Analysis of ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’

The Dark Side of the Moon is a concept album by Pink Floyd, released in 1973, with Alan Parsons as the engineer. It is widely considered the band’s masterpiece. The album was on the Billboard charts from 1973 to 1988, and is considered one of the greatest rock albums of all time.

The album is not my personal favourite, as I much prefer the Syd Barrett era, but I do consider its themes of madness, greed, materialism, stressing over time, and human conflict well worth exploring. This worthiness is so especially when seen in light of Roger Waters‘s championing of PalestinianSyrian, and Brazilian civil rights. So out of respect for his principled stance on these issues, I want to honour an album that conceptually was based on his ideas (i.e., the lyrics).

Here is a link to all the lyrics (and spoken dialogue) on the album.

The cover, a black background with a line of light going through a prism to reveal a spectrum of colours, establishes–with the album’s title–one of its main motifs: light vs. dark, or how we lose the light of truth–which, when reflected on, gives us all the colours of life–and find ourselves instead shrouded in darkness. The sun gives us that light, but night after night, as the moon wanes, we get more and more of her dark side.

The recording begins with a fading-in heartbeat, the beginning of life; but even in birth, there is suffering, as the Buddha taught us: “birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.”

Hence, in ‘Speak to Me,’ we hear the cash register that we’ll hear again in ‘Money,’ the clock ticking in ‘Time,’ Claire Torry‘s scream from ‘The Great Gig in the Sky,’ manic laughter from ‘Brain Damage,’ and the helicopter sound from ‘On the Run,’ as well as the voices of people discussing their own madness. Speak to me, indeed, of your suffering: only by giving expression to your pain will you cure it.

Breathe, breathe in the air/Don’t be afraid to care.” What kind of air are we breathing? The beautiful, fresh air of nature that we should care about, or the filthy air of the city, which we shouldn’t be afraid to care about cleaning up?

When you “choose your own ground,” is it yours by right to have, or do you just think it’s yours, when really you’ve just chosen it by taking it from others?

“…all you touch and all you see/Is all your life will ever be.” Reality is materialist. I don’t know if Waters’s socialist leanings have ever gone as far as outright Marxism, but his atheism surely leads to a materialist conception of the world. The conflict between opposites (night vs. day, sun vs. moon, light vs. dark, “Us and Them”) suggests a dialectical understanding of material contradictions.

We are like the running rabbit: we’re vulnerable creatures that “forget the sun” and the light of its wisdom as we “Dig that hole,” which leads us into darkness. And when we’re done, we don’t rest; instead, we race “to dig another one.”

“…high you fly,” riding the tide, and when you reach “the biggest wave” (getting to the top), “You race towards an early grave” (you hit rock bottom). The preoccupation of modern man is success at all costs, including life. We forget the sun, and we forget to breathe the breath of real living. We reach the highest height of the ouroboros‘s biting head of material success, then plunge down to an early death, the serpent’s bitten tail, which is the dialectical opposite of its head, as I’ve described elsewhere.

This constant racing to achieve, to succeed, like that rabbit, is the tension behind “On the Run.” We hear a flurry of notes speeding past our ears, played on a Synthi AKS, as well as the helicopter sound mentioned above, which combined with the title of the instrumental, suggests the frantic rush to work, the annoying commute. We thus have a meditation on the pressures of travel, for indeed we also hear a VCS 3 synthesizer making a Doppler effect, sounding like a vehicle passing.

We’ve gone from the beginning of life in “Speak to Me,” which can also suggest the beginning of the week (Sunday, the Lord’s Day–symbolizing the new life of the risen Christ–to which we’ll return in “The Great Gig in the Sky”), to the middle of the hectic work week.

