50 years on, did Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters land his return to The Dark Side Of The Moon?
There’s little doubting that Pink Floyd’s 1973 opus, The Dark Side Of The Moon, is an all-time classic of the rock’n’roll oeuvre. It famously spent 981 weeks on the US Billboard album charts, and with estimated sales approaching the 50 million mark, it’s recognised as the fourth best-selling album in music history (behind only Thriller, Back In Black and The Bodyguard OST). Even its iconic artwork is one of the most readily recognised (and widely parodied) record covers of all time.
Generations of music fans have stared intently at that famous image of the prism reflecting the rainbow of light, striving to conflate extra meaning as they pore over the album as if an oracle in which Pink Floyd gifted the meaning of life and the secrets to human existence.
Now, for the album’s 50th anniversary, one of Pink Floyd’s founders, Roger Waters, has put his reimagining of Dark Side down on tape and is releasing it as The Dark Side Of The Moon Redux. It’s fair to say that a fair portion of Pink Floyd’s massive fanbase is less than thrilled at the prospect.
Waters was the band’s founding bassist, and - after the departure of original songwriter Syd Barrett in 1968 - was soon their lyricist, co-frontman and conceptual leader. It was he who originally proposed Dark Side’s central construct, that it be a concept album that quested to find a blueprint for fulfilment while dissecting a descent into insanity, analysing in the process both their own and Barrett’s current predicaments.
But there were three other members of Pink Floyd, a band that itself always seemed bigger than the sum of its prodigiously talented parts. It’s hard to imagine the album without the guitar and vocals of David Gilmour - with whom Waters has been involved in a bitter and sometimes acrimonious feud for decades - nor the contributions of drummer Nick Mason and keyboardist Richard Wright.
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So how can one person out of a band of four be expected to replicate the majesty of the original album? Waters himself is fully aware of the folly of his endeavour (at the start of the reimagined track Brain Damage on Redux, he mutters, “Why don’t we re-record Dark Side?” before descending into depraved laughter and intoning, “He’s gone mad”). He is at pains to point out that this is merely a reimagining by his now 80-year-old self and in no way meant to replace the original.
So, with all that considerable baggage in mind, how did he do?
For a start, Waters’ voice is now ravaged by the passing of time and has moved into the gravelly territory occupied by the likes of Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen, which can be limiting at times but also adds a certain gravitas in places. There are a barrage of spoken-word interludes throughout the album, solemn and foreboding readings of pleasingly strange and inscrutable passages that add to the considerable mystique.
Waters produced the album himself alongside Gus Seyffert and also assembled an unsurprisingly excellent band to help him bring his peculiar vision to life; these talented players rarely trying to mimic or replicate the majesty of Pink Floyd in full flight but rather trying to conjure similar vibes or moods.
Whilst on the original Dark Side, the opening track Speak To Me started with a heartbeat followed by a montage of sounds made by things that might drive one to madness; it now acts as something of a mission statement with Waters reciting the somewhat existential repurposed lyrics to Pink Floyd track Free For (from their 1972 predecessor Observed By Clouds) over a heartbeat now mingling with nature sounds.
This segues into a stripped-back rendering of Breathe - and while it’s strange to hear an 80-year-old Waters’ voice replacing that of a 20-something Gilmour’s, the world-weary resignation actually suits the song’s tone and premise nicely.
On The Run has morphed from an ominous instrumental with some spectral voices in the background into a grim spoken-word narrative about a fantastical dream, once which takes a detour through your nightmares before culminating in a Tolkien-esque fight between good and evil: it’s pretty frightening (and proggy) stuff, but pretty compelling.
Conceptually, of all the Dark Side songs, Time benefits the most by being revisited all these years later, given its central premise of time seeming less abundant as you age, the previous banks of guitars replaced by more sophisticated organs and strings.
On The Great Gig In The Sky, the wailing voice of Abbey Road session musician Clare Torry that virtually defined the song is gone, replaced by a modulated woodwind instrument, while Waters reads tracts of letters from and about someone dying of cancer (which, while creepy is merely a different way to ruminate on death, which was the song’s primary role in its first incarnation).
Most jarringly of all, on Money, he’s scrapped the loops of money-related sound effects (the cash registers and coins), Waters in full Waits mode as he speak-sings the lyrics atop a more broody blues arrangement augmented by spectral acoustic guitars and disquieting strings and piano.
Us And Them is perhaps the most faithful reinterpretation on Redux, the string section and acoustic guitars abetted by weirdly manipulated sounds that gently mirror the psychedelic tone of the original, and although it loses the sax solo and spoken interlude about violence, it still uses the premise of war to examine the basic human tendency towards conflict.
The new version of the previous instrumental, Any Colour You Like, is sparse and more restrained, with Waters now sprinkling more cryptic spoken-word wisdom over the top of his creation.
The aforementioned Brain Damage sadly loses the backing choir that added such colour but uses a slower tempo and dissonant violins to ramp up the induced anxiety. Water’s voice here is noticeably older and more forlorn, and on brief closer Eclipse, it’s shadowed by robotic female backing vocals to great effect, leading to that familiar heartbeat to bring things home… only Redux has a trick up its sleeve, and it’s a cracker.
In the very final moments of the original Dark Side, the whole affair is given added heft by the final whispered coda, in which an older, detached voice attests that “There is no dark side in the moon, really. Matter of fact, it's all dark”, whereas now the older Waters flips that entirely to offer, “It’s not all dark, is it?”
Is Waters harnessing the wisdom and experience of a life well-lived to send us a message about the very nature of existence? Does this change everything? Or anything? I don’t know, but that final nimble gambit is probably the most profound and fascinating moment of the whole exercise.
When all is said and done, how can The Dark Side Of The Moon Redux possibly be bad? It’s one of the original visionaries reworking one of the greatest albums of all time - it’s bound to be a cracking recording - but once the dust has settled and the novelty worn off, it remains to be seen how many actual Pink Floyd fans will be reaching for Redux over the ’73 original.
But if - just if - you can manage to remove Redux away from the vast shadow of its iconic antecedent, it’s actually quite an immersive and enjoyable experience, completely different in scope and ambition to the original, just sharing a similar (and very well-known) structure.
Whether you can actually manage to take that gigantic leap of faith is another kettle of fish…
The Dark Side Of The Moon Redux is out now.