Pink Floyd: In a Pig’s Eye

The year was 1977. England’s economy was in the shitter. Unem- ployment was sky high. Punk rock declared war on the world. And Pink Floyd captured the whole foul wind in their bitter masterpiece Animals.

The Battersea Power Station is a familiar sight to jet-lagged London visitors who arrive via the Gatwick Express train. A massive edifice— architecturally unremarkable, ugly even—it stands alongside the river Thames facing north. Four immense, sooty white towers rise from the corners of the structure, pushing rudely skyward. Even if you know nothing of the building, you can sense it has something to do with power. When you see it, you know you’re in London.

But the Battersea Power Station is also familiar to legions of rock fans who have never been near Britain’s capital city. It is, of course, the building that graces the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album, Animals. This stark, arresting cover image is a landmark in Pink Floyd history. It served notice to 1977’s rock public that a new mood had come to Pink Floyd, to England and indeed to rock music itself. Gone are the fanciful, surreal graphics of former Floyd discs such as Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here. Here is a very real, industrialized landscape, photographed beneath a lowering London sky. (Only on closer inspection does one realize that there is a slightly stylized, inflated rubber pig floating between two of the power plant’s huge stacks.) The inside of the original 12-inch vinyl gatefold sleeve offered further images of urban blight—barbed wire, broken windows, train tracks— photographed in and around Battersea in gloomy black and white.

The sound of Animals matches the cover graphics. It’s nowhere near as floaty, dreamy or stereoscopically pristine as Dark Side or Wish You Were Here. Structurally speaking, the music is still exactly what Pink Floyd fans had come to love and expect from the band: ambitious rock compositions in multiple parts, with conceptual lyrics and ample room for instrumental improvisation. But the sonic texture has toughened appreciably. And the lyrical perspective has shifted in a sharp, angry way. Animals is the first Pink Floyd album that does not explore the mind’s inner landscape. It is one of the few Floyd works that isn’t about either insanity or altered states of psychedelic bliss. It is instead a bitterly etched social allegory: a cold dissection of society’s power structure—the cruel and unjust pecking order that forms the hard backbone of modern life.

“I was trying to push the band into more specific areas of subject matter, always trying to be direct,” is how Animals was summed up by Roger Waters, Pink Floyd’s bassist, lyricist and de facto leader at the time the album was recorded. “Visually, I was trying to get away from the [psychedelic] blobs…so there isn’t much left for you to interpret.”

Released 25 years ago, Animals is an often-overlooked gem in the Pink Floyd canon. It may not be as conducive to laser light shows and bong parties as some of the other albums. Animals’ lengthy compositions may be less amenable to classic rock radio play than other Floyd tunes. But Animals is nonetheless one of Pink Floyd’s greatest achievements. It tends to appeal to those who like their rock a bit rough around the edges—the same historically informed rock fans, in many cases, who are prone to prefer Pink Floyd’s very first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, to better known works like Dark Side or The Wall.

On the surface this may seem odd, as there could hardly be two rock albums more dissimilar in mood or style than Piper and Animals. But both mark equally pivotal points in Pink Floyd’s career. The band’s stunning 1967 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a psychedelic masterpiece and the sole Pink Floyd album to feature the band’s brilliant founder, original frontman and songsmith, Syd Barrett. And with the release of Animals, exactly one decade later and nine years after Barrett’s departure, Roger Waters finally came into his own as the band’s second great lyrical voice—finding and asserting the socially outraged themes and bleak tone that would dominate the remainder of his tenure with Pink Floyd and his subsequent solo career.

Waters had assumed leadership of Pink Floyd in 1968, after Barrett suffered a psychological breakdown and exited the band. But it took Pink Floyd a very long time to shake off the trippy, “space rock” associations that had been born with such Barrett-era compositions as “Astronomy Domine,” “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” Barrett remained a lyrical preoccupation for Waters as well, the “lunatic in his head” on Dark Side, the “crazy diamond” shining on Wish You Were Here. But with Animals, for the first time, Waters was able to break free from Pink Floyd’s past and become his own man.

