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All You Touch and All You See: ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ at 50

A half-century ago, Pink Floyd unleashed a classic that still lingers on the Billboard charts and in college dorms to this day. But what’s the legacy of the blockbuster album? What’s legacy, anyway?

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In the beginning, there was just tohu and bohu. Or at least, that’s what you read in Genesis 1:1-2—“When God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was tohu and bohu, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” The words tohu and bohu are biblical Hebrew with no precise translation, but they’re generally understood to mean “unformed and void,” as summarized by the professor and author James A. Diamond. And they’re the words I think of whenever I look at the cover of The Dark Side of the Moon.

Storm Thorgerson and George Hardie’s image of a light shining through a prism and emerging as a spectrum of color—pitched dead center, slightly raised, cast against a black backdrop—is probably the most famous in rock history. You can find it just about anywhere, in myriad objects: T-shirts at Walmart, bumper stickers, bedding, sneakers, stained glass, and lower back tattoos. While writing this story, I saw it on a hat at a car rental station in Tucson, Arizona. There are many ways to interpret the spectrum: creation, consciousness, or enlightenment. But what I focus on is the black expanse behind it, an endless chasm of nothingness, the unformed and void.

The unformed and void can signify a lot of things, but I see it as three in particular—space, madness, and death. Pink Floyd’s story, one of the most parroted in rock lore, is undergirded by madness. Singer-guitarist Syd Barrett, bassist Roger Waters, keyboardist Richard Wright, and drummer Nick Mason formed the band in London in 1965, with Barrett as Floyd’s songwriter. At the height of the Summer of Love, Pink Floyd’s debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, went to no. 6 on the U.K. album charts; Barrett’s childlike, off-balance, deeply lysergic songs aligned perfectly with the clouded brains of the counterculture. Whether Barrett suffered from mental illness or went too deep into lysergic exploration, his behavior became so unpredictable and strange that in the beginning of 1968, David Gilmour stepped in to back him up on guitar, and replaced him within months. Barrett (who died in 2006 from pancreatic cancer) had been childhood friends with Waters and knew Gilmour in college, and his breakdown had a seismic effect on the band, one they’d revisit in their music throughout the 1970s. Waters assumed songwriting duties, and the band spent four years indulgently experimenting, with mixed results, before it pared back, tightened up, and achieved global fame with the breakthrough of The Dark Side of the Moon in 1973.

But in between Barrett’s departure and Dark Side, a couple of key moments transpired. The first was on July 20, 1969, when Pink Floyd improvised a soundtrack to the moon landing live in the BBC studio (the jam was later nicknamed “Moonhead”). The second was Live at Pompeii, the 1972 concert film showcasing the band playing in the empty amphitheater of Pompeii, which had been buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, then excavated in the early 19th century. Both events presented Pink Floyd performing within the arenas of daunting subjects: humanity’s insignificance in the grand scheme of the universe, ancient history, the randomness and suddenness of death.

The moon landing forced humankind to confront its smallness. The threat of nuclear annihilation made the precarity of life a background signal for every person. And those traumatic realizations, amid a newfound surge in drug use, produced an atmosphere of paranoia teetering on the edge of madness.

Yet at the time little music mirrored this mood. The week of Dark Side’s release, the no. 1 album in both the U.S. and U.K. was Elton John’s Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, whose singles, “Crocodile Rock” and “Daniel,” demonstrate the two dominant trends of that moment. The first song is a kitschy, glammy celebration of rock ’n’ roll; the second is a rippling, downbeat soft-rock song about a wounded Vietnam War vet returning home. In general, the rock ’n’ roll of the era alternated between decadent pastiche (Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie) and stripped-down introspection (Carole King, Neil Young, Carly Simon).

Most albums were about an individual’s story, but few were about the Individual. “There are a number of things that impinge upon an individual that color his view of existence,” Waters said decades later in the Dark Side episode of the British TV series Classic Albums. “There are pressures that are capable of pushing you in one direction or another, and [these songs] are some of them. And whether they push you toward insanity, death, empathy, greed, whatever, there’s something about the Newtonian view of that physics that might be interesting. Maybe this is what this record is about. … ‘Breathe, breathe in the air.’ … People are prepared to accept that simple exhortation, to be prepared to stand your ground and attempt to live your life in an authentic way.”

