Dark Side Of The Moon: why is it so bloody popular?

Pink Floyd in 1973
(Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

Over four decades have passed since Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon was released, and it remains far and away the most successful concept album ever made. Its 45 million claimed sales dwarf all other contenders as well as later Pink Floyd albums including Wish You Were Here, Animals and The Wall – which many fans might argue are better concept albums. But the rest of the world does not agree. 

And it’s not just the sales either (though only four albums have sold more: Thriller, Back In Black, Bat Out Of Hell, and the soundtrack to The Bodyguard). No album has spent longer in the charts than Dark Side Of The Moon. It was in the Billboard chart for nearly 15 years and would be there now if they hadn’t sneakily changed the rules in the late 80s and made it ineligible. 

Even so, it has spent more than three years as long in the chart as its nearest rival, Bob Marley's Legend. It still notches up over a quarter of a million sales annually, the numbers augmented by vinyl represses and surround sound versions. And if ever there was an album designed to show off the capabilities of surround sound it’s Dark Side Of The Moon. Indeed, it was one of the earliest albums to be released in Quad, a format long since consigned to the technological dustbin. 

So what’s the secret? Why is its appeal so broad, so timeless? It’s a question even the band have trouble answering. “I don’t think we ever really understood,” confesses drummer Nick Mason. “There are elements that you would never have perceived at the time. It was partly about timing and partly about the songs being relevant to people at that time, and that sort of gave it a lift that then brought it on to the attention of another bunch of people, and so on.”

Roger Waters, who was the dominant – though not yet dominating – force in the band when they recorded Dark Side Of The Moon, has his own theory. “The music’s quite compelling but I think there’s something more. Maybe it’s the simplicity of the ideas that appeal to a generation going though puberty and trying to make sense of it all.” 

There’s certainly something in Roger’s theory, particularly if you accept (as most women do) that most men never get much further than puberty. And like porn, men can go back to Dark Side Of The Moon over and over again. Released in March 1973, over a year after the band had previewed most of the tracks at London’s Rainbow Theatre, Dark Side Of The Moon caught the prevailing feeling perfectly. 

There was a rapidly expanding market for rock music for new generations, stereo had just become affordable and cannabis was becoming widely available. Dark Side… was the perfect stereo album and its pleasures were notably enhanced with the aid of a meticulously rolled Camberwell carrot. 

It was also headphone heaven. You could lie back and hear the heartbeat gradually getting louder, mingled with a disembodied Scottish voice saying ‘I’ve been mad for fucking years’ and a maniacal laugh before being blotted out by a helicopter noise whirring from one ear to another. That in turn collides with a screaming female voice before subsiding into the slow, deliberate beat and soothing guitars of Breathe

Just as you’ve relaxed into the song, however, it suddenly shifts gears and you are being carried long by a rapid hi-hat rhythm and electronic riff while atmospherics, voices, footsteps, airplanes and bits of feedback fly by on either side of your head. It all ends in a dull explosion and more running footsteps. As it dies away there’s the reassuring tick of a clock which just has time to lull you again before a cacophony of alarm clocks shatters your senses and leads into the heavy ponderous guitar chimes of Time

You are now eight minutes into the album, and there’s another 35 to go. The sonic experience of the album is as vivid now as it was then. As a concept album, Dark Side Of The Moon was pretty loose. 

“The concept grew out of group discussions about the pressures of real life, like travel or money, but then Roger broadened it into a meditation on the causes of insanity,” recalls Nick Mason.

Pink Floyd had spent the beginning of the 70s groping for a new direction following the loss of their creative spirit Syd Barrett to drugs and a mental breakdown. They lacked the instrumental prowess of fellow progressive rockers ELP, the wondrous stories of Yes, the androgyny of David Bowie or the art school pose of Roxy Music

But Atom Heart Mother and Meddle with its side-long Echoes epic had at least given them a growing musical identity. Roger’s decision to write all the lyrics for Dark Side Of The Moon gave the music a focus. Breathe and On The Run evoke the stresses and strains of everyday life, Time and The Great Gig In The Sky cover the fear of ageing, loss and dying, Money returns to the remorseless struggle to survive and Us And Them hones in on power struggles and violence. 

Isolation, paranoia and mental breakdown are the unrelenting themes of the last three tracks, Any Colour You Like, Brain Damage and Eclipse. Roger would pursue these themes with a vengeance on later Pink Floyd albums, driven by his hatred of authoritarian leaders and their bureaucratic henchmen, and his rage at the death of his father right at the end of World War II. 

