Why Pink Floyd's 1973 masterpiece continues to matter

by Ben Wener

The Orange County Register (MCT)

11 June 2007


Last week offered reason to revisit Sgt. Pepper, it having just turned 40. This week brings reason to revisit another conceptual rock monument: The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd’s monolithic masterwork—a philosophical flip side to Pepper’s fancifulness.

Actually, there’s reason to take another look at Floyd’s entire career, as there’s a more palpable cause for reconsideration than a mere anniversary: This week Roger Waters, the chief visionary behind Floyd, returns for two nights, a stop Wednesday at the Hollywood Bowl and a June 15 show at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater.

cover art

Pink Floyd

The Dark Side of the Moon

US: 24 Mar 1973

That in itself is only so significant—ye olde inflatable pink pig already hovered over his career-spanning spectacle three nights last October at the Bowl. Plus, Waters has played Orange County before.

Rarely, I’d add: His last visit was during his In the Flesh Tour of 2000, when he began to reconnect with his past, realizing live revivals might mean more than nostalgia. It was a crucial outing for Waters, one that helped such a sporadic performer regain his footing with material that at times seems so simple, yet is so very difficult to pull off.

That Irvine show, however, marked only the third time Waters had performed in Orange County—and the other dates were way back in May 1977, when Pink Floyd played two shows at Angel Stadium behind Animals. That tiny tally alone places this coming Verizon gig behind only the returns of the Police and maybe Genesis in the Rare Rock Experience column this year.

Now add this: Waters, 62, opens the second half of his current bonanza with Dark Side in its entirety. So there’s an O.C. first, if you need more impetus to try scoring a ticket.

On a larger scale, though, Waters appearing here again—after a year that put both him and sparring partner David Gilmour back on the road with classics-heavy shows—is just more proof that this is a very good time for Pink Floyd fans.

It is not, of course, great times. That would require the real thing—Waters, master-class guitarist and becalming co-vocalist Gilmour, the sublime keys work of Richard Wright and the knowledgeable drumming of Nick Mason—to actually be on stage together.

Their appearance two years ago at the London portion of Live 8, the first true Floyd performance since 1981, was fitting, the feuding band calling a momentary truce as a means to inspire bigwigs at the G8 Summit to find forgiveness in their hearts. It’s almost ironic, then, that the acrimony among this lot—particularly between Waters and Gilmour, though Wright and Mason certainly haven’t gone unscathed—still ranks among the most rancorous in rock history.

Pieces of the tale—above all the legal battle over the band name when Waters split but Gilmour and the rest opted to carry on—have become the stuff of legend. It’s all well-documented; Rolling Stone even put a bit of Pink Floyd 101 from author/critic Mikal Gilmore on its cover in April.

Skillfully written though that was, it didn’t add anything new to the saga. So why would Rolling Stone play it up so huge? Because Pink Floyd—like Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Dylan, Hendrix and few other classic-rock figures—still matters, to people young and old.

In fact, I think a solid case could be made that, out of that bunch, Pink Floyd’s music now matters most of all—at least in terms of the current progression of rock ‘n’ roll. New Dylans like Conor Oberst, and new Hendrixes (as if there could be such a thing) like John Frusciante or Jack White or John Mayer, arrive as infrequently as new Lennons and McCartneys, of which we’re always in short supply. And any conceivable new Zeppelins—even ones I like, like Wolfmother—so far only replicate that beast’s skin, not its eclectic innards.

Pink Floyd’s influence runs deeper, more pervasively, yet in less-detectable ways. Apart from the growing number of tribute bands—Which One’s Pink? and the Australian Pink Floyd Show remain the best—no one actually sets out to sound like Floyd. Yet many bands these days follow its idiosyncratic path: They aim to be as out-there, as norm-defying.

Not that they all succeed, or ever find their way to an accessible center the way Floyd finally did, first with Meddle, the underrated predecessor to Dark Side, and then with the album that arrived in March 1973 and stayed on the Billboard albums chart for an unprecedented—and surely unmatchable—14 years. The flowering of experimentalism this decade, however, I believe owes more to Pink Floyd’s boundary-busting strides than to anyone else who came to prominence in the `60s or `70s.

It isn’t just the band’s oft-considered greatest achievements—Dark Side, Wish You Were Here and the Waters-led alienation opus The Wall—that seem to have relevance to and resonance with each new generation that hears them. Consider, too, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the band’s groundbreaking debut that also turns 40 this year. Cut at Abbey Road while the Beatles were making Sgt. Pepper, Floyd’s only work with founding songwriter Syd Barrett (an icon of insanity who died last year) has long been a Rosetta Stone to modern-day explorers of psychedelia, from Beck and the Flaming Lips to artier concoctions that may never trouble a SoundScan chart.

Pop music rarely evolves because of what regularly makes a splash in the mainstream. It thrives on radical change, finds growth in the fringes—the realm Pink Floyd called home. The lessons of Floyd, then, teach that thinking as far outside the box as possible can be the route to striking upon bold, foundation-shifting music, even if it takes half a dozen years for it to catch on.

When it did for the Floyd, with Dark Side, the impact was seismic. Progressive rock had been developing pretty much since Pepper, but here was a worldwide experience—a wildly inventive yet profoundly beautiful and meditative work whose mostly second-person lyrics overflowed with existential empathy. It’s Zen from the get-go: “Breathe ... breathe in the air ... don’t be afraid to care ... look around ... choose your own ground ... all you touch and all you see is all your life will ever be.”

It was, as critic David Fricke once called it, “a theater piece about what it’s like to live in the modern world.” A “grim record for a grim time” whose original era is mirrored today (then it was Vietnam and recession, now it’s Iraq and terrorism). As its stark, prismatic, iconic cover suggests, the album ponders only big, unwieldy topics: “Time,” “Money,” “Us and Them.”

And it’s a transporting sensation, most potently as each side ends—the first with Clare Torry’s incredible vocal improvisation over “The Great Gig in the Sky,” a mix of ecstatic wailing and chilling death throes, the second with “Brain Damage” (when the lunatics take over) and the psalm-like “Eclipse.”

Waters, at the start of the 2003 Classic Albums DVD that superbly documents the making and meaning of Dark Side, says it was “an expression of political, philosophical, humanitarian empathy that was desperate to get out.” He had had a realization that informed the lyrics and reshaped his worldview: “Life wasn’t going to start later. It starts at dot, and it happens all the time. And at any point you can grasp the reins and start guiding your destiny.”

That self-awareness comes through every time you play Dark Side. No wonder so many people fall under its spell as they come of age. No wonder so many attendees less than half his age turn up at Waters’ shows these days.

“The ideas that Roger was exploring apply to every new generation,” Gilmour notes in that DVD. “They still have very much the same relevance as they had. ... I’d love to have been a person who could sit back with his headphones on and listen to that the whole way through for the first time. I never had that experience. Would have been nice.”

It was. For me it remains a means of coping with the world without drowning in cynicism, of contemplating whether the human race can truly be humane while reinforcing go-your-own-way principles. All these years later it holds up—still a wonder to behold.

And well worth whatever price to see it live.

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