While I first heard about Pink Floyd from Tanya and the youth group when I was single-digit age, my first real experience with The Dark Side of the Moon came from my friend Joe, when we were in high school. Joe’s dad is a musician, so his tastes became even more eclectic as he grew up. I tried to get him into Smashing Pumpkins and R.E.M. in high school (in the interest of his own enlightenment, of course…), but his interests drifted more towards Steve Taylor and Carman, but also Earth, Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder, but also classical mad scientists like Mussorgsky, Dvořák and Grieg.
As you can see, Joe isn’t one to tow any party line unless he actually believes in it (he’s a staunch Republican and a fervent 5-point Calvinist, for instance). He likes what he likes and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks, and I admire that. Probably through my prompting, he did eventually come to appreciate Smashing Pumpkins, but he came to it on his own terms and only after I had stopped pestering him. More than anyone else I know, his musical tastes are his tastes, and no one else’s.
Joe may not always know a good thing when he sees it, but he zeroed in on Pink Floyd a lot sooner than I did. I remember he had discovered the Floyd in his dad’s record collection, and like a typical teenager, thought everyone needed to know about this incredible thing he had been the first to unearth. “Neal, you HAVE to hear this! It’s amazing!” The first song he played for me was “Us and Them,” his favorite song. I was extremely unimpressed.
If you know the song, you might think it’s not the best introduction into the world of Pink Floyd. It’s like saying, “Never read Shakespeare? Try Cymbeline.” The reason it’s little less relatable than other Pink Floyd songs is an issue of space. “Us and Them” takes up a lot of space. By that I don’t mean length, though it is almost 8 minutes long, the longest on Dark Side.
“Us and Them” is slower than a lot of other songs, even others by Pink Floyd. But it also has long distances between chord changes. Whereas a normal rock and roll song would take 2 measures to make a chord change, an “Us and Them”-type song would take 4 (or maybe 8). It’s quiet and subdued for all of it except the chorus, which is grand and sweeping without being energetic. Energy has never been Pink Floyd’s strong suit, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you’d do a lot better with Green Day or the Ramones.
Room to stretch out is one of the things Pink Floyd does particularly well. Allowing a song the space to move at its own pace and not hurrying through it takes a skilled artist. Don’t get me wrong; hurrying through has its place. In fact, there’s an entire genre of rock music dedicated to hurrying through – it’s called punk. But Pink Floyd takes a completely different approach, one of taking their sweet time to bring a song to full closure. “Us and Them” is almost like a jazz song; all the musicians work within a general framework of D-B-A-B-D, and in the long pauses between those changes, they’re free to do what they wish.
While “Us and Them” took me a while to really sink in (a few years…), Joe keyed into it very quickly. I’ll admit that some of my hesitancy towards the song (and Pink Floyd in general) was because the suggestion came from Joe. Growing up, Joe and I had a very adversarial relationship – each of us was always trying to convince the other that what we liked, what we did, or what he thought was better than what the other liked/did/thought. Smooth peanut butter vs. chunky, chunky applesauce vs. smooth.
But as we developed into men, our opposition to each other gradually became a healthy iron-sharpens-iron. While I still find frustration in Joe’s opposition, I also find comfort. It lets me know that the world doesn’t end with me and my opinions; there are more things in this world than are dreamed about in my meager imagination. Most of all, though, I’ve come to respect Joe’s unflinching devotion to his own preferences. You can tell him up the Wazoo that something is lame, but you can’t tell him he shouldn’t like it if he does.
And with “Us and Them,” Joe found something that I didn’t, or at least not right away. I’ll happily concede that when it comes to Pink Floyd, he was right and I was wrong.