Alan Parsons, the EMI Studios staff engineer who produced Dark Side, conveyed that enormity sonically with sound effects, heavy treatments of echo and reverb, and even a quadraphonic mix for audio heads to listen to with headphones and state-of-the-art stereos. But what’s most important is what he left out. As the longtime Rolling Stone writer David Fricke said in the Classic Albums episode, “It was always about leaving space.”

The space and echo and lyrics emanated an overlap of the emotional, psychological, and philosophical. Barrett’s mental health, the fear of adulthood, and the unfathomable expanse of the universe found a context and format where they all cohered. It was the right album at the exact right time. The triumph of Dark Side is the establishment in rock of cosmic identity, how the personal and the universal intersect. It’s an album about the internal experience, magnified to be about the universe, the cosmos, the nature of life itself.

Also, The Dark Side of the Moon is stupid. Really dumb, right? “It’s about LIFE, DUDE.” Like On the Road, Magnolia, or The Economist, Dark Side is a text that makes you feel like you’ve tapped into some essential insight even if, in reality, you haven’t endured much time on earth at all.

Part of Dark Side’s aura is due to the circumstances in which people tend to encounter it. The album has six songs with lyrics—five if you count “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse” as one track, which most Pink Floyd fans do—and all of them play in constant rotation on classic-rock radio. The music is too downbeat and spacey for most parents to put on for their kids. So Dark Side is likely something that someone would be exposed to for the first time as a teenager, which also means it’s exactly what someone would play when they’re getting into weed. Naturally, there’s a strain of cannabis called Dark Side of the Moon.

Three years before Dark Side, Pink Floyd did go to no. 1 in the U.K. with Atom Heart Mother. That album also endeavored to be grand and important, but did so through excess: The title track is nearly 24 minutes long, is bloated with orchestral arrangements, and at times seems aimless. If the album has a unifying theme, I’m not sure even Pink Floyd could explain what it is.

Dark Side propelled Pink Floyd into mass exposure because the band realized that theatricality isn’t a mannerism; it’s a presentation. Dark Side is fundamentally one long suite with musical motifs repeating throughout (“Breathe (In the Air)” reappears in some form during “Time” and “Any Colour You Like”). Hundreds of progressive-rock bands in the 1960s and ’70s tried to do something similar, but Pink Floyd could actually break sections of its albums down into discrete pop songs that DJs could play on the radio. And the band removed stylistic choices from its earlier albums that might be unpleasant for conventional audiences: droning feedback, jazzy noodling, and 25-minute songs.

But the band didn’t abandon any of its ambition; it just redirected that ambition toward themes instead of song structure. You could say, seriously, that Dark Side is the most mainstream and approachable work of pop philosophy of the past half century. The album begins at birth and then presents the three major preoccupations of modern life—the scarcity of time, the dominance of capital, and the conflicts between people and nations—before ending by basically asking listeners, “You will go mad and die, so how will you resolve these challenges?” In the end, the sum total of your actions is the person you are. For the album’s 40th anniversary in 2013, the acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard wrote Darkside, a comedic radio play about various moral philosophers (Nietzsche, Kant, Hobbes) that’s scored by the entirety of The Dark Side of the Moon.

Fifty years since its release on March 1, 1973, Dark Side (the album) poses conflicting, perhaps irresolvable questions. Can you overlook the clichés of modern-day mass-market entertainment about the meaning of life? Or do snobbery and dismissiveness unnecessarily prevent skeptics from being able to take Dark Side at face value? Can’t you just turn your brain off and rock out to Dark Side sometimes?

After all, Waters, who wrote the lyrics to all the songs, was only 29 when Dark Side came out. The notion that he possessed some unique knowledge of humankind and its existence at that age is dubious. What Pink Floyd did possess, unquestionably, was a desire to succeed. “We still had a common goal, which was to become rich and famous,” Waters said at the beginning of the Classic Albums episode.

Until 1973, Pink Floyd hadn’t sold many albums in America. The shrewd music-industry executive Bhaskar Menon, then the chair of Capitol, came up with an aggressive promotional strategy for Dark Side. “We devised a marketing campaign for this which was far more extensive than anything the company had ever done,” he said in the documentary. In the year before Dark Side’s release, Pink Floyd had toured a set list where they played the album sequentially in full, under the title Dark Side of the Moon: A Piece for Assorted Lunatics. The shows were previewed with full-page ads, and members of the press were invited to write about it. When the album was released, it went to no. 1 on the Billboard 200 and sold a million copies before the band even released the first single, “Money.”

