Monday, October 11, 2010

Animals by Pink Floyd (1977)

Every artist’s back catalogue has one or two “overlooked” albums; albums that fall between bigger hits, or albums that were the result of an ill-fated side path in a new direction. Radiohead has its drawn-out, “organic” Hail to the Thief (2003), the Chili Peppers went dark on One Hot Minute (1995), even the exact worth of Lodger (1979) is still hotly debated. The fact that all these albums are overshadowed by more popular or critically acclaimed neighbours in their respective discographies doesn’t help either. (Amnesiac and In Rainbows, Blood Sugar Sexx Magik and Californication, and “Heroes” and Scary Monsters respectively.) These albums are snowed under, though not necessarily through any fault of their own. Their qualities are inevitably compared to their predecessors and successors. Animals is the metaphorical “black sheep” of Pink Floyd. The album came two years after the critical and commercial triumph of Wish You Were Here (1975), which contained some of the Floyd’s most well-known and loved songs, not least of which is the title track. In 1979, The Wall was unleashed on the world: a double LP of epic proportions. Big-selling single “Another Brick in the Wall pt 2”, with its catchy disco chorus, “Comfortably Numb” with its guitar solo to end all solos, the overall concept: a highly iconic, some would say definitive album for the group.

The Battersea Power Station in 2008. This is the reverse
side of the album cover. Author's own picture.

The cover of Animals alone already indicates that it’s not to be ignored in the Floyd canon. The iconic building, in the apocalyptic lighting, with a touch of absurdity: a flying pig in between the four smokestacks. London’s Battersea Power Station was built incrementally throughout the 1930s. Its distinct style is shared with that of the Bankside Power Station (the current Tate Modern), through a common architect. By 1977, the building was in the process of being decommissioned. Today, it remains a hollow shell, and its future is uncertain. For the shoot, an actual inflatable pig was hoisted on the building. It came free and drifted off, however, and the final result is a simple composite shot. The power of the building’s aura, as well as Pink Floyd’s surrealism is used very effectively in the 2006 film Children of Men, where the building has become a top-security museum of all the near-apocalyptic world’s masterpieces. The flying pig would be the most recognisable symbol for the band for decades to come, appearing as a prop, in promotional materials and as an object of parody.

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Like the cover, and fittingly for a “black sheep”, Animals is dark, possibly the darkest material that the band would record. The Wall might deal with drugs, traumatised children, fascism, paranoia and ego, but it has occasional spots of levity and a slick, commercial sheen. Animals is almost impenetrably monolithic in its doom, a perfectly symmetrical concept album. Despite being released in 1977, it can’t be considered “punk” by any stretch of the word. The three main tracks are all well over ten minutes long, with a layered intricacy that punk’s three-chord aggro will never touch. Some of its anti-establishment anger is certainly visible in the themes of some of the songs, particularly in bassist Roger Waters’ lyrics. Conceptually, the album is very loosely based on Orwell’s Animal Farm, playing with some prior associations the listener might have taken from that book. Rather than critiquing the USSR, Animals takes aim at Britain the late 1970s. Thatcherism was looming, social unrest was widespread and the unions were flexing their considerable muscle with strikes. Mostly, it critiques the upper classes (ruthless dogs, hypocritical pigs), and the passivity of the masses (sheep). As the son of well-off communists, Waters’ upbringing and current status as millionaire rock star gave him plenty of food for thought.

Bookending the album are two very short, very tender acoustic ballads, both called “Pigs on the Wing”. The first song acts a gentle scene-setter, welcoming the listener in with a simple song.

If you didn't care what happened to me,

And I didn't care for you,

We would zig zag our way through the boredom and pain

Occasionally glancing up through the rain.

Wondering which of the buggers to blame

And watching for pigs on the wing

It does little to prepare the listener for the second track, “Dogs”, which builds with a manic acoustic guitar riff and atmospheric organs. Guitarist David Gilmour sings the first half of this song, his only vocal appearance on this album. Clearly the better singer, this is symptomatic of the shifting dynamic within the group. Since 1968, Waters had increasingly been taking the reins, and Animals is a clear turning point. In a way, it would represent the last Floyd album of its time as a proper group: all four members have a clear musical role on the album, which has a lot of room for the long instrumental passages the band is famous for. Keyboardist Rick Wright would not contribute any writing to this album, and Gilmour’s input is largely reduced to his virtuoso guitar playing, but Animals is spared the deeply personal, semi-autobiographical material of The Wall. Waters’ imprint is clear, but the album is closer to the spacey Floyd of the early 1970s than the vehicle for Waters’ neuroses it would become after 1979.