Over it all lurked the spectre of Syd Barrett, looking back at Roger and the group from the dark side. But on Dark Side Of The Moon these themes were still relatively unsophisticated and easier to follow. The songs and basic structure for the album came together over a period of about six weeks. They even had the album’s title before discovering that another lesser-known British band, Medicine Head, had released an album called Dark Side Of The Moon

For a while Pink Floyd called their planned album Eclipse, but when Medicine Head’s album failed to make any impact they reverted to Plan A. The recording was long – they spent six months in the studio in between tours of Europe, America and Japan – but it wasn’t laborious. David Gilmour reckons that playing the songs live beforehand made a big difference. “You couldn’t do that now of course. You’d be bootlegged out of existence. But when we went into the studio we all knew the material. The playing was very good. It had a natural feel.” 

It was also the last time that every member made a major contribution to a Pink Floyd album. Rick Wright’s keyboard textures were a vivid part of the sound, notably on Any Colour You Like. He also wrote two of the album’s standout tracks, Us And Them and The Great Gig In The Sky. The latter was ornamented by vocalist Claire Torry’s wordless but expressive wailing, bringing the first half of the album to a powerful conclusion.

Nick Mason’s writer credit on the opening Speak To Me – the instrumental overture – was a “gift” from Roger Waters, but his drumming was a solid foundation for the band to work on. And while David Gilmour’s writing credits were fairly modest, his measured guitar playing was magnificent throughout. But he could let rip when he wanted, as the solo on Money showed. He also sang around half the songs. 

Recording technology was evolving rapidly around the band. They used the new VCS3 – the latest synthesiser on the market, albeit still quite primitive – to generate the helicopter noises and Rick Wright used it inventively on On The Run. Half-way through making the album they switched to the new Dolby sound reduction system to give the music greater clarity and separation. But the real masterstroke came late on when Roger decided to link the tracks with bits of speech. 

“I still glow with pleasure at how well that worked,” he remembers. “I devised a series of about 20 questions on pieces of card. They were in order and ranged from obscure questions like ‘What does the phrase The Dark Side Of The Moon mean to you?’ to a series of questions that related to each other like ‘When was the last time you were violent?’ and then ‘Do you think you were in the right?’ We asked people to just go into an empty studio, look at the top card, respond to it, move on to the next card.” 

Pink Floyd’s road crew were willing guinea pigs for Roger’s experiment – that’s the road manager’s voice you can hear at the beginning of the album. But passing strangers also took part. Paul McCartney, who was recording at Abbey Road at the same time, was roped in along with Linda, although their replies were not used. The final snippet as the album fades – ‘There is no dark side of the moon really. Matter of fact, it’s all dark’ – came from the doorman at Abbey Road, Jerry Driscoll. 

Things only became fraught as they approached the final mix, and they brought in Chris Thomas, who’d engineered The BeatlesWhite Album, as an impartial set of ears.

Meanwhile, album cover designers Hipgnosis, who’d worked with the band since 1968’s Saucerful Of Secrets, were coming up with various ideas. Storm Thorgerson remembers they had seven or eight but the one the band picked was sparked off by Rick Wright, “who wanted something simple, clinical and precise”. 

Hipgnosis deliberately missed out one colour of the spectrum as the light passed through the prism – purple – as they didn’t think it would show up against the black background. The gatefold sleeve was designed so that the light rays on the inner sleeve joined up precisely with the outer sleeve. But nowhere on the front cover, back cover or the spine did it say “Pink Floyd” or “Dark Side Of The Moon” And even on the inner sleeve the only reference you could find was “Produced by Pink Floyd” in the credits. 

The title didn’t appear until you got to the record label, unless you happened to scan the lyrics on the inner sleeve and came across the last line of Brain Damage, ‘I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon’. Stuck inside the record sleeve were two posters: a grainy, green-filtered picture of the pyramids and one featuring the band, with an attempt to make the Pink Floyd name as difficult to read as possible. 

On its release in late March 1973 Dark Side Of The Moon shot quickly up the British charts to No.2 – just one place higher than Meddle had reached. In America it was their first album to chart and it hit the No.1 spot in April for one week. But the band had already been touring for a month in America and had played the album on two tours there the previous year. The record company suits didn’t pay much attention until they noticed that although the album had dropped down the charts it was refusing to leave. 

It never did.

Hugh Fielder

Hugh Fielder has been writing about music for 47 years. Actually 58 if you include the essay he wrote about the Rolling Stones in exchange for taking time off school to see them at the Ipswich Gaumont in 1964. He was news editor of Sounds magazine from 1975 to 1992 and editor of Tower Records Top magazine from 1992 to 2001. Since then he has been freelance. He has interviewed the great, the good and the not so good and written books about some of them. His favourite possession is a piece of columnar basalt he brought back from Iceland.