Thursday, January 08, 2009

Pink Floyd Animals as Punk Rock

Punk Floyd; Reinterpreting 1977's Animals

In the dawning days of punk rock, John Lydon, before he was Rotten, wore a Pink Floyd t-shirt, with I HATE stenciled in above the band name.

“No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones in 1977,” the Clash demanded, and Pink Floyd would have been about next on the list. But in that year of punk, Pink Floyd launched an album, now overlooked, that rivaled Rotten in its misanthropy and classified humanity into pigs, dogs and sheep.

Animals gets lost in the classic rock radio version of Pink Floyd history, which encompasses only two and a half albums: Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall, and the shorter tracks on Wish You Were Here. I only twice heard a DJ play the 17 minute “Dogs.” The first was Dr. Johnny Fever, in the timeless turkey-drop episode.

The second was during a summer in Washington, DC, when a radio station had a contest and the winners got to pick six songs to play over the lunch hour, and one smart-ass maximized their own airtime with “Dogs.”

That was in 1989, the summer I first got acquainted with Animals. I was broken-hearted and bitter, and it fit my mood. I remember playing it on a Walkman while I stared at the Vietnam Wall. Sure, the anti-war The Final Cut would have been more appropriate, and so would, well, duh, but Animals was what I had and it worked.

WKRP Tangent

The Pink Floyd scene has been cut from rebroadcasts and DVDs of the classic WKRP in Cincinnati turkey drop episode, one of many victims in the DVD set.

One of the things that made WKRP great was its use of contemporary rock music, the kind of stuff a real Johnny Fever or Venus Flytrap would have played in that era.

(That, and the hot librarian looks of Jan Smithers. They used the old trick: put glasses on the babe to “hide” her attractiveness, to which my response is invariably, “hey, who's the babe in the glasses?” Bailey vs. Jennifer never became a cultural debate like Mary Ann vs. Ginger, because we guys all quickly realized Smithers was far more beautiful than the artificial ├╝berblonde Loni Anderson. There, a tangent within a tangent.)

But legal and licensing changes have cut much of that period realism from the show. The rights were not permanent, and to go back and re-buy the rights to use with the new technology is cost-prohibitive. Put simply: the folks making the DVDs don't think they can make enough extra money from the original, uncut shows to pay what Pink Floyd's record company wants to charge.

Usually, they just replaced the recognizable original song with something generic. But often, the music was too important for replacement to work.

The music was inseparable from the humor and dialogue in the “Dogs” scene. Johnny and Carlson are listening to the song, talking specifically about “Dogs” and “Pigs on the Wing,” and looking at the album cover—just like a supercool DJ and his unhip but decent boss, who gave rock and roll a chance despite knowing nothing about it, might have.

Pink Floyd makes the characters more real. Johnny is probably playing “Dogs” as an excuse for a 17 minute nap. The Big Guy wants to be cool and know what's going on, as he spins his head around and around to try to read the record label. But Animals is one more thing that makes him feel like such a fish out of water in his own business that he launches a spectacularly lamebrained publicity scheme just to feel relevant. The Floyd scene helps set up the whole episode.

They could have butchered it, like they did to a whole episode in which Elton John's “Tiny Dancer” was key. The better answer was to drop the whole thing. (Well, the better better answer would have been to pay what they had to.)

But there's no truth to the rumor that “Turkeys” was an unissued outtake from the Animals sessions. Back to our story, already in progress.
In form Animals, a concept album centered around three ten minute-plus tracks, is not punk at all. Floydian bombast and lengthy solos were part of what the punks were rebelling against, and Animals, with several long, moody keyboard sections, lacks punk's conciseness. (Whole Ramones sets were shorter than “Dogs.”)

But Roger Water's vocals and lyrics muster nearly as much rage and nihilism as Johnny Rotten was pouring into that year's classic run of Sex Pistols singles. And wealthy rock aristocrat Waters and street punk Rotten shared common enemies: the political establishment and the crumbling decay of late industrial era UK capitalism.

Industrial decay leaps out from the very cover. The only place where Animals gets full credit in the Pink pantheon is in its artwork. Floyd covers disproportionately became visual icons of rock: the prism and rainbow in the darkness most of all, the flaming handshake, the bricks and grotesque cartoons of The Wall... and the Pig, floating over the smokestacks of London's Battersea Power Station, a brick temple to the coal age just beginning to crumble. (Yes, they really floated it for the picture. And yes, it really did break loose and float into the London Heathrow air traffic lanes.)

Animals starts gently, deceptively, with half of the divided song “Pigs on the Wing” (the full version in the video above is a rarity only included on the... wait for it... eight-track version.) But unlike Wish You Were Here, where the long song is split and the short ones are intact, the halves of “Pigs on the Wing” are but a brief framing device. In 90 seconds the acoustic guitar doubles its tempo and we begin the long march of “Dogs.”

The Dogs are the powers of capitalism, the businessmen with “the club tie, and the firm handshake” like the flaming one on Wish You Were Here.
You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to,
So that when they turn their backs on you,
You'll get the chance to put the knife in.

...and the knife, in the form of Dave Gilmour's guitar, stabs out of the speakers.

