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Music

When Pink Floyd let a giant inflatable pig loose over London

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Pink Floyd’s classic record Animals remains a part of the iconography of one of the most important bands in rock history, certainly the most important in prog-rock legends that there ever was. Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason and Richard Wright had already asserted themselves on the musical landscape by the time they came to record their George Orwell-inspired LP, but one incident would make the production utterly unforgettable for all the wrong reasons.

By 1976, Pink Floyd were in full artistic flow. Not only was their growing musical majesty accruing yet more steam, but their artistry had spread out from the studio and found itself nestled into every facet of their being. From stage set-ups to album artwork, everything had to be perfect. In the case of Animals, it would be the album’s artwork that would land the band on the front page news as opposed to their music — all because of a giant runaway inflatable pig.

The infamous moment came when a 40-foot inflatable pig would break loose from its moorings, float above England’s capital, London, and make its way out of the city and seemingly on to pastures new. It would see the band make a big splash on the tabloids and garner a huge amount of publicity for Pink Floyd’s tenth studio album. Which has us thinking, was it all a part of the plan?

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The pig, nicknamed ‘Algie’ by the group, was being photographed for the forthcoming Animals release and would be a focal point of the album artwork, neatly placed between the towers of an iconic piece of the London skyline. During the heyday of the 1970s rock scene, album artwork was, at times, as important as the music inside it — artists took this stuff seriously and applied both their creative energy and budget to make sure the artwork was simply perfect. As one might expect, Pink Floyd were pioneers of this production and even encouraged their own design department.

So, when Roger Waters sat down with Aubrey Powell and came up with the idea to send Algie the inflatable pig up above London landmark Battersea Power Station, people really took them seriously. “I’d always loved Battersea Power Station, just as a piece of architecture,” Waters later told Rolling Stone of the album’s conceptual artwork. The building rests in a previously undeveloped area of the capital, though now it has been given a billion-pound makeover. But for Waters, the building resonated with what he and the group were trying to achieve: “I thought it had some good symbolic connections with Pink Floyd as it was at that point,” he said. “One, I thought it was a power station, that’s pretty obvious. And two, that it had four legs. If you inverted it, it was like a table. And there were four bits to it, representing the four members of the band.”

The photograph would not only adorn the band’s record sleeve but become a symbol of Floyd’s iconography. A band that has created some of music’s most notorious images created yet another with a quiet ludicrous visual. Sadly, the actual photoshoot wouldn’t end well as Algie, the giant inflatable pig, would break free and cause havoc for all involved.

Things went wrong pretty quickly after they snapped a few shots. With a heavy breeze snapping the ropes holding the ginormous inflatable pig in place, the gigantic rubber swine would rise high into the sky and beyond their control, even finding its way into Heathrow’s flight path, it was becoming incredibly dangerous. Crossing into the flight path of an international airport does, as one might imagine, attract some unwanted attention and The Civil Aviation Authority issued a warning to all pilots to be on the lookout for flying pigs — and it wasn’t even April 1st.

After all the flights were forced to be grounded, Powell, the co-founder of art group Hipgnosis who worked closely with Pink Floyd on a lot of their designs, was arrested. It would see Police helicopters and even the Royal Air Force hot in pursuit to chase down the floating oinker and try to bring it down. The chase would finally come to an end when the pig eventually came down and crashed into a barn on a dairy farm in Godmersham in Kent for some bacon-sized irony.

“At 9:30PM, a man rang up,” Powell told Time Out London. “He said, ‘Are you the guy looking for a pig? It’s scaring my cows to death in my field.’ It was front-page news. Pink Floyd couldn’t have got better publicity if they tried.” However, the tricky issue of a cover shoot was still to be traversed.

The team returned to re-shoot the image this time armed not only with a 40ft inflatable pig balloon and stronger ropes but a sharpshooter to bring down the balloon should it break free again. While Powell laments “the most incredible, Turner-esque sky” they had for the first shoot and was subsequently lost on the second, the final result is still marvellous. Powell admits though that the final result was a manipulated image: “It’s actually a completely faked photograph”.

Still, the album, perhaps buoyed by the extra publicity one gets when a 40ft inflatable pig breaks free across London’s skies, would break the top ten on both sides of the pond and cement Pink Floyd as an unstoppable force. With its long-form style and loose Animal Farm concept, the record would be another step toward the Floyd’s growing iconography. Algie, the pig, would become a symbol of Pink Floyd’s ludicrous creativity and their powerful follow-through and a part of the band’s live set too.

Back in 2011, a replica of the pig was again floated between the chimneys of Battersea Power Station to celebrate a reissue of the album. But for now, sit back and listen to Pink Floyd’s Animals and see if you’re inspired to make any large inflatable farmyard animals.

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