Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’: 10 Things You Didn’t Know
There are hit albums, and then there’s Dark Side of the Moon. Pink Floyd‘s eternally popular song cycle has sold more than 15 million copies in the U.S. since its release on March 1st, 1973, and more than 45 million units worldwide. A true colossus of classic rock, the album made its creators — bassist/vocalist Roger Waters, guitarist/vocalist David Gilmour, keyboardist/vocalist Rick Wright, and drummer Nick Mason — incredibly wealthy, and ultimately spent a mind-boggling 937 weeks on the Billboard 200.
In addition to its massive commercial success, Dark Side of the Moon was also a career-defining artistic achievement for the British quartet, one which marked Pink Floyd’s transition from an experimental, jam-oriented progressive outfit primarily beloved by college students and assorted “heads,” to a top-echelon rock act characterized by its rich songwriting – as well as by Waters’ mordant worldview. Recorded at London’s Abbey Road Studios in various sessions from May 1972 through January 1973, the album’s cerebral soundscapes (exquisitely captured on tape by Abbey Road engineer Alan Parsons, and mixed with the help of veteran producer Chris Thomas) and heavy lyrical musings on the human condition inspired countless bong-fueled headphone listening sessions in darkened bedrooms, but its songs also sounded great on FM (and even AM) radio.
And, perhaps most crucially, the record had genuine meaning. Originally conceived by the band as a cohesive collection of songs about the pressures of life as a musician, Dark Side of the Moon eventually expanded to include songs about broader topics such as wealth (“Money”), armed conflict (“Us and Them”), madness (“Brain Damage”), squandered existences (“Time”) and death (“The Great Gig in the Sky”). As Waters told Rolling Stone in 2011, “Dark Side was the first [Pink Floyd album] that was genuinely thematic and genuinely about something.” And as artists like Radiohead and Flaming Lips (both of whom have been profoundly influenced by Dark Side) can attest, the album’s music and lyrics still hold up beautifully today.
Here are 10 things you might not know about Dark Side of the Moon.
1. Dark Side of the Moon was the first Pink Floyd album to feature Roger Waters as its sole lyricist.
Roger Waters had been contributing lyrics to Pink Floyd albums since 1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets (he also received co-writing credit on the instrumentals “Pow R. Toc H.” and “Interstellar Overdrive” from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the band’s 1967 debut), but Dark Side marked the first — though definitely not the last — time that the bassist took the lyrical reins for an entire Floyd LP. Along with adhering to a cohesive concept, Waters wanted Dark Side to feature lyrics that were more lucid and direct than anything the band had written before.
“That was always my big fight in Pink Floyd,” Waters is quoted as saying in Mark Blake’s Comfortably Numb – The Inside Story of Pink Floyd. “To try and drag it kicking and screaming back from the borders of space, from the whimsy that Syd [Barrett, the band’s original leader, who had written the bulk of the material on Piper] was into, to my concerns, which were much more political and philosophical.”
Though Waters’ lyrical dominance on Dark Side essentially planted the seeds for the massive rift that would eventually occur between him and the rest of the band, it was actually welcomed at the time. “I never rated myself terribly highly in the lyrics department, and Roger wanted to do it,” Gilmour admitted to Rolling Stone in 2011. “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 on the musical side of things. So we’ve always had a little bit of tension in those areas.”
2. The album was very nearly called Eclipse.
From the beginning, the band had intended to call their new album Dark Side of the Moon — a reference to lunacy, as opposed to outer space — but when British heavy blues rockers Medicine Head released an album of the same name in 1972, it caused the Floyd to rechristen their project as Eclipse. “We weren’t annoyed at Medicine Head,” Gilmour told Sounds magazine. “We were annoyed because we had already thought of the title before the Medicine Head album came out.” But when the Medicine Head album stiffed and quickly sank into obscurity, Pink Floyd felt free to revert back to their album’s original title.
3. Floyd fans were first treated to Dark Side of the Moon in concert more than a year before the album was actually released.
