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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Pink Floyd: Animals


PINK FLOYD: ANIMALS (1977)

1) Pigs On The Wing 1; 2) Dogs; 3) Pigs (Three Different Ones); 4) Sheep; 5) Pigs On The Wing 2.

General verdict: An ideal three-part musical crash course in how to hate, despise, and alienate all types of people — should be an obligatory part of your high school curriculum.

Somewhere in between 1975 and 1977, Pink Floyd, formerly a democratic conglomeration of different, but compatible minds, evolved in the direction of a one-man band. In the long run, this would turn out to be the beginning of the end: one-man bands have an unfortunate tendency to either stagnate in the slower-and-slower-flowing channel of the one man's brain (Jethro Tull is the most classic example here), or to heat up and explode if the other members begin resenting their submissiveness — Floyd chose the second route, although, curiously, it took Waters and Gilmour almost a decade to openly declare war on each other.

In the short run, however, no matter how many useless accusations of dictatorial assholishness one might fling at Roger, assuming full control within the band gave him the chance to express himself, for a brief while, with such power and clarity that everything the band released prior to Animals would look like a happy walk in the clouds by comparison. While Gilmour and Wright, both of whom probably had a better ear for melody and a better understanding of sheer sonic beauty than Waters, seemed to languish in relative passiveness, Waters' activity only grew in the Seventies from album to album — a negative-tinged activity, sprouting from his personal, seemingly unfriendly and unstable, character, and seriously fueled by outside circumstances; to the point that, by late 1976, it is safe to state that Roger Waters, the «dinosaur art-rocker» by contemporary standards, was more frustrated, spiteful, vengeful, and misanthropic than the punkiest of all punk bands in existence, and he did not need no chainsaw buzz to make that known to humanity.

Already on Wish You Were Here, we saw the first signs of what would soon become a full-fledged hatred for (nearly) all humanity, albeit still seriously tempered with such «purer» feelings as deep sorrow and sincere empathy for those who are (were) not able to withhold the cruel pressure of this rotten world. But really, Floyd had yet to come out and do it — and it wouldn't be at all possible, had Waters not assumed complete control: Rick Wright, one of the gentlest and mellowest souls on Earth, would only have gotten in the way, and Gilmour, even if the man is perfectly capable of expressing anger and indignation in his work, never had even a dozenth dose of the asphyxiating, kill-on-the-spot bile that Mother Nature had synthesized in Waters' soul; amusingly, the more money they were making on their records, the denser and the bitterer was the poison, with Waters getting madder and madder at both the music business (and business in general) and the band's audiences who, he felt, were either not getting the message at all or would not be changed in any way upon getting the message.

But even if we think of all that accumulated anger as stupid, unhealthy, or hypocritical, one thing is for sure: anger — waves of uncontrollable, barely rational, overwhelming anger — is precisely the one thing that provided the band with a second (third?) breath, and helped them retain their creativity, vitality, and popularity in the New Wave era, when most of their peers either disbanded, or sold out in embarrassing ways, or retreated into niche markets. And so — thank you, Roger Waters, for being such an asshole.

As is usual with Floyd, the songs had a lengthy gestation period (ʻDogsʼ was previously played live for months as ʻYou Gotta Be Crazyʼ, and ʻSheepʼ as ʻRaving And Droolingʼ, widely available then and now on numerous live bootlegs), and the recording process itself took half a year (actually, not atypical for the band's usual level of perfectionism). No additional musicians or technical personnel were involved at all, except for Brian Humphries helping out with the engineering duties (and this gives the album a somewhat claustrophobic feel at times, compared to the more expansive soundscapes of their previous two masterpieces).

The story of the album as such is well-known — how several different ideas eventually coalesced in a loosely Orwellian concept album about three types of animals, and how the album sleeve photo was actually shot with a real floating pig in the air, and how the floating pig flew away and scared off all the cows on a farm in Kent (just another one of Waters' mean practical jokes on the world, oh yes) — but it should also be kept in mind that all these conceptual and packaging elements are quite secondary to the music, which merely takes Animal Farm as a formal framework and uses it for Roger's own purposes (in a way, perhaps, even darker purposes than Orwell's own).

