Wednesday, January 24, 2018

More on the Dark Side - Alan Parsons

Deepening their music while sharpening their songwriting, Pink Floyd in Dark Side of the Moon created a complex, luxurious album with infinite space and depth. It was an immediate success, reaching number one on the Billboard charts and peaking at number two in the U.K., but what was more striking was its longevity. Dark Side of the Moon found its space on the charts and then just stayed there, week after week - a total of 741 weeks to be precise. Dark Side is a staple on classic rock radio, but it is also a rite of passage, an album passed down to our sons and daughters when they turn to serious music (not to mention a t-shirt staple).

Between May 1972 and January 1973 Pink Floyd spent pretty much all of their time at Abbey Road studios, a hot-bed of innovation with its purpose-built world-class recording equipment. Abbey Road's innovative solid state TG12345 deck was the heart of the recording process, as well as the ever-reliable Studer A80 16 track tape machines, which created all of the delays on the album. Also used "was a single EMT plate reverb and Fairchild limiters for vocals, bass and general mixing." I have no idea what any of that means. But Alan Parsons did. At just 23 years old, Parsons had previously served as an engineer on the Beatles' Abbey Road – a trial by fire if ever there was one. Having worked with Pink Floyd as an assistant on Atom Heart Mother, Parsons was quite used to the working dynamic with the band, particularly the interruptions due to the bands heavy concert rotation. He was largely responsible as well for the album's gamut of sound effects.

"Speak To Me" is the eerie opening overture of the album. Its thumping heartbeat (in reality a heavily treated bass drum) and layering of creepy-sounding interview tapes sets a haunting tone for the record, before an emerging backwards piano chord reaches its crescendo and propels into the solid, tranquil baseline of the record's first proper song, "Breathe." Parsons commented, "For the intro sequence, 'Speak to Me'  – we didn't have names for the  songs at the time and I am still not used to the titles — we called that 'The Intro Sequence.' 'On the Run' was called 'The Travel Sequence.'" 

Of the clocks on Time, Parsons noted that this was "a recording I did for a sound effects record, originally. It was done for a quadraphonic sound effects album. Nobody took much interest in it. When I heard the clicking bass, I told them that I had this recording of these clocks that would fit in. I played it to them, and they loved it.

"I went into this clock shop — it was a little antique shop with lots of clocks in it — that was right down the street from Abbey Road. We got the shopkeeper to stop all of the clocks so I could record each one individually. I recorded each one individually, both ticking and chiming. We assembled a 16-track with each clock synchronized, so they all chimed at the same time."

Alan Parsons
A haunting reprise of "Breathe" leads into the opening piano notes of "The Great Gig In The Sky," a piece conceived on piano by Wright and known initially as "The Mortality Sequence." After trying a few different top-line melodies the band decided that one of the most interesting ideas was to have a female vocalist – 25 year-old songwriter Clare Torry – improvise a wail over the top of the chords.

"It was I that brought Clare into the studio. She had been doing vocals on sessions. She was essentially a session singer. I told them to call Clare, as she was great. I think she came into the studio the same day that we called her. She was essentially unknown. She had a name in recording circles, because she did jingles and that kind of stuff. She sang background sessions singing oohs and ahhs with other girls on albums. I knew she was a really good solo singer, so I told them to give her a try. She was given almost no direction at all. She put a few of her own words in there … like, 'Oh, baby' or something like that. That was the first take. Roger actually came in and said, 'No words. Just ooh and ahh.' She tried twice more, and then we compiled a performance from that." The beautiful vocal harmonies utilized the often double-tracked vocals of Dave Gilmour and Richard Wright which allowed them to combine two individually distinct harmony parts and layer them together. At the time this vocal texturing was still an extraordinarily innovative technique.

When asked about Money he said, "We had to assemble a loop that worked, timing-wise, for all of those different sounds. The only way to keep it in time was to take a piece of tape with the sound on it and measure it with a ruler. You would take the exact length of tape and then splice the next exact length of tape onto it. We would make circular loop that was supported with microphone stands around the machine, and we would roll the tape, and that was what the band played to." It was that kind of meticulous innovation that created the legacy that nearly 50 years later still sounds as good as in 1973. 

Indeed, On March 10, 2004, "Eclipse" was used to wake the Mars probe Opportunity. (It was not the first time Pink Floyd had been played in outer space; Russian cosmonauts took and played an advance copy of Delicate Sound of Thunder aboard Soyuz TM-7, making it the first album played in space.) The song was also used at the finale of the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony in London called "And in the end," immediately following the lighting of the cauldron by seven young athletes. The song was played as a fireworks display took place and images of famous Olympians was projected onto a screen, climaxing with a view of the Olympic rings over the earth from a balloon launched at the beginning of the ceremony. All that Wizard of Oz silliness pales in comparison.