08. Pink Floyd (part two of three)

Listening to Fleetwood Mac for the previous two entries made me ponder (for about the brazillionth time) about the intersection of art and commerce. 

Mainstream appeal and massive sales are rarely indicative of artistic greatness.  In fact, large sales are often - but not always - indicative of music crafted to appeal to a broad common denominator rather than focusing on pushing artistic boundaries.  People are far more likely to embrace music they can sing along to in the car than music requiring careful attention and intellectual scrutiny.  I get that.  There's nothing wrong with pop music.  It serves a need in many (if not most) people's lives, my own included.

When discussing pop, and in particular the best-selling music of all time, there are exactly 75 recordings that have the distinction of selling more than 20 million copies.  Of these records, I am sort of vaguely familiar with about half of them and could probably hum a few bars from each record's biggest hit song (just tried it and nailed 41 of them).  Prior to starting this series, the only records I owned from this list of 75 were Sgt. Pepper's... by The Beatles and The Wall by Pink Floyd.  I've owned Queen's Greatest Hits in the past, but got rid of it because I had all of the songs on individual Queen albums, and I had Back in Black by AC/DC for three seconds when barely into my teens - before I dumped my very small collection of mainstream rock records in favor of embracing post-punk and new wave.

Looking over the remaining 71 highly successful albums - particularly the top twenty or so - I'm not seeing much that is drawing me in for this project.  A lot of it isn't applicable to what I'm writing about (Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and Shania Twain) since this series is about revisiting the 1970s classic rock canon, not about revisiting the biggest pop hits.  

But then we come to Pink Floyd.  They're the rare beast who made a lot of money doing things that were often somewhat challenging.  They found that balance between art and commerce.  They've got a noteworthy three entries in the "20 million club".  Dark Side of the Moon is the 4th best selling album of all time.  The Wall cracks the all-time top 75 in the middle thirties, and Wish You Were Here sneaks in at #70.  

This band are not as hard a sell for me as some of the others in this blog series have been (and will be).  Having liked the psychedelic animation and nightmarish storyline of the film based on their album The Wall, I've had a soft spot for that record throughout the decades.  That record joins E.L.O., Queen, Rush, King Crimson, Roxy Music, David Bowie, and just a few others in the small cadre of 1970s classic rock artists that have found a place alongside my more moderne tastes over the years.  Well, I guess maybe retro-moderne is more accurate now.  Whatever.  

A while back (post #3), I wrote about Meddle by Pink Floyd, and said that I'd circle back to some of their other stuff eventually.  I've heard The Wall too many times to maintain objectivity, so I won't be discussing it in this series.  Other than The Wall however, I'd never heard a Pink Floyd album all the way through until I listened to Meddle for this blog.  We'll get to Wish You Were Here on October 15, 2021.  Today, let's give the big hit Dark Side of the Moon a spin.  

For the newcomers to this series: as always, what happens below will be stream of consciousness impressions, written in the moment while the record is playing.  I'll be listening to the musical content, but since I've been a pro sound engineer and a media arts professor for decades, I can't help but to also examine the quality of the recording and mixing.  Editing to my words after the record has finished will only be for spelling and clarity.  

Pink Floyd
Dark Side of the Moon (1973)

01 Speak To Me / Breathe
Hey, is this thing on?  Silence.  Did John Cage guest on this record?  Ah, there we go: a heartbeat played on a reverberant kick drum and some spooky ambience.  Sound collage.  Musique concrete.  Some sound effects that we'll hear later in "Money".  Is that John Lennon's voice dubbed in?  OK, listen to this tense mood, and then reference back to the crappy ambient intros that Steve Miller was doing in the same era (Post #01, April 15, 2021).  This slays Miller's low-effort garbage in the creativity department.  Right-o.  Now we're into a very safe Pink Floyd groove.  Not doing a lot, but it's unmistakably them.  This is like a template groove for Pink Floyd.  A starting point for any number of their songs.  Wanna know what Pink Floyd sound like?  Listen to this.  OK, his vocals come in: yes, I've heard this one.  I know this tune.  This is fine, it sets up the album.  I don't hate it.

