Album Review: Animals by Pink Floyd

Editors note:  This review gives interpretations of the songs on the album, which include explanations provided by the band and others, as well as my own personal understandings of the songs. 

Among Pink Floyd albums, Animals is definitely one for which my opinion has improved markedly over the years, and it is probably one of the more polarizing albums of their classic period between Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall.  

I first heard Animals during a time when I had become enamored with the band’s previous releases Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You were Here.  These albums presented well polished master pieces of studio perfected rock.  Wish You Were Here, especially struck me as having an almost futuristic sound, with Richard Wright’s thick keyboard arrangements and David Gilmore’s atmospheric guitar work (it still does not sound dated, to me). Though Roger Waters lyrics on both albums were often dark, they had a serenity to them, if not some sort of vague spirituality, which gave these albums a more optimistic feel than they otherwise would have.  

All of this was thrown out the window with the release of Animals, in 1977.  This album feels much darker, much rawer and has a much bleaker outlook.  The flashy studio effects are largely gone or subdued, as is any hope of feeling any spiritual uplift at the end of the record. The record instead deals with the harsh realities of 1970’s corporate capitalism, and puts them in a setting with a distinctly Orwellian feel.  

It is likely that this change of feel was the result of cultural changes on both sides of the Atlantic in the Mid-seventies.  The economy was badly stagnating, job opportunities were hard to come by and insecurity was taking over the lives of many ordinary people.  The idealism of the 1960s was long past, and was being replaced by a combination of apathy, frustration and anger.

Many of these negative feelings were finding a musical outlet at the time, in punk rock, which was starting to become a cultural and media phenomenon around the time animals was being developed.  Punk had was loud, fast, and simplistic, high energy music, that in many ways the opposite of the music Pink Floyd was releasing at that time.  Early punk bands had a sound that was rooted in the high energy, garage rock of the early sixties, but with a nihilistic attitude that alienated and frustrated young people in the seventies could relate to.  It was music that was close to the street, and close to the action.  It was relevant.  

Punk bands were largely rebelling against the elitist, arena oriented, drawn-out, solo-heavy, over-produced, blatantly commercial rock that had become mainstream over the course of the seventies.  Punks valued authenticity over, technical ability, and in many ways provided a voice for people who were sick of rock music that was long on production value and technical ability but short on energy and relevance.  Punk offered a return to agile, intense rock music, that anyone willing to pick up an instrument could play.  It was in many ways, the exact opposite of the airy, atmospheric music Pink Floyd was making, but it was surprisingly less far from the music they were making at the start of their career.  

In short the themes and sounds of the music that evolved during the late 1960s were getting rather old, and by the late 1970s labels such as “corporate rock” or “dinosaur rock” felt very applicable to bands like Pink Floyd.  As such, many see the release of Animals as a response or a reaction to these changes in music, culture and the economy.  

Ironically, this reaction comes in the form of a release that keeps much of the band’s formula intact. Though the band goes for a more raw sound with darker edges, once the listener gets past this, all the hallmarks of their previous records are still there.  The three main songs are as lengthy and drawn out as anything on their previous two releases, and Gilmore soaring solos are all over this record, especially on Dogs, which he co-wrote.  Though Richard Wright did not contribute as heavily to this album as previous ones (likely due to his cocaine addiction), he still plays many thick keyboard pieces, including a long interlude in the middle of Dogs, and the beautiful introduction to Sheep.  Somehow, though these often manage to sound, either eery or homely rather than clean and futuristic as they did on the previous albums.  

The album’s concept borrows from Orwell’s approach of using animals as stand-ins for humans.  Unlike Orwell, who in Animal Farm, did this to satirize Soviet Russia, Roger Waters (who wrote all the lyrics) uses this device to discuss contemporary society.  On the album, humans are grouped into three types of animals: dogs, sheep and pigs (each with their own song).

Dogs are lower to upper middle class movers and shakers.  They are people willing to throw everyone else under the bus to feather their nest or maintain their own security.  They are foot soldiers of the existing order, and seem to represent the world’s salesmen, military recruiters and mid-level managers.  They recognize the cut throat nature of the system they live in and are willing to do all needed to survive and excel in it, but are force to recognize the futility of this.  The song Dogs feature lines about “just being used” and becoming “just another sad old man all alone and dying of cancer”.  It also makes extensive use of “the stone” which is apparently an insufferable burden that drags down many of us.  Dogs takes up most of the first half of the album and features vocals from Gilmore and Waters.  It provides an excellent contrast between Gilmore’s smoothness and Waters tension filled vocals, which become very prominent on this record and the two following ones.  

Pigs are the corrupt officials in the system.  These are the government officials and CEOs in the system.  These are the people who benefit most from the system.  The only Pig referred to by name is Mary Whitehouse, who at the time was a vocal proponent of government censorship. The song Pigs, makes heavy uses of a creepy talking guitar sound, and unsettling pig sound effects, that somehow manage not to distract the listener from the song itself.  

Sheep are the mindless masses.  The are the people who go to work each day and come home falling asleep in front of the TV set.  They are oblivious to the nature of the system and hardly care.  The song Sheep is consider, by many to be one of the album’s strongest tracks.  It features a thumping bass line and aggressive sounding vocals from Waters.   It also features a somewhat distorted and muted sounding parody of Psalm 23, which includes the lines: “The Lord is my shepherd… the maketh me to hang on hooks in high places and converteth me to lamb cutlets”.  By the end of the songs, the sheep do realize their own strength and over power the dogs, but afterward still lead lives of submission to authority.  

The album is bookended with two verses of a short acoustic ballad, song by waters titled Pigs on the Wing, which seems to be a love song from the point of view of the Dog characters.  It is very raw and simplistic, and quickly lets the listener know that this will be a very different kind of album, than the group’s previous releases.  The closing verse also contains a brief glimmer of the optimism, that otherwise absent from this release.  

The album’s cover features a pig hovering between the smokestacks of the Battersea Power Station, a massive coal burning power plant with four large smoke stacks rising from it.  It gives the cover a very industrial and institutional appearance, that compliments it’s feel quite well.  I will note, that I had the good fortune to ride by the Battersea Power Station during a visit to London a few weeks back and quickly recognized it from this album cover.

Animals takes a couple listens to get used to, and is probably not the record I would use introduce people to this band.  I probably would not consider my favorite Pink Floyd release either, but it is definitely a compelling and unique album that strongly reflects the time in which is was produced, while being somewhat ahead of its time, as well. 

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