Pink Floyd and The Many Myths About The Wizard of Oz and 2001: A Space Odyssey

Did Pink Floyd go over the rainbow to get to the Dark Side of the Moon or meddle with a Kubrick classic?

Pink Floyd Movies
Photo: MGM, Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon was announced in 1973 at a press conference held at the London Planetarium, a spectral site which mirrored the album cover’s beam of light refracted through a triangle into a rainbow. Perhaps the iconic prismatic image provided the initial idea for fans to sync the classic film The Wizard of Oz (1939) to the album’s rock soundscape.

The band’s history with movies is vast and varied. They scored films in the aftermath of the demise and departure of the band’s founder, Syd Barrett. The success of Dark Side of the Moon also helped the group become motion picture producers, investing in the 1975 comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Wall, directed by Alan Parker and starring Bob Geldof, pushed boundaries and redefined a rock opera on film. And while the bassist/vocalist/songwriter Roger Waters didn’t let Stanley Kubrick use the 24-minute title track of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother for A Clockwork Orange (1971), the director still displayed the album prominently in the record shop scene filmed at the Chelsea Drug Store. There is also a persistent rumor Kubrick briefly considered the band to score 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968.

For the band’s eighth album, Waters, guitarist/vocalist David Gilmour, keyboardist/vocalist Rick Wright, and drummer Nick Mason looked to the sky to explore innerspace, outer limits, and the routine horrors of “hanging on in quiet desperation.” Released in the U.S on March 1, 1973, Dark Side of the Moon was just as influential and inspirational to fans as fellow musicians, spending 937 weeks on the Billboard 200. Inspired by the mental breakdown of Syd Barrett, listeners recognize the perilous psychological damage which informs the music as something they can call their own. It provides a soundscape, in quadraphonic sound, as cinematic as any celluloid escape. It also would inspire a legend that persists to this day.

The Wizard of Oz Connection

The Wizard of Oz mashup rumor was twisting around for a few years before a Pink Floyd Forum post caught the eye of The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette for the Aug. 1, 1995 article “The Dark Side of the Rainbow.” As the story was told, for the experience to work, the music has to start on the third roar of the MGM lion, and the album has to be played twice, because it runs 43 minutes long to the film’s 101-minute length.

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The idea that the band intended you to view it this way was fiction, but some of the moments work uncannily well. Dorothy falls into the pen at a brilliantly timed moment; the film turns to Technicolor during the 7/4 riff of “Money;” “Brain Damage” starts when the Scarecrow begins singing “If Only I Had a Brain.” Other things are less effective, like “On the Run” sprinting through “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Most is merely pleasingly evocative, like singer Clare Torry’s vocal improv during “The Great Gig in the Sky” representing the tornado which carries Dorothy away.

The band is no stranger to forces behind curtains, but responsibility is a horse of a different color.

“It’s absolute nonsense,” Floyd drummer Nick Mason told MTV about the rumor in 1997. “It has nothing to do with The Wizard of Oz. It was all based on The Sound of Music.” Roger Waters laughingly said, “It’s bullshit,” during an interview on The Joe Rogan Experience. “It may be that, if you do what they say, but has nothing to do with us, any of us. It’s a coincidence, and maybe it’s a cosmic coincidence.”

Mythology, however, can take on a life of its own. Waters went on to tell a tall tale regarding “a young motorcycle cop in Louisiana, following a bus, and it was weaving about the road a bit. He pulls it over, puts the bike up on the stand, opens the door, nearly falls over, there’s so much smoke coming out through the bloody door. He goes in, trying to find people with dope, because it’s just full of marijuana smoke. Eventually he gets to the back of the bus where there’s a private compartment. He opens the door, and there’s Willie Nelson. And the story is that Willie Nelson is listening to Dark Side of the Moon and watching The Wizard of Oz on the TV. And I don’t believe it for a minute, but I like the story.”

The 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz is more than beloved. It also inspired more than its share of urban myths, including cursed sets and a dead munchkin hanging in the background during the “We’re Off to See The Wizard” sequence. Bans on the book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, were attempted by Detroit libraries in 1957 and by fundamentalist Christians in Tennessee in 1986.

The spookiest conjecture is that author L. Frank Baum was an occultist initiated in the Theosophic Society and his themes were incorporated into the MK Ultra trauma-based mind control program. There are theories that Kubrick alludes to this in his final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), which includes pivotal scenes in a costume shop called Under the Rainbow. However, they may have come from the same source as those who say Kubrick helped NASA fake the moon landing.

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Meddling with 2001: A Space Odyssey

There have also long been rumors that Pink Floyd set their 23-minute piece “Echoes,” from Meddle, to the final 20 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey. After all, they certainly knew how to set music to film. Pink Floyd recorded the soundtrack for Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. They learned synchronization for director Barbet Schroeder’s 1969 film More, timing their improvs to sequences with a stopwatch.  

If timed to begin with 2001: A Space Odyssey’s onscreen chapter title “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite,” “Echoes” sets the perfect emotional tone to Dr. Dave Bowman’s (Keir Dullea) journey beyond Jupiter and through the stargate. Even HAL could appreciate it (and he gets the first words in the song “Perfect Sense” from Waters’ 1992 solo album Amused to Death). But the magnificently rendered sequence is ripe for almost any sonic imposition.

The film’s poster promised “a mind-bending trek through space and time.” This could be achieved by much of the more prog music of the era, but it is a Pink Floyd specialty, and 2001: A Space Odyssey is as much a ballet as a motion picture. The majority of the film has no dialogue, just music, which only stops when the actors speak lines.

Piper at the Gates of Dawn’s “Astronomy Domine” and “Interstellar Overdrive” may also fit any number of sci-fi classics. Most music will sync up to some cinematic counterpart, especially with herbal or chemical aid, that is the power of sound and vision. It is why Kubrick played Chopin while editing 2001. Martin Scorsese’s choice of scores to Mean Streets and After Hours conjure entirely different urban landscapes, Pink Floyd soundscapes evoke entirely unique stratospheres. Their sound is cinematic and could fit on any film if you find the right spot.

Does Dark Side of the Moon sync up with Wizard of Oz? It doesn’t matter, really, but it is a good excuse to listen to the album twice in a row. Perhaps the better question is why there are no lions, tigers, or bears represented on Pink Floyd’s Animals? Coincidence, conspiracy, or cosmic joke, everything under the sun is eclipsed by the moon.