Lyrically, “Dogs” is concerned with a Gordon Gekko-type businessman, who seeks out the weak to “pick out the easy meat with your eyes closed”. “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”. The song predicts a sad end for the “Dog”, continuing the metaphor with drowning with a stone around one's neck, but also literally addressing the human “Dog”, unable to lose weight that was needed to throw around, and dying alone, of cancer. Sonically, the song is a triumph, despite its grim subject matter. Several pieces make up the seventeen-minute suite, with extensive guitar work, shared vocal duties and haunting synthesizer work. It is a frantic, evil twin to “Echoes” from Meddle (1971).

The second side of the LP starts with “Pigs (Three Different Ones)”, portraying the self-serving, hypocritical moral crusaders, or leaders of men. Each “Pig” is pointed out and laughed at with the memorable phrase “Ha ha/Charade you are!” The first pig is some sort of undefined leader, perhaps a higher up to the “Dog” that was kept on a chain. The second verse is probably the most hate-filled tirade to ever come out of Waters’ mouth, even taking into account his solo career, which is one long excuse for spewing hate on anyone who deserves it.

Bus stop rat bag, ha ha charade you are.

You fucked up old hag, ha ha charade you are.

Presumably, this is directed at no one other than Margaret Thatcher, then Leader of the Opposition, preying on power. Waters’ assertion that she was “good fun with a handgun” would prove to be prophetic: a mere five years later he would be attacking her lyrically again about her militarism during the Falklands War.

Thatcher and a fresh-faced William Hague (16, now Foreign Minister), 1977

The final “Pig” is referred to by name: Mary Whitehouse, the Tipper Gore of her day. Her attempts to censor the BBC, moral crusading and mission to preserve the purity of the nation’s media consumers are awarded with Waters calling her a “House-proud town mouse […] trying to keep our feelings off the streets.”

Whitehouse and the acceptable face of British pop: Cliff Richard

“Pigs” is the most contemporary song to appear on the album. “Dogs” and track four, “Sheep” were already played to the public as early as November and June of 1974, respectively. Titled “You Gotta Be Crazy” and “Raving and Drooling”, these tracks were leftovers from the Wish You Were Here sessions. That is to say the songs were recorded anew, but written and performed much earlier. By renaming them, slightly tweaking the lyrics and using the new track “Pigs” to tie the concept together, Animals was born. As a result of this two year gap, “Pigs” has a rather unique sound. It is more laid back than the older tracks, grooving along menacingly on an almost funky (fretless) bass line written and played by David Gilmour (Waters was never an accomplished player). The use of ice-cold synthesizer effects has echoes of Iggy Pop’s The Idiot about it, but that album would only be released some two months later. Also notable is the use of a so-called “talk box” during one of the guitar solos, recreating porcine squealing.

The last of the trilogy of prog rock songs, “Sheep” concerns itself with the masses. Far from being innocent and victimised, Waters holds that they ignore their condition, ignore the danger from the Dogs and blindly follow the Pigs. Inevitably, the course of the Sheep’s lives ends down “well-trodden corridors, into the valley of steel”, presumably an abattoir. A keyboard-led interlude also has a bible verse beginning with “The Lord is My shepherd” (Psalm 23), spoken through a vocoder and with altered lyrics. The psalm shows the Sheep’s loyalty to their shepherd, who “maketh me to hang on hooks” and “converteth me to lamb chops”, until a revolution breaks out. The “Dogs” are killed in an uprising by the Sheep who, “through quiet reflection and great dedication master[ed] the art of Karate”. Gilmour again plays bass on this track, although the part had been written and played by Waters as “Raving and Drooling” since 1974. The track ends with a signature Gilmour guitar riff, a germ that would later grow into the guitar part for “Run Like Hell”.

The carnage of the three main songs comes down with another rendition of opener “Pigs on the Wing”. This second part is unusually frank and personal for Waters, who generally keeps to metaphors, political moaning or conceptual character songs. Directed at a new love, the questioning lyrics of part one are turned upon themselves, affirming:

You know that I care what happens to you,

And I know that you care for me.

So I don't feel alone,

Or the weight of the stone,

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.

Waters is uncharacteristically candid, even conceding to his own raging insecurities and his own ruthless reputation. He reuses metaphors from “Dogs” (the weight of the stone, the bone, the dog) to show a self-awareness and vulnerability that is otherwise sorely lacking in his later work. And so the most aggressive and abrasive of all Pink Floyd albums ends on a positive note of humanity.

