My friends over at the Discograffiti podcast are kicking some serious back-catalog ass, poring over every inch of the discography (not just the albums, but the singles, EPs, and significant bootlegs too) of “every major artist” (they’ve gotten through a handful so far, but hey, they’re ambitious). If you haven’t listened yet, click here to point your browser to their website or search for “Discograffiti” within your podcast app. These guys, filmmaker Dave Gebroe and musician Joe Kennedy are true music fanatics, equally hilarious and academic, candid and reverent (where appropriate), they both know a ton, the pacing is breezy but the content is profound. Just as the essence of film is images, the essence of podcast is talk. Dave and Joe are virtuosos at talking about music together (they’ve been doing it offline for decades). This is music podcasting at an Olympic level and you, fair muso reader, will enjoy listening to what they have to say about Pink Floyd, Roxy Music, The Monkees, The Bee Gees, and The Band (just a sampling of what they’ve been talking about in the first 32 episodes). These deep dives are heavily evaluative. They give out star ratings to everything (be warned, if that’s anathema to you), and I have agreed 100% with at least one of them except for one glaring exception. They both agree that Animals is – get this – the worst Pink Floyd album. I rate it among their best. Rather than try to defend it succinctly in their comments section, it occurred to me, wait. I have a column where I’ve been defending musical pariahs. Why not roll out my rebuttal in style?
Some of the bands that Discograffiti reviews have discographies that can be covered in a single episode, but Pink Floyd took two 51-minute podcasts to fully evaluate, and that makes sense since they are really two very different bands with different missions with and without Syd Barrett. Episode One started with a primer on the band’s beginnings as part of the psych-pop, pre-prog Canterbury Scene, exhibiting their long-form “ballroom style” and psychedelic pop songs centered around the prodigious talents of their leader, true original, Syd Barrett, as evidenced on their masterpiece debut album Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Five stars all around (I concur). Sadly, Syd’s mind immediately disintegrated due to the daily doses of LSD he ingested for the many months following the release of Piper, and by their second album, A Saucerful of Secrets, the band had already begun shifting to the second version of Pink Floyd with David Gilmour taking over for Barrett (Syd only appears on two songs, and one just as a guitar player). From here, Dave and Joe chunk through the entire Pink Floyd discography with wit, style, dedication, and very little mercy, sometimes begrudgingly handing out 4 and 5 star ratings despite some misgivings. Specifically, they give high ratings to Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, despite them both being exploitations of their outsider observances of their fallen ex-leader, Syd Barrett whose mental illness provided convenient fodder for both concept albums (sentiments and ratings with which I sort of concur). But when the podcast got to the next Pink Floyd opus, Animals, the hosts’ good graces had run dry. Snarkily dubbing the music “Punk Floyd” (hearing it as the band’s reaction to the punk movement, which is true), Dave and Joe both pegged Animals as a whiny, misanthropic, unfocused dud of a record with murky production and a shallow, misguided reading of Orwell’s Animal Farm as grist for another half-baked concept album. Dave calls it the worst Pink Floyd album in their whole discography and Joe doesn’t go that far, but grants it only 2 ½ stars (nowhere near good). Oof. Gentle Dave also adds that anyone who likes this album is “a total piece of shit,” which elicited chuckles from both of them and an article from me. Let’s get into it.
First off, it is true that Animals is indeed a reaction to the punk movement, but a graceful and poetic one, in my opinion, in true late-70s Pink Floyd grandiose style – not an easy thing to pull off. I mean, what would they have the band do, ignore the punk revolution exploding all around them, or worse yet, be imitative and put out a Pink Floyd album of short songs that sounded like The Clash or The Damned? Co-host Joe makes the point that the arena-rock, longform pretensions of the late-70s Floyd style of Animals runs contrary to the whole ethos of punk, which was supposed to be a “back to the people” movement, but while I can see his point, I would counter that the “whole” punk ethos encompasses much more and expresses something deeper (and it’s an ethos that can traverse musical genres besides what we think of as punk rock), and that is a dissatisfaction with the status quo leading to the questioning of existing power structures. That “whiny” quality that the Discograffiti hosts objected to could be said about any great punk album from any era. Punk is angry on the surface, but angry at what? I hear the sound of “punk” as dissatisfaction and disappointment at the progress of humanity, dismay at where our evolution as a civilization has led us, toward shallow greed instead of enlightenment and egalitarianism. That is the very human theme of every great punk album I can think of and it’s also the theme of Animals, as told through Roger Waters’ pastiche allegorical language borrowed from Orwell (not a bad source to poach; see Bowie’s Diamond Dogs album).
