Why Animals is Pink Floyd’s best album31st January 2017
A re-evaluation of Animals, in celebration of its 40th anniversary.
The first time you hear Animals is one of those moments that sticks with you. You aren’t exactly sure why, but the emotional memory of it hangs around in your system, like discovering ‘the truth’ about Father Christmas or learning your first swear word. For me, it happened two years ago; I was sitting in my room and pretending to read for an essay, self-indulgently playing ‘Comfortably Numb’ (The Wall, 1979) on repeat. Earlier I had given the album a rave review on the phone to my dad, and he in return imparted a piece of sage wisdom, as fathers often do: ‘You shouldn’t waste your ears on The Wall’. So, my procrastination took a turn down Pink Floyd’s discography, and found Animals lying in wait.
At the time I’d taken an irrational offence at my dad’s appraisal of The Wall, an album of rock radio mainstays like the theatrical ‘Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)’ (‘We don’t need no education / We don’t need no thought control’). But soon after my first listen of Animals, I began to feel I’d been missing the point with Pink Floyd. The Wall is like the gateway Floyd, it’s not the reason you stay. Animals can’t offer its listeners punchy 3-minute hits or elegantly farcical drama; It spits raw venom and tears you apart. Animals is a savage brute of an album, and here’s why it’s their best:
Animals occupies a landmark spot in prog-rock history, and so, inevitably it’s a concept album. Loosely based on George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’, it inverts Orwell’s anti-Stalinist vision and depicts a horrifically fragmented society under the thumb of capitalism. But this is not an Orwellian attempt along the bizarre lines of David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs (who also wanted to turn Nineteen Eighty-Four into a musical). Comprising five songs, a dense, dark internal core of three make up the real meat of the album. Each of these (‘Dogs’, ‘Pigs’, and ‘Sheep’) extends over ten minutes, and deliberates on a different social group.
The journey plotted on Animals goes something like this: The ‘dogs’ represent a ruthlessly ambitious middle-class, which are exploited by the morally bankrupt politicians (the ‘pigs’) as a weapon of control against the mass of blind, unquestioning workers (the ‘sheep’). Pink Floyd’s vision reaches a climax with the sheep’s frenzied rise to power, overcoming the pigs who ‘radiate cold shafts of broken glass’ and the dogs who ‘just keep on pretending / that everyone’s expendable’. It’s a familiar allegory, but the Floyd make it devastatingly personal. Exempting no-one on their relentlessly cynical crusade, Roger Waters, the main songwriter of the album, himself emerges as a reluctant ‘dog’: “I gotta admit that I’m a little bit confused / Sometimes it seems to me as if I’m just being used” (on ‘Dogs’).
Animals is their most vicious attack, which abandons the timeless, hazy fluidity of The Dark Side of The Moon and its predecessors for something altogether more direct
Waters’ abrasive politics might seem like a bit of a handful, and they are. Animals is his most vicious attack, which abandons the timeless, hazy fluidity of The Dark Side of The Moon and its predecessors for something altogether more direct. On ‘Pigs (Three Different Ones)’, Waters rails against moral activist Mary Whitehouse as a ‘charade’ and ‘house proud town mouse’, and ‘Sheep’ satirises Psalm 23 ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I’ll not want’. Its specificity means that Animals hangs together far better than any other Pink Floyd concept album: It’s their most cohesive vision, and the two parts of ‘Pigs on the Wing’ that frame Animals provide a much-needed counterweight to the cruelty of the whole. A simple romance on acoustic guitar cuts through the bitterness, and unexpectedly reaffirms the value of love.
But you don’t have to subscribe to a Floydian view of politics to appreciate Animals. The way Animals wins you over is through emotion, not reason. Waters’ bitter misanthropy seethes within the album’s core, and is probably in part a reaction to the punk movement’s origin at that time. Capturing some of the defeatist spirit that inspired Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols to wear a Pink Floyd shirt which he’d defaced with the words ‘I hate’, Animals abandons the complacency of poppy 60s-inspired rock. It has punk’s fire, but expresses itself more eloquently. ‘Dogs’ explodes: “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”, then devolving into a Dave Gilmour slide-guitar solo that wails and screeches like a rough ‘n’ ready 80s punk outfit. Anger drifts into sadness as the song progresses, finally reaching the dire conclusion of “just another sad old man / All alone and dying of cancer… dragged down by the stone”.
The strength of emotion in Animals also accommodates the more whimsical elements in the Floyd’s music. For example, the jangling of cash registers on ‘Money’ (The Dark Side of The Moon) has sometimes been criticised as gimmicky – but here the Floyd deploy electronic elements with a sense of irony, as the aggressive grunts of pigs that open ‘Pigs (Three Different Ones)’ sets up a brilliant contrast against the placid murmurs of the flock on ‘Sheep’. However, they go on precisely to challenge this power dynamic. Calm drudgery of the subservient is overturned, and the revolution is supercharged with runaway excitement until finally “Bleating and babbling we fell on his neck with a scream / Wave upon wave of demented avengers / March cheerfully out of obscurity into the dream”. This is the Floyd’s raw power at its apex.
Animals is also the last album on which there is a semblance of balance in the Floyd’s creative direction. Two gems of albums, The Dark Side of The Moon (1973), and Wish You Were Here (1975), had proved that Pink Floyd were capable of great things without Syd Barrett’s leadership; But the ensuing power struggle between Waters and Gilmour that would eventually lead to their separation (after the ironically named The Final Cut), had not yet reached fever pitch. While Waters’ political axe-grinding dominates Animals, he’s still flexible enough to allow for Gilmour’s wonderfully jammy solos and adoption of lead vocals on ‘Dogs’. By the release of their next album, The Wall, Waters was so overpowering that its producer Bob Ezrin described him publicly as ‘a bully’. Waters’ tight-fist on creative control would go on to sour relations within the band, and see Pink Floyd rehashing the same political themes over again, without the flare or ingenuity of Animals.
Animals is an echo-chamber for social unrest in the 70s. 40 years on, it still provides us with plenty of food for thought. As a work of music, it’s sublime. As a work of political allegory, it’s out of proportion and brutalist. Yet something in Waters’ imagined dystopia still chimes all these years later.