Before It Was an Album, ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ Was a Tour. Here, We Trace the Origin of Pink Floyd’s Masterpiece

Pink Floyd 'The Dark Side of the Moon' album artwork
(Image credit: Pink Floyd Records)

David Gilmour never imagined in 1973 that he would still be talking about Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon well into the 21st century. “Longevity in pop music, in terms of me as a 20-whatever – I was a 27-year-old when we did Dark Side of the Moon – was measured in maybe five, possibly 10 years,” he reflected in a rare 2011 interview. “As soon as Roger [Waters] came in with the idea of its central themes of how the pressures of modern life can affect your sanity, it started taking a shape from there on I would say... But that feeling that that we were on to a real magical ‘something’ came a bit later down the line, I think.”

And it’s persisted ever since. The Dark Side of the Moon resided in the U.S. Billboard chart for 723 weeks, from 1973 to 1988, longer than any other album in history. And with an estimated 45 million copies sold, it’s Pink Floyd’s most commercially successful effort and one of the best-selling albums. But what has made it such an enduring success?

“My view,” said Floyd drummer Nick Mason in his autobiography, Inside Out, “is that there was no single reason, but a number of factors working together and multiplying the effect.” Most notably, he writes, “The musical quality spearheaded by David’s guitar and voice and Rick [Wright]’s keyboards established a fundamental Pink Floyd sound.”

Indeed, with The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd finally found their unique voice. It was their eureka moment. Since 1968, they had been slowly rebuilding a career left in tatters following the departure of their errant leader Syd Barrett. At the time, Pink Floyd were primarily a live experience, and the band had a long-standing history of testing and refining newly written material on the road prior to recording it.

The problem, however, lay in the group’s live repertoire – or rather the lack of it. They’d been on a virtually non-stop tour since 1967, playing every pub, club, university and town hall that would have them, and slotting in recording sessions when they could. In those days, Gilmour recalls, “tours got booked in, and back then they weren’t promotional vehicles.”

While the band were not exactly idle when it came to recording, turning out the regulation one album per year, most of the songs on their studio recordings didn’t lend themselves to the live environment. As a result, they were still filling up their set with their ’60s “hits”: “A Saucerful of Secrets,” “Astronomy Dominé,” “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.”

Panicked into writing new material for an already announced U.K. tour commencing in January 1972, the band began discussing ideas for something new toward the end of 1971 at a meeting in the usual venue of Mason’s kitchen. This was then followed by a period of writing at a rehearsal space in Broadhurst Gardens, in West London.

Waters, the main driver behind the project, began furiously writing lyrics. It was he who came up with the idea of addressing things that drive people mad, as well as a way to link in some unfinished and unused studio pieces. The album would focus on the enormous pressures the band itself was experiencing on the road: the strains of travel, the problems of living abroad for great stretches of time, and coping with money. It would also explore violence, social problems and the comforts of religion.

As soon as Roger [Waters] came in with the idea of its central themes of how the pressures of modern life can affect your sanity, it started taking a shape

David Gilmour

This last theme was no doubt prompted by their recent tours through middle America. Lyrically, the songs were Waters’ most profound and focused efforts to date, and for the first time he dominated the creative input, conveying a vision all his own.

But Gilmour says Waters’ growing lyric-writing talents had a downside. “My problem with Dark Side – and I’ve said it before and I’ll no doubt say it again – was that I thought that Roger’s emergence on that album as a great lyric writer was such that he came to overshadow the music in places, and there were moments when we didn’t concentrate as hard on the music side of it as we should have done – which is what I voiced to all the band after the making of Dark Side. That was absorbed into an effort to try to make the balance between music and the words a better one on Wish You Were Here.”

Regardless, both onstage and on record, the music on The Dark Side of the Moon would propel Pink Floyd into the superstar league. For Waters, it boosted his confidence as a writer – his skills clearly outstripped anything the others could achieve – and he became the self-appointed lyricist of the band.

The tour was also the first time Pink Floyd had taken an entire album on the road, and although they were used to previewing material before recording it, The Dark Side of the Moon was a piece that was vastly improved and refined as a result of the decision to tour with it first. Live, the songs were performed in the same order as they would appear on the finished album, although the early shows were without synthesizers.

Despite first-night hitches at the Brighton Dome show on January 20, 1972 – caused by an electrical fault that knocked out the tape playback at the start of “Money” – and a total power failure in Manchester, the tour was acclaimed, even if its message was not fully comprehended by the public.

Proving the value of roadwork, Waters came up with the lyrics for the concluding “Brain Damage”/”Eclipse” sequence in time for the show in Leicester on February 10, eight dates into the tour. “The piece felt unfinished to me when we were doing it on the road,” he later said. “I came in one day and said, ‘Here, I’ve just written the ending and this is it.’”

The pivotal performance on the tour was undoubtedly at the Rainbow in London in mid February, where the world’s press sat in attendance to witness The Dark Side of the Moon in all its well-rehearsed glory. In a series of presentations, and despite some rather stilted performances, Pink Floyd’s work was heralded as a triumph of the imagination.

For the first time, they received critical acclaim throughout the national press

For the first time, they received critical acclaim throughout the national press. Programs distributed at the show also included the by now complete lyrics for the work (but not the song titles) under the heading An Assorted Piece for Lunatics. “It was a hell of a good way to develop a record,” Mason recalled. “You really get familiar with it; you learn the pieces you like and what you don’t like.”

Yet even then, the Dark Side of the Moon album was not top priority for Pink Floyd. French film director Barbet Schroeder invited them to write music for La Vallée, his film about a young woman’s spiritual awakening in Papua New Guinea. In two one-week sessions – one before and one after a tour of Japan that March – the band composed and recorded the entire work at Strawberry Studios in the Chateau d’Hérouville near Paris (known as the Honky Chateau, thanks to Elton John). It was released as an album in June with the name Obscured by Clouds.

Finally, with that project complete, Pink Floyd returned to Abbey Road Studios at the end of May to get down to the serious business of recording The Dark Side of the Moon.