Animals on The Road: In The Flesh and The Wall

Animals would be taken on the road in the first half of 1977, as part of the In The Flesh tour. The entire album was played, as well as Wish You Were Here. Choice cuts from Dark Side of the Moon or earlier works would sometimes be played as an encore. The tour was one of the largest the band had done up to that point, covering most major Western European countries as well as some twenty-five dates in the US. The scale of the performances (as well as the grim subject matter, presumably) caused some problems for the band, and particularly for Roger Waters. Whereas Pink Floyd was never known for intimate gigs and connecting with an audience, the people who flocked to see the band in the 1977 tour’s stadiums were disinterested and disruptive up to the point of affecting the band’s performance. Gigs could be tense affairs, with Waters scolding the audience, the crew and generally struggling to get his more personal songs across.

Roger Waters in 1977, during the In The Flesh tour

Arena gigs would claim more victims in the 1970s: Neil Young had manfully struggled with the audience’s expectations following the huge success of Harvest (1972). The result of that particular tour can be heard on the grim, abrasive audience-baiting of Tonight’s the Night (recorded 1973, released 1975), and something similar would happen to Roger Waters during, and in the wake of, the In The Flesh tour. The nature of the concerts and their reliance on projected imagery on a backdrop meant that the band had to play to a set rhythm, limiting their show to reproducing the album almost note for note. Waters had headphones on for all the gigs, playing along to a click-track, though also signifying a certain introversion and distance from the crowd. Every concert, he would yell out a number, signifying the number of shows played in a macabre countdown of personal suffering. In a famous incident in Montreal, Waters taunted a certain member of the audience throughout the show, luring him up to the front row. Finally, he would spit in the boy’s face, an (unintended?) ironic echo of the “Dogs” lyric “who was trained not to spit on the fan?” Morale within the band had hit a low. Outshined by their own spectacle, a reviewer prophetically stated: “the next logical step for them is to hire a bunch of puppets to stand on stage with Floyd masks on.” [Melody Maker, March 1977. Cited in Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey p 189.]

David Gilmour and Roger Waters in Montreal, July 6th, 1977. An account of the infamous concert and more pictures can be found on Brain-Damage.

Waters’ disillusionment with the scale of the new audiences and the dehumanizing aspects of the In The Flesh tour gave him plenty of food for thought for Pink Floyd’s next project. He would write and record two demo albums: one intensely personal and one a grand, sweeping statement. The former was turned down by the band, and would eventually become The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking (1984), Waters’ first solo album (arguably his third). The latter would gestate over a period of time, and emerge as the double-LP The Wall, released in late 1979. The Wall and its subsequent tour would largely be a reaction to the In The Flesh tour. The first track was even called “In the Flesh?”, and it would be reprised near the end as “In the Flesh”. Both songs take place during a concert as it takes the shape of a (Neo-) Nazi Rally with a dictatorial singer picking out members of the audience and “putting them up against the wall”. The stage show of the The Wall started with a “surrogate band”, four musicians wearing Pink Floyd “life masks” that fooled the audience until the real band would appear behind them. Throughout the show, which concerned a rock star losing his mind and finally putting himself on trial, a physical wall was built between the audience and the band, fulfilling Waters’ dreams of completely distancing himself from the unpleasantness of stadium touring. The audiences would cheer as they were “bombed” by a full-scale Stuka replica and other instruments of torture. The second half of the show took place almost entirely behind the wall, on which grotesque cartoons were projected. Occasionally, a band member would appear through or above the wall. The grand finale would tear the wall down, nearly crushing the audience with huge cardboard bricks.

The cover of Is There Anybody Out There?, a live album documenting the The Wall tour of the early 1980s. It shows the life masks of the band that the "surrogate band" wore to fool the audience and fully disassociate the band from their fans.

Animals’ dark subject matter would have ramifications for Pink Floyd for years to come, nudging the band into a terminal phase that would only end in 1983, with the release of the ominously titled The Final Cut (1983). That album was a band effort in name only, essentially being a Roger Waters solo album “performed by Pink Floyd”. Keyboardist Richard Wright, so important to the band in its first fifteen years had already been fired during the recording of The Wall. That album was arguably a Roger Waters solo album as well; David Gilmour made only a few contributions, and Waters has taken almost complete credit for it ever since. Animals was the onset of Waters’ dominance, though the vast soundscapes (it was the last of the Floyd Albums to feature songs that extended past ten minutes) gave the group space to breathe and improvise. The fact that these tracks came from earlier tours also kept them lively, having been honed live before being committed to tape. This is the antithesis of The Wall, which would require much effort to be reproduced in all their glory for a live audience. Animals sonically grabs the listener from the first seconds of "Dogs", and doesn’t let up until the second part of "Pigs on the Wing" leaves the listener in some form of resolution. It would be a last hurrah for Pink Floyd as a functioning, complementary unit, but the cracks were starting to show. For the next two albums, the Floyd would be The Roger Waters Experience in all but name, and since 1984 it would be reduced to a mere charade.