There was a certain time in my youth where I listened to Pink Floyd's The Wall album pretty religiously. I can even locate it: late winter of my junior year of high school, 1993. Roger Waters' curdled sensibility and rage against school and society was tailor-made for angsty teenaged me. That was actually my first Floyd album. The following summer I picked up Dark Side, and found myself totally entranced by the more proggy, psychedelic band I found on that album. The two tapes alternated in the stereo of my Mazda Protege, depending on my mind. When I felt good, it was Dark Side, when I felt rotten, The Wall.
Later I developed a taste for the early Syd Barrett Floyd, as well as their gonzo material that bridged their 60s sound and their 70s stardom. Only much later did a friend introduce me to Animals, a true bridge album from Pink Floyd the band to Pink Floyd the Roger Waters apparatus. It's an album that has The Wall's social commentary and anger, but maintains the old prog religion. In fact, it's a far proggier album than anything the Floyd had done since Meddle. Listening to it now it sounds like a missed opportunity, as The Wall would take the band into a more conventional musical direction and more overblown conceptual direction.
Animals starts and ends with two parts of a simple, mournful acoustic song called "Pigs on the Wing." It's about love, not society, but makes for a soft takeoff and landing on a difficult album. The rest of side one is taken up with "Dogs," about those people who obediently follow the rules of society while seeking to dominate others. Richard Wright's organ is subdued, but provides an eerie, horror movie mood underneath the proceedings. Gilmour's fast acoustic guitar is like the sound of a dog bounding quickly after a ball, but the mood darkens when his voice comes in. While the song is credited to both Gilmour and Waters, it definitely has more of a Gilmour feel to it, especially the amazing, typically searing guitar solos interspersed. The lyrics are very dark and reflective of Waters' new direction. There's talk of backstabbing and duplicity, all so one can grow to be old, alone, and dying of cancer. The stretch in the middle of unsettling music and dog noises is pure prog and adds to the somber and off-putting mood.
Unlike other Floyd albums, this one will put me in a down mood pretty fast, and I usually only listen to it when I am feeling in the dumps. I don't exactly need to be reminded these days of how cruel and mean-spirited people can be, or how careerists and opportunists are constantly poisoning just about everything. I happened to buy it on a trip home over the holidays from grad school in December of 2000, precisely when I was in a bit of a down period. Perhaps that's why it took hold of me so fast.
Side two starts off with "Pigs," which if we know our Orwell is talking about all those self-appointed "leaders" who constantly engage in parasitic, sociopathic behavior. Unlike your run of the mill dog, a pig is secure in their power, and has no need to backstab to climb the ladder because they are already at the top. The song itself is loud and punishing, perhaps a riposte to the punks who had deemed the Floyd and their contemporaries dinosaurs. It's also rather relevant these days. Former PM David Cameron is purported to have had sexual relations with a dead pig in his youth as part of one of those Oxbrige groups where everyone grows up to run the country like it's still 1890. And of course, the president of the United States is as piggish as they come, from his porcine body to his tiny, groping hands.
The music of "Pigs" is simpler than usual Floyd, a sign of the direction the band was heading. At this point, however, it's not overly simple. The last long song, "Sheep," ends things in a rousing fashion. It starts, however, with a nice jazzy Wright keyboard number, really the last time he was allowed to fill that kind of space on a Floyd record in their classic era. (After this Waters would cruelly demote him to the status of a sideman, rather than a full band member.) The sheep, of course, are those people who go meekly about their days, living lives of quiet desperation being ruled by pigs and bossed by dogs. While the whole "the people are sheeple" thing has gotten out of hand these days, in the late 70s it was not yet fully played out. In addition to organ this song has some fine bass work from Waters, which gives it a pulsing groove a la "One Of These Days." In this version of things the sheep actually do rise up and take down those who presume to dominate them.
I do not find "Sheep" as musically cohesive as the other tracks, but right now its theme speaks to me. In this era where pigs run our politics and dogs overwhelm our workplaces, I'd like to think that they finally get theirs. Animals may not be in the Floyd pantheon, but it gets at some of the realities of modern life in ways that other allegorical renderings are rarely able to elucidate. Other Floyd records may be better, but there will never be one more relevant.