Thursday, September 17, 2009

A small step for Pink Floyd and a giant leap for music - Dark Side of the Moon

I have to admit that my knowledge of the history of rock music is still very sketchy but it seems, from what I have read, that Pink Floyd’s album Dark Side of the Moon was a pretty iconic event in that history – even though (again from what I have read) it wasn’t exactly a quantum leap in style from much of the band's earlier work.

But we know that moon landings are like that – it can be a small step for the person taking it, but a giant leap for everyone watching it.

Listening to Dark Side of the Moon today I could see why it has become so idolised. It is so rich in sounds, in ideas, in music, in message.

It opens, and ends, with a heartbeat and, in between, it takes you along its journey through life’s darker side, with an almost operatic intensity, and yet at times with an almost chamber-music subtlety, that surely sounds as full of innovation and creativity now as it must have when it was first released in 1972.

The languid slides at the beginning of “Speak to me” sound deceptively laid-back. We have already heard the faltering heartbeat and so know that we can’t allow ourselves to become too blasé.

“Breathe” indeed provides us with a challenge – a challenge to choose between hiding from life or living it. But it, too, has a softness to it, a gentleness, that perhaps makes us feel safer than we really are for, before long, we are on the hair-raising ride of “On the Run”, carrying us forward, it seems, on the “biggest wave … towards an early grave” that we had just been warned about.

The ride is brought to a halt with the sound of an alarm clock, and we are in “Time”, a song about wasting time (and life) with trivialities and routines that have no meaning. It’s a brilliantly written song, opening with music where time literally ticks away to the soft beat of the drums beneath dark, ominous chords; and eventually continuing on into a stunning guitar solo that cries out with heartbreaking lament and regret.

A few minor key chords on the piano usher in “The Great Gig in the Sky”, a song without words but certainly not without meaning and message – if this great gig in the sky is some sort of metaphor for death, it is an anguished, lonely image that it paints, surging in passion before dying away sadly into the distance. This is really incredibly beautiful music.

There is a sudden change of pace, with rhythms cleverly created not by drums, but by the sound of cash registers. “Money” is, not surprisingly, a song about greed, and its sarcasm and harshness certainly stands in ruthless contrast to everything else we’ve heard so far – aggressive, restless, angry electric guitars, downward spiralling bass riffs, and angular, unsteady beats.

But greed isn’t the only thing that torments and tortures modern life. There’s violence, division and rejection, too, and we hear tears wept for all of it by the sad saxophone in “Us and Them”. It’s another intensely beautiful track which, like “The Great Gig in the Sky” swells with a passionate love for the life that is being so belittled and trivialised in the modern world.

“Any Colour You Like” is a soft rock interlude for drums and organ into which unsettled stabs from the electric guitar suddenly intrude and eventually take us into what is for me the undoubted pinnacle of the album, “Brain Damage”, and its journey into the loneliness of mental illness. Every bar of this song haunts you, with the forlorn electric guitar sliding and crying in the background and the unspeakably moving entry of female choir, sending goosebumps over every inch of your skin, as you are given the sad, lonely pledge, “I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon”.

The final track is “Eclipse” – a song of anthem-like strength, as if here you are really getting the moral of the story. And what is that moral? It is both hopeful and hopeless – “everything under the sun is in tune, but the sun is eclipsed by the moon”.

So ultimately, Dark Side of the Moon seems to me to be an album about missed opportunities, and about the consequences of not meeting life’s challenges in the right way. “All you touch and all you see is all your life will ever be” says the opening song – and what follows is the story of a life that failed to touch and see the things that matter.

The richness and originality of an album like this was bound to create a sensation – and it did, and still does. But I guess it’s ultimately up to us to decide whether we will learn the lessons it seems to be trying to teach us, or whether we will continue to let the sun be eclipsed by the dark side of the moon.

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