Few, if any, teenage totems have come close to Dark Side’s longevity and reach. Its claimed sales are 45 million copies, making it the fourth-best-selling album of all time. It has spent a ridiculous 971 weeks on the Billboard 200, 741 of them consecutively from 1973 to 1988; both of those stretches are distant records. Pink Floyd didn’t succeed; it annihilated. By the end of 1973, they were multimillionaires.

“Something certainly did the trick, and [Dark Side] moved us into a super league, which brought with it some great joy, some pride, and some problems,” Gilmour said in Classic Albums. “You don’t know what you’re in it for anymore. You’re in it to achieve massive success and get rich and famous and all these other things that go along with it, and when they’re all suddenly done, you go, ‘Hm, why? What next?’”

Pink Floyd’s heyday roughly corresponds to the arc of growing up, from childlike wonder (The Piper at the Gates of Dawn) to adolescence (Dark Side) to college (Wish You Were Here) to a reactionary political awakening (Animals) to narcissistic adulthood (The Wall). As the band’s lead songwriter, Waters let his self-importance overpower his judgment. He fired Wright during the making of The Wall, and in 1985 he publicly left the band, figuring it would dissolve without him. When Gilmour and Mason decided to continue on, he tried to break up Pink Floyd in court—and failed. While the post-Waters album A Momentary Lapse of Reason got bad reviews, it sold 9 million copies, and the tour behind it, with Wright reintegrated into the band, grossed $135 million.

In the BBC documentary The Pink Floyd Story: Which One’s Pink?, Waters appears pompous in interviews, delightedly elevating his contributions above the rest of the band’s. But there’s one scene, in which he’s talking about a solo tour, when you see him slightly vulnerable, a glimpse into the sensitivity behind the architect of Dark Side. “I remember one particular night I’m playing in Cincinnati to 2,000 people in a 6,000-seat arena,” he said, “and they’re playing the next day to 60,000 people in a football stadium next door—playing all my songs.” There’s a pause. “That was hard to take.”

In the late 1980s, there was a surge of arena tours filled with a cross section of Gen Xers and aging boomers trying to witness what remained of rock’s glory days. Think of the Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels Tour, or the sudden financial windfall the Grateful Dead experienced. But even though Pink Floyd was also making big bucks on a wave of revivalism, a hallowed feeling existed around the full lineup of the band.

These circumstances generated a whole cottage industry and mythos around Pink Floyd and Dark Side in particular. To this day, you can still see laser light shows scored by Dark Side at colleges, concert halls, and planetariums. You couldn’t open an alt weekly at any point in the ’90s without seeing an ad for a Pink Floyd laser show, a reliable standby for baked teenagers across the land.

In your teenage years, it’s practically a rite of passage to have some sort of life-altering encounter with Dark Side. My friend Meaghan recounted to me a ritual called “The Scary Tour,” something she and her high school friends did when they were bored. “You’d get in someone’s car, and the first stop would be a statue of the Virgin Mary on the grounds of a nearby community college that looked sort of spooky,” she wrote via text. “Next you’d drive down an unusually dark, rickety alley that was for whatever reason about four times the length of normal alleys. The third and final stop was an old people’s home that overlooked a cemetery, where we’d listen to Dark Side of the Moon and obviously smoke weed until it was time to go home.”

Perhaps no example of the mythos around Dark Side is as well known, or as ridiculed, as The Dark Side of the Rainbow, the act of syncing up Dark Side to The Wizard of Oz. In 1995, an article in The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette described how specific songs complement scenes from the first 45 minutes of the 1939 movie. The author, Charles Savage, mentioned that he learned of the uncanny synchronization on a Pink Floyd message board. “In April, someone posted about it on the Internet Pink Floyd newsgroup, saying he or she’d heard about it from ‘some people down in Los Angeles.’ Most users told the poster to go back to his drugs. And a recent posting on the alt.music.pink-floyd newsgroup asking for help in the mystery produced no clues to the origin of the oddity.”

Today, Savage works as a Washington correspondent for The New York Times. He wrote the article during the summer between his freshman and sophomore years of college, as an intern at his hometown paper. “I specifically worked for an experimental page the newspaper was playing with called ‘next,’ with the x in a different color,” he wrote via email. “It was supposed to be lifestyle stuff that would appeal to ‘Generation X’ readers, the younger cohort of the era that the paper was trying to coax into becoming subscribers.”