In many ways, Roger Waters is the Anti-Syd. Barrett’s formidable talents were sporadic and unpredictable. He flared up like a supernova and burned out quickly. In contrast, Waters has always been much more methodical—a disciplined and painstaking craftsman who often takes many years to complete a work. His approach to music is architectonic. Large-scale concepts are Waters’ medium. He’s good at fine-tuning themes and imagery until everything fits together neatly.

Also, while the overall mood of Barrett’s music is childlike, whimsical and fanciful, Waters’ distinctive tone is embittered and dour. He tends to take a dim view of human nature and the social institutions that humankind has created in its greedy, violent image. It was this aspect of his work that was eagerly taken up by angst-ridden industrial rockers like Trent Reznor and passed on to more recent agro-rock malcontents ranging from Marilyn Manson to Korn.

There are plentiful hints of Waters’ harsh outlook on earlier Pink Floyd works, going all the way back to Piper’s “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk.” But Animals is the first album where this world-view comes fully to the fore—unadulterated and venomously well-articulated. This may have been a reflection of England’s social and musical climate at the time as much as it was an outgrowth of Pink Floyd and Waters’ own artistic development. As recording sessions for Animals got underway in 1976, Britain was in the midst of a severe economic recession and under the iron-fisted conservative government of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Many present-day Americans are all too familiar with the side effects of an economy that’s floundering in the wake of inept conservative helmsmanship. Unemployment figures were sky high in Britain in ’76, and there was a general mood of hopelessness. Racial tensions flared as ultra–right wing groups like the National Front gained credibility and influence.

Against this despairing backdrop, a new rock and roll movement had taken shape. Punk rock defined itself in opposition to the status quo. It stood for absolute freedom—of dress, of speech, of everything—in the face of conformity. It heralded a return to rock and roll’s original form and spirit—concise songs fashioned out of a few simple guitar chords and delivered with all the manic energy that tends to accumulate at the deviant fringes of “decent” society. Punk rock declared musical war on the big arena rock bands that had become firmly entrenched during the first half of the Seventies. These groups were labeled dinosaurs—oversized, cumbersome, ultimately doomed to obsolescence but still an obstruction to new ideas, talent and modes of expression in rock music.

Needless to say, the members of Pink Floyd weren’t pleased to find themselves the objects of such vilification. But they weren’t unduly perturbed by it either. Floyd drummer Nick Mason tried to cozy up to punk rock, producing the Damned’s second album, Music for Pleasure. The sessions took place at Pink Floyd’s own studio, Britannia Row, which at the time had just barely been converted from a modest demo studio to a fully professional facility housed inside a converted chapel in London’s Islington that also contained the band’s equipment storage area, office and rehearsal space. The studio had been stocked with what was then state-of-the-art recording equipment: two MCI 24-track recorders, a 32- input MCI desk with a complete complement of outboard gear and synthesizers in the control room. And in time Britannia Row would become a world-class recording facility. But in ’76, the bugs were still being worked out. One of the issues was the room acoustics, which employed Lignacite brick as wall surfacing. “I’m afraid it’s not as good as we’d hoped,” Mason confessed to the press at the time. House engineer Nick Griffiths puts it more bluntly. “The studio was absolutely awful then.”

And this is the room where Animals was recorded, shortly after the Damned sessions finished up. This too might have contributed to Animals’ more stripped-down sound, in comparison with Dark Side or Wish You Were Here. There were the Floyds, in a studio that hadn’t been fully “rung out,” with punk rock nipping at their heels. It’s no surprise that they decided to move toward a more aggressive, less “fat” approach.

One more factor should be considered as well. Interband relations, which had become strained during the making of Dark Side and Wish You Were Here, grew even chillier during the Animals sessions. Waters’ ascendancy as the band’s lyrical voice and principal idea man had ruffled a few feathers. “That was the first one I didn’t write anything for,” recalled Floyd keyboardist Rick Wright. “And it was the first album, for me, where the group was losing its unity as well. That was the beginning of where Roger wanted to do everything.”

