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Mention "the hippie era" to most people, and they immediately flash back to the 1960s, when long-haired, free-loving, trend-setting hipsters wore tie-dyes and patchouli and tripped on acid while listening to the Grateful Dead.

It was a relatively brief moment in popular culture, beginning with "the summer of love" in 1967 and ending at Altamont in 1969. But it was enormously influential, inspiring books, movies and much mythologizing.

There was also a second hippie era, although most would prefer to overlook it. This one spanned most of the seventies, and was a decidedly down-market affair, with polyester and bell bottoms replacing tie-dyes, Quaaludes supplanting LSD, and featuring working-class schlubs instead of California's beautiful people. It was, in other words, not an elitist trend, but a true mass movement.

And its soundtrack was Dark Side of the Moon, by the English prog-rock quartet Pink Floyd.

Recorded over a period of nine months in London's Abbey Road studios and originally mixed to exploit the quadraphonic audio technology that had been introduced a couple years earlier, Dark Side of the Moon entered the Billboard albums chart on March 17, 1973. It would stay there for a mind-boggling 741 weeks (although only one was spent at No. 1).

By the time it fell off the chart, in June of 1987, quad had long disappeared from hi-fi shops, and LP records were being replaced by compact-disc technology.

Pink Floyd wasn't faring so well, either, as bassist Roger Waters -- who had written much of Dark Side -- was threatening to sue the other members if they dared perform any of his songs on an upcoming tour. (They did, he didn't.)

Dark Side of the Moon,however, soldiered on, selling steadily even if it was no longer on the Billboard Top 200 or rock's best-selling album. When last certified by the Recording Industry Association of America, in 1998, Dark Side was at the 15-million mark, tying with Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA,Guns N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction and the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever for the honour of being the 10th-best-selling albums of all time. (Pink Floyd's The Wall is at No. 3, with 23-million sales; The Eagles' Their Greatest Hits is at the top with 28 million.)

Those numbers are likely to get a boost when Capitol Records releases its 30th Anniversary Edition of The Dark Side of the Moon later this month. Remastered in 5.1 surround sound -- shades of quadraphonics! -- on a hybrid Super Audio CD, it will offer Floyd fans a fresh reason to douse the lights, crank the volume, and murmur "Oh, wow."

Hi-Fi sound has always been central to Dark Side'sappeal. The album arrived just as elaborate stereos became commonplace in college dorms, and headphone sales were beginning to boom. In 1972, Koss introduced a billboard with a headphone-wearing yellow smiley face and the slogan, "Ever wonder why he's smiling?" In this pre-Walkman era, there was definitely something trippy about listening to music through headphones.

Dark Side was designed to appeal to such a sensibility. Not only is the album full of aural oddities, such as the cascade of clocks announcing Time or the cash-register tape loop that helps keep time in Money,but the album was meticulously engineered to exploit the spatial illusions possible with multichannel sound. When heard on headphones or from the "sweet spot" between stereo speakers, the swirling keyboard at the beginning of On the Run really do seem to move -- and as such provided hours and hours of entertainment for chemically altered listeners.

However much the Floydian aesthetic might seem to celebrate the psychedelic experience -- and it is worth noting original guitarist Syd Barrett's status as one of rock's most famous acid casualties -- the band members themselves got rather touchy at the suggestion that they created the album by getting fried to the gills and letting fly in the studio.

Guitarist David Gilmour made it quite clear to an English interviewer in the seventies that On the Run (for which Gilmour did the synthesizer programming) was more than just some trippy sound collage. "It was a very serious attempt to achieve a certain effect," he said. "We weren't lying spaced out in the studio, chucking anything together for the sake of it."

The Dark Side of the Moon was Pink Floyd's first genuine concept album, with all of the songs reflecting a central idea concocted by Waters.

"The album uses the sun and the moon as symbols; the light and the dark, the good and the bad, the life force as opposed to the death force," he explained at the time. "I think it's a very simple statement saying that all the good things life can offer are there for us to grasp, but that the influence of some dark force in our natures prevents us from seeing them."

