“The Dark Side of the Moon”: How an Album Cover Became an Icon

Pink Floyd would have been a perfect match for the visually oriented era of Pinterest and Tumblr had the band emerged today.

At the height of Pink Floyd’s popularity in the 1970s, the Floyd’s visually arresting album covers and iconography complemented the artistry of the its music and generated buzz that would make the Word of Mouth Marketing Association proud. Nowhere is the power of Pink Floyd’s visual appeal more apparent than the cover for the album The Dark Side of the Moon, released 44 years ago. The Dark Side of the Moon is not only one of the greatest albums ever made, its cover became an visual icon for Pink Floyd itself — a quiet, mysterious team of four musicians who let their music and visual stories speak for them. For its ability to create mystery and intrigue for four decades, The Dark Side of the Moon joins my hall of fame of memorable album covers.

The Dark Side of the Moon cover art created intrigue when the album landed in record stores in March 1973. At the time, Pink Floyd was on the cusp of becoming a mainstream success with a growing fan base. The cover, depicting white light passing through a prism to form the bright colors of the spectrum against a stunning black field, invited listeners to explore the music inside — and still does today. The mystery began after you heard the mind-blowing music on the album coupled with bassist Roger Waters’s deeply personal lyrics exploring themes of alienation, loss, and materialism.

In context of intense songs like “Time” and “Us and Them,” what did the album cover mean, exactly? The mystery deepened when you studied the poster and stickers of pyramid shapes found inside the album sleeve.

None of the band members offered an explanation, leaving it up to fans to add their own meanings, a process that required repeated album listens and discussion with other fans. (In an interview with Ed Lopez-Reyes of Floyd news site Brain Damage, I likened Pink Floyd to magicians who don’t explain their tricks.) It’s no wonder that the album turned Pink Floyd into major stars, sold 50 million copies and remained on the Billboard charts 741 weeks.

The Dark Side of the Moon design is another product of the fertile creative team of Aubrey Powell and Storm Thorgerson of Hipgnosis, who are responsible for creating some of rock’s most memorable album covers, such as Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy. As discussed in Mark Blake’s Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd, the original design emerged from Powell’s and Thorgerson’s practice of conducting brainstorming sessions that stretched from late evening until 4:00 a.m. (Hipgnosis had been given minimal creative direction by the band other than a suggestion by keyboardist Richard Wright to “do something clean, elegant and graphic.”)

One night, Thorgerson showed Powell a black-and-white photograph of a prism with a color beam projected through it — an image he’d also noticed in a physics textbook. After graphic designer George Hardie provided his expertise, Hipgnosis presented the prism design along with some others ideas to the band (including a design that featured the Marvel Comics hero the Silver Surfer).

The band approved prism concept almost immediately. Waters also suggested that the image extend across the gatefold and include on the inside the suggestion blip of a heartbeat (as you would see on a hospital monitor).

There was to be no mention of the band’s name or album title. Higpnosis countered with some ideas of its own: the creation of the inserts that record fans found when the opened the album, including an infrared photo of the pyramids at Giza. Thorgerson then personally undertook the photo shoot of the Giza pyramids sometime after 2:00 a.m. on a clear night with a “fantastic” moon visible.

When the album was released, it was an immediate commercial and critical success (even though the band went out of its way not to promote it), and a happy marriage of acclaimed music and memorable artwork. The covers made for brilliant images to display in record store windows. The prisms adorning the front and back inspired record stores to display copies of the albums in various combinations, such as images of repeating prisms interlocking. And soon fans began creating their own visual interpretations:

Because the band members (Waters, Wright, David Gilmour, and Nick Mason) remained reclusive even as the album was turning into a massive best seller, The Dark Side of the Moon cover came to symbolize Pink Floyd.

As Johnny Morgan and Ben Wardle wrote in The Art of the LP, “The album was so successful that it is this image which, for most people, immediately represents Pink Floyd. Even Floyd fans could have walked past Wright or drummer Nick Mason in the street without recognizing them, but show them the prism and they’d say: ‘Pink Floyd.’”

The album helped turn Pink Floyd into one of the biggest bands in the world, with financial wealth, a mainstream following, and broad critical acceptance. However, the trappings of fame created in part by the album’s success created enormous tension and alienation that would Waters to write the iconic The Wall in 1979.

The Dark Side of the Moon is invariably hailed as one of the greatest and most influential albums ever — certainly a defining moment of the progressive rock genre. And the mystery of the cover art remains today. Like all good art, the cover (not to mention the music) remains open to interpretation — a dark, impenetrable symbol of the enduring power of music.

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