[21 February 2006]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The most concise critique of The Dark Side of the Moon: The Making of the Pink Floyd Masterpiece appears on its dust jacket: “... the ubiquitous popularity of this record remains an enigma.” Freelance writer Harris’s well-crafted, handsome little book (featuring many archival photos, most from drummer Nick Mason’s personal collection) doesn’t offer any new insight on why Dark Side is one of the best-selling popular albums ever. But then, it doesn’t really try to. Instead, it functions as a fairly succinct history of Pink Floyd, capped by a play-by-play-type rendering of the actual recording process. In doing so with fresh interviews with nearly all the principals involved, though, it does reveal a bit about the members of Pink Floyd themselves. Basically, they were dour and self-involved, with all the charisma of a moon rock. Sometimes it’s best to let enigmas be enigmas.
Pink Floyd’s faceless, detached non-image has helped leave the band’s music wide open for engagement by just about everyone. Apparently, that image was not just a construct. While all four band members seem to have realized that Dark Side was something special, their in-studio demeanor comes across as icily professional, nothing resembling the cohesive “gang mentality” associated with many rock bands at their peaks. Thirty years on, session vocalist Lesley Duncan still remembers that “[The band members] were cold; rather clinical. They didn’t emanate any kind of warmth ... they just said what they wanted and we did it.” Clare Torry, another vocalist who was brought in later in the recording process, adds: “They didn’t say very much ... I thought [the concept behind Dark Side] was rather pretentious, to be honest.” The irony of all this for an album about, in the words of lyricist Roger Waters, “an expression of political, philosophical, humanitarian empathy” is not lost on Harris.
What emerges is a fairly insightful, if not shocking, view of the Floyd as a working band. You get the sense of each member’s position within the ranks, roles that make the eventual fracturing of the group seem inevitable: Waters as the conflicted visionary, dogmatic ideologue, and shoddy bass player; David Gilmour as the pragmatic, slightly arrogant guitar prodigy and musical director; drummer Mason as the optimistic peacekeeper (the Ringo, in other words); keyboardist Rick Wright as the talented yet bullied stepchild.
Harris’s book functions best in a couple ways. It doesn’t get to the actual recording of Dark Side until about halfway through. Instead, Harris takes pains to establish context and perspective. In light of its astounding success, it’s easy to forget that Dark Side was created by a band in a precarious position: creatively wobbling after years of post-Syd Barrett lurching about, somewhat viewed as a hippie-era holdover in its native England, and lacking sustained presence on the American charts. Harris notes that Dark Side was a conscious effort by the band to create a more engaging, straightforward album than they had before.
The most value in the book comes from what its title suggests—a detailed breakdown of the actual recording process. Here, your satisfaction will be directly proportional to your interest in the technical aspects of the music. Curios will find irresistible details: “Brain Damage” was musically based on the Beatles’s “Dear Prudence”; Paul McCartney was interviewed for some of the album’s spoken-word sound effects but was deemed to be, in Gilmour’s words, “too clever; too guarded”. Not everyone’s going to be interested in the competition between engineers Alan Parsons and Chris Tomas. And, if you’re not, sentences like, “At Thomas’s suggestion, “Money” was bolstered by the addition of more guitar” will be all-too-Spïnal Tap.
In the end, the best bit of The Making of the Pink Floyd Masterpiece doesn’t involve the music at all. Rather, it’s Waters’s uncharacteristically endearing admission that, “If I’m honest, I have to accept that [after Dark Side‘s success] I became a capitalist. You can tell yourself what the fuck you like, but if you suddenly get quite a lot of money ... you can’t pretend ... [But] one of the good things about being a capitalist is that you become a philanthropist, to a certain extent.”
In 2005, that philanthropy even allowed Rogers, after 20 years, to temporarily reunite with the Floyd for a performance at Live 8, related in Harris’s prologue. If anything, Harris’s book demonstrates that the history of Pink Floyd has become the history of Waters’s and Gilmour’s ongoing divorce. Not even The Dark Side of the Moon can overshadow that.