Back in the days of my youth "House of the Rising Sun" was the one tune every aspirant young guitarist wanted to play, learnt to play and usually played at parties. Perhaps because it was an intricate, memorable melody that demonstrated a skill that was of a higher level than merely strumming three chords. Anyhow, this song was the monster hit of The Animals, a traditional blues song, arranged by Alan Price with the distinctive organ motif, and the best known song by Newcastle's finest exponents of mid-Sixties R & B.
"Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place" and "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" were the other well-known tunes. None of them were written by the band, as was the case for most of their recordings. The first two are Brill Building pop re-imaginations of soul and the third is another traditional song, previously recorded by Bob Dylan for his debut album. Allegedly the Animals' electric R & B version of "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" motivated Dylan to go electric.
In the early Sixties, after the decline of the skiffle and trad jazz scenes, the UK pop scene was divided roughly into two camps, the poptastic beat groups following in the footsteps of the Beatles, and the rough and ready R & B groups like the Rolling Stones and The Animals who cared less for pop music unless it was Motown and who had something of a purist bent towards the blues that influenced them to play it in the first place. When one looks at the histories of a number of prominent British bands of the late Sixties, one will see how many of them originated as R & B or blues bands who eventually became more musically and artistically ambitious.
Apparently the Animals were called by such because of a wild stage show when the band sill had no permanent name and the group adopted the nickname as a badge of honour. Eric Burdon, vocals, and Alan Price, organ and piano, were the leading lights. Burdon had the voice and demeanour of the great White blues singer and Price was the musical genius. The band was pumping and if one closed one's eyes you could imagine you were listening to a Black bar band somewhere in the Deep South of the USA.
The Animals, in common with the Beatles and Stones, and many other contemporaries, liked R & B because it was a tough kind of music and had a pop edge too. The Stones and The Animals might also have had blues roots but these were sublimated to a degree as the music was somehow more serious than the party flavour of the R & B styles they preferred.
I knew the history of the Animals from The Story of Pop and I had heard "House of the Rising Sun," without knowing much more about the music before I bought a double album of The Animals' greatest hits from Sygma Records in Stellenbosch. I was a regular browser in the record store, with as much knowledge of the inventory as the sales guys, and one day I saw this Animals' double album there at a good price, always a motivation to me.
I asked the sales guy to play me some of the tracks on the turntable on the counter. In those days it was almost de rigeur for a prospective buyer, or even just a browser, to ask to listen to records before putting money down for them.
"I'm Crying" was the opening cut on the album. I had never heard this song before and within 30 seconds of listening to it I was hooked. I only listened to this one track, took the headphones off and told the shop guy that I wanted this record without further ado. Just that first track convinced me that it would be worth the asking price of the record.
This collection was great. The music was exuberant organ driven R & B with Eric Burdon's knowing, sly Britblues voice on top, sometimes almost goofy, sometimes just giddy with excitement at the pounding beat. This was by no means deep blues; this was sweaty, smoky club music for dancers.
The guys mixed Ray Charles ("Talking 'Bout You" with gospel fervour), John Lee Hooker ("Boom Boom" as a blues twist), Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and stomped with gusto, verve and brio; all that good, good stuff. I could understand why their wild onstage antics, fuelled no doubt by Newcastle brown ale and pills, and this outrageous energy could have brought them the nickname "animals."
More than thirty years later I've bought a similar album from iTunes, with some tunes I'd not heard before, such as "Gonna Send You Back To Walker", "I Believe To My Soul" and "Let The Good Times Roll" and with the omission of "For Miss Caulker" and "The Story of Bo Diddley." It is still a splendid collection of tunes I've loved for a long time. The album represents a joyous and fiery pleasure.
In the early years of building my record collection I bought blues albums by the greats like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and others alongside records by White blues and R & B artists and got to know a number of blues standards in their interpretations by the White guys before I had a chance to hear the original versions and in some cases I yet have to hear the original. The Animals provided one such education. Although, for example, "Boom Boom" and "Dimples" are made over as blues influenced pop dance tracks fit for a mid-Sixties discotheque, the Animals do something really special with "I'm Mad Again" in a way that I have not heard John Lee Hooker improve on.
The purist blues approach was much more prevalent in the late Sixties British blues boom especially with the rise of the superstar guitarist, than at the time the Animals and their peers came up. The early bands were not built around, nor relied on, virtuosity and star soloists and followed a pattern closer to that of the classic Chicago Southside electric blues ensemble template. The R & B guys were also more into entertaining in dance clubs than playing to audiences who preferred paying respectful and rapt attention to their idols.
The Animals played the kind of blues that defied you to stay still even if the lyrics somehow portrayed some sad situation typical of the blues. One could therefore argue that the likes of The Animals were far closer to the spirit and reality of the Southside of Chicago than the more purist bands that followed.