My wife is really smart. I’m smart too, in my own way, but she’s smart in a way that’s much more acknowledged by the world. She even has a PhD to back it up. Not only is she a lecturer in chemistry at a very large state-run university, but she’s in charge of an entire lab space that is about 20x the size of our apartment. She has a very analytical mind, and she’s pretty good at ferreting out the truth of a thing as long as the information given to her is accurate. She has a phrase for when something seems legit, but isn’t: it’s a “bunch a’ hooey.”
Several things have qualified for the bunch-a’-hooey status in her mind, but in mine, a chief one is the “concept album.” The best bead I can get on the definition of a concept album is that it has a unified idea that it puts forward. Back in February, when I started this blog, I mentioned that all the best albums are like this, that indeed this is something of a requirement for it to be considered an album and not just a collection of songs.
I looked up lists of the greatest concept albums of all time and found things like Sgt. Pepper, The Dark Side of the Moon, and Ziggy Stardust. With those, you could be just prattling off the easiest answers to “best album of all time” and avoiding telling me anything about concept albums. Still others were so obscure they’re hardly worth mentioning. Paste Magazine’s list was 90% you’ve-probably-never-heard-of-them. I forgot for a second that Paste may as well be called Hipsters Only.
Despite the questionable status of the term, it’s generally agreed upon that The Dark Side of the Moon is the best concept album of all time. To the rock music press in general, this is the Mack Daddy Holy Bible of all albums, in some cases trumping even IV and the mighty Sgt. Pepper. I respectfully disagree; it’s not even the best Pink Floyd album. And if the definition of “concept album” is just “it has a theme,” there are albums with much stronger themes that stick to them more.
Reading all this, you would think I don’t hold The Dark Side of the Moon in very high esteem, so I didn’t do a very god job of representing my thoughts. Let me be clear: The Dark Side of the Moon is AWESOME. It’s hard to believe this album was made in 1973; it seems about 10 years ahead of its time. It’s still influencing musicians even to this day. It doesn’t behave like normal albums of music do, but it doesn’t spiral down to esoteric obscurity as you would expect. It innovative and different while still having loads of appeal, which is a difficult trick to pull off.
The Dark Side of the Moon’s theme (it does actually have one) is madness. The album goes through phases that highlight a particular thing that drives people towards insanity. I can’t say it moves from song to song, since Dark Side is much fuzzier than that. There are 9 tracks (and technically 10 songs), but only four subjects are explored, with an intro and outro speaking about insanity in general terms.
The beginning of the first phase, the intro, is just a collection of sound effects that occur elsewhere on the album. “Speak to Me” isn’t really a song; instead, it includes a heartbeat, ticking clocks, helicopter noises, the sounds of a cash register, and some frantic screaming. “Speak to Me” also contains parts of a series of interviews Roger Waters had with members of Pink Floyd’s band crew, as well as people who just happened to be in the studio at the time. Waters started the interviews with mundane questions like “What is your favorite color?” Then he moved on to things like “When was the last time you were violent?” followed by “Were you in the right?” Everyone was a little sheepish with the former, but vehement in the affirmative with the latter. A female interviewee talk about an altercation she had with an older gentleman, saying “that geezer was cruisin’ for a bruisin’.”
This leads directly from a backwards cymbal crash into the next song, “Breathe.” This is what Floyd is known for; soft, spacey music that both excites and woos. “Breathe” discusses madness in terms of doing what’s expected of you by everyone from society to your girlfriend. According to Pink Floyd, that leads to insanity. There must be a lot of insane people out there, then…
But maybe, just maybe, that’s the point Pink Floyd is trying to make. In another song, “Time,” the lyrics are “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.” Henry David Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” and the Floyd calls on Thoreau’s tradition of absolute liberty and freedom to pursue any dream that enters your head to combat the attitude of complacency and inactivity. By falling in line, doing what you’re told and fulfilling everyone else’s expectations of you, you may be ignoring yourself and thus losing yourself. And what is insanity if not what happens to you once you lose yourself?
Next: an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone…