Saturday, March 9, 2013

"Dark Side of the Moon" & Philosophy

One of my favorite music groups of all time is the 1970s English progress rock band Pink Floyd. Everything from their music, live performances, lyrics and even album cover art expresses a certain anti-establishment character that I can relate to very well.  Pink Floyd was formed during the growing band scene of London in the early to late 60s. Rock and pop music at this time was limited to songs that were 3 to 4 minutes in length and whose lyrical themes did not go beyond the adolescent falling in love and then the eventual heartbreak. It was here that Pink Floyd’s revolutionary music set them apart from of their contemporaries. They pioneered the use of spacey psychedelic synths which gave an extra dimension to the typical band with drums, guitar and bass. They experimented with obscure lyrical themes that found their roots in philosophy and literature. In particular the notion of madness has always perpetuated Floyd’s music. Early in their career they lost a member, Syd Barett, to mental illness and this event has always been the backdrop of their work. A philosopher can find expression of concepts like the meaning of existence, the helplessness of an individual in societies, conflicts between war and peace, the ambiguity of genius and madness sprinkled throughout their songs that defied the typical 3 to 4 minute song limit and often went way beyond. Sometimes to the point where it would be the only song on one side of a LP.

I think their most successful album “Dark Side of the Moon” is worth discussing here. This is a classical existential piece whose philosophical grounding is only overshadowed by its musical execution. Even though this album contains 10 separate songs, they are tied together in one long 43 minute continuous piece of music. In fact this concept is the very core of this album so much so that recently Pink Floyd sued and won a case against EMI, their record label, because the label allowed consumers to purchase these songs in the form of single downloads from iTunes[1]. By just listening to one song in isolation, and I am sure Floyd would agree with this, is doing a disservice not just to the artist but to art itself. According to Roger Waters (bassists and the creative brain behind the concept of the album) the album represents empathy and disillusionment that the youth were struggling with in the political, social and economic environment of the 1970s. The conditions created in modernity which gave the world great technological advancements and progress was not devoid of a certain feeling of absurdity. This existentialistic thought is the underlining theme of the 10 songs that reflect the various stages of being human. 

The album appropriately begins and ends with hypnotic heart beats signifying life and death. As always madness is not too far away, as first words that one hears is:

“I have been mad for fucking years”

The 2nd song titled “Breathe” represents the breath of life that a new born takes as it is introduced to the world. It signifies a new beginning but in the same sense stresses the mundane nature of reality. The daily routine of going to work, which the baby when grows up will partake in, is nothing but a “race towards an early grave” (the ending lyric) . The classic existential expression of human beings born to die can be seen in play here. The album continues abruptly, although smoothly, to airport, traffic and futuristic transportation sounds which generate a sense of anxiety for listener – a true representation of the anxiety and stress that is a common feature of our modern world.   The next song “Time” again dwells further in the idea of humans focusing their efforts and energies on routine activities of modern life and losing sight of the bigger picture. The band here offers a warning and urges the listener to really focus on what they really want to get out of life by saying the following :

“You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today. And then one day you find ten years have got behind you. No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun”. 

The song transitions to a soulful piano/vocal medley which is metaphor of the eventual death and specifically the unhappiness one finds in lost time. The emotions of Clare Tory can be felt through the speakers as she sings "The Great Gig in the Sky". The next song which ironically led to the international commercial success of the band, mocks that very idea, i.e. greed and consumerism, titled “Money”. After the release of the album the band was struggling to find success in the US. Musically speaking to be an international success at the time (this hold probably holds true for today as well) a band had to make it big on the US radio wave. The biggest reason why Dark side of the Moon was struggling in the US was because of its length. Radio DJs were not going to play a 43 minute track on their radios. It was Bhasker Menon the head of Capitol Records at the time, who decided to release “Money” as a single in hopes to boost record sales. So it further adds to the irony that not only it was song that mocks money, that brought them more money, but it was in the land whose economy is exemplified by consumerism. Another peculiar feature about this song can be found in its time signature. The song starts off on a 3/4 signature and transitions to a typical 4/4 blues bar and the back to 3/4, which goes to show that Pink Floyd were not just lyricists playing around with philosophical concepts, they were fist and foremost musical geniuses. But as with all successes, especially financial ones, there is always a darker underside. There is an inherent conflict that results amongst the haves and have nots.  The next song “Us and Them” is definitely my favorite, for it represents the raw isolation that humans feel when engaged with conflict especially in war times. Sometimes we are caught in the up in the act of the conflict which blurs the real reason of why the conflict came into existence in the first place. One can see this throughout history where power corrupted even the most generous and benevolent being. The absurdity of the gap between idea and reality still exists:

"And after all we're only ordinary men. Me and you. God only knows who is who. It's not what we would choose to do”

There is something as humans being we all are fighting for, something that is very common to us but that thing still remains a fleeting concept. The next two songs “Any Color you like” and “Brain Damage” addresses the effects that such conflicts have on society. Nihilism slowly creeps in the fabric of the youth and meaning becomes more obscure. Even madness takes on a new meaning, which is seen in the lyric:

“and if the band you're in starts playing different tunes”
even things that I consider to be mine, like my band, seem alien to me now. The final song “Eclipse” which ends in the lyric:

“There is no dark side of the moon really. Matter of fact it's all dark”

..culminates the idea of what it means to be human. It forces the listener to reject the gaps that persist between individuals and focus on the commonalities and in such it is the only way to overcome conflict. It is not that you are mad and I am not, it is that we are all mad. And that to me is an interesting place to start a conversation.