You could take about half the verses of “Dogs,” lop out the solos, pick up the pace, and make a decent punk song. It shares its climactic drowning imagery with the Sex Pistols' “Submission.” Which one is this from?
And when you lose control, you'll reap the harvest you have sown.
And as the fear grows, the bad blood slows and turns to stone.
And it's too late to lose the weight you used to need to throw
So have a good drown, as you go down, all alone,
Dragged down by the stone.

And “stone... stone... stone... stone...” echoes on and on over a Rick Wright keyboard interlude, a pause to catch your breath for the next verse.
Deaf, dumb, and blind, you just keep on pretending
That everyone's expendable and no-one has a real friend.
And it seems to you the thing to do would be to isolate the winner
And everything's done under the sun,
And you believe at heart, everyone's a killer.

The verses (no chorus, ever) all have a pattern, starting mostly acoustic and building, louder each line, the ends of lines underscored with guitar for emphasis. Most of the verses are sung by Gilmour. His only co-writing credit on the album is for “Dogs,” mostly for the intense guitar solos that musically dominates the track.

Side one slams to a close with Waters taking over the vocals here and for most of the rest of the album, viciously spitting out the repetitive, percussive last lines:
Who was born in a house full of pain.
Who was trained not to spit in the fan.
Who was told what to do by the man.
Who was broken by trained personnel.
Who was fitted with collar and chain.
Who was given a pat on the back.
Who was breaking away from the pack.
Who was only a stranger at home.
Who was ground down in the end.
Who was found dead on the phone.
Who was dragged down by the stone.

Another reason Animals is underrated is that it's the most specifically British of the classic Floyd era. Two of the “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” are specific, contemporary U.K. political figures.

The Pigs of the first verse are politicians in general, as the track starts with an ascending/descending keyboard theme and a five-note guitar riff. The Pigs are generic in the first verse, mocked in their piety-for-show:
When your hand is on your heart,
You're nearly a good laugh,
Almost a joker,
With your head down in the pig bin,
Saying "Keep on digging."

The second Pig is Margaret Thatcher, already Tory party leader in 1977 but still two years away from Number Ten Downing Street. Sure, there's an implicit misogyny in calling her a “fucked-up old hag,” a misogyny which would surface again on The Wall. But Thatcher-hatred is an individual thing and, as Britain would learn, something she'd earn. Waters would rage against Thatcher, and her disproportionate Falklands War, by name for much of 1983's The Final Cut, his last album with the band.

An American might easily misinterpret the third Pig, in the verse beginning “Hey you white house,” as a reference to the American president's home. But Mary Whitehouse was a British censorship advocate, sort of a U.K. version of Tipper Gore. Knowing this, the verse makes more sense:
You're trying to keep our feelings off the street...
You gotta stem the evil tide,
And keep it all on the inside.

At the last live performance of the 1977 tour, at the end of this song, Waters had a moment of punk rage and spat, Sid Vicious style, on a fan. The “Montreal spitting incident” was a key moment in the genesis of The Wall.

Moving on from the pigsty, the “Sheep” begin to bleat. The Sheep are the masses, the proles, and here Waters deviates from Rotten's world view and adopts a revolutionary punk stance more akin to that other great punk, Joe Strummer of the Clash. After being beaten down and eaten up (in a too-long, vocoderized 23rd Psalm parody where the Lord “converteth me to lamb cutlets”), the Sheep rise up against the Pigs and Dogs:
Bleating and babbling I fell on his neck with a scream.
Wave upon wave of demented avengers
March cheerfully out of obscurity into the dream.

Have you heard the news?
The dogs are dead!
You better stay home
And do as you're told.
Get out of the road if you want to grow old.

And Gilmour celebrates the revolution with a angrily triumphant guitar solo. After about two minutes it fades off into the distance behind the Sheep, and the acoustic guitars return to conclude “Pigs on the Wing.” Chirping birds, deep in the mix, join the menagerie. The vicious Dogs have become man's best friend again, curled up by the hearth:
You know that I care what happens to you,
And I know that you care for me too.
So I don't feel alone,
Or the weight of the stone,
Now that I've found somewhere safe
To bury my bone.
And any fool knows a dog needs a home,
A shelter from pigs on the wing.

And, just like The Wall is in the end torn down, Animals ends on a faint note of hope.

1975's Wish You Were Here, in retrospect, marked the end of one phase of Floyd, saying goodbye symbolically with the epic “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” Animals is the beginning of the three album Wall arc that saw Waters drifting further away from the rest of the band, culminating in the mostly-hushed autobiography of The Final Cut. When Gilmour took over the Floyd brand in 1987, amidst much litigation, he steered away from the Waters-dominated trilogy, further denying Animals its due.

In 1978, a few weeks after Johnny Rotten asked the Sex Pistols' final audience, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?” Monty Python's Eric Idle cracked a Punk Floyd joke in his terrific Beatles parody, All You Need Is Cash (better known as "The Rutles"). The idea of a punk Floyd was as silly as the idea of a punk Paul McCartney.

But you get the idea that Idle hadn't really listened to Animals.

If you liked this switch from the regular format, you may also enjoy:

  • Not That Funny Is It: Fleetwood Mac's Tusk
  • Rockin' in Wisconsin with Cheap Trick
  • Turning Rebellion Into Money: The Story of the Clash (warning: this is an ancient grad school paper with annoying academic language.)
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