Though the lush textures and spacious arrangements of Dark Side of the Moon make it sound like a purely “studio” project, the band actually aired out all of the songs in concert — in the exact same sequence that they would appear on the album — more than a year before the album’s official release. The band premiered Dark Side of the Moon: A Piece for Assorted Lunatics (as it was provisionally known at the time) at the Brighton Dome on January 20th, 1972; and though it was inadvertently cut short that night by what Waters called “severe mechanical and electric horror,” the band went on to perform the song cycle in its entirety in during the rest of their 1972 live dates, further refining the songs (and the transitions between them) as they went. The band would eventually record all 10 of the album’s songs onto the same reel of 16-track master tape at Abbey Road, an unusual approach that nonetheless paid considerable artistic dividends.
“The way one track flowed into another was an extremely important part of the overall feel,” Alan Parsons told Rolling Stone in 2011. “So we could work on the transitions as part of the recording process rather than just part of the mixing process.”
4. The original live arrangement of “On the Run” bore little resemblance to the electronic freakout on the record.
Of all the Dark Side songs played live by the band in 1972, “On the Run” was the one that was most radically transformed in the studio. Originally known as “The Travel Sequence,” the instrumental was originally a guitar-driven jam — but it received a massive electronic makeover in the studio, thanks to a portable modular analog synthesizer known as the EMS Synthi AKS. The synth, which featured a built-in keyboard and sequencer contained in a suitcase (appropriately ironic, since the piece was originally inspired by Wright’s fear of flying), was also used on the album’s “Any Colour You Like.” “There were endless, interesting possibilities for that little device,” Gilmour told Rolling Stone. “We’d always considered ourselves as being a bit electronic. I always had an obsession with finding sounds that would turn something into 3D.”
5. “Money” was influenced by Booker T and the MGs.
Pink Floyd’s first Top 20 hit in the U.S. (it reached Number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 in July 1973), “Money” is Dark Side‘s most aggressively rocking track. With its tricky 7/4 time signature (except for during the guitar-solo segment, when the song switches to 4/4), Waters’ indelible bass riff, Gilmour’s wailing guitar lead, a squalling solo from saxophonist Dick Parry, and a distinctive sound collage loop made up of ringing cash registers and rattling coins, the recording all but obscures its roots in the Memphis R&B of Booker T and the MGs — but they’re definitely in there, according to Gilmour.
“Getting specific about how and what influenced what is always difficult,” he told Rolling Stone in 2003, “but I was a big Booker T fan. I had the Green Onions album when I was a teenager. And in my previous band, we were going for two or three years, and we went through Beatles and Beach Boys, on to all the Stax and soul stuff. We played ‘Green Onions’ onstage. I’d done a fair bit of that stuff; it was something I thought we could incorporate into our sound without anyone spotting where the influence had come from. And to me, it worked. Nice white English architecture students getting funky is a bit of an odd thought … and isn’t as funky as all that [laughs].
6. Paul McCartney’s contributions to the album were deleted – but the Beatles made a surprise appearance on the record.
In an attempt to further tie Dark Side‘s songs together, Roger Waters came up with the idea of recording interviews with Abbey Road staffers, road crew members, and anyone else working at the studio — asking them a series of questions about subjects ranging from the banal (favorite colors and foods) to the deeply serious (madness and death) — and then threading some of the interview snippets into the final mix. Paul McCartney, who was finishing Wings’ Red Rose Speedway album at Abbey Road, was actually among the interviewees, but Waters deemed his answers unusable. “He was the only person who found it necessary to perform, which was useless, of course,” Waters told Pink Floyd biographer John Harris. “I thought it was really interesting that he would do that. He was trying to be funny, which wasn’t what we wanted at all.”
Even so, McCartney — or at least his music — still managed to make a brief appearance on the album. If you listen close to the end of “Eclipse,” the album’s closing track, a passage from an orchestral version of the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” can be heard; the song was apparently playing in the background at the studio while Abbey Road doorman Gerry O’Driscoll (who delivered the immortal lines, “There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact, it’s all dark. The only thing that makes it look light is the sun.”) was being recorded.
