Eric Burdon of The Animals visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. with actress Angie Dickenson at 2 in the morning. As they walked up to the long shiny black wall, they encountered a group of vets sitting before the monolith. Beside them was a tape player. The music that filled the still night air was by The Animals.
“They just had the tape that probably had been with them in the dust-up (Vietnam conflict), you know,” says Eric today. “It was caked with mud and stuff like old fashioned Japanese tape machines. It just happened to be spinning with other songs on there. I said, ‘Wow, that was freaky,’ because they were sitting cross-legged in front of the wall.
“That was great of her to do that. She was really a gracious woman. She took me around to all of the Washington monuments and everything at 2 o’clock in the morning. Yeah, that was great, a part of history, American history – and I have to say somewhat erotic. [Chuckle]
“Well, you know, when Angie’s wearing the same McIntosh she wore in the great murder movie she did – I forgot what it was called, and her well manicured fingernails were going along the black surface of the wall looking for a name. It was cool. It was very cool, and I can’t thank her enough for taking me on that trip because otherwise I probably never would have made it.”
British Invasion bands like the Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Kinks, The Pretty Things, and The Animals had the advantage of appreciating American blues because it was not invented there. In fact, if they hadn’t shone the mirror of our American blues heritage back on us I’m not sure I’d be writing about it for a website like this today. To a select group of young English musicians the sound of delta dirt was mesmerizing and exotic just as Eric Burdon was able to see eroticism amid the fundamental sadness of the Vietnam memorial.
Their disadvantage as interpreters of the style was a difficulty in identifying with the real emotions behind their mentors, poor, disadvantaged African Americans. The Animals initially had a bit of an edge over the others. They were not from London. They’d grown up in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the northern most city in Britain, best known as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. At 13 Burdon had had a black girlfriend he sings about in “When I Was Young.” By the time he was 21 he’d recorded with a visiting Sonny Boy Williamson in 1963 and had already met John Lee Hooker. He’d sat in with Mighty Joe Young’s Jazz Band and hung out with Big Bill Broonzy at the Newcastle City Hall and heard Muddy Waters live at the same venue as a young teen.
So, when The Animals became the second British band to score a number one American hit after the Beatles, they came to the party with more blues credentials than the rest of The British Invasion.
“I hated that expression English Invasion,” cringes Burdon today. “It put all of us together and didn’t allow the individual groups to express themselves, and you’re all just lumped together. We were all just little knockoffs of the Beatles, and then the Stones came along and broke that open, broke that mold, thanks to great management as well as the talent to play the stuff.”
That second number one American hit by a British band was “House of the Rising Sun.” “I have to live with it, so I do live with it,” Burdon says in retrospect. It sold four million copies and went number one in 12 countries. Two hundred and fifty thousand were sold the first week alone in Great Britain. “Sometimes I’ve complained about singing it so much, but once you get past that first verse, it’s like you’re lost in this dreamscape of what happened sometime in 1914 or something like that, you know?”
The song is an old American folk song. It was the second cover tune the Animals released from Bob Dylan’s first album. The first one, “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” earned the fledgling band a spot on the coveted 1963 Chuck Berry tour of England.
“Yeah, we were on tour with Chuck Berry, and I realized that all of the rockers in the U.K. didn’t become rockers without acknowledging Chuck Berry. So everybody wanted to be on that tour, and the Animals got that spot, and we got the best spot of the night which was playing before the interlude which they always had in those days.
“So the audience disperses and goes outside and drinks a pint of ale, and they come back, and they’re like ready for the second half, and the Animals come on, and there was this little guy singing this song that’s not about rock and roll. It’s like folk, running the folk roots down their throat with sexuality thrown in, and it just effected the people so much that for a minute they forgot about Chuck Berry, and I thought, ‘Gee, we’ve got to record this right away.’ So we had a day off the next day, and we took the whole (day to record the song).”
When discussing who’s idea it was to take the song off of Bob Dylan’s first album, Burdon laments, “Well, you would have to say it was me, but [chuckle] plenty of people holding up a yellow card on that one. The story of my life! I don’t know. I never wanted to be named out front as Eric Burdon & the Animals. It was a promoter who started doing it on posters long before we ever got to the town we were playing in, and the band resented it. From there on it was like, ‘What are these musicians playing behind this punk for? I’m sure any one of us could do it just as well,’ which they did one night when I couldn’t make it to the stage because I had a muscle attack, and they played the set by themselves.
“The song suddenly sprung out of the history archives. A few people went up for the net, and we happened to be the ones who did it electric. So, the result was much more delivery and sound quality than you would have gotten from a folk artist, nothing to do with downloading the value of the performance or the song. It’s a brilliant song. And it has great history to it, and it has something that’s disappearing in the world today, mystery.”
The Animals went on to record many hits including blues covers like John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” and “Cee Cee Rider,” but they never fully capitalized on the success of “House of The Rising Sun.” Some have said it was because Eric didn’t write as much original material as the Stones or Beatles. “There’s a lot of songs that I did write, a very long list,” he says today. “And we didn’t put the work into it that we should have, but I was struggling to write. I was just in a band that didn’t want to go along with that particular avenue. We were too busy being worked to death.
