Imagine you were abducted by aliens in 1973. Thirty years later, the little green bastards return you to Earth. Your friends hold a welcome-back party, during which they ask you, "Hey, man, guess which album has ruled the charts since you left?"
"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band?" you say. Nope.
"Led Zeppelin IV?" Nope. They snicker as they pass you a joint. "Dark Side of the Moon, bubba!"
That morbid album about lunacy, you mean?
Thirty years ago, Pink Floyd released the recording that remained on Billboard's Top 200 album chart for more than 1,300 weeks -- the longest reign of any album on any chart. (Sgt. Pepper's was on Billboard's chart for fewer than 200 weeks, Led Zeppelin IV for fewer than 250.) One in five British households owns a copy of the album, according to some estimates, while more than 8,000 copies a week continue to be sold in the U.S.
That means we've bought -- and probably worn out and replaced -- approximately a zillion copies of what its self-anointed genius-creator Roger Waters defined as a meditation on the causes of insanity. What's that all about?
Well, a clue to at least some of its longevity can be found on Easy Star Records' new disc Dub Side of the Moon, an ingenious song-by-song reggae remake released last month on the 30th anniversary of the Pink Floyd classic. While faithful to the original, it's still a new Moon: From the opening "Speak to Me" comes the sound of clicking lighters, bubbling bong water, coughing, and delirious cackling, all of which work uncannily well in replacing the frantic heartbeats, clocks, and machine noises on the original.
In fact, blatantly mixing herbage with the homage on this remake of the ultimate soundtrack for the baggie brigade seems as natural as turning an empty mustard squeeze bottle into a bong. Dub Side of the Moon's smoky approach works so well, you wonder why someone didn't think of it earlier. Okay, lots of heads probably came up with the idea, then forgot. But the Easy Star All-Stars -- led by guitarist-producer Michael G and keyboardist-percussionist-producer Ticklah, drummer Patrick Doughter, and bassist Victor Rice -- must have written themselves reminder notes on their spare rolling papers, later calling Wailers singer Gary "Nesa" Pine, toaster Ranking Joe, dancehall veteran Frankie Paul, Brooklyn's Doctor Israel, the Meditations, and others to attend the group's great recording gig in the skies of New York.
Hence, David Gilmour's guitars are replaced by the more traditional reggae instrumentation of horns on "Any Colour You Like," toasting on "Time" and "Money," and melodica on the "Breathe in the Air" reprise that ends "Time."
The All-Stars were meticulous in re-creating the nuances of the original, all the way down to the heavy Jamaican accents that reconstruct the muffled voice-overs of the original. Transferring all the subtleties of the pristine synth-heavy original to their rough-hewn reggae reinvention took a full three years to complete.
"There were several reasons why this project took so long," says Michael G. "First off, we wanted to make sure that Pink Floyd was cool with everything. We had to deal with their management and their publishers, and with Roger Waters no longer part of Pink Floyd, we had to deal with him separately as well.
"Most importantly, though," continues the producer, "we wanted to take our time to do it right and really pay attention to detail, because besides trying to make a great reggae album, we did not want to disappoint the Pink Floyd fans who really take the original seriously. I think we accomplished our mission."
Dub Side of the Moon, as a result, finally states the obvious. Even a Pink Floyd fan who couldn't spell "ganja" would have to admit that Dark Side is the quintessential soundtrack for a self-induced mental eclipse. The album is 42 minutes and 57 seconds of space wandering, broken only by the aggressive punch of "Time" and "Money" that serves to shock the dozing headphoned head into sweeping the burning seeds off his lap. And the lyrics are either so inconsequential ("All you touch and all you see/Is all your life will ever be") as to not disturb the drifting brain cells, or so obtuse ("Haven't you heard/It's a battle of words/The poster bearer cried") that an intentionally clouded mind can conjure a new batch of grand interpretations with each listen. Sgt. Pepper's, Led Zep IV -- nah, their imagery is far too specific. The adventurous skull needs the aural equivalent of a Rorschach test -- hazy inkblots for the ears that can be endlessly reinterpreted -- with a little TLC from some THC, of course.
The Dub Side of the Moon players aim to set you up with a full head show, too, going as far as approximating within seconds the length of the original album -- so that the buzzed listener can cue up Dub Side, just as with the original, to play in sync with The Wizard of Oz.
Now, even the thickest of dolts would have to admit that there is no way in the world that anyone would cue up Dark Side with a soundless Wizard of Oz unless he or she were stoned, let alone conclude that there is some cosmic union between the two. Still, some couch philosophers in search of truth have found many "Big Messages" -- 97 of them, according to one wizard of obsession. During the helicopter and plane sounds on "On the Run," Dorothy looks up. The funereal music at the beginning of "Us and Them" plays as the Munchkin coroner shows the death certificate. Such deep, spiritual insights go on and on.
The bleary-eyed mystics -- there are dozens of websites supporting this Dark/Oz stuff -- can explain the tie, of course: It's not that Pink Floyd secretly wrote its own soundtrack to the classic film, but that supernatural forces magically resulted in the two unrelated works fitting together perfectly. Synchronicity is what they call it, bastardizing the term psychologist Carl Jung used to refer to meaningful coincidences. Forget, of course, that in the end the messages of the album and the film still mix like oil and water. But hey, with primo bud, you could find the equation for pi in the squiggles on an Oreo cookie. As for meaningful connections, a more legit parallel might be found in investigating any longstanding, substantial sales of both Dark Side of the Moon and Frito-Lay products. Which means that, if the Dub Side of the Moon players ever decide to tour -- since the original Floydsters ain't gonna -- they might be offered more junk-food-company sponsorships than they can shake a Thai stick at.