped play into the backwards, mechanical effects that were actually Gilmour playing his guitar with a mic stand. They were effectively sampling sounds and putting them into their music, 20 years before sampling was to become popular. This track in particular also used heavy stereo panning which was seen as a risky move at the time, as much of the general public still only owned mono systems – another reason why it still sounds so much more defined and clearer than anything else from that era.
The album became the band’s first number 1 in the US and stayed on the Billboard Top 200 for 741 weeks, establishing a world record that remains to this day. The weighty themes of the album went against the fantastic glam rock stylings of the period, it was the first true “concept album” and explored the idea of what it’s like to live and love in the modern world and how it can drive you to the brink of insanity if you let the monotony get to you. Since DSOTM many bands have attempted the grand “concept” album, but most end up sounding contrived and boring. The only popular rock album of the last 30 years that comes close is probably Radiohead’s OK Computer and that album would never have existed if it hadn’t been for Dark Side.