When Pink Floyd released The Dark Side of the Moon in 1973, it marked a turning point creatively for the band. Having emerged from the London underground in 1967, Pink Floyd had struggled to find their artistic footing after the departure of founder Syd Barrett in 1969 because of his mental collapse due to drug abuse. Dark Side, fortunately for the band’s career, was an immediate commercial success. It went to No. 1 in several countries, earned critical raves, and turned Pink Floyd from a cult act to a global phenomenon. What’s more, it showed that the band had finally defined itself creatively. Previous Pink Floyd albums had clinkers and throwaway songs (recall the barking dogs joke “Seamus” on 1971’s Meddle) or ambitious compositions undone by poor production and uneven songwriting (see almost all of 1970’s Atom Heart Mother). Dark Side has neither. You can’t really separate any track from the album, because they’re all inextricably bound together into a seamless whole. The band (along with engineer Alan Parsons) found a way to fuse music and production together. It’s a trick other artists had tried before (most notably the Beatles and Led Zeppelin) but Dark Side of the Moon pulled it off in a way that no other album did or could have.
Yet, like all blockbuster albums, Dark Side of the Moon is not always what it seems. It’s fascinating to note that Dark Side is sometimes considered a quintessential psychedelic album because in many ways, it’s really the antithesis of psychedelic music. It’s not that the production isn’t elaborate or the music isn’t extended into lengthy intricate passages. It’s that the overall mood is so unrelentingly dour. If psychedelia means anything, it’s that the music has always represented a way for listeners to embark on a mind-expanding journey of self-discovery. With Dark Side, that’s simply not possible—the album basically tells the listener what to think and what to feel. By 1973, Pink Floyd’s singer/bassist Roger Waters had entered the beginning of his bleakest and most cynical phase as a lyricist and he wrote the bulk, if not all, of the lyrics on this album. The satire of greed in “Money” is biting and sardonic, but it is in no way mind-expanding. There are also references to Barrett’s disintegration throughout Dark Side, most notably on “Brain Damage”, a song about mental illness that’s so desolate, it will surely inspire listeners to somber contemplation rather than romantic idealism. Similarly, though the music is artfully constructed and produced, it’s devoid of anything that could be considered uplifting or invigorating. If anything it’s insular and desolate, with its slow tempos and spare melodies. The only “rock” song here is “Money” and it doesn’t even really count, considering it’s in 7/4 time. Only the climactic “Eclipse” suggests any sort of catharsis, and even then the song’s closing lyrics—“the sun is eclipsed by the moon”—are not exactly elevating. They do, however, fit in with the overall themes of alienation and isolation that emerge in the lyrics. In that regard, the album is indeed a seamless whole the way many psychedelic artists had intended, albeit for a completely different purpose.
So, no, this isn’t a psychedelic album in the ‘60s sense. It is, however, a quintessential ’70s album. It’s actually the bridge that links two other ‘70s masterworks from English rock titans of the era. In its world-weariness and cynicism, it mirrors the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, released one year before. In its well-crafted studio hermeticism and sophisticated arrangements, it paved the way for Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, released two years later. Like those albums, it’s inconceivable that it could have been recorded or released at any other time. It’s very much a product of the disillusionment and self-absorption that accompanied the end of the ‘60s. At the same time, the impeccable production and universal lyrical themes (isolation and anger) make this an album that will appeal to teenage misfits of all ages and classes.
This new “Experience Edition” has what are supposed to be two selling points. First, the album has been remastered yet again, but the sound isn’t that much better than the 1992 remaster that was done for the Shine On box set (and the subsequent 20th Anniversary edition). The quality is slightly better—it does remove a bit more tape hiss and the sound is slightly brighter—but unless you’re listening on expensive stereo equipment you won’t hear the difference. This edition also comes packaged with a bonus disc that includes a live performance of the album in its entirety, recorded at Wembley Stadium in 1974. The surprising part is that the concert versions sound exactly like the studio versions, even managing to translate the intricate production to a live setting. That, however, makes this a rather redundant addition. There are no new revelations nor is there any urgency to these performances—they sound just like the record, except with crowd noise. Floyd fanatics may be pleased to finally have this performance on an official release, but if you just want the album, there’s little reason to spring for this set.
Nonetheless, under any circumstances, Dark Side of the Moon remains an essential album. It’s not Pink Floyd’s most melodic album—Wish You Were Here is much more evocative in that regard. It’s not their hardest-rocking album—the guitar-heavy Animals holds that distinction. It’s not their most ambitious or even their most easily accessible—The Wall is both a complex double album and one that’s loaded with pop hooks. Dark Side, however, is the album where Pink Floyd became Pink Floyd, not ‘60s holdovers grappling with their history and figuring out how to write songs and record them. It’s a redefinition as momentous as any in music history, and it deservedly became one of the biggest albums in history. It’s rare when one album documents artists hitting their creative stride and it’s even rarer when that album becomes one of the most influential and best-selling in music history. It remains an essential part of any music collection—no matter which version you buy.