02 On The Run
Oh man, I hope we're not into some Marillion territory here (see posts #03 and #04), with half-baked songs hiding their deficiencies by all running together.  "Breathe" fades right into this song, and I'm not sure that "Breathe" came to a satisfying musical resolution before giving way to this one.  As an album opener, "Breathe" is fine.  As a stand-alone song, it's not their best.  Now on to "On The Run" here, these are interesting synth effects for their time.  Lots of layers of electronics.  This one seems like it might have been influenced by some Krautrock of the era.  Were Pink Floyd listening to Neu! or something?  This is like a darker version of Kraftwerk's Autobahn, maybe the Mad Max V8 Interceptor flipside to Kraftwerk's pastoral Volkswagen beetle road trip.  Very soundtracky.  There's some Tangerine Dream in here too, but this is more intense and creepy than what those guys would do.  So far, this album has contained some musique concrete, a generic Floyd groove, and now the keyboard player freaking out mostly on his own.  I'm impressed that so many people bought this.  We should only be so lucky as to have 20 million people consuming this much weirdness today.

03 Time
"On The Run" crashes that V8 Interceptor right into "Time", but unlike "Breathe", "On the Run" had the decency to finish what it had to say first.  I know this tune too: I once recorded and mixed a Chicago rock band called Fluid Minds, who did a surprisingly effective ska-tinged double-time version of this song (leaving out all of the clock effects at the beginning, and shortening the guitar solo by three-quarters; their guitarist wisely chose not to compete with Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour).  Good lyric in this one, super-existential.  Shows some maturity, and a kind of introspection that Marillion failed miserably at.  Coming up after the instrumental intensity of "On The Run", this album is shaping up to be pretty dark.  Nonetheless, this one has the most traditional songwriting structure so far.  That and the black ladies on backing vocals point to this one clearly being slated as the record's single.  I'll take it over Marillion, Asia, or Steve Miller any day (see previous posts).  Even after a 2m 32s intro (clocks, then surf guitar, square wave synth, and some kind of woody percussion: the combo works for me), the meat of the song is still 4m 32s long... and it's still been on the radio for the past 48 years.  I like the guitar on the left (alternating between the twangy surf thing and something more stadium-rocky), paired with the Rhodes piano and Hammond organ on the right.  I've talked before about bands using complex arrangements but failing to let each instrument carve out its own space in the mix.  This song does get a little messy during the first solo section (3m 32s to 4m 29s), but they make it work.  When things mellow a bit in the next solo section (4m 29s to 5m 01s) the newly uncluttered arrangement provides a release from the density of what came before it.  The mix on this record is detailed and competent, especially for 1973 ...except for that lip-smack at 3m 28s.  Drink some water, man.

04 The Great Gig In The Sky
Are you listening Marillion?  This is how we effectively chain songs together.  Rather than stringing a bunch of half-assed noodling together, write complete songs, finish your musical ideas, and then blend into the next tune.  It's not that hard.  So here we are at "The Great Gig in the Sky".  Hilarious title for those of us who have worked in the biz.  Perhaps I shall find myself working this gig some day.  Not sure there's much happening at this particular show though.  The backing vocalist is having some kind of seizure, but simultaneously inspiring Yanick Etienne's massively improved take on the concept on Roxy Music's "Avalon".  there aren't too many songs in which the hired help is allowed to just freak out and ad-lib for the entire track.  But even if it were instrumental, this one isn't doing a whole lot.  It's like the soundcheck for the great gig in the sky.  The last few seconds... what's up with that tuning wobble?  So random.

05 Money
This must be where side two began on the original vinyl edition.  Of course, I've heard this song a million times.  When I teach music history, I use it as an example of using tape loops before sampling was invented (as part of a conversation about the influence of Stockhausen, Cage, Carlos, Barron, etc. on popular music), and I also play it in my beginning music theory classes as an example of an ostinato, and as an example of 7/4 time (along with Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill", and Devo's "Jocko Homo").  The guitars and keys are in the same positions, sound field wise, as on "Time".  Consistency.  Who played the sax?  A guest performer?  That Rhodes piano played through a wah-wah pedal and a delay during the sax solo is nuts.  But this sax solo in and of itself is kinda dull.  Then a guitar solo.  Yawn.  At 3m 50s, after the guitar solo ends, the rhythm guitar and that weird Rhodes are having a conversation for a while, to about 4m 30s.  It's a little strange; strictly speaking, the song just vamps for a good 40 seconds, maybe killing time until another guitar solo comes in, but it's a very unusual kind of vamp.  But do we need two guitar solos and a sax solo too?  Eh.  This is why I listened to punk.  Guitar solos are pretty boring most of the time.  Honestly, I'd like this song better if they edited one of the solos out.  But - to the band's credit - the way they bring the song's dynamics up to several peaks and then down to valleys means that editing a section out would be pretty difficult.

