The year 1976 will be remembered in the world of aviation for the Concorde's first supersonic flight, the Viking 1 spacecraft's successful landing on Mars by the United States, and a pig named Algie that flew over London from east to west, chased by a police helicopter. It covered a distance of 52 miles, from Battersea Park Power Station to the fields of Kent, causing a partial closure of the airspace at Heathrow Airport and an outraged farmer witnessing a bus-sized inflatable pig giving his cows a near-death scare as it "landed" in their meadow.
Whenever I hold Pink Floyd's album "Animals" in my hands, I pause for a moment to admire the iconic cover photo taken by Aubrey Powell on December 2, 1976, with Algie the pig suspended between two chimneys of the Power Station, just before breaking free from the cable holding it and embarking on that accidental flight. That giant inflatable pig, conceived by Roger Waters for the album cover, gathers songs that delve into themes such as capitalism and the different social strata in industrialized countries. It is undoubtedly influenced by George Orwell's novel "Animal Farm."
I place the vinyl on the turntable, lower the needle, and the first track, "Pigs on the Wing," begins to play. Today is Monday, and the cocktail bar is usually empty in the early afternoon, especially at the beginning of the week. That's why the bartenders allow me the freedom to choose the soundtrack for everyone. It's one of the perks of being a regular.
Michelle serves me my cocktail, my restless tequila:
"Did you know that Pink Floyd, along with the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, are the best-selling rock bands in history?" she adds.
I know what she says is true. Just a few days ago, I visited the latest exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, titled "Pink Floyd - Their Mortal Remains," which will be open until October 1, 2017. The museum spared no ambition in this exhibition, just like the English band that has sold over 300 million records for decades and still sells over 7,000 copies of their album "The Dark Side of the Moon" every week.
From the very beginning, the exhibition pays homage to the psychedelic world that set them apart from other musicians of the time. Upon entering the first room, you pass through a giant recreation of the black Bedford van that Pink Floyd used to transport their equipment during their early concerts. Like Alice through the looking glass, you enter the underground London of the late '60s, where Pink Floyd aspired to be the kings of psychedelia, delivering twenty-minute compositions as the resident band at the legendary UFO concert venue.
The exhibition rooms are dimly lit, and the music changes in your headphones as you move through different display areas. The story is told through letters, drawings, posters, video footage, newspaper clippings, musical instruments, and peculiar objects, some of them replicas. Each room is filled with a plethora of items, from spinning mirrored balls with flower petals to replicas of cardboard planes used for explosive effects in their concerts, or even the red bicycle that inspired Syd Barrett's song "Bike" from the album "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" recorded in the neighboring room at Abbey Road Studios, while the Beatles were working on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."
There are explanations about the songwriting and recording processes of some of their most memorable songs, as well as video footage describing the creation of several album covers. The most notable one is the cover of "Wish You Were Here," where film stuntman Ronnie Rondell had to be set on fire 15 times at Warner Bros Studios in Hollywood to capture the perfect shot.
Eventually, you reach a massive room with various giant inflatables, including the menacing schoolteacher used for "The Wall" tour, the Algie pig, and even a replica of the Battersea Power Station.
The metal heads from "The Division Bell" occupy another room, where statistics about the subsequent tour for this album are displayed (apparently, it took three days to set up the stage for the "Division Bell" phase).
The exhibition also offers insights into the psychology behind the band's creative process. Aubrey Powell, the exhibition's designer, explains the infamous "teacher" character portrayed in "The Wall" by showcasing the actual cane used to beat Roger Waters during his school years. "We went back to Roger's old school in Cambridge and found the original book and the cane that was used to punish and beat Roger," says Powell. These connections between something that happened to Roger during his school days and the creation of "The Wall" album are truly significant. You transition from seeing the giant inflatable teacher, standing 25 feet tall, to observing the original cane that was used, and everything falls into place. Gradually, you realize how many of Pink Floyd's ideas and concepts were conceived over the years.
The exhibition concludes in a square room with video screens on all four walls, showcasing the Live 8 concert from 2005. It was the first and last time in over 20 years that Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason, and Rick Wright reunited to perform together. The performance has been remixed at Abbey Road Studios for this exhibition and is presented in 3D using 18 monitor speakers and seven subwoofers. The result is an intense sensory overload, as well as one of the few moments during the exhibition where you get a close-up view of the musicians' faces.
Clearly, this exhibition is a celebration of technology, sonic and visual evolution, as well as a celebration of the band. All of this, combined with the dim lighting and the audio guide that automatically jumps to each piece as you approach, aptly transforms the experience into something akin to one of those psychedelic journeys that fueled the imagination of an irreplaceable group.
The cocktail bar is starting to fill up now, so I finish my restless tequila as the last track of the "Animals" album plays. I've been browsing through the vinyl records and stumbled upon Led Zeppelin's "Presence," which happens to be from the same year the photo for Pink Floyd's "Animals" cover was taken. I lift the tonearm off the vinyl and return it to its sleeve, bidding farewell to Algie the pig.
It seems that 1976 was truly a remarkable year for the world of aviation—I muse—after all, even zeppelins can fly.