‘The pig took off… Gone!’
How the 1976 shoot for Pink Floyd’s ‘Animals’ LP almost ended in disaster
By Mark BLAKE
Day after day, during the broiling heatwave summer of 1976, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters would drive past Battersea Power Station on his way home to Clapham. He felt drawn to that towering monument to coal-fired energy. “Maybe it was the architect in me, but there was something menacing about the power station,” he says. “But I also liked it as a symbol for the band. It reminded me of an upside-down table, with four phalluses, and there were four people in a band that had been turned upside down.”
Pink Floyd were making a new album, Animals, in a studio in Islington. Their chilling songs about man’s inhumanity contrasted sharply with the 37-degree heat and Abba’s Fernando trilling out of transistor radios across Great Britain. You’ve Gotta Be Crazy and Raving and Drooling, originally written for their previous album Wish You Were Here, were re-titled Dogs and Sheep and incorporated into a new story that borrowed from George Orwell’s Animal Farm by re-imagining the human race as three subspecies, with the subservient sheep brutalised by authoritarian dogs and pigs.
As well as having angry lyrics, Animals sounded more stripped back than its predecessor. “I think there was a feeling things needed to be a little more live and rawer,” says Pink Floyd guitarist and vocalist David Gilmour. “We were moving towards a tougher sound.”
“We knew the music and lyrics were fuelled and characterised by anger,” said Storm Thorgerson – who, with Aubrey “Po” Powell, cofounded Hipgnosis, the design group that had worked on all Pink Floyd’s album covers since 1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets. “I can’t say that I cared for it much myself because I found it too angry compared to Wish You Were Here.”
His sideways thinking about the album artwork led to him presenting the band with a photograph of three dead mallards nailed above a fireplace. “In England, the essence of bad taste is to put plaster ducks on the wall,” explained Thorgerson, who died in 2013. “So I used real ducks, to suggest that people are animal-like in their artistic and moral decisions.” Pink Floyd rejected the image.
Thorgerson also submitted an illustration showing a small boy, clutching a teddy bear in the doorway of his parents’ bedroom, watching them have sex: “Making love, caught in the act, appearing to be animals,” he posited. “I thought
‘The risk was that it would look like a Disney pig – too friendly, chubby’
it was brilliant, but the Floyd didn’t like that one at all.”
“There were several ideas,” recalls Waters. “I remember saying, ‘I don’t like any of them’ and Gilmour said, ‘Well, why don’t you do better?’ So I got in my car and drove over Battersea Bridge, looked up at the power station and thought, ‘Hang on a minute…’ ”
Pink Floyd had commissioned several stage props for a forthcoming American stadium tour, among them a giant inflatable pig, which would drift over the audience. Waters proposed photographing the pig over Battersea Power Station.
“We were all happy to give it a go,” says Gilmour. For the first time since 1968, Pink Floyd had passed over Hipgnosis’s ideas for one of their own. Thorgerson was furious: “I thought Roger’s pig was a tad silly, not to mention low on mystery and meaning,” he grumbled.
“We received permission from Battersea,” explains Powell. “The only thing they were worried about was the pig banging into one of the chimneys. I reassured them it was only a plastic pig.”
More accurately, the pig, later nicknamed Algie, was a 40ft rubberised cotton dirigible designed by the inflatables firm EventStructure and made in Germany at Ballon Fabrik, where many airships were built during the First World War.
“My problem was making sure we had a good pig,” said EventStructure’s Dutch designer Theo Botschuijver. “The danger was that it could look like a Walt Disney figure – too friendly, chubby – and Floyd wanted something more aggressive. The woman at Ballon Fabrik didn’t like my pig. She wanted something jollier and I had trouble convincing her this was the pig the band wanted.”
The photo shoot was booked for December 2. Thorgerson and Powell had hired eight photographers to be stationed at various locations, including the power station roof, a tower block opposite and the adjacent railway tracks. The police insisted that Hipgnosis hire one of their marksmen in case the pig broke free.
Botschuijver and representatives from Ballon Fabrik were also on site. “The people from the factory
were responsible for the execution, but I began to doubt their professionalism,” Botschuijver told author Peter Watts.
His fears were realised: there wasn’t enough helium to get the pig off the ground and by mid-afternoon, the shoot was called off. “I was on the ninth floor of a block of flats,” recalls the photographer Howard Bartrop. “I’d taken all my camera equipment downstairs when I noticed the sun had come out from underneath the lowest clouds.” He dragged his equipment back to the ninth floor and fired off a single shot of the power station framed by this turbulent sky. Hipgnosis later talked about the sky on the cover of Animals resembling Turner’s stormy landscapes.
The next day, the photographers returned to their locations and waited for Algie to arrive. Filmmaker Nigel Lesmoir-Gordon was also shooting the pig’s maiden flight for a potential TV commercial. Lesmoir-Gordon, his camera crew and Hipgnosis’s stills photographer, Rob Brimson, had been allocated places in a Jet Ranger 206B helicopter. Its pilot, Marc Wolff, had flown combat missions over Vietnam and would later coordinate aerial stunts for several James Bond movies.
