Animal Tracks – Newcastle’s Brand Of Powerhouse Blues

In 1963, the northern beat boom was being answered further south by a trend, centred on London, towards a more aggressive R&B: the sort of music purveyed by the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Pretty Things.

At the same time, groups such as Them in Belfast and John Mayall’s Blues Syndicate in Manchester were developing individual R&B and blues-influenced styles independently of the capital’s flourishing scene. Of these provincial R&B groups, the most distinctive, and ultimately the most successful, were Newcastle’s Animals.

Like other R&B bands of the time, the Animals’ music was, initially, inspired by black American artists such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker. But whereas the majority of their rivals relied heavily on a driving rhythm guitar, the Animals deviated from the orthodox line-up: instead of a second guitarist they featured a keyboard player, Alan Price. Furthermore, in Eric Burdon, the Animals possessed the most raucous and blackest sounding vocalist of all.

The Animals started life in 1960 as the Alan Price Combo, a quartet made up of Price (born 19 April 1942), bassist Bryan ‘Chas’ Chandler (born 18 December 1938), guitarist Hilton Valentine (born 2 May 1943) and drummer John Steel (born 4 February 1941). With their well-attended Saturday night performances at Newcastle’s Downbeat Club – a damp room above a warehouse that shook each time a train passed by on the nearby tracks – the Combo built up a sizeable following. In 1962, Eric Burdon (born 19 May 1941) was asked to join and take over from Alan Price as lead singer. With the inclusion of Burdon as frontman, the band’s stage act became more frenzied and energetic and this led fans to refer to them not as the Alan Price Combo but as ‘the Animals’ – a name the group soon adopted.

“The name was probably an association with the kind of music we play – earthy and gutty,’ said Burdon in 1965. “It’s a sort of animal sound. On stage we can be pretty wild. No routines – just moments of uninhibited inspiration when we go slightly potty.” However, when the group had first appeared on Ready Steady Go in 1964, performing their debut hit ‘Baby Let Me Take You Home’, Burdon had told the programmer’s presenter Keith Fordyce that they called themselves the Animals “because we all look like Animals”. Chas Chandler on the other hand, later claimed that Graham Bond, the R&B organist, had given the band their name after witnessing one of their less restrained performances.

Demo A-Go-Go

By 1963, the Animals had established themselves as the north-east’s top R&B beat attraction and they had graduated from the seedy interiors of the Downbeat Club to a residency at the plusher, more prestigious Club A-Go-Go (to which they later paid tribute on ‘Club A-Go-Go’, the B-side of their 1965 hit ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’).

This growing popularity prompted them to record a demo in mid 1963 which they hoped might impress promoters and A&R men in the capital. Four numbers were chosen from their live set – John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boom Boom,’ Bo Diddley’s ‘Pretty Thing’, and Willie Dixon’s ‘I Just Wanna Make Love To You’ and ‘Big Boss Man’. Five hundred were pressed in EP form, some to be sold to fans and others for dispatch to London (This demo EP was reissued by Decca three years later under the title, In The Beginning There Was – Early Animals.)

Meanwhile, the group’s increasing stature was leading to further work backing visiting American blues singers, and on 30 December 1963 they appeared at the Club A-Go-Go with the extravagantly-behaved Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller). The evening’s activities were recorded for posterity and emerged much later on two albums, In The Beginning (which appeared on the American Wand label in 1973) and Sonny Boy Williamson And The Animals, released in 1977 on the UK Charly Label.

The first of these, in particular, bears witness to the Animals’ early brash and energetic R&B leanings, renditions of standards such as Chuck Berry’s ‘I’m Almost Grown’ and John Lee Hooker’s ‘Dimples’ being peppered with Eric Burdon’s penchant for ad-lib lyrics and sarcastic references to the Rolling Stones, the group’s more celebrated rivals. Burdon’s wild vocal performance reached a peak on the album’s closing track, ‘C Jam Blues’, on which Williamson replaced John Steel on drums and pounded away in most unorthodox fashion, promoting the singer to shriek “You play the drums so crazy, you might have bust my ear!”

The demo EP sent down to London was greeted with enthusiasm by promoters and offers of work in the clubs of the capital began to come in with increasing regularity. By the end of 1963, the Animals were appearing in London so frequently that they decided to move there. They had chosen the ideal time. Since the Rolling Stones had hit the charts in July with ‘Come On’ and again in November with ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’, many record companies had become diverted from Merseybeat and were anxious, instead, to sign R&B groups.