06 Us And Them
Here's a floaty atmospheric one.  The lip smack at 1m 49s isn't as egregious as the other one.  But those make me crazy.  Given all the time they clearly spent on mixing this record, they could have muted that.  One button.  There's a line to be drawn between helping a song by fixing stuff after the recording has finished, and sucking all the life out of a performance by over-processing things.  A good mix engineer has to find a sweet spot between polishing a song and rubbing it raw.  But I'll vote in favor of getting rid of smacks every time.  This song is pretty straightforward.  There are some delay effects on the voice, but other than that the band seemed to just play this one in a live style rather than processing the crap out of it.  But I kinda like it when this band processes the crap out of things.  It's part of what they do well.  That point aside, this song is 7m 41s long, and I was kind of over it by the halfway mark.  The bombastic choruses are powerful, but not really interesting, and the other bits just kind of cruise along.  The vocals are so sparse, but nothing happens between them to hold interest.  This song needs a better melody somewhere, anywhere, to pull the listener in a bit more.  Maybe a question-answer thing with the vocal and a guitar or keyboard.  If this were a concert, I'd use this song as an opportunity to head to the restroom, where I'd be judging all the slobs pissing on the floor in the corner because they don't want to wait for an open urinal.  Do they still do that at arena concerts?  I remember seeing that nonsense at basically every arena show I went to in my teens.

07 Any Colour You Like
This is a straight-up extension of the previous tune.  Not even a break in the drum groove.  Synth solos, then at 1m 20s, it changes.  Is this a mastering error?  Was the previous song supposed to be longer, and did the engineer put the index number in the wrong spot?  Well anyway, the song goes into a different type of jerky spacey jam thing.  Sounds fine.  Moderately interesting wankery.  Then it crashes into...

08 Brain Damage
Oh, I know this song. Didn't recognize the title.  The way the keyboard player uses that organ to create a tension/release thing starting at 1m 13s is effective.  Ah "see you on the dark side of the moon".  Here's the album's title.  They're really getting a lot of mileage out of the backing singers on this record.  They're on most of the songs.  They sound good, but they really underline the gap between Meddle (the previous Pink Floyd album, discussed in post #03) and this record.  Yeah, there's plenty of weirdness on this record, but just enough commercial stuff cleverly slipped in.  Can you imagine these backing singers anywhere on Meddle?  Nope.

09 Eclipse
Oh yes, I've heard this before too.  Its clearly a coda to the album.  Can anyone imagine it being played by itself, rather than directly following "Brain Damage"?  No one would ever just play this song starting cold from the beginning.  Just as "Any Colour You Like" sounds like an extension of "Us And Them", this song seems like another piece of "Brain Damage".  Then the heartbeat kick from "Speak To Me" returns, wrapping things up where we started.

I don't love this record, and I'm baffled by it's popularity (not because it's bad, but because it's weird - which is not a bad thing at all!), but I'm glad it exists. The previous album, Meddle, was still pretty rough and mostly devoid of anything that might be radio-friendly, but this record was clearly expected to be huge. And it was.  Artistically, it's a pretty huge leap forward from Meddle. Seems clear that having made a bunch of obscure experimental records by this point, Pink Floyd needed to deliver something that would reach a wider audience. Or maybe they got tired of being hungry. But I'm still pretty surprised that something with this much experimentalism on it, and which is also marred by a few half-baked ideas (although most records have some filler), and not much that could really be considered mainstream pop, achieved the legendary status that it has. Actually, this gives me some hope. If people were willing to be challenged like this in 1973, perhaps mainstream popular music can once again turn away from the miserable remedial state it's in today, and embrace music with some artistic ambition.

Next: Steely Dan, part one (of two) coming August 15, 2021.

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