Sunday, April 20, 2008

Album project: The Animals

The Animals, Retrospective (2004): The Animals emerged out of working-class Newcastle, England, riding the first wave of the British Invasion to give the world some of the best, toughest no-frills rock 'n' roll of that era.

The band's origins were in the Alan Price Combo, one of countless outfits throughout England doing their best to approximate the sounds of American rhythm and blues for dance club audiences. The group's fortunes took a turn for the better when the deep-voiced, soulful Eric Burdon hired on as lead singer. Along with keyboardist Price, guitarist Hilton Valentine, bassist Chas Chandler, and drummer John Steel comprised the original line-up. Their wild stage act caused the folks around Newcastle to refer to the quintet as "animals", and the name stuck when they headed down to London to seek their fortune.

They had a connection with Yardbirds manager Giorgio Gomelsky, who in turn introduced them to Mickie Most, one of Britain's most successful producers of the 60's. The Animals' repertoire consisted mostly of reworked blues, R&B, and folk tunes, pretty much the standard practice around London at the time. Their first single, "Baby Let Me Take You Home", gave them a British chart foothold. Their second, "House Of The Rising Sun", made them international superstars.

"House Of The Rising Sun" was an old New Orleans folk blues, the story of a life gone wrong in the city's gambling houses and brothels. The origins of the song have become lost in the mists of time. It's likely it just evolved over the years out of the city's storytelling traditions. Many people have speculated that The Animals picked "Rising Sun" up from Bob Dylan's debut album, but Eric Burdon said that he first heard it in Newcastle from a local folk singer named Johnny Handle. The band began using it as their closing number to differentiate them from the majority of acts who ended their sets with up-tempo R&B selections. Producer Most was doubtful of the song's commercial potential at first, but after seeing audiences' reactions agreed to let The Animals record it, which they did in one take on May 18, 1964.

Music steeped in the blues like this was almost never heard on AM radio in 1964, and the effect of "House Of The Rising Sun" was almost revolutionary. Hilton Valentine's guitar arpeggio catches your attention immediately, setting up Burdon's powerful lamentation of wasting his life with drinking, gambling, and prostitutes, all driven along by Price's pulsating organ. "Rising Sun" was a worldwide chart-topper, spending three weeks at #1 in the US.

As many of their British Invasion contemporaries began to branch out and write their own material, The Animals stuck to the tried and true approach of covering American R&B tracks, garnering further hits with "I'm Crying", "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", and "Bring It On Home To Me". At the same time the group, especially Burdon, gained a reputation for hard drinking and brawling, while internal disputes threatened to blow the band apart. Alan Price was first to leave, in part due to his fear of flying. (Price would continue to be successful in Britain through the rest of the 60's as a solo performer.) He was replaced by Dave Rowberry, and The Animals scored more hits through 1965-66 with the working-class anthems "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place", "It's My Life" (featured below), and "Don't Bring Me Down".

By mid-1966 the internal pressures brought about the breakup of the original group. John Steel and Hilton Valentine faded from the music business. Chas Chandler spotted a flamboyant young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix in a New York club and offered to become his manager. Chandler brought Hendrix to England to record, and guided him through his years of phenomenal success.

Eric Burdon moved from England to California, and forsook the bottle for LSD. The mellowed-out Burdon put together a new edition of the Animals, featuring multi-instrumentalist John Weider, and replaced the hard-driving R&B with songs of peace, love, and hippie gentleness. The new Animals could pack a punch on occasion, as with the dive-bomb guitar intro to "When I Was Young", but were best noted for their ornate psychedelia and ballads like "San Franciscan Nights". The anti-war "Sky Pilot", the story of a morally conflicted military chaplain, was probably the best track from the later years.

By 1969, the new Animals had disbanded (future Police guitarist Andy Summers was a member toward the end), and Burdon began working with a jazz/funk/rock fusion combo called War. War made two albums with Burdon, also creating a major hit single, "Spill The Wine", which would be War's first big hit, and Burdon's last.

The original Animals attempted a couple of reunions, in 1977 and 1983, but the old animosities resurfaced and both reunions were short-lived. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1994; Burdon refused to attend, and Alan Price sat at a table apart from the rest of his former bandmates. The original lineup was retired permanently in 1996, when Chas Chandler died of a heart attack.

The original Animals' tough folk-blues influenced sound has earned them a permanent place among rock's greatest groups. Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, among others, have covered Animals songs on stage for years, acknowledging their debt to the brawling young lads out of Newcastle.