7. “Us and Them” was a reject from the Zabriskie Point soundtrack.
The second of two singles released from Dark Side (“Money” was the first) and a minor hit in the U.S. and Canada, “Us and Them” began life in 1969 as a lovely piano-and-bass instrumental called “The Violent Sequence,” which as written by Wright and Waters and submitted for inclusion in the soundtrack of Michelangelo Antonioni’s counterculture drama Zabriskie Point. While the Italian director would eventually include three Pink Floyd recordings — “Heart Beat, Pig Meat,” “Crumbling Land” and “Come in Number 51, Your Time Is Up” — on the soundtrack, he didn’t feel that “The Violent Sequence” was appropriate for the film. In an interview for Classic Albums: The Making of Dark Side of the Moon, Waters recalled Antonioni saying, “It’s beautiful, but too sad. It makes me think of church!” More than two years after it was initially rejected by Antonioni, the band revisited the demo and recast it as a moving meditation on war and poverty.
8. An image of the Silver Surfer was originally considered for the album’s cover.
With its evocative, eye-catching graphic of a prism turning light into color, Dark Side of the Moon‘s album cover — created by English graphic designer George Hardie with input from Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell of Hipgnosis – is one of the most iconic designs to ever grace an LP. “When Storm showed us all the ideas, with that one, there was no doubt,” Gilmour recalled to Rolling Stone in 2003. “It was, ‘That is it.’ It’s a brilliant cover. One can look at it after that first moment of brilliance and think, ‘Well, it’s a very commercial idea: It’s very stark and simple; it’ll look good great in shop windows.’ It wasn’t a vague picture of four lads bouncing in the countryside. That fact wasn’t lost on us.”
So it’s interesting to imagine the album with an entirely different cover — specifically, the one suggested by Hipgnosis that would have featured an image based on the comic book character the Silver Surfer. “We were all into Marvel Comics, and the Silver Surfer seemed to be another fantastic singular image,” Powell recalled in an interview with John Harris. “We never would have got permission to use it. But we liked the image of a silver man, on a silver surfboard, scooting across the universe. It had mystical, mythical properties. Very cosmic, man!”
9. Dark Side of the Moon was the first Pink Floyd album to break into the US Top 40.
Given Dark Side‘s multi-platinum sales figures, and the impressive Stateside success of Pink Floyd’s subsequent studio albums, it’s easy to forget that the band’s first seven LPs all fared pretty poorly in the United States; before Dark Side, the band’s biggest U.S. hit had been Obscured by Clouds, their soundtrack for the French film La Vallée, which peaked at Number 46 on the Billboard 200 in the summer of 1972. But thanks to a massive promotional push by Capitol Records, and regular spins of “Money” by American radio DJs, Dark Side of the Moon rose all the way to the top of the Billboard 200 within two months of its release.
“It went up the American charts quite quickly,” Waters recalled to Rolling Stone in 2003. “We were on tour in the States while that was happening. It was obviously going to be a big record — particularly after AM as well as FM radio embraced ‘Money.'”
10. Proceeds from the album helped fund Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
As if Dark Side of the Moon wasn’t enough of a pop cultural landmark in itself, the album’s success was also partly responsible for the existence of the brilliantly absurd 1975 film comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The members of Pink Floyd often spent their downtime during the Dark Side sessions watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus on BBC2, so when the British comedy troupe ran into difficulty raising money for their first full-length feature film, the Floyd — now flush with cash from the sales of Dark Side — were more than happy to pony up 10 percent of the film’s initial £200,000 budget.
“There was no studio interference because there was no studio; none of them would give us any money,” Holy Grail director Terry Gilliam recalled in a 2002 interview with The Guardian. “This was at the time [British] income tax was running as high as 90 percent, so we turned to rock stars for finance. Elton John, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, they all had money, they knew our work and we seemed a good tax write-off. Except, of course, we weren’t. It was like The Producers.”