Building an album around an idea having to do with the meaning of life itself may seem trite and pretentious today, but in the second hippie era it seemed a Big Idea, indeed. It was, we should remember, a time of simplified spiritual questing, when airhead allegories, such Jonathan Livingston Seagull were considered serious philosophy. Sitting in the dark, under the headphones, it was very easy to be impressed by such lyrics as: "And everything under the sun is in tune/But the sun is eclipsed by the moon."

Critics, however, were less easily swayed. Initial reviews were largely positive (although the Montreal Gazette sniffed that it was "the band's biggest disappointment artistically yet"), but declined to call the album a classic. As its enduring success became harder to ignore, the rock press adjusted its view -- but only slightly. Robert Christgau, the self-styled "Dean of American Rock Critics," declared Dark Side "a kitsch masterpiece -- taken too seriously by definition, but not without charm." Deena Weinstein, a rock scholar at DePaul University, sidestepped the issue thusly: "My argument that Waters' lyrics for Pink Floyd's albums, beginning with Dark Side of the Moon,are examples of high art does not address the issue of whether or not they are great examples of high art."

But even the band had trouble taking Dark Side'senduring success seriously. After the album passed the 700-week mark in Billboard, drummer Nick Mason told an interviewer that he was frankly stumped by its enduring popularity, adding "there's no way this record is stunningly better than 20 or 40 of the great albums of the last two decades." (Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark was more to Mason's preference.)

Besides, by that time The Wall had become Pink Floyd's greatest hit, selling millions and even inspiring a pretentious movie in which a pre-Live Aid Bob Geldoff shaves his eyebrows. Not so The Dark Side of the Moon. "There will never be a film of Dark Side of the Moon,"Waters insisted. "It would be madness."

Fans being fans, however, a film was found for the album: The Wizard of Oz. In 1997, a Boston disc jockey revealed that if Dark Side was played as a soundtrack to the movie, many of the lyrics perfectly synched up with the action on-screen. Alan Parsons, who produced the album, dismissed the whole thing as "coincidence," but conspiracy-minded Floyd fans, aided by the rumour-spreading power of the Internet, insisted that Parsons and the band had to deny the story because MGM (which holds copyright to The Wizard of Oz)threatened to sue if Pink Floyd ever revealed its once-secret plans for the film.

Ludicrous? Of course. But missing the point is something of a Dark Side tradition. As Waters lamented decades ago while discussing the song Great Gig in the Sky:"One of the pressures for me -- and I'm sure all the others -- is the constant fear of dying, because of all the travelling we're doing on the motorways of America and Europe, and the planes. That for me is a very real fear. Trouble is, it doesn't come across like that on the record, so that's a weakness of it."

Yes, but a curiously enduring weakness.

Floyd facts

The Dark Side of the Moon was originally the title of a song Roger Waters wrote in 1971 that didn't make it onto the album Meddle.

Pink Floyd played Maple Leaf Gardens the week The Dark Side of the Moon was released, and performed selections from the album in live quadraphonic sound.

The "heartbeat" that opens the album is actually a bass drum, its sound tweaked by Alan Parsons's studio gear.

Among the people interviewed for the album's spoken-word segments were Paul and Linda McCartney, but nothing they said was deemed worthy of inclusion.

Money was Pink Floyd's first U.S. hit, climbing to No. 13 on the Billboard chart. Except for the guitar solo, it's in 7/4, making it one of the most oddly-metered hits of the seventies.

Clare Torry, whose wordless vocals ornament Great Gig in the Sky,was paid £30 for her performance.

Great Gig in the Sky was voted "Best Song to Make Love To" by Australian radio listeners in 1990.

The Dark Side of the Moon had the longest continuous run on the Billboard albums chart, at 741 weeks. In second place, with 490 weeks, is Johnny's Greatest Hits by Johnny Mathis. J. D. Considine