Q Magazine

On This Day In Music… March 29, 1980: Pink Floyd's 'The Dark Side Of The Moon' Breaks U.S. Chart Records

Pink Floyd's extended meditation on mortality, greed and mental illness would go on to spend the equivalent of 19 years in the Billboard 200 and become the fourth best-selling LP of all time.

dark side of the moon
Source: Harvest / Capitol

'The Dark Side Of The Moon' has sold 45 million copies since its 1973 release.

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On March 29, 1980, The Dark Side Of The Moon, Pink Floyd’s eighth studio album first released seven years earlier, notched up a record-breaking 303rd consecutive week in the U.S. album chart, eclipsing the previous record held by Carole King’s 1971 LP Tapestry.

The Dark Side Of The Moon would go on to remain in the Billboard 200 for a never-matched 988 nonconsecutive weeks – the equivalent of 19 years – and is now the official fourth best-selling album of all time with 45 million copies sold. All this, despite never reaching number one in the U.K., and spending just one week at the top of the U.S. charts.

Although Pink Floyd are now acknowledged as one of the behemoths of classic rock, they were respected, if not exactly revered, at the time of making the album – and were yet to have had an American hit.

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pink floyd david gilmour roger waters
Source: DAVID SILPA/UPI/Newscom/The Mega Agency

After the departure of Syd Barrett, David Gilmour and Roger Waters took control of the band - their relationship would later turn increasingly stormy.

Pink Floyd’s debut album, 1967’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn, along with preceding singles “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play” had seen them heralded as an innovative new force in music, but even as that LP drew critical praise and (British) commercial success, the psychedelic, surreal vision (and copious LSD consumption) of leader Syd Barrett had begun to take a toll on the singer, and the following year, amidst a full mental breakdown, he left the band.

David Gilmour, who had already been drafted in to join Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Richard Wright, duly stepped up as Barrett’s effective replacement, but with the former singer widely acknowledged as the creative genius and driving force behind Pink Floyd, the prospects did not seem bright. Guitarist John Etheridge (later of Soft Machine) later recalled thinking, “enjoy it while it lasts, because without Syd that band’s going nowhere”.

Over the following years, Pink Floyd set about proving him wrong, and, most especially with 1969’s Ummagumma, 1970’s Atom Heart Mother and 1971’s Meddle, began to create a distinctive identity of their own. Atom Heart Mother gave the band their first British No. 1… but although it was Pink Floyd’s best-performing American release to that point, it still peaked at a modest 55 in the Billboard 200.

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Pink Floyd, circa 1967: driven by Barrett's psychedelic, surreal vision.

And then came The Dark Side Of The Moon. If the previous five years had been a gradual move away from the specter of Syd Barrett, Dark Side was the moment the band finally achieved it.

In no small part, this was down to Roger Waters. The Dark Side Of The Moon was almost entirely his vision, and its lyrical themes of struggle, conflict, mental illness, mortality, hope and despair came from his pen.

“It’s driven by emotion,” Waters later said. “There’s nothing plastic about it, nothing contrived… [it’s] an expression of political, philosophical, humanitarian empathy that was desperate to get out.”

David Gilmour added, “The music… describes the emotions experienced during a lifetime. Amid the chaos there is beauty and hope for mankind. The effects are purely to help the listener understand what the whole thing is about.”

Alongside the lyrics are layered keyboards and sequencers, revolutionary-for-the-time sound effects such as the heartbeat that opens and closes the album, as well as snippets from interviews conducted with studio employees and road crews.

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pink floyd live
Source: Z.Tomaszewski / WENN/Newscom/The Mega Agency

Pink Floyd would reunite in 2005 to play at Live 8.

The sense of sonic adventure reached what for many was its apex in the extended outro to “The Great Gig In The Sky” – and session singer Clare Torry’s wildly emotional, mostly-improvised vocal wail.

Speaking to Classic Rock, she remembered: “When I arrived they explained the concept of the album to me and played me Rick Wright’s chord sequence. They said: ‘We want some singing on it,’ but didn’t know what they wanted. So I suggested going out into the studio and trying a few things. I started off using words, but they said: ‘Oh no, we don’t want any words.’ So the only thing I could think of was to make myself sound like an instrument, a guitar or whatever, and not to think like a vocalist. I did that and they loved it.

“I did three or four takes very quickly, it was left totally up to me, and they said: ‘Thank you very much.’ In fact, other than Dave Gilmour, I had the impression that they were infinitely bored with the whole thing, and when I left I remember thinking to myself: ‘That will never see the light of day.’

“If I’d known then what I know now I would have done something about organizing copyright or publishing; I would be a wealthy woman now. The session fee in 1973 was fifteen pounds, but as it was Sunday I charged a double fee of thirty pounds.”

Torry would later sue Pink Floyd for co-authorship of the song; in 2004 an out-of-court settlement was agreed, and “The Great Gig In The Sky” now features her credit.

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After further developing the songs in live shows (“It was a hell of a good way to develop a record,” Mason told Classic Rock. “You really get familiar with it; you learn the pieces you like and what you don’t like. And it’s quite interesting for the audience to hear a piece developed. If people saw it four times it would have been very different each time,”) The Dark Side Of The Moon was finally released on March 1, 1973.

If the album established Pink Floyd as one of the biggest bands in the world, it also, perhaps aptly for a record examining themes of conflict and mortality, marked the beginning of the creative tensions which would later result in their extended messy demise.

Dark Side Of The Moon was the last willing collaboration,” Waters later reflected. “After that, everything with the band was like drawing teeth; ten years of hanging on to the married name and not having the courage to get divorced, to let go. Ten years of bloody hell. It was all just terrible. Awful. Terrible.”


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