In 1977, Roger Waters was angry. The bassist and co-frontman of Pink Floyd had experienced, along with the rest of his bandmates, a meteoric rise to rock-stardom in a short four years. In 1973, Pink Floyd released one of rock’s most iconic and beloved albums, Dark Side of the Moon. Two years later, they released another one of rock’s most iconic and beloved albums, Wish You Were Here. The band that once played small gigs in underground London nightclubs was now packing stadiums and dazzling hundreds of thousands of fans with their distinct brand of rock and complex pyrotechnics.
So why then was Waters so dissatisfied? What could have been the source of the fury that produced Animals, Pink Floyd’s beautifully cynical 10th studio album?
It had everything to do with Britain’s developing socioeconomic problems in the late ‘70s. Waters, like many rock musicians of the era, had a marked disdain for anything (and anybody) that had to do with authority and greed. And Britain, in Waters’ view, was becoming increasingly authoritarian and materialistic. His country was being consumed by what he believed to be capitalism’s ugliest depravities. Worse yet, Waters felt like he was contributing to this emerging culture; Pink Floyd was, after all, one of the most commercially successful acts of the 1970s.
And so Waters took his bitterness and guilt, and — in typical Pink Floyd fashion — created a conceptual masterpiece.
Animals was released in the United Kingdom on Jan. 23, 1977, marking another classic installment in Pink Floyd’s impressive discography. Critics were initially shocked by the album’s harshness — in fact, some were made downright uncomfortable by the album’s relentless pessimism.
Indeed, Animals was a striking departure from Pink Floyd’s previous two records. Musically, the album adopts elements of punk, which was flourishing during the late ‘70s. Where Dark Side and Wish You Were Here (great individual works in their own right) were spacey, tight and sometimes jazzy, Animals was piercing, manic and cluttered.
Still, Pink Floyd put their distinct sonic stamp — which synthesizes blues influences with innovative electronic soundscapes — on Animals. And though the album is Waters’ brainchild, it would be nothing without the talent and vision of Pink Floyd’s three other members.
David Gilmour puts together a masterful guitar performance, probably his most impressive on a Pink Floyd album. He showcases a new glassy strat sound that is fundamental to the album’s penetrating instrumentals. On “Dogs,” a 17-minute tour de force, Gilmour graces listeners with incredibly emotional harmonized leads and an innovative, pulsating rhythm part on acoustic guitar. With that song alone, Gilmour puts himself in a league of his own. On the next track, “Pigs (Three Different Ones),” Gilmour manipulates his guitar with a talk box to make his solos sound like a pig squealing. That is the type of artistry that distinguishes Pink Floyd from other bands.
Keyboardist Rick Wright’s contribution to Animals is also (as always) invaluable. Wright’s synth and keyboard parts are thin and hollow, low hanging and ominous. On “Dogs,” Wright is able to create synths that mimic the sound of a mosquito, relentlessly buzzing in and out of the listener’s ears. Also on “Dogs,” Wright distorts a Hammond organ to imitate the sound of dogs barking. Yet another example of Pink Floyd pushing sonic boundaries on “Animals.”
Conceptually, the album is a scathing denunciation of a system that was morally bankrupt in Waters’ eyes. Waters based the concept loosely on George Orwell’s Animal Farm. There are three songs — all over 10 minutes — at the center of the album, bookended by two brief but powerful parts of what is essentially the same song. (This unusual album structure bears resemblance to “Wish You Were Here.”)
The three main songs – “Dogs,” “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” and “Sheep” — each take on a different societal or economic institution. “Dogs” is a harrowing account of the cannibalistic and ravenous nature of businessmen trying to get ahead in the corporate world. It is a perturbing and powerful tale about gaining and losing control, about being a pack animal that finds himself dying alone. (Waters was clearly not an optimistic man during his 30s.)
“Pigs (Three Different Ones)” is a merciless assault on figures of British authority. Waters shows particular contempt for socially conservative leader Mary Whitehouse (whom he calls out by name), calling her a “house proud town mouse.”
“Sheep” serves as a conclusion of sorts to the three-song string at the heart of the album. Waters describes the “sheep” that are encouraged to overtake the “dogs,” but who are only told in the end to stay inside and follow orders when the revolution is complete. Waters completes his criticism of British society by condemning the complacency of the people, which has allowed the dogs and pigs to flourish.
I have barely scratched the surface of Animals complexity. It is an overwhelming yet supremely listenable album made by a band at the height of their creative power. One does not have to agree with Waters’ message to appreciate the sheer power this album delivers.
Nima Aminian is a junior majoring in economics. His column, Classics’ Corner, runs every other Thursday.