The stress not to be late for work, to meet deadlines, and to wake up, promptly but reluctantly, to the noise of an alarm clock, is suggested, by association, with the sound of clock bells chiming at the beginning of “Time.” Next, we hear Nick Mason improvising licks on rototoms while David Gilmour is playing low single notes on his guitar and Waters is making a tick-tock sound on two muted bass strings, creating a dark musical atmosphere suggesting that irritable feeling of having to get up for work in the morning.

The singing and music played during the verses suggests the alteration between the anger felt during the working day and the sadness of it all, empathically felt by the female back-up singers. “Tired of lying in the sunshine, staying home to watch the rain,” we avoid the wise light of the sun and waste our time ruminating in sadness; then one day we find that we’ve let ten years go by without accomplishing much.

“And you run and you run, to catch up with the sun, but it’s sinking.” We chase after the light of happiness and wisdom, but it eludes us, fading into the darkness of another night. It goes round and round in a cycle of day and night, “but you’re older,” nearing death, never taking the time to enjoy what you have.

Unlike how before, when we’d wasted ten years, now we “never seem to find the time.” Suffering in silence without complaint “is the English way,” especially now, after decades of Thatcher-style neoliberalism has made life in the UK so much more intolerable. This album is prophetic.

Next, we have a reprise of “Breathe,” suggesting the end of the work week…TGIF! We rest at home after a hard, tiring day at work. Then we contemplate going to church on Sunday. Thus, we won’t be “frightened of dying.”

While Claire Torry’s high-pitched singing during “The Great Gig in the Sky” sounds soulful and cathartic (along with Rick Wright‘s beautiful piano), the snippet used in “Speak to Me” seems like the screams of pain felt at birth, or of a mother in labour, or screams of terror. This equating of spiritual joy with material suffering once again implies the dialectical identity of opposites; for, remembering Waters’s atheism, we can see this ‘joyful pain’ as an indication of the false comfort that the Church provides.

So, that was Side One, the work week and weekend, given in miniature. Side Two is about the cause of such a work week–capitalism–as well as its effects–alienation and mental illness.

Recordings of coins jingling in a cash register, to a tight rhythm in 7/4 time, suggests the rigid, mechanistic, soulless life ruled by “Money.” The three verses give us the attitudes toward money of 1) workers who lack class consciousness (“Get a good job with more pay and you’re OK.”) and “daydream” of being able to “buy…a football team,” 2) right-wing leaning capitalists who don’t want to hear “that do goody-good bullshit,” and 3) liberals, who acknowledge the evils of the profit motive, and who pay lip service that one should “Share it fairly, but don’t take a slice of my pie.” As with the working-class bootlickers who support right-wing politicians, liberals won’t challenge the establishment of class differences.

Hearing 7/4, or 7/8 time, one always gets the feeling of incompleteness, of a beat having been lopped off; one instinctively expects to hear two bars of 4/4 (common time), or an additional eighth note. This incompleteness suggests the incomplete happiness that money gives us, though one may think one’s life is complete (i.e., the 4/4 section with the guitar solo).

It’s fitting that the song is essentially in the form of the blues, for that’s exactly what money gives us.

The song fades out with the voices of people who discuss having been in a fight (a Cockney-accented voice discusses a fight, too, during the piano solo in “Us and Them”); thus we see a link between capitalism and social alienation. It’s hard for money-worshipping people to be friends.

Us and Them,” is about war and human conflict in general; the fact that the song comes immediately after “Money” should make clear the suggestion that the worship of money naturally leads to imperialism and war–Lenin made this connection easy to see.

The lyrics go over a series of oppositions: us and them, me and you, up and down, with/without. The rhyming lines following each thesis/negation suggest some kind of sublation of each pair.

Instead of seeing us and them as an opposition in the context of war, we could sublate the contradiction by seeing ourselves as “only ordinary men,” not on either side, but together. Instead of me and you as enemies, by knowing war is “not what we would choose to do,” we’d unite as friends, a synthesis of the thesis (me) and antithesis (you).