Perhaps Wright’s anger at being excluded from the writing got funneled into his snarling Hammond organ work on the album, some of the most fiery playing he has ever done. Indeed, while perhaps still tepid by punk rock standards, many of the album’s studio performances have a scrappy, feisty quality. Pink Floyd’s music had finally come fully in sync with Waters’ aggrieved lyrical stance. As it turned out, this would be the last Pink Floyd disc where the classic Waters/ Wright/Gilmour/Mason lineup would be heard playing together, all on its own. Which makes Animals all the more of a treasure amid Pink Floyd’s dazzling collection of works.

Musically and conceptually, Animals grew out of two compositions, “You Gotta Be Crazy” and “Raving and Drooling,” that Pink Floyd had written back in 1974 and developed in live performance. From this material, Waters developed a concept engaging in its structural simplicity and compelling in the way it strikes at the heart of political and economic inequality. With obvious indebtedness to George Orwell’s social allegorical novel Animal Farm, Waters’ Animals reduces all human society to three categories.

At the top of the hierarchy are the pigs: the ruling class, politicians, bosses, censors and oppressors—both economic and moral. The pigs are the self-righteous and self-satisfied. They possess most of the power and they are quite content with this arrangement.

Then there are the dogs, who are not so content. In fact they are ruthless in their grasping pursuit of more power. Among the dogs are the unscrupulous and streetwise, the venture capitalists and business sharpies—crooks in possession of “a club tie and a firm handshake.”

The great majority, however, are sheep: those who meekly, blindly and obediently go along with society’s program, even though it is a program that is ultimately pernicious for them. The sheep are powerless and passive. They are literally devoured by the system, ending up as lamb chops and mutton on the tables of more aggressive carnivores.

As David Gilmour later recalled, “The Animals concept didn’t come up until the album was about three-quarters finished. I don’t think Roger had it in his mind before, but at some point he realized how close the lyrics were on those tracks and he changed the lyrics about a bit on ‘Dogs,’ which was called ‘You Gotta Be Crazy’ before that, and ‘Sheep,’ which was ‘Raving and Drooling’ before then. It all obviously fitted together in his mind, coming to mean that. It is a good thing, in the end, having come to a collective decision, though. It knocks out some of the excesses which might otherwise appear from us as individuals.”

Pig, dog or sheep—which are you, then? Waters’ societal schema doesn’t afford an attractive option. Perhaps to soften the harshness of this outlook, the album is bracketed by a brief prelude and coda (“Pigs on the Wing, [Parts 1 and 2]”) in which Waters suggests, to strummed acoustic guitar accompaniment, that his narrative perspective is, ultimately, compassionate—that he really cares. Some Floyd historians have observed that the two-part composition originated as a love song to Waters’ new wife at the time, Carolyne Christie, the niece of the Marquis of Zetland and former secretary to future Pink Floyd producer Bob Ezrin. But if that’s the case, then “Pigs on the Wing” has to be one of the most oddly titled love songs ever written.

Whatever its origins, “Pigs on the Wing” functions very well as Animals’ prelude and coda. Many Pink Floyd albums employ thematic bracketing devices. Dark Side of the Moon begins and ends with a human heartbeat. The sound of chiming clocks provides a memorable opening and closing for Wish You Were Here. But Animals is the first Floyd album to employ a musical bracketing device, rather than just sound effects. Waters would go on to develop the idea of recurring musical motifs more fully in The Wall.

“Pigs on the Wing” segues neatly into “Dogs,” which also begins with a strummed acoustic guitar, and ominous Hammond organ swells courtesy of Rick Wright. The song, which takes up most of side one in the album’s original vinyl release format, is the only Animals composition not credited entirely to Waters. On this one, the bassist collaborated with David Gilmour. “I basically wrote all the chords—the main music part of it,” Gilmour recalls. “And Roger and I wrote some other bits at the end.”