The image had to be right, of course; whereas the Liverpool bands tended to follow the Beatles in donning uniforms and appearing relatively well groomed, clean and wholesome, the R&B contingent had to copy the Rolling Stones and go for an unkempt and unsavoury look. The Animals were fine on this score, as Alan Price recalled: “We looked the part in those days. We couldn’t afford smart mohair suits and so we dressed in denim jerkins and trousers. Pretty shabby they were – people must have thought we were labourers.”

They fitted the musical bill as well and so, while the Pretty Things were snapped up by Fontana, the Kinks by Pye and a host of lesser R&B talents by other labels, the Animals signed to Columbia in early 1964, to be produced by Mickie Most.

Rising in the charts

Most had been an exceedingly successful pop singer in South Africa but in 1962 he returned to England to try his luck in his home country. His attempts to establish himself as a vocalist in the UK proved abortive, however, so he decided to turn his hand to record production work. And he was to prove himself to be acutely aware of commercial tastes at his very first attempt, with the Animals.

Deciding that the group should move away from the raw R&B sound which dominated their live act, Most selected for their debut release a little-know blues song, ‘Baby Let Me Follow You Down’, which had appeared on Bob Dylan’s first album. The lyrics were altered and the titled was changed to ‘Baby Let Me Take You Home’ and, with a neat arrangement by Alan Price and a strong, confident production job from Most, there record went to Number 21 in the UK charts after its release in March 1964.

With this first-time success under their belts, the group chose to follow-up with a traditional blues song still less in keeping with their driving R&B inclinations. ‘House Of The Rising Sun’, recorded by Josh White in the Forties and resurrected on Dylan’s first album, seemed a decidedly odd choice for a single, telling a tale of ruin through prostitution. (The lyrics of the Animals’ release were somewhat cleaned-up for public consumption.) Furthermore, the seemingly non-commercial aspects of the number were compounded by the fact that the group’s recorded re-working clocked in at four-and-a-half minutes – far longer than the two-and-a-half to three minute norm.

The executives at Columbia fought against the number’s release. They thought that ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ was not only overlong but also extremely boring – but Mickie Most considered that it stood more than an even chance of chart success and, in the end, his argument won the day. Alan Price had given the song a dramatic, compelling arrangement, Burdon’s vocal delivery was fiercely emotive and these elements combined to break the three-minute barrier.

Transatlantic success

‘House Of The Rising Sun’ went to Number 1 on both sides of the Atlantic in the summer of 1964 (and eventually achieved worldwide sales in excess of eight million). It soon established itself as a contemporary classic to be included in the repertoire of amateur bands the world over.

Ironically, because the song owed much to forms of American folk music (a fact that could not be disguised by Alan Price’s R&B-tinged organ playing or Eric Burdon’s gruff, urban blues-styled vocal performance) the Animals now came to be thought of as a folk-rock group by American audiences who were unaware of the group’s basic R&B approach. However, amends were made by the third single, ‘I’m Crying’, which was released in September. Written by Price and Burdon, ‘I’m Crying’ captured all the essential elements of the Animals’ live act – the confident drive of Price’s organ work, Burdon’s brash, raw voice (which cracked as he strained for the upper octave) and the aggressive fills of Hilton Valentine, a much-underrated guitarist.

In the light of the massive success of ‘House Of The Rising Sun’, ‘I’m crying’ seemed a comparative failure despite reaching Number 8 in Britain and Number 19 in the United States. It hardened Mickie Most’s conviction that the group’s own composition should be used only for B-sides and album tracks, though anyway Price and Burdon were a less than prolific songwriting team.

The group’s first album, The Animals, was released in October 1964, and proved to be something of a disappointment despite Most granting them ample room to indulge their R&B passions. It contained uncharacteristically tame covers of Little Richard’s ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ and Chuck Berry’s ‘Around and Around’, and versions of ‘Boom Boom’ and ‘Dimples’ that had none of the power of their live treatments on the Club A-Go-Go tapes.

