By request: Pink Floyd’s “Dogs”

By request of amontillado586

Pink Floyd’s Animals is a strange album, but at the same time it also feels like perhaps the purest example of their musicianship. Maybe that’s what makes it so weird.

A 17-minute track called “Dogs” comprises very nearly the entirety of the album’s first side, and “Dogs” basically embodies the unconventional style of Animals in its totality. It’s not the longest song in the Pink Floyd oeuvre — even if you don’t count things like the “Shine on Crazy Diamond” suite as a single track, there’s still “Echoes.” However, it might be their most challenging composition — not so much in terms of musicianship as in its themes and content.

To properly understand “Dogs,” though, you really need to understand when the song happened. By 1977, the more artful musical excesses of the ’60s and early ’70s had become deeply unpopular. The world’s growing disaffection and anger had found a voice in the punk movement, and one of punk’s favorite punching bags was Pink Floyd. The band’s measured, genteel, and studio-driven approach to music couldn’t have been more different from the raw, live, and furious sound of punk, and one of the seminal moments of the movement came when Johnny Rotten sported a T-shirt emblazoned with the screed “I HATE PINK FLOYD.”

But really, the punk movement’s resentment of Pink Floyd probably had less to do with the band’s sound and more to do with the UK’s social classes, which had weakened significantly since the age of Downton Abbey but nevertheless had measurable grip on the country even in the ’70s and reflected strongly in the media. Punk was music for the working class, the kind of thing that spoke to the masses. Pink Floyd was a darling of the elite, the sort of thing that upper crust media and critics could feel good about listening to because of the way it took influences like rock, blues, and psychedelia and made them feel intellectual and safe and blessedly white. John Lydon has gone on the record saying he doesn’t actually hate Pink Floyd, but he certainly won hearts and minds by sneering at them.

In that sense, 1977’s Animals feels like a response to punk’s dismissal of the band. “Dogs,” comprising nearly half the album on its own, carries much of that mission on its own. It’s a very different kind of production for the band, largely eschewing studio gimmicks and extensive overdubs and sound clips in favor of a lean, stripped down style. While the piece still rang as a studio production — no way could guitarist Dave Gilmour perform all those overlapping parts at once — it lacked the lush textures and meticulous multipart construction of the bands’ past few albums.

Yet it’s still distinctly a Pink Floyd piece. Like “Echoes,” much of the middle section consists of slow, drawn-out chords for atmosphere and mood, lots of synthesizer and guitar noodling kept on track strictly on the strength of Nick Mason’s dutiful percussion and the pervasive acoustic guitar that keeps time for much of the piece. In keeping with the name of the song, the middle portion features overdubs of dogs barking and howling.

Between the acoustic strumming and hounds wailing, “Dogs” would seem almost to be a reference to “Seamus,” but the two works couldn’t be more different. “Seamus” was a goofy bit of blues-flavored fluff about an actual dog, whereas “Dogs” is tense, almost oppressive in its quality, and uses dogs as a metaphor for soulless, driven businessmen, laying down the basis for Animals as a musical take on George Orwell’s Animal Farm. And it makes striking use of those canine yaps; the song’s one significant use of advanced studio tech involves the dog audio loops slowly feeding into a Vocoder, rending the barks and calls into alien, robotic sounds that pulse rhythmically over the slow-tempo breakdown before mutating back into organic animal noises again.

It’s ultimately this theme that makes “Dogs” seem simpatico with the punk movement. Here the band put together as vicious and pointed a declamation against corporatism as any proper adherent to the punk scene, depicting upper-class suits as feral beasts out for blood behind the appearance of propriety with their social clubs and groomed manners. And yet, like members of a wolf pack, they’re torn apart in turn by their lessers when they grow too old to keep their fighting edge — perhaps dying of a heart attack borne of rich living, or simply living out their silver days alone and unloved after alienating everyone close to them. The Vocoded dogs offers an audible statement of that culture’s soullessness without being too heavy-handed about it, demonstrating the group’s collective ability to interpret Roger Waters’ vituperative viewpoint with a light, artful touch.

The instrumental/overdub break also brings a change of vocalists; Gilmour’s richer singing is replaced in the second half of the song by Waters’ more strained, nasal performance. It’s an effective change, making the song feel even harsher and more hostile as the narrative follows its subject to his desperate, unhinged doom.

It’s hard not to see “Dogs” as a tirade against the same parasitic business managers the band excoriated in “Have a Cigar.” But while that was a broad, comical piss-take, “Dogs” is pointed and cutting. If “Have a Cigar” was The Wolf of Wall Street, “Dogs” is just plain ol’ Wall Street. It sounds like nothing else in the band’s catalog, and is honestly the last time the band worked as a creative, collaborative unit rather than just as Roger Waters’ backing band. Even more remarkably, it might be the only time a 17-minute track at the heart of a concept album ever felt truly punk.

One thought on “By request: Pink Floyd’s “Dogs”

  1. Great article! Dogs just might be my favorite Pink Floyd song. I always thought of it as more an extension of Speak to Me / Breathe, outlining a specific case. Coming into Pink Floyd late (being -4 years old at the time of Animals’ release), I really never picked up the Punk context.

    I find this phrase to be particularly potent:
    “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”

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