Instead of the up and down of the dawn and the dusk, the coming and going of the light of goodness and wisdom, we could see the cyclical “round and round” of good and ill fortune, the unifying movement of the waves of the ocean of life, which reconcile all up and down dichotomies.

We’re deceived into thinking that there’s some terrible enemy who must be defeated (the Viet Cong, the Soviets, Milošević, Saddam, Gaddafi, Assad, etc.), when it’s really just a matter of with…without. When we understand the true meaning of this opposition, we’ll know “what the fighting’s all about,” and we can sublate the with/without contradiction by replacing it with a society in which neither side is without, and neither side is with too much. Then “the lines on the map” needn’t always move “from side to side,” nor need the front rank die.

“Black and blue” could be bruises from beatings (i.e., police brutality), or it could be blacks beaten or killed by the boys in blue…”and who knows which is which, and who is who,” that is to say, are the good guys really good, and are the bad guys really bad…or do we need to sublate that contradiction, too?

The title of the instrumental “Any Colour You Like” is ironic, for in capitalism, our sense of choice is really an illusion. Consider what George Carlin had to say on the subject.

As in the main chord sequence in “Breathe,” the one during Torry’s vocal improvisation in “The Great Gig in the Sky,” and the main ones in “Brain Damage,” and “Us and Them” (though this last one uses more sophisticated chord substitutions–such as the D minor/major seventh, a D6th with an added 9th instead of a subdominant G major, and the added ninths to the tonic D–as well as Waters’s pedal point of tonic D to dominant A), in this instrumental we hear a chord progression of tonic to a subdominant major, suggesting a departure, a leaving home (tonic) to go off somewhere (to work, to church, etc.–subdominant).

Yet, because the tonic is the dominant of the subdominant, especially if the tonic is a major chord (I, as opposed to i, thus providing a leading tone), these two-chord progressions could also symbolize a returning home, a dialectical relationship between leaving and returning (i.e., I-IV could, in this way, be heard also as V-I). The problem is that most of these progressions are i-IV rather than I-IV; that is, the tonic is usually a minor chord, lacking a leading tone to make it easier to go to IV, suggesting that it’s harder to get back home (v-I) than to leave it (I-IV). It’s certainly hard to leave home for work in the morning, hence i-IV.

So, musically there is a symbol for the drab routine of leaving and returning, again and again, in and out, back and forth, like the appearing and departing sun, the coming and going of the light.

In “Brain Damage,” first, “The lunatic is on the grass,” that is, projected onto other people, further off. Then, “The lunatic is in the hall,” then, those madmen “are in my hall.” Lunacy is acknowledged to be getting closer and closer to oneself, until finally, one confesses, “The lunatic is in my head.” Still, as one admits to one’s own mental illness, one also notes that the madness was introjected from outside, perhaps from abusers who traumatized you: “There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.”

Note the use of the word lunatic, as opposed to madman, maniac, psychotic, etc. A lunatic is driven mad by the moon…”the dark side of the moon,” far away from the light of the sun. One needn’t worry, though (sarcasm), for the questionable institution of psychiatry, with its profit-making drugs and labels for anyone who won’t conform or be controlled, will “rearrange me ’til I’m sane.”

In “Eclipse,” “All that you touch/All that you see…,” reminding us of the lyric in “Breathe” about material reality, is a return of the ouroboros cycle to its beginning. “And everything under the sun is in tune,” that is, all is well in the light; “But the sun is eclipsed by the moon.” In a solar eclipse, light and dark are united, the dialectical, yin-and-yang relationship of opposites.

Everything under the sun is a contradiction. As conflict, “It’s all dark,” as a voice says when the music fades out. Our world will continue to get darker, unless we, unafraid to care, begin at last to breathe, to feel the heartbeat of life.

2 thoughts on “Analysis of ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’

    1. Wow, TFTO would be an epic analysis. I’ll have to give that one some serious thought. I was actually considering doing ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ in the near future. 🙂

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