On the subject of theme and/or concept, Animals is cloaked in a dark, Orwellian dystopian vision, not of the future as in Diamond Dogs, but of present-day British society. Yes, lyricist Roger Waters presents a bleak, chastising look at society, but the hosts leave out the key element that keeps Animals from landing merely as a work of deep misanthropy, devoid of human compassion, and that is context. The album is comprised of five songs. Three longform dark treatises on society, “Dogs,” “Pigs,” and “Sheep” plus two different versions of the hopeful, personal short acoustic song “Pigs on the Wing,” where Waters is grateful for the mutual love and compassion he has with his beloved, and thankful that they can avoid the darkness, (and in the second iteration, feel safe) by being together. This is the frame of the album, and a structure so important that the song is presented twice, as bookends. Ignoring the role of the gentle opener and closer “Pigs on the Wing” is to ignore the major premise of Animals, which will of course, lead to a faulty conclusion. This is not a deeply misanthropic album. In fact, it’s a deeply humanistic work, one of compassion and gratitude. It’s overtly stated. Twice, even.
Now, onto the allegory. “Dogs,” first off, is a musical tour de force (the hosts manage to talk about Animals without really even talking about the music, so psyched are they to run down the lyrical content). The epic song (it’s 18 minutes long) starts out with David Gilmour’s driving acoustic guitar chording paired with what sounds like Rick Wright’s high sustained organ swells being pushed through an external synth filter (a really interesting, warm and organic keyboard sound). The two instruments outline an inventive, useful little chord progression (Dm9 – Bb – Asus11 – Bb7, if you speak that language), and when the melody enters, it’s centered around notes not found in that opening basic Dm chord – the e and the g, plus the lyrics do not have any sort of rhyme scheme (and the meaning behind the opening line, “You’ve got to be crazy…” matches the briskness of Gilmour’s strumming pattern). Not to get too analytical here, but suffice it to say that this is a well-designed, daring, extremely musical composition which starts out with a sparse, anticipatory, densely musical energy, leaving it room to grow and broaden over time. Great writing by anyone’s standards, and it has a very Floydian sound in terms of melody and chords, but there’s something new that we didn’t get anywhere on the preceding masterworks, Meddle, Dark Side of the Moon, or Wish You Were Here. “Dogs” is not their usual mid-tempo space-rock fare. It really moves. It’s a true allegro and I can’t think of where else that happens in their discography until that point.
The lyrics of the opening verses flesh out a “dog eat dog” world in a very personal way, through the eyes of the protagonist dog and without cliche, or reliance on any set rhyme scheme, although there is some haphazard rhyming along the way. The theme, carried by Gilmour’s dreamy vocal, is the personal impact and culture of unbridled capitalism (a popular theme for punk rock as well), the game is high-stakes, and “Dogs” succeeds triumphantly at fulfilling one of host Dave’s own personal criteria, the memorable lyric before a killer guitar solo. “So that when he turns his back on you/you’ll get the chance to put the knife in…” is the kickoff to one of Gilmour’s fiercest solos on record. After which, “then after a while you can work on points for style/like the club tie, the firm handshake, a certain look in the eye and the easy smile” an almost Joni-like fluidity in the conversational phrasing of the lyrics, and a purposeful introduction of consistent rhyming in the song – more good writing. At about 3:45, the song shifts into more traditional Floydian space-rock territory with a harmonized, fully-composed dual lead guitar line, taken at the slower half time, that leads to a melodic climax and ends in a swampy minor-keyed acoustic guitar groove with dogs baying in the background (pretty cinematic here), accented by another killer guitar solo, and culminating in the “dragged down by the stone” section of the song with Gilmour taking on a Waters-styled edgy delivery in the vocals. Tasty, well-executed and very Dark Side of the Moon, to my ear (in a good way) – I don’t understand what there is here for a true Pink Floyd fan to object to, at least one that didn’t get off the bus at Dark Side or Wish You Were Here. After wending its way back to the fast section again, the song ends back here in the “boggy moors” again with a mounting list a litany of traumas our main dog has endured (“who was born in a house full of pain?” et. al.). This is a Pink Floyd coda structure that we have seen at the end of Dark Side with “Eclipse” (“all that you touch and all that you see” etc.) but it’s fully integrated into the theme and sonic world of Animals here and in no way sounds like a rehash. I love “Dogs” – as much as any Pink Floyd opus, “Echoes” included. Host Joe begrudgingly gives “Dogs” a little love, but basically dismisses it as “proggy” and way too long. I don’t hear it that way (despite its length, I find its construction leaner, and more taut than almost any of their longform works; it’s just a virtuoso composition) but as we say in the music threads, “your mileage may vary.” And besides, what’s wrong with prog?
