Any Colour You Like: The Dark Side of the Moon Turns 50
Pink Floyd’s record-setting album was indeed a true band effort
It was 50 years ago today that The Dark Side of the Moon would kick off a record run upon its release.
And contrary to its primary songwriter’s public statements these days, it’s still a shining example of Pink Floyd’s chemistry as a whole band. It’s the work of an actual band, a snapshot in time of a period when Roger Waters didn’t view the band’s other members as de facto hired hands.
It seems even longer ago than 50 years. It was a time well before Waters became more known for blaming Ukraine for Putin’s invasion (the “It’s your fault they’re hitting you” school of foreign policy), well before David Gilmour co-signed his wife calling Waters an anti-semite. Waters angrily denied this.
It was a time when the band worked together, rather than having two of its former members holding off the release of an album reissue because of a disagreement over liner notes.
That bad blood wasn’t in the picture when the band created the album, which would set a record by spending 736 consecutive weeks on the Billboard albums chart. The No. 1 album when it debuted? The Deliverance soundtrack. The No. 1 album when it left? Def Leppard’s Hysteria. There were 164 albums which topped the chart in that span, including Dark Side itself.
That kind of success certainly wasn’t on band members’ minds when they stepped into a rehearsal studio in 1971. At that point, they started working on a musical ideas, some of which turned into “Eclipse”, which the band intended as new music for the setlist for shows on the Meddle tour.
Band members had musical ideas and Waters was coming up with lyrics. Somewhere, it stretched beyond “Eclipse” into making an album about life, death and the pressures in between.
By the time Pink Floyd set about a 16-date tour of the UK, they were ready to perform what was now titled “The Dark Side Of The Moon – A Piece For Assorted Lunatics”.
It wasn’t an easy time putting the piece across on stage, due in no small part to the concept of having a newfangled light setup to go with it. This led to early problems with sound, until the crew figured out how they were going to supply the power.
Pink Floyd was essentially workshopping The Dark Side of the Moon live at this point, eventually playing something closer to an album’s worth of material while constantly adjusting and tweaking things.
Drummer Nick Mason told Louder Sound last year, “It was a hell of a good way to develop a record. You really get familiar with it; you learn the pieces you like and what you don’t like. And it’s quite interesting for the audience to hear a piece developed. If people saw it four times it would have been very different each time.”
In all, the band spent around six weeks putting the album together, although not in a row. Some other committments — the Obscured by Clouds soundtrack and other additional live dates — pushed the schedule back.
It’s here where we step back momentarily to the present.
Waters, whether it’s an artist’s desire to revisit material, a fit of pique or a bit of both, recently announced he’s re-recorded the album, sans the rest of the band.
In an interview with the Telegraph, Waters said, “I wrote The Dark Side of the Moon. Let’s get rid of all this ‘we’ crap! Of course we were a band, there were four of us, we all contributed – but it’s my project and I wrote it. So… blah!”
Perhaps not feeling he’d come off as bitter enough, he slagged his former bandmates: “They can’t write songs, they’ve nothing to say. They are not artists! They have no ideas, not a single one between them. They never have had, and that drives them crazy.”
Waters was the primary songwriter, but he seemed less angry just last year when he told Louder, “I was definitely less dominant than I later became. We were pulling together pretty cohesively. Dave sang “Breathe” much better than I could have. His voice suited the song. I don’t remember any ego problems about who sang what at that point. There was a balance.”
Mason, in a 2003 episode of Classic Albums, said, “It was probably the most focused moment of our career, in terms of us all working together as a band.”
Contrary to 2023 Waters’ assertion that other band members had “no ideas”, “Us and Them” started from a Richard Wright chord progression. Wright contributed the chords to “Time” as well. He wrote “Great Gig in the Sky”, which turned into a co-write, but not with Waters (more on that later).
The non-musical moments came from different sources. The loops of coins and the cash register in “Money” and the brief opening collage “Speak to Me” were done by Waters and Mason. Engineer Alan Parsons came up with the clocks going off for “Time”.
VIDEO: Pink Floyd “Time” from Pulse
Near the end of the sessions in early 1973, Waters wrote a series of questions — “Are you frightened of dying?”, “When was last time you hit someone?”, “Were you in the right?”, etc. Various members of the band’s inner circle, Abbey Road employees and visitors to the studio, around 20 in all, were interviewed with those questions.
A couple of visitors named Paul and Linda McCartney were among the 20, but Gilmour said they were too guarded to provide anything usable.
