Pink Floyd will always be known for their massively successful concept albums, and David Gilmour and Roger Waters’ tense, and personally explosive, dynamic on albums like Dark Side of the Moon seems reminiscent of another masterful songwriting duo known for rock high concepts. Indeed, "there would have been no Dark Side of the Moon, and no dragons-and-warlocks-themed prog-rock epics,” writes Jody Rosen at Slate, “had the Beatles not decided to don epaulets for their lark of an album cover and impersonate a vaudeville band.”
But where The Beatles’ loose conceptual masterpieces had their stormy and sad moments, they generally kept things chipper on albums like Sgt. Pepper’s. Pink Floyd seemed determined to do precisely the opposite, setting a template for entire genres of metal to follow. 1977’s Animals especially reminds me of nothing so much as an album by Megadeth or Mastodon. Musical and thematic similarities abound: epic, booming, doomy songs with lyrics completely uninterested in charming their listeners. “Sheep,” for example, contains a modified version of the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd. He maketh me to hang on hooks in high places and coverteth me to lamb cutlets.”
As the brutish title alerts us, Animals is an adaptation of George’s Orwell’s Animal Farm (and the origin of Pink Floyd’s giant inflatable pig). The schematic allegory of Orwell’s book lends a high degree of coherence to Waters' extended songs---only five in total. But he supplies his own characteristic bile (he famously spit on a fan during one tour, an incident that inspired The Wall). It couldn’t be more appropriate. Where Orwell's novel is a transparent attack on Stalinism, Waters adapts his critique to “the economic and ideological systems within late-twentieth century liberal democracies.” So argues Phil Rose in an in-depth study of Waters’ lyrical ideas. The album’s “primary concern… is to reveal the effects that technocratic capitalist relations have on the nature of human beings and the evident divisions that undemocratic structures of power create among us as individuals.”
Orwell showed the effects of "undemocratic structures" by reducing individuals to animal types, and so does Waters, simplifying the classes further into three (and leaving out humans altogether): the ruling pigs, praetorian and aspiring capitalist dogs, and the sheep, the mindless masses. The opener, “Pigs on the Wing (Part One)” (top), an urgent acoustic strummer that gets picked up at the end of the album in a strangely upbeat reprise, sets a dystopian tone with images that may now seem old hat (bear in mind Animals debuted five years before Blade Runner).
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.
Most of the songs began their lives as a rough collection that came together after Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. Waters insisted on the literary conceit, against Gilmour's objections, but the themes had already been very much on his mind. “Dogs,” above, was once a sardonic rant called “You’ve Gotta Be Crazy,” and one of its bleakest stanzas survives from that earlier track:
You gotta keep one eye looking over your shoulder.
You know it's going to get harder, and harder, and harder as you
And in the end you'll pack up and fly down south,
Hide your head in the sand,
Just another sad old man,
All alone and dying of cancer.
There may be no sharper an antithesis to "When I'm 64." The image is made all the more devastating by the homicidal paranoia surrounding it. Not all of the Orwell overlay works so well, but when it does, it does so with devastating force. Consider these lines from “Sheep,” as terrifying as any late Medieval judgement scene, and more effective for an age that may not believe in hell but has seen the slaughterhouses:
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.
What a surprise!
A look of terminal shock in your eyes.
Now things are really what they seem.
The band’s “bleakest studio album,” argues Brice Ezell at Consequence of Sound, “feels eerily relevant in these grave times.” I can’t help but agree. Pink Floyd greatly inspired much of the heavy music to follow, doing as much as Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin, I’d argue, to engage the imaginations of metalheads and prog-rock storytellers. Much of the music that followed them sounds very dated, but forty years after its release, their gloomiest record---which is saying a lot---seems more relevant than ever. Animals ends on an ambivalent note, hopeful but wary. The pigs are still on the wing, and the only remedy at hand, Waters suggests in the last few lines, may be to "know that I care what happens to you / And I know that you care for me."