“Dogs” is at heart a cautionary moral tale. The song’s canine protagonist pays a steep price for his well-cultivated ability to swindle, deceive and “pick out the easy meat with [his] eyes closed.” In so doing, he isolates himself from the rest of humanity. He becomes “only a stranger at home,” and in the end dies of cancer, sad and alone. He is dispatched with duly operatic drama. A tragic-sounding A7 to Dm chord modulation underscores the lines “ground down by the stone.” The word “stone” is captured in a looped echo effect and repeats forebodingly, as if descending into the maelstrom of Wrights synths. The sounds of dogs barking and howling are processed through a vocoder and Leslie style rotating speaker cabinet. A fairly recent invention at the time, the vocoder had been mainly deployed as a disco fun machine before Pink Floyd adapted it to darker purposes.

With its considerable length and scope, “Dogs” proves an ideal guitar vehicle for David Gilmour. He squeezes off a plaintive wah-wah solo after the second verse. Also, the song’s vocal passages are interspersed with two stately, harmonized guitar interludes from Gilmour, which rank as some of the most majestic stuff amid all the pomp and circumstance that is Seventies rock. Two-and-three-part guitar harmonies alternate with yearning single-note lines in a call-and-response manner. Gilmour recalls that these passages were played on “a custom Telecaster. I was coming through some Hiwatt amps and a couple of Yamaha rotating speaker cabinets— Leslie-style cabinets that they used to make. I used two of those onstage, along with the regular amps. That slight Leslie effect made a big difference in the sound.”

The second of the harmonized guitar interludes is set up by a three-part descending augmented chord figure of which Gilmour is particularly proud: “It’s quite nice. I thought it was very clever. Then Roger went and wiped it and I had to recreate it.”

Unfamiliar with the new recording equipment at Britannia Row, Waters inadvertently erased Gilmour’s guitar tracks. While a great deal of animosity would come to exist between the two men, Gilmour does not feel there was any malicious intent behind the erasure. He insists it was purely “by mistake.”

“Dogs” is followed by “Pigs (Three Different Ones),” which kicked off side two in the album’s original vinyl release format. The track opens with a neoclassical organ figure punctuated by a recurring, melodic bass ostinato. Guitar and drums establish a firm backbeat for one of the most brilliantly virulent songs in the entire Floyd catalog. In “Pigs,” Waters adapts the classic three-verse pop song format to his thematic purpose, devoting one verse each to three different characters, all of whom exhibit porcine behavior at its most distasteful.

Verse one portrays a captain of industry, a mine boss, perhaps—a “capitalist pig,” in the parlance of the day. The second verse depicts an embittered and aggressive older woman; a “fucked-up old hag,” who “radiates cold shafts of broken glass.” Some commentators claim this is a portrait of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s prime minister at the time, whose ultraconservative views were odious to Waters (among many others). Thatcher’s well-known nickname “Iron Maggie” certainly fits the character in the song, who likes “the feel of steel.”

The third verse is less ambiguous. It names and denounces a real-life figure, Mary Whitehouse. Britain’s arbiter of decency—a one-woman equivalent of the PMRC or Christian Coalition in the U.S.—Whitehouse had targeted Pink Floyd as early as 1967 for advocating drug use in their music. “Why does she make such a fuss about everything if she isn’t motivated by fear?” Waters demanded. “She’s frightened that we’re all being perverted.”

The song is filled with oinking, snorting sound bites of pigs in their natural habitat. Gilmour wrests some decidedly piggy squeals from a talk box—also a relatively new piece of gear at the time. Midrange EQ and slap echo imparts a Lennonesque sneer to certain vocal passages. One of Waters’ musical heroes, John Lennon had also written many songs decrying the oppressive forces at the top of the social structure.

We meet the opposite end of the societal spectrum in the next song, “Sheep,” whose passive protagonists graze peacefully in the countryside, willfully unaware of the butcher’s knife that awaits them. In the song’s second section Waters espouses the Marxist view of organized religion as the opiate of the people. As the song’s woolly protagonists are led to the slaughter, they chant a vocoder-processed lampoon of the 23rd Psalm:

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…

He maketh me to hang on hooks in high places

He converteth me to lamb cutlets…”

“Sheep”’s origins in the live jam “Raving and Drooling” are clear. The song is anchored by a bolero-esque bass pulse familiar from popular Floyd instrumental tracks like “One of These Days.” This signature Pink Floyd groove provides an ideal framework for extended soloing, particularly by Wright, whose synth work and tremolo electric piano come to the fore on “Sheep.”

