Pink Floyd’s ‘Animals’ at 40: A Look Back at Their Most Underrated Album

It's not an easy listen, but it may be Pink Floyd's most underrated album.

By Brian Ives

Forty years ago today [January 23], Pink Floyd released its tenth album, and one of its most underrated: Animals.

It came on the heels of two insanely successful albums—1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon and 1975’s Wish You Were Here. Even though the ’70s was an era where FM radio would still play lengthy songs, Animals didn’t make things easy on broadcasters. “Dogs,” “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” and “Sheep” all break the ten minute mark. The remaining two songs—”Pigs on the Wing (Part 1)” and “Pigs on the Wing (Part 2)”—are essentially the same song. They both clock in at under the ninety second mark, a bit short for a radio hit.

Animals is the album where bass player and vocalist Roger Waters began his domination of Pink Floyd; he wrote four of the five songs on the album; “Dogs” was co-written with guitarist-singer David Gilmour (Gilmour claimed to have written “90%” of the song, which is essentially all of side 1). It was the first album where keyboardist Rick Wright didn’t have any writing or co-writing credits.

Musically, it seemed at least partially inspired by the punk rock movement; they’d dropped the saxophone solos and the lush backing vocals. Animals is essentially the stripped down Floyd – guitars, bass, keyboards, drums, vocals and some effects. Indeed, later that year, Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason produced British goth-punkers the Damned’s second album, Music for Pleasure. While Floyd may have been seen as prog-rock dinosaurs, they still were in tune with the zeitgeist, and it showed.

Floyd’s two prior albums—radio behemoths, both—looked at madness from different angles. The covers were tailor made for black light posters and t-shirts. Animals‘ cover, on the other hand, was a stark image of a factory with a runaway inflatable pig in floating by. It was harsher, and somehow crueler even than Wish You Were Here‘s image of a man on fire.

The universal themes of isolation and madness of Dark Side and Wish You Were Here have aged extraordinarily well; but there’s an argument that Animals—despite the uncommercial length of its songs—has aged just as well, it’s simply a more difficult listen.

For all but three minutes of the album, it was a George Orwell/Animal Farm-style attack on different “types” of people. How you feel about the events of the past few days will likely color your opinion of just how prescient you feel the album was. Surely different Americans, in this divided era, will have different opinions on just how relevant the album is to 2017.

“Dogs” takes aim at ruthlessly competitive business executives, but they could also describe politicians. Or, ruthlessly competitive business executives who become politicians. Not to say that all of the lyrics work as a metaphor for any recently inaugurated world leader; indeed, “You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to/So that when they turn their backs on you/ You’ll get the chance to put the knife in” could surely work for any number of politicians. It can describe the current political climate. It can also describe your current high school clique. It can also describe your office scenario. And so forth. Waters’ lyrics here cut deep, but weren’t so specific to be welded to any particular time period.

Ditto for “Sheep,” which, unsurprisingly, is about the masses. “What do you get for pretending the danger’s not real/Meek and obedient you follow the leader/Down well trodden corridors into the valley of steel.” And then: “What a surprise!/The look of terminal shock in your eyes/Now things are really what they seem/No, this is no bad dream.” Again, the lyrics can apply to any variety of situations. What do you think the millions of marchers from this weekend’s demonstrations would apply it to?

Related: Pink Floyd Pig Inspires Trump Protest

Then there’s “Pigs (Three Different Ones).” Only one pig is specified: when Waters sings, “Hey you whitehouse,” he is not referring to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but instead Mary Whitehouse, a British conservative activist who distrusted the “mainstream media” (the giveaway is at the end of the song when Waters calls her by her first name, “Mary you’re nearly a treat/But you’re really a cry.”) Even when he’s referencing someone by name, it still seems to apply to other eras.

Waters performed the song in Mexico City on October 1, 2016, and posted the video on his Facebook page on Friday (January 20) with the message, “The resistance begins today.” Watch the NSFW performance below.

From the first lyrics—”Big man, pig man, ha ha, charade you are”—Waters used imagery of Donald J. Trump on his screens, which resonated strongly with the crowd. During different points in the song, select lyrics would appear over images of the soon-to-be leader of the free world: “charade,” “fat chin,” “joker,” almost as if Waters was starting to criticize the man four decades before he took office. Of course he didn’t; it’s a sad truth that the “pigs” that Waters takes aim at—even the very specifically mentioned Mary Whitehouse—exist in all eras, making this a timeless song.

The 4X platinum selling album would have been all unadulterated rage and disgust, if not for the minute and a half that opens and closes the album; “Pigs on the Wing (Part 1)” and “Pigs on the Wing (Part 2)” are the album’s shelter from the storm, to quote Bob Dylan. Animals opens with “Pigs on the Wing (Part 1)” — Waters singing and strumming and acoustic guitar, wondering to his lover what life would be like, “If you didn’t care what happened to me/And I didn’t care what happened to you.”

In the end, as the album closes with a bit of heart, a bit of hope, and perhaps a message that could serve those who are feeling uneasy these days—that maybe, love can help get you through the worst of times. “You know that I care what happens to you,” he begins. “And I know that you care for me too/So I don’t feel alone, or the weight of the stone,” he sings, tenderly.

He even takes aim at himself, likening himself to the dogs he sang about earlier in the album: “Now that I’ve found somewhere safe/To bury my bone/And any fool knows a dog needs a home a shelter, from pigs on the wing.”

It’s an almost hippie-like message at the end of a very un-hippie-like album. But perhaps it’s a message that has a lot of value today, perhaps more than ever.

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