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With a Pink Floyd cover band, we listen to ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ on its 50th anniversary

By Christopher Borrelli, Chicago Tribune
Published: April 3, 2023, 5:16am
2 Photos
From left, musicians Richard Wright, Roger Waters and Nick Mason of Pink Floyd at Heathrow Airport in London, July 1968.
From left, musicians Richard Wright, Roger Waters and Nick Mason of Pink Floyd at Heathrow Airport in London, July 1968. (George Stroud/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images/TNS) Photo Gallery

CHICAGO — The other day I called Kyle Stong and asked if I could come over to his house and listen to “The Dark Side of the Moon” with him. It was like I was in junior high again. Except, I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me. But the album turned 50 years old this month, and I didn’t want to celebrate alone. Plus, Stong is co-founder of Think Floyd USA, a venerable, nine-piece Chicago-based Pink Floyd tribute act. They’ve been doing it for 19 years, about as long as the brain trust of Pink Floyd remained intact.

Stong was surprised at my call, but said, “Uh, yeah … OK.”

Then added: “I mean, every time I listen to ‘Dark Side,’ I do hear something new.”

Kyle Stong, who does triple time as a working musician, moonlighting in Santana and Grateful Dead tribute bands, is a central-casting image of a benign ex-hippie. He even lives in one of those long-standing bastions of former hippies, Rogers Park. He greeted me in a Think Floyd USA T-shirt and Dead sweatpants with the dancing bear logo on the legs. At 68, wispy curtains of white hair hang beside a mostly bald head. He led me into a keyboard/computer/management office (he’s also Think Floyd USA’s manager). On the wall was a poster from a Think Floyd USA show at Park West, Pink Floyd memorabilia and an assortment of original Looney Tunes animation cells. There are also several keyboards, the stale smell of cigarettes, and both Cubs and White Sox bobbleheads, which betray his background — he didn’t grow up in Chicago.

He clicked on “The Dark Side of the Moon,” not using a turntable or CD player but the new old-fashioned way — on a computer. While he fiddled with the keyboard, I asked: Ever get sick of hearing Pink Floyd? He considered the question a moment, then said: “No, not really. I don’t think so, but you know, they can seem difficult to listen to sometimes.”

“The Dark Side of the Moon,” the eighth studio album of Pink Floyd, the record that made them superstars (and turned that prism-pyramid album cover into a pop relic), is about nothing less than the struggle of life and the insignificance of existence in the face of a vast cosmos, with all the trauma, enlightenment and history that suggests.

Stong’s own life, he noted, has been rough at times.

We sat in silence at that, waiting for the album to start, until I remembered, the first minute is silence. Gradually, a heartbeat emerged. Followed by a collage of life itself: a crying baby, a cash register, giggles, helicopters, lastly a scream. The laughter, Stong said, is from Peter Watts, the band’s road manager.

Then, “And now, we’re being born,” he said as the screaming got louder and louder then surged into a lush, orchestral wash of keyboards and guitars. “The first words you hear are ‘Breathe, breathe in the air …’ You’re born! It’s not a happy record, though. It’s about conflict, greed, pressure, mental illness. The band used to say the whole thing was brought on by —” he made air quotes — “their arduous lifestyle.” He turned to run his hands along a keyboard, in perfect sync with the music. “I don’t sing on stage,” he said. “I have before, but mostly harmonies. I’ve never been good remembering lyrics.”

The tight electronic throb of “On the Run” began. No lyrics, just an oscillating pulse. “When we do this, I’m playing two keyboards, same time. It’s not difficult to play but the length and repetition can give you hand cramps.”

The sound of footsteps race through the music, the sound of a cackle passes through the speakers — I’m reminded of that quintessential late 20th century teen ritual, listening to “The Dark Side of the Moon” on headphones, alone in the dark, stretched across the floor.

Stong’s teen years were a bit different.

He grew up in Pasadena, California, with an eye on a career as a classical pianist. But his mother, who encouraged him, died of cancer. “Which was the end of my classical career.” He was 16 and devastated. He left home.

I asked where he was at 18, when “Dark Side” came out.

“I was living in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco,” he said. “I was one of those people on the corner of Haight-Ashbury: ‘Any spare change? Food? Any drugs? Jerry Garcia tickets?’ I was just a pothead, but I was also basically homeless for a while.” Later that year, still 18, he was convicted on drug-related charges and spent 24 months in prison.

The cacophony of clock alarms that open the fourth song “Time” BRRIIIINGGGG loudly. So loudly that, though I have heard this a million times, and know that it’s coming, every single time I’m startled. A dark, rumbling bass line follows, nearly Sergio Leone-esque. “This has to be one of the best-produced records,” Stong said. “The engineer was Alan Parsons, who did ‘Abbey Road’ and ‘Let It Be.’ It’s amazing to listen and think this was accomplished on an eight-track.” Then, changing gears: “You know that rumor that you can sync this record up with ‘Wizard of Oz’ and it fits perfectly? Floyd themselves always said that was coincidence.”

But it was easy to believe.

Here was never a band for small measures. They provided a live soundtrack for the BBC during the 1969 moon landing. They famously built a wall across their stages, to mirror the malaise and alienation of the 1970s. They performed inside the ruins of an amphitheater, to no one but a film crew, in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. They were pretentious and grandiose, but relatable and comfortable to carry through life.