“I can’t blame the musicians. It was the management. We had no management. We had management from hell. We had managers that wanted to manage us to death. They didn’t care. This has brightened my mind because I just watched the Stones movie, “Charlie Is My Dog” and when you look at that, and you see the interplace between their manager at the time, Andrew Loog Oldham, and the band and when hanging out on a social level and knowing personally the relationship between Brian Epstein and the Beatles, having seen that up close and personal, I know that we were really being screwed completely, and the fact that we did anything in the actual history of the band.
“The (other members of the Animals) were just falling off one by one. First I think it was (drummer) John Steel. Then (keyboardist) Alan Price was gone, and suddenly I turned around and realized, ‘Shit, I wasn’t in the Geordie (a name for locals from Newcastle) band I left Newcastle with. It’s no longer a band of brothers. They’ve been slaughtered in battle, and they’re not there anymore. And you’re running around. What are you gonna do? Well, there’s revolution going on and in California, man. Go there. Join the revolt!'”
Burdon’s subsequent output with the funk band War and as a solo singer has reaffirmed his position as the most real and raw interpreter of the blues to come out of the British Invasion, but never have his subsequent albums captured the spark that changed the world in 1964 when he electrified an old folksong and changed the very definition of what a pop song is.
Half a century later, Eric Burdon has put out ‘Til Your River Runs Dry, far and away the best album of his career. It combines the urgency of youth with the creative sharpness of a seasoned juggernaut and the wisdom of a sage. Burdon has always been able to view struggle and hardship through dark glasses that filter out the pain and relish in the victories, some of them Pyrrhic. I asked him if he feels his own mortality in songs about death like “In the Ground,” “Memorial Day” and especially “27 Forever” about the numerous rock legends who all died at age 27.
“When you’re inside those songs, it’s not you. It’s always the other guy that gets (killed)”, he says with a laugh. “You just have to think that way.
Does Burdon feel protected, the fact that he can write about it, and he’s still here, and they’re not?
“Yeah, yeah. I think music allows you to say a lot of things that if you said them in a speech to an audience, they would throw rocks or something or whatever, popcorn. But that’s one of the secrets you achieve in music if you keep working at it. You can say really pretty much – you can live up to what America promises, liberty, freedom, freedom of speech. The great line from the Newville Brothers: [New Orleans accent filtered through a working class British thickness] “Freedom of speech if y’all don’t say too much.” You have to live by that to a certain extent.
when pressed on “27 Forever,” Burdon admits that he thought he would become one of those statistics. “Myself and the people we hung out with we had the collective opinion that we wouldn’t live to see 30. So it was like live your life and drink methylated spirits and smoke cigarettes. You pick them up off the street. We didn’t care. Nobody cared.”
Burdon singles out “River Is Rising” as the one song on the new album he feels is the most important work he’s ever done. It was recorded in New Orleans with keyboardist Jon Cleary, another British expatriate. Was working with Cleary was anything like creating the early Animals sound with keyboardist Alan Price?
“Oh, no way. Cleary is what his name says. He’s clear, and he’s hardly ever there. He’s in a bar in New Orleans jamming somewhere. Yeah, his story is magic to me. The English kid that made it to New Orleans and became a local and was thrown out of the country and made his way back again, and this really sort of strange part and we recorded in his wife’s dressing room where she makes costumes for the parades. There are all these clothes hanging down. It was really New Orleans to the max. He is New Orleans to the max, and it’s great that he’s English. It makes me feel really good. Yeah, he’s great.
Burdon is also working on his third memoir called Breathless. The New York Times dismissed his first, I Used to Be An Animal, But I’m All Right Now, saying; “Though one can’t help feeling that much of Mr. Burdon’s insight into the era is unconscious, it hardly matters.” If our conversation and his new album are any indications, he will not be this easily dismissed again.
“I have one of the editors coming to the house so I’m reading now a corrected few pages. I did quite some time ago and they’re about my youth, and they’re hilarious. It’s dark. It’s doomy. It’s slimy. It smells, but it’s funny in retrospect. Nevertheless, it’s dark and that’s what I’m getting off on. Born in World War II, I can’t get it out of my blood, and now its big business. I’m doing more research (on this one) than I ever did. I’m not worried about who was in which band when. I just love that it’s from my point of view, the old I-am-a-camera attitude. It’s just the way I saw things, and but you pile all that together, and it makes as interesting journey all the way from industrialized northern England.
My hometown was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, and all of the slag and old iron and filth that went in it, and I would say they pulled themselves out of it very nicely, but it took a long time, and Germany was rebuilt overnight with the aid of the Marshall Plan. We didn’t have nothin’ in England, but we had this ideal we lived up to. Eh, the British Army just won the war. Even the Beatles went for that one whether it was tongue in cheek or not. That was our attitude. We won the war. Winston Churchill got us through the war.
“We had nothing to eat. And bare feet for most kids. I was kind of lucky. I was lucky. My parents took care of me, and we did well, better than most people.”
Burdon may have been picking cigarette butts off the curb when he was a youngster, but at 71 he is finally building on a legacy that deserves more attention than one old folk song that changed the paradigm of pop music riding on the crest of the Beatles’ success.
“I sang karaoke once to an Elvis song. I was in an empty bar. So there was nobody there. I sang an Elvis song, and on my way out, the barman said, ‘That’s pretty good. You come back at 9 o’clock and have a free Margarita.’
Did the barman have any idea who Burdon was?