Next up is “Pigs” which finds us in a more proggy world, with the minor keyed semi-classical Rick Wakeman-like organ figure fleshing out the intro, leading us into an abrasive Roger Waters vocal (“ha ha, charade you are”) accented by Gilmour’s slashes from the bottom of his Strat (this is a texture reminiscent of “Have a Cigar” from the preceding album and also “Young Lust” from their next one, The Wall). That album is also a longform work that the hosts seem to like a lot more, but admitted for what could be sentimental reasons (it’s hard to tell sometimes, which was the subject of my own Esthetic Lens article, “Is This Stuff Even Any Good?”). I am not the biggest, mouth-agape fan of the Floyd songs where Waters is singing, “Money” notwithstanding, I’m fully in the Gilmour as lead vocalist camp. I will say, though, that Animals (unlike The Wall) has the perfect balance between the Gilmour voice and the Waters voice. It’s one of its strengths as an album (and one of the weaknesses of The Wall, which is way too Waters-heavy, to the point that it starts to sound like a Waters solo album, not a big selling point). So, I view “Pigs” as part of the mix and while I will admit it’s critical and condescending towards the characters within the song, the pigs are the well-heeled plutocrats with their noses in the trough, and the real targets of the song are their enablers, the sheep who worship their wealth and power (more on them next). So, while “Pigs” is a leap into the vitriolic domain of Roger Waters, it’s there for a purpose.
“Sheep” starts with a very musical introduction, with Rick Wright’s great sounding Fender Rhodes fed through a time-precision panning effect (an easy thing to accomplish in a computer these days, but probably requiring the skill of the band’s technical staff and some sort of variable-speed oscillator back in 1977 when this was recorded). It’s a long, anticipatory build (about 1:30) before the drums kick in and we find ourselves in a very Meddle-like musical terrain (a lot like that album’s opener, “One of These Days”) with a galloping 6/8 feel, Roger Waters’ bass pulsating through a flanger effect, and noisy backward tape whoosh effects crashing into organ stabs. It’s a high-energy musical feel with palpable danger around the corner, a perfect union with the lyric, which is a song about blithe sheep only “dimly aware of a certain unease in the air.” Waters sings more than yells this one, and his long sustained notes that end the phrases morph into, what? a guitar? a synth sustained note, incredibly long, which lands crashing into a fiery explosion of distorted guitar every time. Really cool stuff, a great marriage of muscular Floydian music and technology, in their grand tradition. Super Floydy – if you like that sort of thing! And the musical violence here is appropriate given the dystopian horror show of the lambs being led to slaughter we are soon treated to. One last point to rebut is that host Joe complains about the production on Animals being “murky” – huh. I simply don’t hear it. In fact, I think it’s an incredibly dynamic work which deftly exploits the full spectral range (highs, lows, and mids) and the sound of the album and the attention to detail in the production is integrated into the concept of the record and is one of its more tasty and important features.
After “Sheep,” we are led back to the warm, compassionate embrace of the final “Pigs on the Wing,” after which, I am likely to flip the record over and listen to the whole thing again, something I can’t say about any other Pink Floyd album, except for maybe Meddle. I give Animals 4 ½ stars out of 5, docking it half a star for “Pigs,” which falls short as a song of the high mark of the rest of the album. I like it much more than The Wall (which I view as having only one truly spectacular song in “Mother” – I know I’m pretty much on my own there), and I rank Animals even higher than Wish You Were Here and Meddle, albums I pretty much adore. Only the Syd-led debut Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Dark Side of the Moon rank higher for me, and I reach for Animals way more often than I do Dark Side because of the latter being so overplayed).
In conclusion, allow me to reiterate something I’ve written about before. It’s pointless to try to get your tastes to align with anyone else’s. Music is personal. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun to engage in a little intellectual jousting and, in the end, we might find a little more music to love, which is nice. The hosts at Discograffiti are true music freaks, willing to put the time into a thorough, loving deep exploration of a band or artist’s output. My kind of people. I hope you’ll join me in indulging in their particular madness and I hope you’ll continue to read my extended musings here at Esthetic Lens. We maniacs have to stick together.
Sheep photo by Jonathan Borba
David Tobocman is a columnist at Esthetic Lens and an Emmy-nominated songwriter, musician, record producer and film composer living and working in Los Angeles who thinks about music when he’s not writing, playing, or listening to it.