Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon Turns 50: Hear It Get Psychoanalyzed by Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin

Com­ing after the mat­u­ra­tion of the mar­ket for high-fideli­ty stereo sys­tems but before the advent of home video, the nine­teen-sev­en­ties pro­vid­ed just the right cul­tur­al and eco­nom­ic con­di­tions for a hero­ic age of the record album. What’s Going On, Blue, Blood on the Tracks, Exile on Main Street, Born to Run, Rumours, Aja: that these and oth­er sev­en­ties releas­es always rank high on best-of-all-time lists can be no acci­dent. But no oth­er mega-sell­ing album of that decade achieved quite the com­bi­na­tion of com­mer­cial and crit­i­cal suc­cess as Pink Floy­d’s The Dark Side of the Moon, which was orig­i­nal­ly released fifty years ago yes­ter­day — and which remains on the Bill­board charts today.

“In 1973, Pink Floyd was a some­what known pro­gres­sive rock band,” writes neu­ro­sci­en­tist and music pro­duc­er Daniel Lev­itin, but The Dark Side of the Moon “cat­a­pult­ed them into world class rock-star sta­tus.”

Its mas­ter­ful engi­neer­ing “pro­pelled the music off of any sound sys­tem to become an all-encom­pass­ing, immer­sive expe­ri­ence” com­pris­ing songs that “flow into one anoth­er sym­phon­i­cal­ly, with seam­less musi­cal coher­ence, as though writ­ten as part of a sin­gle melod­ic and har­mon­ic ges­ture. Lyric themes of mad­ness and alien­ation con­nect through­out,” enlivened by an “array of new elec­tron­ic sounds, spa­tial­iza­tion, pitch and time bend­ing” as well as “clocks, alarms, chimes, cash reg­is­ters, foot­steps” and oth­er ele­ments not nor­mal­ly heard in rock music.

This descrip­tion comes from an essay Lev­itin wrote for the Library of Con­gress in 2012, when The Dark Side of the Moon was induct­ed into the US Nation­al Record­ing Reg­istry. For the album’s fifti­eth anniver­sary, Nation­al Pub­lic Radio’s Morn­ing Edi­tion invit­ed him to psy­cho­an­a­lyze it on-air. “Themes of mad­ness and alien­ation per­me­ate the record,” he says, mak­ing ref­er­ence to the sto­ry of depart­ed Pink Floyd mem­ber Syd Bar­rett. But “we can’t know for sure which spe­cif­ic lyrics were about Bar­rett, as opposed, more gen­er­al­ly, to men­tal anguish,” a con­di­tion bound to afflict any­one too deep into the rock-star lifestyle.

In The Dark Side of the Moon’s lyrics Lev­itin hears Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters’ metaphor­i­cal treat­ment of the dif­fi­cult deci­sion to fire Bar­rett, as well as his real­iza­tion that “life was­n’t going to start lat­er. It had start­ed. And the idea of ‘Time’ was to grasp the reins and start guid­ing your own des­tiny.” As on the album as a whole, the theme comes through in not just the words but the sound­scape: “Right off the bat, they’re play­ing with time. You hear that clop-clop sound, like a heart­beat or a clock tick­ing. And you think that the high­er-pitched one is the down­beat. But as soon as the instru­ments come in, you real­ize you’re off the beat, and every­thing’s upside down. And your sense of time is dis­tort­ed.”

Musi­cal artistry accounts in part for the album’s mas­sive suc­cess in part, but only in part. Storm Thorg­er­son­’s icon­ic cov­er art, still seen on the walls of col­lege dorm rooms today, also had some­thing to do with its suc­cess as both cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non and con­sumer prod­uct. But it could hard­ly have sold more than 45 mil­lion copies to date with­out chanc­ing to hit the zeit­geist at a favor­able angle: as Pink Floyd drum­mer Nick Mason said, it was “not only about being a good album but also about being in the right place at the right time.” And with the hero­ic age of the album long over, The Dark Side of the Moon — a new­ly re-record­ed ver­sion of which Waters announced just this year — isn’t about to be eclipsed.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Pink Floyd’s Entire Stu­dio Discog­ra­phy is Now on YouTube: Stream the Stu­dio & Live Albums

The Dark Side of the Moon Project: Watch an 8‑Part Video Essay on Pink Floyd’s Clas­sic Album

Watch Doc­u­men­taries on the Mak­ing of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here

Down­load Pink Floyd’s 1975 Com­ic Book Pro­gram for The Dark Side of the Moon Tour

A Live Stu­dio Cov­er of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, Played from Start to Fin­ish

“The Dark Side of the Moon” and Oth­er Pink Floyd Songs Glo­ri­ous­ly Per­formed by Irish & Ger­man Orches­tras

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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