Tag Archive: Us and Them

Magic and Madness

At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there’s a little area on the 4th floor with benches, in the corner of the glass pyramid. It’s little more than a sitting area for weary museum-goers to rest their feet, but it’s also an exhibit dedicated to a particularly fascinating segment of rock history, and a turning point in the life of one band. In the middle of the area is a huge white-bricked wall, with blocks taken out of it to allow passage to the other side. What looks like a demented Macy’s Thanksgiving puppet hovers over both sides of the wall – the schoolmaster from Pink Floyd’s The Wall. There are other artifacts, mostly from the movie – the melted, blubberous Pink watching TV, another ghoulish schoolmaster with freakishly long limbs, and the crossed hammers banner used as the insignia of Pink’s totalitarian regime. (Don’t worry… all these will be explained)

When we last left Pink Floyd, they were struggling with the ideas of fame and celebrity. Roger Waters in particular found that the more people that liked his music, the less he liked the people. When Pink Floyd first started, they were very happy in their general anonymity. Their early shows were described by Waters as “magic,” intimate and personal. After The Dark Side of the Moon and the monster success of “Money,” they were playing bigger and bigger venues as time went by. By the time of their In the Flesh tour in 1977 for their newest album, Animals, they were stadium regulars.

Whereas Pink Floyd’s relationship to their fans had been close and friendly, it was now more like the ruler of a nation of millions to his subjugates. While some men might have been driven mad by that kind of power (as many rock and pop stars have), Waters found it disgusting, and that translated directly into disgust with his fans. Suddenly, it was “us and them.”

Get it? “Us and Them?” Oh, never mind…

Pink Floyd always being on guard from their fans had to come to a breaking point sometime, and it did in Montreal in 1977. The In the Flesh tour took them to arena after arena, and a fan tried to climb onto the stage at this show. He almost succeeded before security hauled him away, but before even that, Roger Waters took all his disgust, paranoia and anger out on this fan by spitting on him.

It was then that Roger, then the main creative force behind Pink Floyd, realized what he had become, and why. He was faced with the choice of either recapturing the magic Pink Floyd used to have, or giving in to the current madness and the horrible place it might lead to. The Wall is what Roger created to, as he puts it, help him make that choice.

Pink Floyd - The Wall - 11/20/1979

Pink Floyd – The Wall – 11/20/1979

When my wife and I visited the Rock Hall and saw the Wall Exhibit, I explained to her what was written on the white wall (a short detailing of the history leading up to The Wall, in Roger Waters’ own words). When I told her about Roger’s choice between magic and madness, she had a very sharp and to-the-point question (she’s full of those) – “Which did he choose?”

Perhaps it’s obvious to me, but any other reasonably intelligent person could look at The Wall and what it contains and get the wrong impression. In brief, The Wall is about a rock star who becomes so isolated by his past that he ceases to have meaningful human relationships, and thus becomes a totalitarian dictator with a brutal, fascist agenda, until he is confronted by the people he used to create his isolation. If you take a few listens to The Wall and really let it sink in – and are at least passingly familiar with any literature – it becomes clear that The Wall is a cautionary tale. The main thrust of the entire story, and what Roger Waters is looking at when he uses it as a reminder of his choice, is “don’t go down this road.”

The moral of the story is this: the more cut off you are from other human beings, the less you really feel things, and the less you care about hurting other people. That is what “isolation” means – it means a descent into yourself so deep that nothing matters anymore, not even the people you once loved.

Next: the character of Pink and the building of the wall.

Carl Jung

In the 1920s, psychologist Carl Jung coined the phrase “synchronicity,” to refer to two things which are causally unrelated but seem to be connected. The two things don’t have causality; one does not lead to the other, nor does the second happen because the first did before it. Yet even so, the two share a relationship that defies logic and is purely coincidental.

According to Jung, the synchronistic events must reveal a larger pattern or conceptual framework. We’ve all had the experience of a song coming on the radio that’s been stuck in our heads (or at least all of us old enough to know what a radio is…). The framework would be the genre of music that is both what we listen to and what the radio station normally plays. If the events don’t reveal a framework, they’re merely random and don’t really have any relationship, not even a synchronistic one.

