Pink Floyd Adapts George Orwell’s Animal Farm into Their 1977 Concept Album, Animals (a Critique of Late Capitalism, Not Stalin)

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
get old­er.
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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear How Clare Torry’s Vocals on Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky” Made the Song Go from Pret­ty Good to Stun­ning

Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” Pro­vides a Sound­track for the Final Scene of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

The Life & Times of Don­ald J. Trump: A Fea­ture Film Set to Pink Floyd’s The Wall

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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