The article might have remained a hidden relic of a local paper had Savage not posted a digitized version of the story on a website he created on AOL (the story remained on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine and was then added to Wikipedia). Even though he writes almost exclusively about national security and legal issues, Savage says the Dark Side of the Rainbow article gets mentioned whenever he’s introduced at panels or public speaking appearances.

I asked Savage whether he remembered much about the discussion group or the provenance of Dark Side of the Rainbow. “It was an odd group,” he wrote. “About half the discussion was about Pink Floyd music and band history and tours and such, as you would expect, while the other half was people obsessed with something called Publius Enigma, which was an effort to uncover supposedly hidden messages in The Division Bell and tour-related things. It was probably some kind of marketing campaign, but some people got way too interested in it.”

Obsession wasn’t just good for Pink Floyd; it also opened up a whole market for fans with the chops to pull off approximating the Pink Floyd Experience—tribute bands. The most famous of them, the Australian Pink Floyd Show, formed in 1988 and has a career that would be the envy of many rock groups. They routinely sell out theaters and once performed for Gilmour at his birthday party. They’ve even played Glastonbury.

Chris Barnes is the current singer for APFS; he joined in 2016 after meeting one of the members at a children’s rock workshop he started in Manchester, U.K. As we spoke, he was sitting in the seats of a theater in France where he was set to play that night. What struck me while talking to him was how little of the conversation had to do with APFS and how much he just loved Pink Floyd. He was much less excited about how Dark Side’s 50th anniversary has helped ticket sales than he was about the 50th anniversary box set Pink Floyd will be releasing on March 24. When I asked him whether he ever gets tired of playing Pink Floyd music, he said, “Never ever ever.”

If anything, Barnes gets to live out some of the fantasies of rock stardom without any of its inconveniences. “We’re just normal people,” he said. “We’re not rock stars or think that we’re rock stars. And the most important thing is the music. It’s not about us. I remember playing a gig in America at a casino. After, I handed my key to the reception lady, and there’s this woman there who’d obviously been to the concert, and she went, ‘Oh my God, they make you carry your bags?!’ I went, ‘Yeah, I’m not Mariah Carey!’”

Another Pink Floyd tribute act, Which One’s Pink?, likewise had a brief brush with Floyd-adjacent celebrity. In 2005, the band’s manager (or, as he calls himself, “raving lunatic”), Dan Johnson, spotted Alan Parsons outside the Canyon in Agoura Hills while the members were unloading their gear for a gig. Years later, Johnson persuaded Parsons to do a live sound mix of their set on a night when they played all of The Dark Side of the Moon. “He was super into it,” as guitarist Paul Samarin recalled. “It was helping his brand get out there a little bit.”

Which One’s Pink? formed in 1998 when die-hard Pink Floyd fans Johnson and Larry Isenberg, the keyboardist, met while working at a law firm in Los Angeles. The members I talked to have a scary-deep knowledge of Pink Floyd. At one point, Johnson casually mentioned that Gilmour had played guitar on Parsons’s 2004 album, A Valid Path, an album I’d never even heard of.

As with Barnes, I was struck by how steadfast their fandom for Pink Floyd was, even though they’ve been playing that music constantly for 25 years. “I’m still learning stuff,” Samarin said. “Anytime I go back and listen to an album again, I end up noticing something that we didn’t notice before.”

“When we started this band, it wasn’t even a dream come true, because I didn’t have that dream,” Isenberg said. “It just was an amazing thing to be able to go out there and play the music. We recreate the studio versions of these records with very good detail, and we’ve been blessed with a really significant fan base. We have big crowds. And that’s the fun of it. If there were four people out there, it wouldn’t be too much fun, but when there are 500 people or 1,000 people and they’re all just kind of having this experience with us, that’s the fun part.

“During the song ‘Time,’ I get to sing some of the lyrics about how when you’re young, you can just hang out and watch the rain. You got nothing else to do except enjoy your youth. And then one day, 10 years get behind you, and now you’re 40 or 50 years old or 60, and you’ve missed the starting gun. I think everybody can relate to that on some level.”

My heaviest exposure to Dark Side was in college, a time when I was freer than ever and evading responsibility because I was avoiding the agony of figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. Suddenly there was a sense that you had to do something important, to demonstrate that your life wasn’t a huge waste of time.