Algie arrived on the back of a truck, attached to a winch and flanked by enough helium tanks to keep him airborne for days. He inflated easily. Pink Floyd stood around, sipping coffee and waiting for the show to begin. At which point, Powell realised he had forgotten to re-book the marksman.
“Predictably, in the rock ’n’ roll way of things, the decision was made to take a chance and fly it anyway,” says Brimson. “The pig inched upwards as it filled with gas and was rubbing against the chimney, which was when the [cable] snapped.”
“Somebody asked for the pig to get higher, the guy from Germany loosened the winch and it started to unwind,” recalled Botschuijver. “He jerked the brake and I heard “Ding!” The ring broke.
Powell was on Battersea Bridge when he realised something was amiss: “The pig just took off. Gone! I drove down to where the band were, with this rising sense of panic. Roger Waters had a schoolboy look of glee on his face. But all of Floyd couldn’t wait to piss off – ‘You sort this out, Po!’ They jumped into their cars and drove away.”
“Of course we did,” confirms drummer Nick Mason. “That’s one of the benefits of being higher up the food chain and I’m afraid Po was the human sacrifice. I do remember Pink Floyd’s secretary watched the pig break free and said, ‘Oh my God, it hasn’t got a carnet’, because at that time, everything crossing a border had to have documents in triplicate.”
“We didn’t have mobile phones, so we didn’t know what had happened,” says Bartrop, who was stuck in his ninth-floor eyrie. “I felt so guilty as I hadn’t got the shot. I came down from the tower block with great trepidation as I thought Storm was going to kill me.”
The police notified air traffic control and sent a helicopter pilot up to pursue the pig. In the meantime, Wolff had given chase in his Jet Ranger. “Air traffic controllers tend to be very dry,” he says. “So it was hilarious having to tell them an inflatable pink pig was rising into their airspace.”
“There was the very real possibility I could be charged with possession of an unidentified flying object,” says Powell, who was escorted back to the Hipgnosis offices by a policeman. “Airline pilots at Heathrow were reporting seeing it at 30,000ft. It was becoming a real danger and if it happened today, I’d be in prison.”
“It could have been cataclysmic,” admits Mason. “We could have caused a major air disaster. Many years later, I met Captain David Voy, the police pilot sent to chase the pig. He told me that he didn’t have a hope in hell as the pig was climbing at a far greater rate than his helicopter.”
Radio and TV news bulletins urged the public to report any sightings. For the rest of the day, Hipgnosis fielded crank callers and journalists wanting a quote. Fortunately, the pig had a safety valve. As the air pressure outside decreased, gas was expelled from the valve, causing the pig to descend.
In the early evening, farmer James Stewart of East Stour Farm in Kent rang Powell to inform him that Algie had crash-landed in one of his fields and was terrifying his cows. Pink Floyd’s road crew then retrieved the deflated pig and brought it back to London.
“Everybody thought we’d let it go on purpose, as a publicity stunt, and I sometimes think we should have,” said Thorgerson. “Either way, it was the best publicity the Floyd could have had for any new album.”
The following morning, Algie flew again, with a marksman on standby. Rob Brimson was sent up in the Jet Ranger to photograph the pig directly above the power station. “They had taken the doors off the helicopter,” he recalled, “and I had to sit on the edge with my feet on the skids and a harness connecting me so I didn’t fall out.”
The noise of wind and the rotors was deafening. Through headphones, Marc Wolff instructed Brimson to tell him when he was ready to take the photo. As soon as Wolff received the signal, he tipped the helicopter over at a sharp angle and buzzed the chimneys as if he was back over Saigon.
“Suddenly I was hanging from the harness,” said Brimson. “My cameras were all over the floor and sliding towards the doors. I took my pictures, shooting into the light and the cloud, low over the Thames.”
Lesmoir-Gordon’s camera crew began filming just as Brimson started to feel nauseous. The power station’s sulphurous smoke was now blowing into the open helicopter: “I thought I would chuck up all over London. I was getting greener and greener.” The pig had flown without a hitch, but all the photographs from the third day were considered unusable. “The sky was too blue,” explains Powell. “Whereas the pictures from the first day had those fantastic, doomy clouds.”
Bartrop’s last-minute photograph from day one was almost perfect – except it was missing a pig. “So we took the pig from the third day and stripped it into the sky from the first day,” confessed Thorgerson. Hipgnosis’s inhouse retoucher Richard Manning then removed the deflated pig, lying like an enormous wrinkled condom, to the left of the power station.
“In hindsight, we could have just photographed the pig in a studio. It wouldn’t have been as funny but it would have saved a lot of money,” said Thorgerson. He would also concede, years later, that “the pig wasn’t such a silly idea after all”.
‘Pilots at Heathrow were reporting seeing it at 30,000ft. It had become a real danger’
© Mark Blake 2023. Extracted from ‘Us and Them: The Authorised Story of Hipgnosis’, published by Nine Eight Books at £22 on Feb 2