Stong leaned back and silently mouthed the lyrics:

You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today

And then one day you find 10 years have got behind you

No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

After prison, he got involved in a job-training program in Los Angeles and ended up at Pacific Bell, until the federal break up of AT&T and the Bell telephone companies in the early 1980s. He got involved in the music business, sometimes playing lounge lizard takes on Pink Floyd for hotel bars, sometimes playing in bands. “Because of my classical background, I could read music. I got popular in the session business, playing TV and radio ads. My manager would introduce me with: ‘I have the perfect guy. He reads music and doesn’t do coke.’”

“Time” ended and “The Great Gig in the Sky” floated in.

It’s pleasant, then yearning, British singer Clare Torry wordlessly moaning, shouting, screaming, growling. “She sang this 10 times,” Stong said, “and they edited together the final performance from snippets of all 10.” He turns in his seat and plays a keyboard, which is turned off, so the plastic keys slap hollowly. He pauses. “This is one of those songs, one that though we have played it a thousand times, I get whelmed up playing it. It’s so beautiful. When we do it now, sometimes the whole band is in tears.”

Stong said he was working so much as a session musician in Southern California, his marriage suffered. “I had three kids, and I was never there.” In an attempt to make a fresh start and repair their problems, he and his wife moved to Chicago — a change of scenery. He worked as a desk clerk for a state bank regulator. But he also got even more involved in music in Chicago, “and that was the end of that.”

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The cash register chimes of “Money” begin.

“This song is about one word: greed. Of course. It’s also one of those rare rock songs in 7/4 time. It’s weird. The only person who needs to remember the time is the bass player, who comes in on the eight. He plays the tick-tocks. I know where I am supposed to play. It was so long ago that I learned these songs.” So long ago that, though Pink Floyd is no longer a viable live act itself, they became an institution, with “The Dark Side of the Moon” being arguably the sturdiest of cornerstones. It was famously on the Billboard album charts for so long — from 1973 to 1988, for 741 weeks (then another 230 weeks since then) — vinyl was the standard when it was first released and CDs ruled when it finally left the charts. Money, indeed.

A decade ago, to celebrate its 40th anniversary, playwright Tom Stoppard wrote “Darkside,” a BBC radio drama using philosophy to explore themes in the record. This month, there’s a new “Dark Side” box set, and a handsome $60 coffee table book. Laser shows scored to “The Dark Side of the Moon” have been planetarium staples for decades, and Pink Floyd tribute bands are a cottage industry. There are so many Floyd tribute acts these days, Think Floyd USA should not be confused with England’s popular Think Floyd, which has been touring for 30 years.

Think Floyd USA began as a general cover band punningly named Igneous Biscuit (as in hot rock ‘n’ roll), but changed focus because their Floyd numbers received the biggest responses. But it’s also the kind of music that begs for an attentive, close, patient listener. One night, while playing a bar in the suburbs, the audience became so talkative, the band decided right there: No more bars. They would play theaters, festivals and larger venues only. And so they have ever since (including Milwaukee’s massive Summerfest). On stage, they perform most of the album’s sound effects live, like movie sound people. Since most of the songs on “Dark Side” flow one into the next without pause, the album becomes a suite of sorts; they are playing it in full all year. As Stong explained this, “Us and Them” arrived, settling in like a balm, only to burst with operatics. Though it’s about war, and Floyd members themselves have been pointedly political, Stong said Think Floyd USA stays apolitical. “I’m not sure I still connect to all their lyrics,” he said, “but when I’m playing I do remember moments in life. In the 1980s, when I was getting past my homelessness, I would often find a bar with a piano and put out a bucket and just start playing. And I would play ‘Us and Them’ a lot. I can see that time in my head still.”

“Us and Them” glides into “Any Colour You Like,” the only song on “the Dark Side of the Moon” that Think Floyd USA doesn’t play note for note, but spreads out and jams a bit.

Until “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse,” that grandest of grand progressive rock finales. We listened closely. “This is about mental illness and Syd,” Stong said, meaning Syd Barrett, the band’s legendary co-founder whose depression, erratic behavior and mood swings led to his leaving in 1968. (He died of pancreatic cancer in 2006.) As Roger Waters sang “If the band you’re in starts playing different tunes,” Stong nodded.

Syd reference, right there.

By the end of the album, the band reaches a cinematic crescendo and refrains pile up — “And all that is now. And all that is gone. And all that’s to come.” — and for the one-millionth time I have heard this record, it’s exhilarating, once again. The voice of an older man says quietly: “There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact, it’s all dark.” That’s the doorman of the studio where it was recorded, Stong said, adding that the studio (then EMI) is now called Abbey Road Studios. He clicked the music file off on his computer.

We sat in silence.

The trivia is nice but hardly gets at what’s meaningful and lasting about great music. “The Dark Side of the Moon” sounds like 2023, as it once sounded like 1973. There’s a shiver of recognition, an unmooring, a reaching beyond your life only to be left with the sum of your deeds. Transcend the universe as much as you like. Everywhere you go, there you are. “Our sax player is 20,” Stong said finally. “He first heard it because of his dad. My son is 40 and he heard it first from me. Now his kids listen and say: “‘Dark Side of the Moon,’ that’s such cool music, grandpa.’ Because it is. Because it’s timeless — I mean, if anything is.”