Upon release, the album was not as commercially successful as its predecessors — not so much, it seems, due to essentially being a Waters ego trip (The Wall would be even more of an ego trip, and that did not prevent it from being a smash success), but rather because it was not accompanied by any singles, and the imposing length of the LP tracks made it way too «dinosaurish» for the public, already in the strong grip of the back-to-simplicity movement. Even so, it still rose to No. 2 in the UK and to No. 3 in the US: no mean feat for a record that shows so little love for humanity as a whole or individual humans in their own right.

One interesting consequence of the album's lapsing into a relative gap between such massive hit generators as Dark Side,  Wish You Were Here, and The Wall, though, was its acqusition of a certain cult status — for example, quite a few sophisti-prog fans who usually wrinkle their noses at hearing the sellout name of Pink Floyd are often willing to give Animals an extra chance precisely due to its «anti-commercial» flavor, and I can certainly understand them (at one point in life, it was my personal Floyd album, too, and even though I have also mellowed with age, I certainly do not hold it in any less respect than I did back when I thought it brave and cool to invent various reasons to «despise» Dark Side for its unabashed banality, etc.). Basically, this here is «hipster-targeted Floyd» rather than «mass-targeted Floyd», which does not automatically make one better than the other... it is simply fun to have both side by side.

One thing, and one thing only really matters on Animals: hatred. Yes, there is a very brief acoustic introduction that opens the album on a note of tenderness (in the style of ʻWish You Were Hereʼ), and an equally brief acoustic outro that closes it on the same note. But both of these bits feel like they have been tackled on at the very last moment — intentionally, perhaps, to provide more of a «mock-happy-ending» (and beginning) than any real positive effect, so short and frail they are when compared to the huge bleeding epics in between. For almost forty minutes, Animals breathes nothing but pure hatred, despisal, or contempt for all of its heroes, and since there are so many ways to hate, despise, and hold in contempt, the subject never becomes boring. And, of course, it is not just the lyrics, and not even the way they are delivered (although the vocals, most of them handled by Roger with minor exceptions, are vituperative throughout): most of that green fire is contained in the music, where Gilmour becomes Waters' unwilling accomplice, and only Rick Wright tries to hold his own ground, usually without success (the organ intro for ʻPigsʼ and the electric piano intro for ʻSheepʼ reflect Rick's usual introspective mournfulness, but both very quickly give way to Hell's fury).

The first two epics are those with which most of the listeners can easily find common ground, because, after all, the "dogs" and the "pigs" of this world are relatively scarce compared to its "sheep", and I'd imagine that not a lot of them frequently listen to Pink Floyd anyway. ʻDogsʼ takes a big gamble by occupying most of Side A, but it is also the most complex construction of the three — for some reason, out of all three classes, "dogs" hold Roger's interest for the longest period, as he examines the average dog's motivations, actions, and ultimate fate ("dragged down by the stone") over at least three very different musical sections. The basic task is simple — give a spine-chillin' musical account of the "dog eat dog" ideology — but the way it is accomplished is definitely not, as the song takes plenty of time to build up, evolve from fidgety-nervous folk-prog-rocker in the Canterbury style to a slow bluesy jam and then to an atmospheric, super-slow, keyboard-dominated mid-section, almost pedantically illustrating the actual process of being "dragged down by the stone". Gilmour shines the most on the slow blues jam (he uses more or less the same rhythmic base as in ʻShine On You Crazy Diamondʼ, but this time as a launchpad for vicious and violent, rather than solemn and mournful soloing, culminating in my personal favourite evil cackle bit around 6:20); Wright gets to show his skill on the «drowning» section, arguably their most openly psychedelic bit of music since ʻEchoesʼ; but ultimately, of course, it is all Roger's show, even when Gilmour is singing lead vocals. The "have a good drown / as you go down / all alone, dragged down by the stone" bit gets my personal vote for «most vicious musical bit of the year», just because it sounds so horrendously natural and deep-felt. (Ironic bit of trivia: the proverbial dog, at the end of the song, is described as "who was trained not to spit in the fan", which is precisely what Waters would do at the end of the band's ensuing tour, even if we are talking different sorts of fans here).