Instead, the memorable bits came from the likes of roadie Roger “The Hat” Manifold (“I mean they’re gonna kill you, so if you give them a short, sharp shock, they don’t do it again…. I mean, good manners don’t cost nothing, do they? Eh?”), Wings guitarist Henry McCullough (“I don’t know. I was really drunk at the time”) and Abbey Road’s Irish doorman Gerald O’Connell (“There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact, it’s all dark”).
The album was completed with a final mixing session one month before its release. As much of a good feeling the band might have had about what they’d been recording, it was another matter hearing it all put together for the first time.
“You’ve got this piece of tape, you know, on a couple of reels. 45-odd minutes long, has loads of white editing tape flashing through the thing as it goes around. And there is a day and you actually have finished and you sit down and you turn the speakers up to pretty nice and loud. And you listen to the whole thing through and that is a moment of that is really magical,” Gilmour said in a 2003 promotional documentary.
For an album that was created in a rehearsal studio, then live, then in broken-up recording sessions, the first impression all these years later is how seamless the final product sounds. Everything flows organically from one piece to the next as part of the whole.
“Breathe” follows “Speak to Me”, countering the collage’s increasing volume and tension with its languid loveliness.
Waters was correct. Gilmour was the right choice to sing it, especially in the soaring “Run, rabbit, run/Dig a hole in the sun” moment.
What became “On The Run” was originally a guitar jam live, but nobody really wanted that on the album. The solution came in the form of what was then cutting edge technology: a VCS 3 analog synthesizer which had a new feature, the sequencer.
An eight-note sequence of notes was recorded and sped up. Additional synth sounds and a guitar played with a mic stand leg were added. Filters and oscillators were used. Then came sound effects like the sounds of rushing footsteps and airport announcements.
Multiple band members and Parsons all had their fingers on faders to put it together as numerous tracks switched sounds. “A mix in those days was a performance, every bit as much as doing a gig,” Gilmour said in 2003.
It all builds to Roger The Hat’s manical laugh before the synth-created plane crash sounds loudly bring it to a halt.
Waters said it was inspired by the fear of flying he’d gone through with Pink Floyd on the road all the time. The increasing pressures of life co-mingle with fear of death on the mostly wordless track.
The quiet of the rubble is punctured by the opening clocks of “Time.” If Animals was partly about the breakdown of the machine, “Time” is about living day to day as one of its cogs.
One of the album’s standouts, it’s a terrific example of how in sync the four were musically. Waters and Mason provide the supple rhythm support underneath. Gilmour’s little fills lend as much as his solo while his lead vocals provide the right voice for the song’s moods (“One day closer to death!”, “It’s good to warm my bones beside the fire”). Wright offers more than just keyboards, as he warmly sings one of the album’s best lines — “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.”
As “Time” fades, the “Great Gig in the Sky” starts as if from a dream. The chord sequence was Wright’s, dating back to the 1972 shows. Initially on organ, then piano, it turned into something else. There’s a bit of slide guitar. O’Driscoll says “And I am not frightened of dying. Any time will do, I don’t mind. Why should I be frightened of dying? There’s no reason for it – you’ve got to go sometime”, which is the kickoff for the loud organ and wailing vocals of Clare Torry.
The band used backing singers at various points, but the song was initally going to have some form of sound effects. In the latter sessions, the idea came up to have a woman wordlessly belt along with it.
Parsons suggested Torry, who came in on a Sunday.
At first, Torry sang like a backup singer, with “ooh baby baby” and the like. But she soon hit upon what the band wanted, even though, as Parsons later noted, she wasn’t getting a lot of direction. She sang like her voice was a lead instrument, working in tandem with Wright’s keyboards — first almost pushing the needle into the red, then giving it a mournful quality as things slow down.
Torry was paid a flat fee, the equivalent of just over $200 today. She later sued, contending that she deserved co-writing credit. She had a point, as a settlement was reached in 2004 before the case went to court. While terms were undisclosed, every pressing of Dark Side of the Moon since has her credited as co-writer.
VIDEO: Pink Floyd “Money”
Pink Floyd may have taken its name from two bluesmen, but were never blues rock. “Money” is where they came closest, as Waters used blues structure, albeit with an atypical time signature, as its base. It features both his pointed lyrics and terrific bass work, along with Gilmour’s impassioned vocals and best soloing on the album.
Of course, there’s a certain level of irony that a song about the perils of unfettered capitalism would be a commercial hit — an album rock staple and their first Top 40 hit in the U.S.
“Us and Them” is Dark Side at its most immersively beautiful. The absorbing keyboards got their start as a piece Wright wrote for the Zabriskie Point soundtrack that director Michelangelo Antonioni rejected. Waters, doing an Antonioni impression on Classic Albums, said the director’s response was “It’s beautiful, but is a too sad, you know? It makes me think of church”.
