People often add science-fiction connotations to Pink Floyd’s 1972 masterwork Dark Side Of The Moon, and there is no doubt that the music contained can levitate listeners to uncharted astral territories. But the titular phrase could easily have been “around the bend” or “out where the buses don’t run,” because this is a song cycle about the very earthly problem of madness.
So it is that the songs on the album catalog all the things that can drive a person crazy, including the pressures exerted by modernity, time and money. “Us And Them” directs its attention to war. It wouldn’t be the last time that Floyd’s chief lyricist Roger Waters would tackle this subject. But it’s arguable whether or not he was ever again able to detail the folly and inanity of war with such simple eloquence.
It is important to note as well that Waters was aided in his efforts by the stunning beauty of the music composed by Pink Floyd keyboardist Rick Wright. The music is languid and restrained in the verses, before rising to fever-pitch intensity in the refrains. Wright’s plaintive piano, David Gilmour’s bluesy guitar and Dick Parry’s wailing saxophone all weave in and out of the picture while bassist Waters and drummer Nic Mason steer the rhythm from a lazy lope to a frenzied sprint.
What’s striking about Waters’ lyrics in the verses is how he says so much with so little. “Us and them/ And after all we’re only ordinary men,” it begins, Gilmour singing in a lilting deadpan, “Me and you/ God only knows it’s not what we would choose to do.” The narrator is speaking directly to the person who is supposed to be his enemy.
In the second verse, the lyrics hint that the divisions between people are random and pointless: “Black and blue/ And who knows which is which, and who is who?” The cyclical nature of it all also threatens one’s sanity: “Up and down/ And in the end it’s only round and round.” More damning is the narrator’s final conclusion in the last verse about the reasons for these wars: “With, without/ And who’ll deny it’s what the fighting about?”
In the refrains, Waters’ lyrics, as delivered by the anguished harmonies of Gilmour and Wright, start to take direct hits at the higher-ups who make decisions that cost lives without risking their own: “’Forward,’ he cried from the rear and the front flank died/ And the general sat and the lines on the map moved from side to side.” The song closes out with death as well, but not before an interstitial monologue by an associate of the band about a fistfight, proving that violence is endemic in society even on the micro level.
Waters clearly realizes that the song’s themes still translate well; he labelled his most recent live jaunt the Us & Them tour. And he spoke of the song’s continued relevance in an interview with AZCentral. “The title of the tour is from a song I wrote in 1972,” he said. “And sadly, what I was writing about then, the problems are still with us. Which is not surprising. It’s a nanosecond in cosmic timelines. A tiny amount of time has passed and evolution is a fascinating process but it does take a while.”
Dark Side Of The Moon was the album where it all came together for Pink Floyd, as their musical flights of fancy met Roger Waters’ grounding lyrical concerns right in the sweet spot. “Us And Them” is a highlight among highlights on that stunning record, a song that claims that war isn’t just hell; it’s insane as well.