When Pink Floyd released their debut album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, in 1967, the “Summer of Love” was in full swing. The band’s main songwriter, Syd Barrett, channelled that utopian euphoria through his childlike, off-kilter sensibilities to create a record that aligned perfectly with the heady, lysergic mood of the counterculture. But Barrett’s excessive use of psychedelic drugs and apparent mental health issues would soon take their toll and he was kicked out of the band in 1968. The hippie wave itself would crash against the Hells Angels at the Altamont concert in 1969, where one of them stabbed dead a gun-wielding teenager, leaving behind assorted flotsam and jetsam. That included a rudderless Pink Floyd, now stuck creating bloated, self-indulgent clunkers like 1970’s honestly awful Atom Heart Mother.
A friend lost to drugs and mental illness, the bitter, paranoid remains of a failed revolution, and a musical career mid-stall. Those were the ingredients that Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason and Richard Wright assembled into an album called The Dark Side Of The Moon, released on 1 March 1973. DSOM, as it would come to be referred to by fans, went on to become one of the iconic records of all time, beloved by everyone from ageing hippies to decadent investment bankers.
It’s a record that refuses to fade away. Walk about in any major city in the world for half a day and you will almost certainly come across the album’s rainbow-prism cover worn on a T-shirt or sneakers, or even as tattoos. Tune in to any AOR (album-oriented rock) radio station and you can bet you will hear Money or Time within the hour. Any herb-smoking college student with fantasies of being cool has it in his records collection (or these days, Spotify playlists). And 50 years to the week from its release, it’s still on the Billboard Top 200 charts, having spent a record-setting total of 973 non-cumulative weeks there.
DSOM’s success is undeniable and well-deserved but it’s also a little baffling. This is, after all, a record about madness (that’s what the title refers to, not space), alienation, greed and death. Nor did Waters hide that fact under psychedelic allusions, as the band was wont to do in earlier albums. In fact, his lyrics were often blunt to the point of banality. In Time, Gilmour sings about how every sunrise makes you “older, shorter of breath and one day closer to death”. Elsewhere, there’s the “Money, it’s a crime” line on… you guessed it, Money.
What makes DSOM work is that the music that accompanies these heavy, dour themes is anything but morbid. If anything, the sounds on the record invoke cosmic wonder, situating humanity’s struggles within the context of an infinite universe. Gilmour’s wavy, reverb-laden guitar in Breathe (In The Air), On The Run’s wobbly space-synth freak-out, Clare Torry’s soaring vocal improvisation on The Great Gig In The Sky—this is music that is exhilaratingly, life-affirmingly joyous, revelling in the drama and melodrama of life. Even the closing suite of Brain Damage and Eclipse—songs about going insane and dying, respectively—thrum with church organs and arena-rock major chords.
DSOM also had the distinct advantage of coming out at a time when rock was struggling to deal with the fallout of the hippies’ failure. The early 1970s were a time when new anxieties were replacing the utopian naivete of the 1960s but few big records released in 1973 reflected that change (Iggy Pop’s Raw Power and Black Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath being notable exceptions). But Pink Floyd managed to plug straight into that untapped vein of disaffection, alienation and corporate-rock burnout, which would fuel punk-rock’s rock ‘n’ roll putsch later that decade. It was the right record at the right time.
Even so, I find myself at least a little puzzled by the record’s incredible staying power. It isn’t—I know that this may be blasphemous to some readers—the best album of all time by any reckoning. It’s not even the best album of the 1970s. Many of Waters’ lyrics on mental health and human society bordered on the cliched, a tendency he gave in to wholly on 1979’s narcissistic and masturbatory double album, The Wall. Just a couple of years after its release, it became a favourite whipping boy for Johnny Rotten and other leaders of punk’s pop cultural coup. Successive alternative movements over the decades have defined themselves against what they perceive as Pink Floyd and DSOM’s bloated inauthenticity. And yet, it endures.
Earlier this week, on the record’s 50th anniversary, I put on DSOM and listened to it all the way through after nearly 15-odd years. It’s a record I had fond memories of from my early years as a fledgeling rock snob but one that I quickly and firmly moved on from. I wanted to see if it would stand the test of time—and my own maturing taste—or sound dated like so much of the so-called rock canon. Listening to it, though, I realised I was asking all the wrong questions. Because despite its lofty themes and high-minded sonic adventurism, this is not a record to intellectualise about. It is not a work of pop philosophy, as some critics have said, nor is it a vehicle for sacred secret knowledge, as stoners over decades have believed. Anyone taking it that seriously in 2023 really needs to listen to something other than the classic rock playlist on Spotify.
Strip away all the pretensions and long-winded tributes to its legacy and what you are left with is just a big, occasionally dumb but always fun rock record. It won’t change your life. It won’t make the world make sense. The anxieties you bring to it will still haunt you after. But turn the lights out, spark up that water pipe and for 43 minutes, you can pretend it does as you get lost in the psychedelic confections of Waters, Gilmour and co. And maybe that’s enough.
Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.