Lyrically, the song leaves the plot resolution a bit murky—as is the case with most rock concept albums. The sheep rebel, apparently, but the revolution fails. The dogs all get killed. (Had they thrown in their lot with the sheep against the pigs? Had the sheep been rebelling against them?) The sheep ultimately decide it’s better to stay at home and do as they’re told after all. Presumably, the pigs prevail.

“‘Sheep’ was my sense of what was to come down in England,” Waters commented at the time. “And it did with the riots in England, in Brixton and Toxeth. And it will happen again. It will always happen. There are too many of us in the world and we treat each other badly. We get obsessed with things, and there aren’t enough of things—products—to go ’round. If we’re persuaded it’s important to have them, that we’re nothing without them, and if there aren’t enough of them to go ’round, the people without are going to get angry. Content and discontent follow very closely with the rise and fall on the graph of world recession and expansion.”

There’s an ominous undercurrent to the pleasant pastoral sounds—lowing sheep and twittering birds—that close the track and ease the transition to the final song. Peace has been restored. But it is a false peace—a fools’ paradise. The predatory social order hasn’t changed.

Into this deceptively serene setting comes Waters and his folk guitar to sing a reprise of “Pigs on the Wing.” Now the tentative, subjunctive mood of Part 1—“If I didn’t care”—has given way to a matey, declarative “You know that I care.” It would appear that the narrator has been the dog character all along. Having discovered compassion for his fellow creatures, he now no longer feels the “weight of the stone.”

If we can’t change the social order—not even by force—at least we can change our attitude toward one another, Waters seems to be suggesting. We are all united, apparently, by our common need to steer clear of pigs on the wing.

But what, precisely, is a pig on the wing? Some commentators have seen something optimistic in the image—a reference to the old adage “when pigs fly,” which suggests a willingness to believe that the seemingly impossible and miraculous may one day take place. But it’s doubtful that a careful lyricist like Waters would impart such negative connotations to the pig image elsewhere on the album only to give it a “pie in the sky” spin at the end. And if there were something miraculous or benevolent about pigs on the wing, why would we need to take shelter from them as the album’s final line states?

A more likely explanation lies in Waters’ psychological fixation with menace from above. His father was a fighter pilot killed in World War II, and the younger Waters seems riddled with images of death-dealing aircraft swooping down from on high. So perhaps pigs on the wing are just one more, airborne, manifestation of the brutal social order Waters has shown us to exist on the ground—military enforcers, if you will.

Pigs, whether symbolic or made of rubber and filled with gas, would continue to be a vexed issue for Pink Floyd. For the Animals album cover photo, Waters hit on the idea of flying a giant inflatable pig above Battersea Power Station. A 40-foot flying beast was duly constructed by the band’s longtime graphic design firm, Hipgnosis. But the initial photo shoot ended in chaos when the porcine blimp broke free from its tethers and ascended into the sky. It reached an altitude of more than 18,000 feet and disrupted air traffic over London. One pilot was reportedly administered a breathalyzer test after radioing to the control tower at Heathrow Airport that he’d spotted a giant flying pig. Hipgnosis ended up having to superimpose a photo of the pig onto the cover shot of Battersea Power Station.

Class of ’77 punk rockers pounced on the inflatable pig, holding it up as a symbol of all that was wrong with corporate rock. If anyone needed evidence that rock’s old guard had grown bloated, excessive and out of touch with reality, this was surely it. Few took note that Waters had intended the pig to symbolize just the opposite—his solidarity with the toiling masses and underdogs of society. Many mid-Seventies punk rockers would have been surprised to learn that Waters was in complete agreement with them in the matter of large arena rock concerts. He also lamented the lack of any significant communication between performer and audience in settings more conducive to sporting events than any kind of musical expression. These concerns would emerge on Pink Floyd’s next album, The Wall.

Animals had consolidated a new, darker mood in Pink Floyd’s work— more realistic and more vitriolic than anything that had come before. But Roger Waters still had more angst that needed to be melded into high concept rock music.