ʻPigs (Three Different Ones)ʼ is my personal favorite of the three, even if musically, it is the most simple and straightforward one, never really straining away too much from its funky base. The reason for this, I believe, is that it is on this track that the «hatred» motif reaches its apogee — the syncopated guitar chords slash away far more viciously than the furious, but harmless acoustic strum on ʻDogsʼ, Waters' vocals range from evil-grinning spiteful taunts on the verses to clenched-teeth aggressive insults in the chorus, and then, of course, there's the talkbox... simply put, ʻPigsʼ features the single best use of the talkbox effect in music history, if only because the talkbox naturally sounds like a pig, so what could be a possibly better place for it than on a song directed against all the allegorical pigs of this world? Musically, the single most chilling moment on the album is at 5:10, when, after a cleverly outstretched, carefully built-up suspenseful passage, Dave lets loose with a MONSTROUS talkbox grunt — as if, out of nowhere, a giant, smelly, bloodthirsty, 3000-pound-heavy pig landed right on your head and pummeled you six feet under the ground with all that weight. The overall feel of disgust and ugliness hangs so heavy above the entire track, you almost feel the need to take a shower once it's over. By the way, personally, I am not sure if poor Mary Whitehouse really belonged in the "pigs" category ("house proud town mouse" is a far more apt description), but apparently, Roger had to sweep all the ideological leaders into one foul heap, so a-gruntin' we'll all go. (It also helped immensely forty years later, when the song suddenly got a whole new life from Roger's anti-Trump campaign — and the line "hey you, Whitehouse!" effortlessly acquired a far more relevant meaning).

And then, of course, there is ʻSheepʼ, which should have earned Pink Floyd a death sentence, but apparently half of the fans never understood what it was about in the first place, and the other half thought it was about the first half, so everything turned out all right in the end. Musically, it is somewhat of a predecessor to ʻRun Like Hellʼ — same running tempo, similarly paced bassline, similar echoey fanfare effects on the guitar lines — and, essentially, it is about running like hell, as the poor sheep blindly follow the pigs and end up running away from the dogs, to no avail. The entire track is permeated with paranoia (best illustrated by the bassline) and terror (best illustrated by the way the vocals at the end of each line mutate and crossfade into an electronic banshee wail, only to be abruptly cut off with a thunderblast), but the creepiest and most insulting moment at the same time is the deconstruction of Psalm 23 — one of Waters' smartest anti-religious jabs, by the way: how many of us have ever thought that "The Lord is my shepherd" would quite logically surmise that, soon enough, "with bright knives he releaseth my soul, he converteth me to lamb cutlets"? The track does insinuate that, eventually, the sheep rise up, generate some brain activity, and get rid of their oppressors, but somehow it still seems more like a sarcastic dream than a reality (I mean, who ever saw a sheep "through quiet reflection and great dedication master the art of karate"?), and the triumphant martial guitar riff that fades out at the end of the song never feels anything like a glorious, optimistic conclusion to the whole concept.

And that conclusion? ʻPigs On The Wing 2ʼ, which essentially admits that the only way to get away from the unholy triumvirate of dogs, pigs, and sheep (in which pigs play a particularly disgusting part) is to find yourself an understanding partner and go hide in the woods or something like that. In a way, it is a pretty happy ending, and I will not deny that sometimes I feel exactly the same way...