Saxophonist Dick Parry, a friend of Gilmour’s going back to their days at Cambridge, does a 180. After his blaring solo in “Time”, he delivers one in “Us and Them” that floats through, precisely matching the musical and lyrical tone.
For all the ways Waters can be very pointed and pulls up lyrical bile which can be deserved at times, what stands out about “Us and Them” is how the social commentary here was humanistic and empathetic, matching the music.
“Any Colour You Like” is an instrumental that serves its purpose — to bridge from “Us and Them” to the closing “Brain Damage/Eclipse”. Yes, they’re separate songs, but they almost always were played together and you really can’t have one without the other.
Waters was clearly affected by former bandleader Syd Barrett’s quite possibly acid-fueled mental breakdown. His ideas of exploring madness would fully flower later on The Wall. And he’d more directly address Syd on Wish You Were Here.
But his one-time friend’s presence is felt on “Brain Damage”, the “lunatic on the grass” in question, although Waters would also point out that it was a commentary on signs telling people to “stay off the grass”, as if the beatiful lawns were only to be looked at and not enjoyed, that for some reason, anyone different was seen as “the lunatic”.
The empathy holds the song together, then it lifts off with its full-bore chorus with the hook and the backing singers.
“Eclipse” ups the ante — Gilmour’s chord work, Wright’s organ rising up, the vocals working together, the backing singers singing as if they’re escorting the band and you into Heaven, space, some place lovely that isn’t here.
The song didn’t have lyrics in its earlier forms, but here, it was the perfect vehicle to sum up the whole thing (“All that you touch and all that you see/All that you taste, all you feel/And all that you love and all that you hate/All you distrust, all you save”).
It’s a well-chosen way to wrap up an album where everything clicked. And O’Connell’s pronuncement about the moon as the heartbeat fades is the perfect kicker.
The four knew they’d created something good when they’d finished. Not only had writing and playing meshed, but their production, with strong assists from Alan Parsons and mixer Chris Thomas, matched it. 50 years later, it’s still one of the best-sounding rock albums of all time.
The Dark Side of the Moon went on to go platinum 14 times over, their biggest-selling album. Its cover art, by Storm Thorgerson, was an immediate first choice by the band when he presented it as one of 10 options. It became instantly recognizable in its striking simplicity (even though some right-wing Pink Floyd “fans” mistook the new 50th anniversary logo and ranting about the band being “woke” because of the rainbow).
Years later, it even entered pop culture in a random way, likely involving weed which, to be honest, was something the albums creators enjoyed while making the album. Somewhere along the way, someone synched the album up with footage from “Wizard of Oz” that made it seem like the band intended it at the time (they didn’t).
The album’s success certainly allowed the band to enjoy more financial stability and creature comforts, but it also led to the first fatigue cracks that led to the band’s acrimonious dissolution less than a decade later, acrimony that still pops up like a dormant volcano returning to life.
And for all of Waters’ pronuncements now, it doesn’t erase how his vision shaped the album. “The big move forward on Dark Side of the Moon was Roger’s coming-of-age lyrically,” Gilmour said in 2003. “And having the ideas and the intelligence to take a subject and examine it in all its parts, in all those different songs.”
Ultimately, he can do whatever he wants and his revised Dark Side might be a worthy companion piece, even if his advance quotes make it feel like an even less appealing revisit idea than U2’s Songs of Surrender.
The fact remains that no matter what hard feelings exist between the principals now, Dark Side of the Moon is a shining example of a band coming into its own commercially and artistically. They packed tons of detail while executing it with deceptive simplicity. And make no mistake, it is the product of a band working together really well, a band that was Pink Floyd, not the Roger Waters Experience.
Gilmour, with a knowing and perhaps a touch rueful smile, said in 2003, “I’d love to have been a person who could sit back with his headphones on and listen to that the whole way through for the first time. You know, I never had that experience. [chuckles]. But, uh, it would have been nice.”
Even after half a century, with many more listens, it holds up as well as the first.
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One thought on “Any Colour You Like: The Dark Side of the Moon Turns 50”
right at the top, the first ad, in the roll of tour stops, June 23 Detroit (Olympia Stadium)… gad! perfect concert for sensimilla: the sound, the lights–i mean, when Eclipse comes on, the mirror ball puts this huge hockey rink (Red Wings’ home) in the center of a Star Wars warp speed and 5,000 fans start levitating…
long ago, in a galaxy far, far away….