When you think of Pink Floyd, if you think of it at all, overblown stage shows and progressive rock clichés undoubtedly come to mind. And so does Dark Side of the Moon, the album that spent an astonishing 724 weeks on the Billboard 200 chart of top-selling albums. But when the British band first fired up its lysergic-fueled engines in the late 1960s, Floyd was anything but mainstream.
The initial attempt at a single, "Arnold Layne," was banned by the BBC for its subject matter of transvestitism. While the stoned and carefree followup "See Emily Play" proved to be a surprise hit, the group's debut album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, was a happy, eclectic mess that earned more fans than moolah. Psychedelic nursery rhymes, stuck-note guitar playing, an eleven-minute space epic, and way too much whimsy ensured the album's place on the sidelines and its embrace by hard-core fans of the strange.
Seven marginally successful releases followed, including three soundtrack LPs, none of them in the least portending the commercial breakthrough of 1973's Dark Side of the Moon, on which the group suddenly abandoned experimental noodling for radio-friendly songs that spout off on obvious topics like time, money, and death -- and not a single cross-dresser within earshot. With Floyd's sudden ascent, those of us who thought the band was all about the undercurrent and not meant for the mainstream turned to Daevid Allen's potheaded pixie sagas of Planet Gong instead while waiting for Dark Side's sales surge to subside. Nearly 30 years later, the wait is finally over. Pink Floyd's sellout is redeemed. New York City's Easy Star All-Stars yank the THC-friendly opus away from marketplace respectability and return it to the peace-and-love posse with a reggae reinvention of the record called, what else, Dub Side of the Moon.
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Dub Side marks only the second time in rock music history that an entire album by one artist is faithfully covered by another (theatrical adaptations of the Who's Tommy don't count for obvious reasons). The first example, oddly enough, is also a Pink Floyd remake. In 2002 Canada's Luther Wright and the Wrongs recast The Wall as a jokey bluegrass song cycle called Rebuild the Wall. The All-Stars could have also taken a campy approach to the parody-ready material on Dark Side, targeting the anachronisms and flower-power demagoguery. Instead the crew lovingly replicates the original right down to its familiar sonic landmarks, imagining the heartbeat at the beginning of "Breathe" as the tattoo of Nyahbinghi drums and envisioning the cash-register jingles that kick off "Money" as a succession of noisy bong hits. Adding firepower to the All-Stars is an impressive roster of guest vocalists, including Frankie Paul buttering up "Us and Them" and the Meditations pouring roots harmonies on "Eclipse."
The results are exhilarating. Corey Harris does "Time" with a smooth vocal, lulling the listener into complacency until Ranking Joe bursts in with a classic U-Roy-style rap augmented by rat-a-tat-tat delivery. "Great Gig in the Sky" gets a one-drop reggae arrangement and all-out, drop-out dub treatment with soaring wordless vocals by Kirsty Rock. Wailers' singer Gary "Nesta" Pine and DJ Dollarman are a tad too laid-back on "Money," however. David Gilmour's vocal betrayed anger and anguish on the original that are absent from the remake, suggesting that the hippie aversion to cold cash because of its corrupting aspect doesn't play these days. It's the root of all evil only if you lack it.
But that difference between source and secondhand points up the strange experience of listening to Dub Side. Hearing it without overlaying Pink Floyd's original from your memory banks is both to miss the point and lose out on the fun. If you're too young to have fallen prey to Dark Side or skillfully sidestepped it through the decades, its musical limitations are palpable. Much of the album consists of weak variations on the melodic theme of "Breathe," and other songs are merely excuses for Floyd to trot out its then-new synthesizer, replacing the ingenious electronics of Saucerful of Secrets and Meddle with canned sequencing effects. Thus Dub Side would be a much stronger album if the source material had been stronger. A handful of bonus versions at disc's end showcases an elastic approach to a few of the songs that should have you grappling to identify them. That's one way of upgrading the repertoires. Another is for the Easy Star All-Stars to choose a disc next time that isn't just an icon but also an inarguable work of art, like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pet Sounds, or Astral Weeks.
Too easy? Then how about wrapping some dub around Gong's Radio Gnome Invisible, Part 2?