Mary Fahl’s Dark Side of the Moon: A Backgrounder

“What, are we crazy? What are we even thinking?”

Time and again, the same questions, and at each and every stage of the process, the logic, the rightness of the choice affirmed itself.

Why take on the monumental project of “re-imagining” Pink Floyd’s mythic 1973 magnum opus, Dark Side of the Moon?

First, take an artist, Mary Fahl, critically acclaimed for her work with The October Project, possessing the kind of vocal gifts that the LA Times had described as “a striking voice with its wide range” and “rich, full bodied amplitude”—yet unfulfilled in the wake of her first solo album, The Other Side of Time (Sony Classical), not at all interested in doing another “singer-songwriter album,” searching for new challenges, burning to express herself and longing for something that might attain what she envisioned as the “passion and grandeur of opera.”

Enter a new manager, Steven Saporta, proffering a bold producer for her next album like David Werner, both of them interested in “reinterpreting” an entire classic album. But still, an album that qualifies as one of the great monuments of rock history?—as overwhelming aesthetically as it is commercially( Billboard’s Top 200 for 14 straight years)?

L-R: Mark Doyle, Bob Clearmountain, & David Werner at MixThis!

L-R: Mary Fahl, Mark Doyle, Brandon Duncan (assistant), David Werner, and Bob Clearmountain at MixThis!

Next, pair them together with Mark Doyle, Werner’s old band mate and a virtuoso guitarist, keyboardist, producer and arranger in his own right, with his own studio in upstate New York. As it turned out, Fahl, Werner and Doyle had much in common. All three of them were disillusioned by the state of pop music and its increasingly stultifying corporate ambience. All three of them were deeply disturbed by what was happening in the world. And all three of them had come of age at the time when Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon represented the pinnacle of creativity and freedom and sense of purpose. All of them felt that the album’s timeless themes--of the faults of humanity and the pressures of modern life, insanity, mortality, religion, society and conflict—were vitally relevant to their own experience of today’s world. “It’s the Holy Grail,” comments Fahl, “ no question about it. It’s so damn great as a work of art, so much more than just a product of its time, but I had a lot of trepidation.”

Not surprisingly; the challenges were nothing less than overwhelming. First, as Fahl describes it, “half of the album is instrumental, with all kinds of sound collage, what was I going to do about that?” Yes, DSOM is certainly full of electronics, technology, synthesizers, and space—and then there was the issue of the intention of the project itself. As Werner explains, “We had to have a reason to make this ours. None of us were interested in just trying to make good versions of great songs--there are Pink Floyd tribute bands for that. But if we could re-invent the intention for ourselves, then we might stand a chance of being able to rediscover something that could give it a new life of its own.”

Fahl decided to “put one toe in the water” and they traveled to Doyle’s studio outside of Syracuse to take a whack at “Us and Them”—the very Roger Waters composition that had kicked off the project for Pink Floyd. For Mark Doyle, “The song has a healing message, so it seemed like the spiritually correct place to begin. The hardest thing was to start. The feeling was, Leap, and the net will appear--”

So leap they did, and the net appeared when Fahl used a chant from the Bhagavad-Gita—“the same one that Robert Oppenheimer, who was also a Sanskrit scholar, had used when he first beheld the atomic bomb: ‘I have become death, the destroyer of worlds,’” she relates. “It just seemed to fit.”

At that point Werner knew that they were on their way. “I thought, wow, this is interesting, she can interpret this whole album this way. Why can’t Mary be the sequencers and saxophone? Why can’t this woman interpret not only the lyrics but these musical passages? She’s not going to play any instrument on this record, yet she’s going to play everything.”

And so began their step-by-step, song-by-song scaling of the musical Mt. Everest that is Dark Side of the Moon, every moment an exercise in humility, respect, awe, economy, and pure experimentation. First and foremost, it was always about the simple organic process of the three of them working together in Doyle’s small studio. Says Doyle, “Once we got in the door with ‘Us and Them,” the feeling was let’s just go through the songs, one by one--just put one foot in front of the other and let the inspiration come. Thinking about trying to do all ten songs was nuts, just too much. So let’s just start with ‘Breathe’”…

All three brought different dimensions and interpretations of the work to the table. Says Doyle, “Talk to David and you’ll get something political; talk to Mary and you’ll hear something spiritual; talk to me and you get something musical”—and yet it was always obvious to them that the project would flourish only to the degree that they stayed viscerally connected to the emotional essence of the album—“to the very spirit that fueled it and made it so great,” as Werner describes it--to the soul of the music, to that part of it that would forever be about speaking and singing from the heart. “That’s how we found our way into the record,” Werner says, “and to each other’s talents at the same time. We all got very excited about music again.”

For Mary Fahl, DSOM was all about speaking from her heart, but it was also like leaping off a cliff and free falling into the deepest depths of her own spontaneous intellect, femininity, and spirituality. She found herself on an incantatory journey that saw her speaking in tongues and warbling like Pharoah Sanders on “Any Color You Like,” turning “Great Gig in the Sky” into a shamanistic lament, and “Money” into a hot primal tabla-driven track that conjures sexy belly dancers—“juicy and yummy,” as Fahl characterizes it--a unique reading that perhaps only a woman could have brought to it. By the time she got to “Brain Damage,” the whole album had become like a Gnostic allegory for her.

“To me what makes this music so powerful is that it’s this beautiful song-cycle, that can really be done a thousand different ways,” Fahl concludes. “I’ve never been the kind of songwriter who would ever write about these kinds of things—it all seems much too grand for me—and yet there I was, feeling the themes of these songs so strongly, and wanting to say them. Dark Side of the Moon became my way of expressing it. I’m very proud of it.”

L-R: Mark Doyle, Mary Fahl & David Werner at MixThis!

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