Last summer, when my son was born, Dark Side was the first album I wanted to listen to. I hadn’t heard it all the way through, or even thought about it, in nearly 20 years. But the morning after we returned home from the hospital, I woke up with the pinging guitar lick from the opening of “Brain Damage” running through my head.

If you’ve listened to Dark Side before—and statistically, it’s extremely likely you have—you know that the first thing you hear is silence. Ten seconds later, a heartbeat. Twenty more seconds, the ticking of a clock, and then in rapid succession: conversation, the ka-ching of a cash register, the whirring of a helicopter, a fit of laughter, and then a high-pitched wail. It’s the famous minute-long opening sound collage called “Speak to Me.” I’d heard it many times before, but on that day last summer, it sounded like I was experiencing the birth of my child from his perspective. Through a loudening backward piano chord, you arrive at the opening strum of “Breathe,” as if emerging into the world. I got five seconds into “Breathe” and started the album over again. And again.

At the hospital, during the delivery, I was overcome with uncontrollable laughter, a euphoric rush. The laughter at the outset of Dark Side reminded me of how I sounded during the birth, and I became convinced that “Speak to Me” was more than an introduction to an album—it’s a replication of being born, the beginning of your consciousness. And as soon as I sat with that thought for 15 seconds, I started laughing again. Except this time I was laughing at myself, because I sounded ridiculous.

“The beginning of The Dark Side of the Moon is BIRTH, DUDE.” Why is it so hard to take Dark Side seriously? On one hand, it’s impossible to distill the complexities and myriad moments of life into a single artistic statement. But on the flip side, isn’t life about just getting the most enjoyment possible out of the things you do have?

Pink Floyd pursued perfection in the name of success, and most would say they arrived at both, far beyond what they’d imagined. That took only a few years. And what was the aftermath? Some joyous moments, for sure, but mostly 50 years of bitterness and business.

No one in Pink Floyd would speak to me for this story, nor would Parsons. At first, I assumed they were probably tired of talking about Dark Side again, and their publicist said they weren’t giving interviews about the album’s 50th anniversary. But in early February, Gilmour retweeted his wife, Polly Samson: “Sadly @rogerwaters you are antisemitic to your rotten core. Also a Putin apologist and a lying, thieving, hypocritical, tax-avoiding, lip-synching, misogynistic, sick-with-envy, megalomaniac. Enough of your nonsense.” He didn’t leave it at that, adding: “Every word demonstrably true.”

Two days later, the British paper The Telegraph published a profile of Waters. The article paints him as bitter, forlorn, and paranoid, gloomily roaming his Hampshire mansion, convinced he’s being punished for his vocal support of Palestine (for which he’s often painted as an anti-Semite) and Russia (for its invasion of Ukraine, a, shall we say, unpopular position).

There’s a bizarre revelation within the story: Waters has reportedly rerecorded Dark Side and in May will release his version, which supposedly includes pieces of him reciting spoken word poetry over the music. “Gilmour and Rick [Wright, the keyboardist]? They can’t write songs, they’ve nothing to say. They are not artists!” he spit. As the story’s author, Tristram Fane Saunders, points out, Wright died 15 years ago.

At the end of The Pink Floyd Story, there’s a sequence in which Bob Geldof convinces Pink Floyd to reunite with Waters for one performance at Live 8 in 2005. In the footage of the show, Waters looks like he’s having the time of his life, emphatically mouthing the words to “Comfortably Numb,” while the other members seem a bit uneasy, playing as if it’s any other gig. “I think it’s great that that happened,” Waters said. “I’d like to do more of it.”

Maybe the legacy of The Dark Side of the Moon is that there is no legacy; it’s just a moment in time. And ultimately, you might create something that’s remembered and loved by the whole world. But your life isn’t one moment; it’s an accumulation of all the discrete parts of your life, most of all how you treated the people who really mattered to you. And if one moment defines your whole life, then perhaps you didn’t go through real emotional growth, which is simply making a low-level, constant effort to not be a jerk.

And maybe all these conflicts can coexist peacefully. You’re not significant in the grand scheme of things, but you can be important to a few people, and that’s more than enough. The things you loved when you were young might not sound great anymore, but they can still be a part of you. You might go insane. You will definitely die. It’s too much to think about sometimes. A good way to avoid it: Turn off your brain, light up a joint, and listen to The Dark Side of the Moon.

Tal Rosenberg is a writer, editor, and voice actor in Chicago.

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