So what’s the most banal, idiotic and inconsequential way to test the concept of synchronicity?

… … … I’m thinking… … …

I’ve got it! How about we play the movie The Wizard of Oz, put it on mute, and use Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon as a soundtrack?

I kid; I’m not the first person to think of this. It’s not certain how it actually came about, but it can be traced back to a group on Usenet, in the toddler days of the internet. Later, a DJ in Boston brought it to big attention in 1997, even prompting a segment on MTV News. But the biggest culprit of the suggestion of synchronicity between The Wizard of Oz and The Dark Side of the Moon (commonly called Dark Side of the Rainbow) is drugs – lots and lots of drugs. Legitimate as it may seem, Dark Side of the Rainbow is merely the product of music geeks without a job (like me…) sitting around with nothing to do and being hopelessly stoned. How else do you explain the shotgun wedding of two pieces of media separated by 34 years?

Throw into the mix the idea of confirmation bias and you’ve got yourself a stew. Confirmation bias is the human tendency to interpret new information in a way that supports a preconceived notion. Examples would be citing the exact position of the Earth (any closer to the sun and we would burn up, any further and we would freeze) as evidence for creationism, or citing tsunamis and other things that senselessly take life as evidence for the non-existence of God. It also comes in the form of finding patterns where they may or may not exist, like in Dark Side of the Rainbow.

Unbelievably, this idea has been kept alive for almost 20 years. So like a good musical scholar and a curious critical thinker, I tested it out myself. I initially tried to do it old school – I borrowed a DVD copy of The Wizard of Oz from our local library, plugged in a boombox, and played my CD copy of Dark Side. Technological difficulties (like our near-broken DVD player that lets no disc play unmolested) prevented me from getting very far, but my frustrations were soothed by the glories of the Interwebs. One search on YouTube led me to a video of the whole thing, and I didn’t even have to worry about synching the CD with the movie.

I’ll admit there were a few things I couldn’t explain, but they fell under the category of “that’s pretty cool” instead of “THIS MEANS SOMETHING!!! THIS IS IMPORTANT!!!” About 4 minutes into the film, Dorothy is balancing on a fence while David Gilmour is singing “balanced on the biggest wave” in “Breathe.” A little later, the clocks all start sounding off in “Time” at the exact moment Miss Gulch appears on her bicycle. The musical timbre of “The Great Gig In the Sky” shifts from loud to soft at the moment Dorothy hits her head and passes out on her bed during the tornado; however, there’s nothing during the song’s previous timbre shift from soft to loud. The Wicked Witch of the West makes her first appearance right when David Gilmour is singing “black” during “Us and Them”; she’s wearing black robes. The exact beginning of “Any Colour You Like” comes at a scene change – Dorothy is faced with a divergence in the path of the Yellow Brick Road, one where she could choose any path she likes. The Scarecrow begins dancing uncontrollably to “If I Only Had a Brain” during “Brain Damage.” And perhaps most eerily, the changeover in the film from sepia tones to full color comes at the exact moment of the vinyl flip and the beginning of “Money.”

But do these things suggest actual synchronicity? Not according to the classical definition of the term. If you suggested to Carl Jung that his beloved theory of synchronicity applied to The Wizard of Oz and The Dark Side of the Moon, he would at best laugh derisively and at worst smack you upside the head. That is, if he had actually survived long enough to have a clue what Dark Side was; he died in 1961.

Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory calls things which seem legitimate but have no scientific basis “hokum.” Dark Side of the Rainbow is hokum. I’m astounded that this ridiculous idea has survived for more than 30 years. I’m even more astounded that I had a hand in its survival; in fact, I’m having a hand right now by talking about it. So in the interest of not beating a dead horse, I’m gonna move on.

Next: how does Genesis top “Supper’s Ready?”

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 MussorgskyDvořák 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.