The fortieth anniversary of the release of Pink Floyd’s Dark side of the Moon was covered by media outlets everywhere. Yet 24 March 1973 was a black day for the light entertainment industry.
Dark Side of the Moon’s place in the history of popular culture isn’t at all well understood, largely because the album sold so well. Big bucks, big album, big deal. End of story.
But actually, it was far more important than that – and its back-story is rather intriguing. Dark Side of the Moon, far from being a creative tour de force, was, in the minds of its creators, an admission of creative defeat. And, in defeat, they attempted to pull a whole edifice down with them. In short, the album is a sour attempt to decree that the psychedelic era in music, an era that the band had helped to create, was now over.
It pretty much succeeded in this secondary aim – though Ian MacCulloch would no doubt argue that he and his band, Echo and the Bunnymen, were still releasing psychedelic albums a decade later.
Pink Floyd’s admission of defeat was a pretty clear cut case. The band’s greatest creative achievement, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, was masterminded by the band’s leader and most creative member, Syd Barrett. But Barrett, famously, succumbed to mental illness (and of course as a consequence he’s cited, tiresomely, as one of the era’s most prominent “acid casualties”) soon after the album’s release in 1967.
What to do? The remaining members decided to prove they weren’t a one man band. And when, after a few insipid albums, they realised they were struggling, they started to ape many of their even-more-insipid contemporaries: they decided they could create mind-bendingly good music by taking psychotropics and launching into long improvisational jams.
All of the free-spirited (ie, not The Beatles or The Stones or The Who) pop acts of the late 60s went off down this route towards the end of the decade and they got precisely nowhere. In Pink Floyd’s case, nowhere is to be found on the second side of Meddle, the album prior to Dark Side of the Moon. The dark side of Meddle is a single track – a 24 minute piece of self-indulgent noodling, called Echoes, that proved to all concerned that the band, in its post-Barrett configuration, had absolutely lost its way.
Syd Barratt didn’t invent psychedelic music. Those with better credentials include the avant-garde composer George Martin, whose 1966 composition, Tomorrow Never Knows, is unique in the history of popular music for having inspired a tribute band all of its own. And one of Tomorrow’s more talented members, Steve Howe, went on to form a psychedelic band that’s been almost completely written out of the annals – Yes. There are many others in the mix too.
But what Pink Floyd did invent was the notion, unheard of until 1967, of psychedelic colours. In the 1950s and early 60s, the tiny elite who knew about LSD used the word psychedelic to denote the notion that the drug allowed you to see clearly into your own soul.
The notion of the soul (a fictional entity created at the interface of philosophy and theology) is not a notably colourful concept. In 1966, psychedelia was as black and white as the Revolver album cover.
It was only when Pink Floyd began playing psychedelic music accompanied by a coloured light show at the UFO Club in Tottenham Court Road that people started to talk about psychedelic colours. It was a Pink Floyd thing. Dammit, they owned the concept.
So this was the baggage the band was burying, along with Syd, on Dark Side of the Moon. Thus the album’s cover art – a prism, splitting white light into its rainbow constituents. It’s as cold and clinical an evocation of colour as can be imagined. Thus also the dark cynicism of the album’s lyrics – a tendency that was to become central to the band’s new branding. Thus also the dark heart of the whole exercise: a song, courtesy of a dictum (mistakenly) attributed to Henry Ford: any colour you like as long as it’s black.
Having interred Syd on the dark side of the moon, they felt free to weep crocodile tears, calling their next album, with cynical hypocrisy, Wish You Were Here. And where exactly was Here? Well that, as they say on children’s television, is another story for another day.
I’m off to buy some skins.