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50: “The Dark Side of the Moon” and “Smoke on the Water”

mark connors 50 chapter iv

Chapter IV of 50 by Mark Connors series. 1973 the year of “The Dark Side of the Moon” album by Pink Floyd and the single “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple

Today in our 50 by Mark Connors series we talk about two fundamental works in the history of rock … Both come from the year 1973 and are “The Dark Side of the Moon” album by Pink Floyd and the single “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple.

1973 (Album): The Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd

I was late to the soiree when it came to Pink Floyd. I was aware of them as a teenager but they were a little slow and pensive for me. I loved Not Now John from The Final Cut, a hard and angry track with ballsy guitar and a killer Gilmour solo but it wasn’t till I bought the live album A Delicate Sound of Thunder that they started to leave any real impression on me. 

By 1991, my first love’s brother had left Leeds for University to study in Edinburgh. Dan lived with three other guys in a large apartment just off Princes Street. This was important because we now had front row seats for Hogmanay. This was before you needed a ticket to enjoy the festivities so we drove up every year to crash for a few days. 

Within minutes of arriving we’d be toking on numerous joints circulating the living room. Dan’s gaff was always packed with students chilling out before ‘The Bells’, when we would all head into town to bring in the New Year. In the hours before the madness of the countdown, we’d no sooner pass a joint on and another would come our way. All the while the music playing would be seeping into us, adding to the soundtracks of our hedonistic early 20s. The music I heard at these parties was not my usual ear candy. I was introduced to artists and bands such as Neil Young, Tom Waits , Syd Barrett and most significantly, Pink Floyd as they were in the 70s. 

There is no greater stoner album than Dark Side of the Moon. It’s no great surprise that it spent twelve years on the US album chart and still sells well throughout the world. It’s also had a recent second honeymoon thanks to the renaissance of vinyl, precisely because it’s a timeless masterpiece. And lots and lots of people who love the album first heard it when they off their trees on weed/dope/gange/hash/grass and all its fragrant variants. Dark Side of the Moon is not just any great album. Simply put, it’s an experience to be enjoyed with friends and lovers. 

Unsurprisingly, with this trippy seminal concept album, Pink Floyd not only satisfied the proggers amongst us but also took Floyd into the mainstream. And it was seminal for many reasons. They were the first band to use sequencers, enabling them to experiment with synthesizers that would help them create the segues and interludes that glue the songs together in a continuum that has never been bettered by any other concept album. Unlike other purveyors of progressive rock, their approach was simpler, sparse, with songs that drifted along, songs that, as Roger Waters once put it, ‘leave a hole’, room for the vocal melodies to float rather than to fight with the music that supported them. 

And the lyrics are brilliant, of course, simple expressions of living, artistic statements  on how to exist in a fucked up world. And Waters was the man who came up with them. He once remarked in an interview that he was surprised to get away with his ‘lower sixth’ lyrics, words one might expect from a stoner doing his A Levels. But they are so much more than that; expressions and phrases too numerous to comment on that most of us can relate too, lyrics about getting older, navigating our social and political lives, while we are ‘hanging on in quiet desperation, it’s the English way,’ and all the while defending the admirable notion of living our lives in ways that at least seem different to certain individuals, whether they are merely going through their lives conforming to norms or not.  

But it wasn’t just Waters that brought the magic; we have the unique vocals of both Gilmour and Waters at play. Gilmour rightly gets most of the singing duties. His beautiful phrasing was the perfect vehicle to articulate the lyrics of Waters and when Waters turns up himself, he adds other more menacing textures. And let’s not forget the incredible soaring improvised female vocals of Claire Torry during Great Gig in the Sky and all the other moments where the female backing vocals and vocals from the rest of the band blend in with this experience of an album. Indeed, it seems redundant to pick songs out here and there because it’s the sum of them, not the individual tracks, which has secured the album its longevity. Dark Side of the Moon demands to be heard in its entirety, whether you are smoking a joint, drinking a glass of wine or simply unwinding after a day at the office. And the voices. Let’s not forget the voices. These occasional spoken words sound like we are hearing them in our own heads, voices like the studio doorman, Gerry O’Drisscoll, who closes the album by saying,  ‘There is no such thing as The Dark Side of the Moon, really,’ as if we imagined this great work of art while we were sharing a spliff with our friends and lovers. 

1973 (Single): Smoke on the Water – Deep Purple 

This may be controversial but there are a good few rock classics I wouldn’t miss one bit if I never heard them again. This is not because I don’t like these songs, rather I’ve heard them so many times that all the listening pleasure was sucked out the moment they became so nauseatingly familiar. You just can’t get through the week without hearing them somewhere:  on the radio, on an advert, on a drive time compilation album some tosser is playing when he passes you in his Volvo, his windows down, on the way to the supermarket. 

My list includes: Alright Now, Free Bird, Hotel California, I Can’t Get No Satisfaction, even modern rock classics like Enter Sandman, Sweet Child O’ Mine and Smells Like Teen Spirit. Actually, even more controversially, I never really liked ‘Teen Spirit (or anything else by Nirvana) so you can scrap that song from the list. 

One song that should be on the list is Smoke on the Water. This bloody song has been played to death and should be consigned to my personal Room 101. But I’m not done with it yet and probably never will be. The reason? It was the song I learnt to sing when I auditioned for my first band. 

I remember the night very well indeed. My best mate, Faz, was auditioning for the same band as a bass player. We were 16 and about to start our long and winding roads to rock stardom and all the sticky benefits that would accompany our journeys. So, Faz learnt the bass line and I learnt the lyrics and how to sing them. I knew some the words because I’d already heard the song enough to consign it to the room I had yet to officially open. But I hadn’t bargained on how great it would feel to sing the song. I was blessed with a high voice (not necessarily a good one – that takes a lot of practise) so I could hit the notes. And it really is a great song to sing. It’s not that it summons any great emotional response when I sing it; neither the words or the music give me goose bumps for instance. It’s just the pitch and occasional rise to falsetto that make the song feel physically good to sing and produce unexpected endorphins, particularly the live version from Made in Japan, where I’d copy vocalist Ian Gillan, repeating notes Richie Blackmore played on his guitar. 

Me and my best mate had a great time that Friday night. We were high on possibilities which would ultimately end in failure after of years of trying to ‘make it’.  We didn’t drink or smoke anything that evening. We didn’t need to. The endorphins were more than enough for us. By the end of the last run through when both of us were sore (my throat, his fingers), I decided to mark the occasion in true rock style. I picked up my old acoustic guitar I never played and smashed it to pieces, as the live version of Smoke on the Water on my turntable crashed to its own end. Faz witnessed this with a mixture of shock, respect and a little bewilderment. I wasn’t a rock star yet but I was starting to look like one. 



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