Revisiting “Dark Side Of The Moon”: The Aural Equivalent Of “The Tell-Tale Heart”

By on March 1, 2015

Today, March 1st, marks the anniversary of the release of Pink Floyd’s celebrated concept album Dark Side Of The Moon, which sparks to life with a minute-long sound collage “Speak To Me”/“Breathe,” which was one of the five songs that the reunited band performed in 2005, at the Live 8 benefit concert at Hyde Park in London, July 2, 2005; it was the first time the original members had performed together since a show at Earl’s Court, London, on June 17, 1981. It would also be the last time Pink Floyd performed together.

It’s impressive to see guitarist David Gilmour moving seamlessly from his seated position at the beginning of the song, at a Fender Deluxe lap steel guitar, to find him suddenly standing at the mic and strapped into his Black Strat in time to begin the lead vocals. Have a look and a listen.

Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side Of The Moon,' released on March 1, 1973

Recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London between June 1972 and January 1973, Dark Side still holds the record for the most number of weeks spent on the Billboard top 200. The album spent spent nearly six hundred consecutive weeks on the Billboard Top 200 chart between 1976 and 1988 and was certified for sales of 15 million copies in America alone, although it has almost certainly has sold many, many millions more copies than that since its release, due the fact that the RIAA didn’t certify the sales until decades later.

We’d like to take a moment on this anniversary to examine how the album’s first two tracks — sometimes crossfaded together on CD releases, sometimes not, due to the fact that they are connected by a sustained backwards piano chord — kick off a memorable and, depending on your own subjective tastes, provide a quite pleasurable classic rock listening experience.

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Like the aural equivalent of Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative voice in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Speak To Me” (something the band would hear engineer Alan Parsons say while testing a studio microphone) pulses along to the lub-dubbing of an echoing heartbeat that primes the pump, so to speak, for the rest of the album’s conceptual journey. Along the way, we hear overlapping thematic scraps and samples of sounds we’ll be hearing during the rest of our Dark Side journey, all of it rich and dark with meaning, marking the passage of time and a certain price we all must pay to keep ourselves alive and sane.

We soon find we’re inside a madman’s head, hearing a rising and falling pastiche of his auditory hallucinations, meant to represent a self-awareness of his own loss of sanity, which in turn is, we think, meant to get us to reflect on our own understanding of being sane in a world in which the pressures of life itself can certainly make some, if not all of us, lose our collective minds. For some, there is no way to escape madness in a world this crazy, and it remains a struggle, from womb to tomb.

We hear: a lunatic’s maniacal giggling laugh (provided by road manager Peter Watts, actress Naomi Watts’ dad), profane-laced muttering by unknown voices (actually it’s the band’s roadie Chris Adamson who says “I’ve been mad for fucking years, absolutely years, been over the edge for yonks, been working me buns off for bands”), the metronomic ticking of a quite-loud clock (“ticking away the moments that make up a dull day” are lyrics we’ll hear later in one of the album’s finest moments, “Time”), the metallic chink of coins clinking as we pay that price for our sanity (later heard on the band’s Side 2 opener “Money,” their first hit in the U.S., and noted for its unusual 7/4–4/4 time signature), and, finally, when it seems none of us can take it of this madness anymore, out comes a mad shriek, courtesy of 25-year old session singer Clare Torry, who improvised her own orgasmic vocalizations — for which she was paid the standard Sunday flat studio rate of 30 quid; she later sued the band and EMI for songwriting royalties, and subsequent pressings of the album after 2005 now give her a co-writing credit along with keyboardist Richard Wright.

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“Speak To Me” segues directly into the album’s first vocal track, “Breathe,” written by David Gilmour and Richard Wright, with Roger Waters credited for the lyrics. Waters had previously penned a track called “Breathe” — actually, it was co-written with Ron Geesin, one of his frequent collaborators; he helped to organize the band’s Atom Heart Mother recordings three years earlier — for the 1970 Roy Battersby-directed scientific documentary The Body, which featured sounds made by the human body. On The Body‘s “Breathe,” you can also hear Waters singing “breathe in the air”… three years before Dark Side, but the two tracks really share no other similarities other than the title itself.

For Dark Side‘s “Breathe,” Waters lyrics seem to be encouraging the listener to take the time, early in life, to realize we need to break away from monotony and typicality, to look around and find our own ground, our path, our own way to exist…all while hinting at the destructiveness of corporate anti-environmentalism. A one-minute reprise of “Breathe,” by the way, is featured at the end of “Time,” without the slide guitar and utilizing a Farfisa organ and Wurlitzer electric piano in place of Hammond organ and Rhodes piano.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.