The Dark Side of the Moon, by John Harris

The album’s artwork depicts the light refracting from a triangular prism
D-Kuru, CC BY-SA 3.0 AT, via Wikimedia Commons

This is a book which shouldn’t work – yet it kind of does. An in-depth look at one particular album from one particular band would, on the face of it, seem too niche to have much of a pull factor at all for the general public. But this isn’t just any old album.

Pink Floyd’s ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’, released nearly fifty years ago, is one of the most acclaimed rock albums ever. Selling around 30 million copies worldwide, it was at one time said to be found in every bedsit in the land (hype, obviously – but probably not far off). Right off the starting block, it lingered in the US charts for an incredible 724 weeks. Apparently, one in five British households still has a copy.

John Harris – one of the Groan stable of journalists for whom I have a bit more time than some of the others – started his career on the NME and says he has always been obsessed by modern music, so his credentials are pretty sound for this kind of work. Can albums have biographies, like people? It turns out they can.

You won’t get to the actual DSotM until about page 70. The first section is a primer on the band and how they got to where they were in 1973, including quite a lot of focus on flawed frontman Syd Barrett (NHRN), which is appropriate when you consider that the album, described as ‘based on themes of madness, anxiety and alienation’ was a product of the band’s own individual history. At the time of Harris’ writing (2006), Syd (Keith) was still around and living in Cambridge (he died shortly thereafter). How fortunes can turn on a sixpence (not that the band would bother themselves with such a paltry sum) is shown by the time Syd was cut out of the band: when they were all already in the van one time, someone said, ‘Shall we swing by and pick Syd up?’ And someone said, ‘Nah’. And that was that. Funny to think, however, as the book relates, of Syd having once been a cheerful, gregarious type – he used to bound up to people, hand extended, saying ‘Hi, I’m Syd’. Not quite the morose recluse you might have imagined. Waters is convinced, far from being bipolar as one might have expected, that Syd was schizophrenic and always had been. The drugs probably didn’t help.

There isn’t much technical stuff in here about the actual physical making of the record, engineering-wise, but it’s interesting to note 25-year-old session musician Clare Torry (who created the otherworldly, yet simultaneously heartfelt wordless vocals on the Wright-written ‘Great Gig In The Sky’ in around three hours) thought her contribution was ‘caterwauling’ and would never be used. I think she was paid about thirty pounds. (Torry’s voice appeared on Up Pompeii, Butterflies and various commercials as well as on albums by Serge Gainsbourg and Culture Club). The band were awkward, not particularly friendly and unable to express exactly what they wanted. Torry tried a soulful rendition – ‘If we’d wanted that, we’d have hired Doris Troy’. In the end, she decided to ‘pretend she was an instrument’ and see where it went. Torry was never told her vocals had been included: the first she knew of it was when she saw the album in a shop. She later sued and won an out-of-court settlement, sum undisclosed, for a co-credit on the track.

Very much a picture of its time, with references to then-current hip issues like madness, existential angst, pollution (‘Breathe … breathe in the air’), reshaping relationships (‘Leave … but don’t leave me … don’t be afraid to care’) and, ironically, the dangers of commercialism (‘Money’), DSotM still has a place in many people’s hearts while others cordially hate it. It seems clear Roger Waters, despite his socialist credentials, wanted to be a success from the off and lost patience with Syd’s fey unreliability. Waters accused Mason of ‘selling out’ (man) and doing a ‘disgusting’ thing when Mason bought a nice big house in the country. When Waters bought a much bigger and nicer one, Nick Mason reminded Waters of his remarks and received the reply that that was because Waters’ wife had wanted it, not him. Snort.

A small gem of a middle-of-the- road book, this – good for those who know a bit and would like to know more. For the real die-hards, you might enjoy it anyway but I would venture to say there is probably nothing here fact-wise that you wouldn’t already know.


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