Pink Floyd’s enduring symbol is the floating pig – but the animal was taken up by other rock ‘n’ roll groups to symbolise protest, dystopia and even violence, writes Jonathan Glancey.

At the press conference announcing the V&A’s Pink Floyd exhibition, an inflatable pink pig floated high above the London museum’s monumental stone entrance. No words of explanation were needed. The pig spelled Pink Floyd as surely as Ummagumma or The Dark Side of the Moon.

Inflatable flying pigs have been a part of the English rock band’s image for 40 years, ever since the first of the breed – named Algie by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and doing its bit to advertise the 1977 Animals album – broke free from one of the chimneys of Battersea Power Station and flew, unplanned, to a farm in Kent.

The stuff of urban, rural and aviation legend, Algie was a pig made in press heaven, creating headlines as he helped sell long-playing records. Some say an RAF helicopter gave chase to Algie as he soared over London skies. Others tell of an airline captain calling Heathrow to say he had encountered the pig at 30,000ft. Were flights in and out of Heathrow halted? Was Powell arrested? Only Algie, deflated after the event and stored for years on a shelf in a Suffolk factory, knows the true story.

Between Battersea in the late ’70s and the V&A exhibition this spring, there has been a drift of Pink Floyd pigs, some aggressive, others benign, most of them rigged over Pink Floyd and Roger Waters Band stage sets. But despite what it may seem, the pig is more than a disarming quirk. As a symbol, it alludes to everything from anti-establishment protests to Orwellian dystopia – even to the Manson murders.

Sometimes the pigs have been marked with political slogans reflecting the band’s concerns. Released during a Roger Waters Band performance at the Milwaukee Summerfest in June 2007, a spot-lit pig disappeared into clouds above the city, its generous rear end – the last bit seen – emblazoned with the legend “Impeach Bush”. In late August or early September this year, after receiving permission from Roger Waters, a design company will float an installation of four golden flyilng pigs directly in front of the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago.

That March, Waters had played two nights at a stadium in Buenos Aires. This time, the inflatable pig read “Nunca Más”, or “never again”. The famous slogan recalled the 30,000 people who were “disappeared” by their country’s brutal dictatorship between 1974 and 1983 when the military ‘pigs’ were forced from power following their humiliating defeat in the Falklands War. The plastic pig took off, crash-landing in the River Plate.

Pig’s ear

‘Pigs’ – as policemen, not the animal – had been an obsession for hippies and rock bands since at least 1967. They symbolised the authorities that beat up protesting students in US university campuses and busted members of English rock bands, including The Beatles. The members of Pink Floyd, however, were traumatised by the effect that LSD had on their colleague Syd Barrett, who was excluded from the group in April 1968 as he became catatonic and unable to perform. It was Barrett, though, who had given Pink Floyd its first chart hit the previous year with the dippy-trippy song Arnold Layne.

Pig references were common at the time in the world of rock music. When, the singer-songwriter-guitarist Mick Abrahams was looking for a name for his new band, pianist Graham Waller listened to the jazz-infused blues-rock band. He solemnly intoned, “Thou shalt ever more be known as Blodwyn Pig”. Whatever it meant, the name stuck. The memorable gatefold sleeve of the band’s first album, Ahead Rings Out, featured a bright pink pig’s head sporting sunglasses, headphones, a ring through its nose and a cigarette in its mouth. The back cover showed the pig’s tail.

For Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, as for George Harrison, pigs had a meaning of sorts. Perhaps both songwriters were influenced by George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the darkly satirical fable first published in 1945 that has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. Orwell’s pigs were corrupt, venal, drunken, violent – and, in all too many ways, very much like us. In the book’s famous last sentence, the humbled creatures of Animal Farm, standing outside the farmhouse where pigs and men were drinking together, “looked from pig to man, and man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Later in 1968, George Harrison sang Piggies on the Beatles’ White Album. Was it a protest against rich businessmen? Whatever it was, this childlike ditty was one of the songs that inspired Charles Manson, the American criminal, singer-songwriter and Haight-Ashbury cult leader, and his followers to murder actress Sharon Tate and eight other “piggies” in an orgy of savage killings in the summer of 1969.

Flying start

It is likely no mistake that Pink Floyd’s Animals album was a kind of vivisection of the darker side of humanity – or that it was heralded by the flying pig, although Algie himself seemed rather comic. He had been Roger Waters’ idea. Waters could see Battersea Power Station with its four fluted and curiously haunting chimneys from his flat. Hipgnosis – the Tin Pan Alley design collaborative founded in 1967 – had designed every Pink Floyd album sleeve since 1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets. The group was commissioned to photograph the helium-filled, 30ft pig flying over the station.

Algie was worked into a design by artists Andrew Saunders and Jeffrey Shaw and made in Germany by Ballon Fabrik, a company famed for its work on Zeppelin airships. But after its accidental jailbreak from the power station, by the time the pig returned from its unplanned trip to Kent the weather had turned. Powell was unable to shoot the same Turner-esque sky he had the day before. Hipgnosis resorted to cutting and pasting an earlier image of the pig onto their best 10x8 shot of the power station. Nothing about Algie was quite what it seemed to be.

Algie himself, though, was a big success. Replicas followed in his wake as floating and flying pigs mapped and mirrored Pink Floyd’s increasing commercial success both in the studio and on the road. In 2011, a replica made by ABC Inflatables was moored over Battersea Power Station to trigger the Why Pink Floyd . . .? advertising campaign as the band re-released all 14 of its albums.

By then, the Pink Floyd pigs had seeped into popular culture. They could be spotted on the big screen in the dystopian science-fiction thriller Children of Men (2006), in Nanny McPhee Returns (2010) and even in an episode of the Simpsons. A Pink Floyd pig featured in the film Danny Boyle made for the opening of the London 2012 Olympics, and doubtless visitors to the V&A will expect some kind of pig fest.

But 40 years on, have the Pink Floyd pigs become – perhaps ironically – a part of the establishment? As that replica of Algie flew over the V&A at the Pink Floyd exhibition press conference, the band’s drummer and one-time architectural student Nick Mason said, “If you told me that we would still exist even four years after we started professionally, I would have been stupefied. Now I feel like something owned by the National Trust.” An inflatable pig flying over a sedately restored English country house? Pigs might fly.

This story is a part of BBC Britain – a series focused on exploring this extraordinary island, one story at a time. Readers outside of the UK can see every BBC Britain story by heading to the Britain homepage; you also can see our latest stories by following us on Facebook and Twitter.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.