Pink Floyd was one of the most commercially successful rock bands of the 1970s, with some of the highest-selling albums of the decade. For the band’s album cover of their 1977 studio effort, Animals, the band went big. It was the heyday of rock and roll excess after all, and what could be more excessive than a 30-foot pig flying through the air in front of a London landmark?

Many concepts for the Animals cover were proposed by Hipgnosis, an art studio that was behind many of the seventies’ most eye-catching covers. Led Zeppelin’s Houses Of The Holy, The Alan Parsons Project’s I Robot, and many of Pink Floyd’s earlier albums, including Wish You Were Here, were all designed by Hipgnosis.

Interestingly, the final design was conceived by Roger Waters, juxtaposing a 30-foot flying pig against the London skyline landmark, Battlesea Power Station. The station still hosts tours, and thanks to its appearance on the iconic cover, still sees thousands of visitors annually. It was even momentarily featured in the 2012 London Olympic opening ceremony short film “Isles Of Wonder,” by auteur Danny Boyle, who made sure the iconic towers had a porcine adornment.

Isles Of Wonder Intro – Opening Ceremony | London 2012 Olympics 

[Video: Olympic]

A three-day photo shoot was scheduled for early December, and as a precaution, a marksman–as in, a real shooter–was hired to take out the inflatable pig in case something went horribly wrong. As fans can guess, something indeed went wrong.

The first day of the shoot started late and went poorly. The pig, produced by the Ballon Fabrik based on designs by Australian artist Jeffrey Shaw, was taking too long to inflate, the weather was bad, and only a few preliminary images were captured. Thus, the decision was made to not bring the rifleman, an oversight that would end up costing the band a pretty penny.

On the second day, December 3rd, 1976, high winds tore the pig loose from its moorings, and it was time for the piggy to go for a stroll down the Thames River. Police switchboards lit up as bemused onlookers reported the heavenly hog. Planes radioed sightings and the chase was made, although somehow the three-story balloon managed to fade into thin air. The balloon eventually came to rest on, appropriately enough, a farm in Kent. The farmer was irate as its landing had spooked his herd of cows, keeping the “Animals” theme of the day going strong.

There has been much discussion over the years as to whether this was truly an accident or a publicity stunt by the band and their management. With nearly three decades gone by and no admission of a prank from any of the parties involved, the accident story seems most likely. The recovered pig was returned to its floating home above the station, and one last round of images was captured. Ironically, the photos from the first day at the power station had the best lighting, and a composite was made of images from day one and three.  The cover went on to be one of the most recognizable of all time, and a symbol for the band in their live performances.

In a roundabout way, the success actually contributed to the downfall of the band. During the studio recording sessions, bassist and vocalist Roger Waters‘ ego began to take on monumental stature, as he came to see himself as the band’s sole creative force. The album’s lengthy run on the American sales charts led to their massive 1977 In The Flesh Tour, where Waters began his descent into rock star psychosis. Waters would conceive much of The Wall, the double album that signaled the end of their era, during this period.

Whether a comedy of errors or a calculated attempt to gain attention, the band had managed to add a new benchmark for craziness to their already well-documented run of madness. Besides their In The Flesh Tour, the flying pig made appearances on subsequent reunion concerts as well. If nothing else, fans around the world would know that Pink Floyd would only stop trying to top themselves “When Pigs Fly”.

Oh, and this seems like a great excuse to turn the lights down low, cue up “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” and sit back and let the music wash over you.  And, as always, keep watching the skies…

Pink Floyd – “Pigs On The Wing (Part One)”

[Video: Pink Floyd]