If I were the Dalai Lama, I would probably reserve a harsh judgement for the album's concept and its unflattering stance on all human castes. Not having the honor, I do reserve the right to share opinions that are close enough to Waters' and, therefore, cannot blame Animals for any conceptual or ideological flaws. I could probably complain about the tracks being somewhat overlong, but instead of that, I would rather take the other way round and complain that there are simply not enough tracks — personally, I'd love to see more perspective on other inhabitants of the Farm as well, including horses, donkeys, cows, chickens, and whoever else was there in the original Orwellian world; more precisely, it just seems that Waters was on such a roll, surely he'd be able to find even more creative ways to ridicule and satirize even more categories of people, and I would love to see Animals, rather than The Wall, develop into the band's spatially grandest opus. Essentially, it is over much too quickly, yet I would not insist on getting ʻDogsʼ cut down to size in order to fit one or two additional pieces.

As for technicalities, I have always thought that, for some reason, the production standards on Animals were slightly below ideal, and that parts of it sound murkier than we'd come to expect. Compared to the crystal clear, heavenly ring of Gilmour's guitar on ʻShine Onʼ, for instance, the lead guitar parts on ʻDogsʼ are spoiled either by unnecessary timbre effects or by poor mixing, and overall, the record sometimes suffers from too much overkill on the effects. Maybe the presence of an Alan Parsons or even a Bob Ezrin could have helped, but, apparently, this was the way they (or at least Roger) wanted it to sound at the time, and perhaps the extra effects, distortion, and general murk were thought to accentuate the overall feel of disgust and contempt. That does not prevent us from applauding all the fantastic production decisions (the talkbox, the crossfades, the doom-laden looping of "stone... stone... stone..."), but I still think that a sharper sound couldn't have hurt in many individual places on the record; of all of the band's classic albums from that decade, I think Animals suffers the most in terms of production.

In conclusion, I would be the first to agree that a view of Animals as a «Roger Waters Vs. Mankind» kind of album would not only be oversimplifying stuff, but also would be portraying Waters, perhaps without proper justification, as a sort of monster. However, (a) I would never rule out such an interpretation, either and (b) it is a fun interpretation — and nobody said it was illegal to hold all mankind in one's contempt, anyway: Timon of Athens got away with this, so why shouldn't Roger Waters? The cool thing about art, anyway, is that we never have to agree with the artist — the only thing that matters is how effectively the artist gets his point across, and Animals passes that test with flying colors, an epic distillation of pure negativity in three parts. Had the record been made by anybody other than Pink Floyd, it would have probably sold less than a hundred copies; Floyd, however, played a cruel joke on their audiences, first transforming millions of people into their own loyal adepts by giving them a brief glimpse at The Meaning Of Life with Dark Side, and then suddenly turning around and delivering this mean blow right under the belt — perhaps the only reason why it did not eliminate their fanbase once and for all was that in early 1977 the average person felt so shitty about everything around him that the vibe seemed perfectly appropriate, even if it meant acknowledging one's own sheepishness. And although it would be hard to call the record particularly innovative or influential, it would be futile to deny that its relevance to this world of ours only continues to grow with each passing decade, because, let's face it, the place is still populated to the brink with Brahmin Pigs, Kshatriya Dogs, and Vaishya Sheep, and how many of us could firmly claim that we do not belong to any of the three categories?..

5 comments:

  1. I would dispute the likening of "Sheep" to "Run Like Hell". I guess they're both dark and rhythmic, but all '70s Floyd is dark, and the rhythms are totally different. The obvious cousin is "One of These Days".

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  2. I suppose then that Waters' ideal audience consists of people like me. This is the only Pink Floyd album I admire. And I do so without any restriction, exactly because Waters shows his hate for Johnny Rotten and me goes a lot deeper than our hate for Pink Floyd. Unfortunately Waters would fall into the hole he dug for himself with the next album, selling out by making stupid teens (and yes, I was a teen too) singing the utterly stupid "we don't need no education".

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  3. I always thought and still think that Animals is not a good album. No memorable melodies, poor sound quality.

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    1. But Pink Floyd was never strong in the melody department. It was not one of their srengths. I like Animals just fine. Solid 7/10

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    2. "Pigs" has some of the strongest and most distinctive melodies of any Floyd song.

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