Pink Floyd: Journey to the Dark Side

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The band expected you to listen to this music with close attention, perhaps ideally in the dark, in an altered state. "Attention spans have changed," says Gilmour. "The idea of going around to somebody else's flat or house and sitting around in a comfy room and having a really good hi-fi system and listening to a whole album all the way through, then chatting for a few minutes, then maybe putting another album on . . . does that happen today?"

Its seamlessness is more in line with the second side of Abbey Road than anything by Floyd's prog contemporaries. "We felt the Beatles were too good to compete with, honestly," says Waters. "Sgt. Pepper was another flawless album - maybe that was encouragement because they set the bar so high." With Dark Side, the band recorded all 10 songs onto the same reel of 16-track master tape, a highly unusual approach. "The way one track flowed into another was an extremely important part of the overall feel," says Parsons, who made his reputation on the album. "So we could work on the transitions as part of the recording process rather than just part of the mixing process."

For all its craft and focus, Dark Side was the work of a group that had been adrift just four years earlier, after losing the linchpin of its sound. Frontman Syd Barrett had been everything to Pink Floyd: the pretty face, the songwriter, the singer, the lead guitarist. "He was the boy wonder," says Gilmour. Under Barrett's leadership, the band went from arty, Cambridge-bred middle-class students to the heroes of the London underground: In concert, the whimsical, very British pop songs that populate their 1967 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, would explode into lysergic, interstellar improvisations.

Barrett's near-daily use of LSD and a likely underlying mental illness left him all but incapacitated by the time Floyd were recording their second album: His songwriting output slowed; he went through at least one show without actually playing his guitar; he began to drift from reality. The band recruited another Cambridge boy, David Gilmour, a strong singer and a more conventionally bluesy guitar player, as a potential replacement – the two men coexisted in the band for about six weeks.

Inspired by what they heard of the Beach Boys' situation, the Floyd briefly considered a sandbox-era Brian Wilson role for Barrett: Perhaps he could stay at home and write songs while the band took Gilmour on tour. "I thought it would be great to still have that talent around, if he ever comes back from wherever he is," says Waters. It soon became clear Barrett couldn't handle even that. "Syd never really knew how to work," says Storm Thorg-erson, the band's longtime art designer and Barrett's close friend. "It all came very naturally to him. I don't think that he ever had to think about a thing. And the problem was when that ran out he had nothing to replace it with. He burned out like a comet – he was a thing of beauty, but then he disappeared."

Floyd's then-managers were convinced that "Syd was the only thing of any value in the band," says Waters. So they dropped Pink Floyd. "I think my feeling at the time would have been, 'You might be right, only time will tell,'" Waters says. But in Barrett's absence, the remaining members pulled together. "I think we were all pretty pragmatic after Syd left, in the years between 1968 and 1973," adds Waters. "We were absolutely all determined to not have to go back to work. Not to have to get a proper job. And in order not to have to get a proper job, you have to work at it. You have to do whatever you need to do to keep it going."

The post-Syd, pre-Dark Side albums are freewheeling to a fault, as Pink Floyd struggled to find a new voice. They allowed keyboardist Wright to take up 13 and a half minutes of 1969's Ummagumma with a composition boasting the Spinal Tap-worthy title of "Sysyphus, Parts 1-4"; they attempted ambitious, if not entirely successful, pieces such as the choir-and-orchestra-assisted "Atom Heart Mother" and the outrageous "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast," which combines pastoral instrumental with the actual sounds of a roadie preparing his morning repast; they indulged in pure throwaways such as "Seamus," essentially a blues duet between Gilmour and a howling dog. (Musical evidence aside, the band members were not doing psychedelics at this point, and, in fact, were never major acidheads: "Syd did enough for all of us," says Gilmour.)

"We were fairly brave, and would put anything on a record that amused us one way or another," says Gilmour. "But in some of those moments we were floundering about, and didn't have our forward momentum very clear, and inspiration might have been a bit thin on the ground at times. Moving on from our 'Psychedelic Breakfast' moments - which is great in its way, but I'd never want to listen to it really - to something more concrete like 'Echoes' was much more satisfying." 1971's "Echoes" was Floyd's most successful long-form piece before Dark Side, a 23-minute tune that works from start to finish. Adds Waters, " 'Echoes' was the closest precursor in terms of construction and the musicality of it. The other thing that I'd point to is 'A Saucerful of Secrets,' which in a musical sense was similar. It had a number of movements, it had a fast bit and a slow bit. But Dark Side was the first one that was genuinely thematic and genuinely about something."

It gradually became clear that the tall, aggressive, sardonic Waters was the group's new leader. "It's not a matter of choice, it's what happens," he says. "If you've ever been in a band, somebody normally takes hold of the reins and just does it. It's a question of doing the work. And also people have different personalities, of course, and sometimes somebody is the person who's much more likely to say, Why don't we . . .,' followed by something that people think is a good idea and want to do and therefore follow. So, willy-nilly, you get leaders and followers."

Everyone agrees that the concept for Dark Side developed at a meeting in Mason's house in 1971, though some details get fuzzy. Waters recalled coming up with the idea of writing a cohesive set of songs about the pressures of life as the musicians knew it; Mason thinks the idea was developed collectively. In any case, Waters took notes as the band members developed lyrical topics for the album, centered around sources of stress. They assembled a compendium of bummers: mortality, travel, money, madness. It was Waters' first album as sole lyricist, and the job was his from then on. "I never rated myself terribly highly in the lyrics department," says Gilmour, "and Roger wanted to do it. I think it was a sense of relief that he was willing to do that. At the same time, him being the lyricist and more of the driving force didn't ever mean that he ought to be in full charge of the direction of the musical side of things. So we've always had a little bit of tension in those sort of areas."

In an odd, unsustainable dynamic that would spell trouble for the band, Gilmour's role as primary vocalist and lead guitarist made him Dark Side's dominant performer, even though his songwriting contributions to the album were relatively minimal. Instead, Wright stepped up, writing elegiac, harmonically rich music for "The Great Gig in the Sky" and "Us and Them" (a melody originally intended for the 1970 film Zabriskie Point). "It's always been the fight between me and Roger," says Gilmour. "So Rick gets forgotten about a little bit. He hasn't got quite the credit he should have."

Waters' more idiosyncratic vocals came to dominate Floyd's later albums, but on Dark Side, he sings on the final two songs only. "I remember being prodded to be uncomfortable," Waters says with a laugh. "My memory is David and Rick were at great pains to point out how I couldn't sing and how I was tone-deaf, and there's this bollocks that Rick had to tune my bass.

"And you only have to look at the body of work to realize that this is not the case," Waters continues. "Maybe their way of keeping me from being totally overwhelming was to point out that I might have vocal and instrumental inadequacies. And I'm not saying that I was ever a great singer with great pitch. I sort of made up for it by singing with a lot of feeling and character."

They began performing early live versions of Dark Side in 1972, and they had much of it nailed from the start. The most radical difference was the absence of the electronic freakout "On the Run" – in its place was the jammy, guitar-driven "The Travel Sequence" (the studio version is included in the box set). But as soon as Gilmour and Waters got their hands on a then-new EMS SynthiA suitcase synth, they killed "Travel Sequence." "There were endless, interesting possibilities for that little device," says Gilmour. "We'd always considered ourselves as being a bit electronic. I always had an obsession with finding sounds that would turn something into 3D. When you have your stereo speakers and you have a loud band rocking away, it feels like it's kind of in this plane here, and I've always wanted to be able to also have things that feel like they're over there a hundred yards away, pinging away."

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