A second album, Animals Tracks, issued the following May, was similarly patchy. Again, it was made up largely of stage favourites such as ‘Let The Good Times Roll’ and ‘Roadrunner’, but none – with the honourable exception of Ray Charles’ ‘I Believe To My Soul’, which featured Eric Burdon at his most soulful – hinted at the excitement of live performance. It seemed that Mickie Most saw pop production wholly in terms of singles and viewed long players as something of a chore. (This theory is supported by the fact that during the years from 1967 to 1977, Most produced 63 UK Top Thirty hits – far more than any other producer – but only one Top Ten album, which was a ‘greatest hits’ compilation.)

On the singles front, however, Most could not be faulted. In February 1965, the Animals’ cover of ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’, first recorded by Nina Simone the previous year, went to Number 3 in the UK. Most’s astute ear for commercial appeal maintained the group’s chart record throughout the year. Sam Cooke’s ‘Bring It On Home To Me’, ‘We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place’ and ‘It’s My Life’ all succeeded on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Animals were by now a well-established commercial force, exceeded in popularity only the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Appearances in such pop films as Get Yourself A College Girl (alongside the Dave Clark Five, the Standells and Mary Ann Mobley – Miss America, 1959) and Pop Gear (retitled Go Go Mania for US audiences), a non-stop performance spectacular featuring, among many other acts, Billy J. Kramer, Billie Davis and newsreel footage of the Beatles, exposed the group to an even wider audience.

Shortly after the recording of ‘Bring It On Home To Me’, Alan Price left the group (citing fear of flying as the cause) and his place was taken by Dave Rowberry, previously with the Mike Cotton Sound. Following Price’s departure, differences between the band and their producer began to mount; while Price, the musical arranger, had been reasonably content to follow Most’s direction, Valentine and Burdon felt less comfortable with the commercial pop route. Now that Price was gone, they began to make their objections more strongly felt. Eric Burdon expressed his discomfiture in television appearance by mis-miming to and sneering through ‘We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place’ and ‘It’s My Life’. At the beginning of 1966, the Animals’ contract expired and, rather then remain in the clutches of Mickie Most, they left Columbia and signed with the Decca label.

Tom Wilson, their new producer, granted the group a greater degree of artistic control and this they used wisely. Both singles for the new label, ‘Inside Looking Out’ (1966), a savage, passionate song of imprisonment, and ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ (1966), an intelligent reading of a Goffin-King number, became hits and their album Animalisms displayed a much greater degree of care and effort than previous attempts. However, discontent within the group still lingered. John Steel had quit after ‘Inside Looking Out’ to be replaced by the Nashville Teens’ drummer, Barry Jenkins, and Eric Burdon was becoming even more drawn away from R&B roots towards new psychedelic trends. Shortly after the release of ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’, the Animals announced that they had disbanded.

Sandoz and Simon Smith

After the split, Burdon retained the group name (and the services of Barry Jenkins) and, following a brief attempt to launch a new line-up in Britain, moved to California to embrace the prevailing hippie drug culture. He took with him guitarists Vic Briggs (formerly with Steampacket) and Danny McCulloch, bassist John Weider and Jenkins. Billed as Eric Burdon and the Animals, they secured a deal with MGM who handled all previous American releases of the original group.

The new group produced four excellent hippie-oriented singles – ‘When I Was Young’ (the B-side of which, ‘A Girl Named Sandoz’, was a blatant tribute to LSD, Sandoz being the name of the laboratories in which the drug had been developed), ‘Good Times’, ‘San Franciscan Nights’ (a Top Ten hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1967) and ‘Sky Pilot’.

Eric Burdon continued to pursue his hippie obsessions with increasing enthusiasm, issuing baffling statements such as “My whole group is basically hung up on a sort of religion which has sort of evolved” and “The drug experience has taught us that to be deranged is not necessarily to be useless”.

Burdon disbanded the group in 1969 and his career since, which included a stint fronting the black American funk band War, has become increasingly erratic. His former Animals allies, Alan Price and Chas Chandler, meanwhile, had been pursuing more orthodox and successful routes.

In 1966, Chandler had gone into management and production world as the man behind the Jimi Hendrix Experience. He later signed Slade, for whom he produced no less than 13 UK Top Ten singles (including six Number 1 hits) in less than four years (1971-75). Alan Price, on the other hand, continued to play and perform after leaving the Animals, he had formed the Alan Price Set and soon established himself as a popular, somewhat middle-of-the-road artist. His solo hits included Randy Newman’s ‘Simon Smith And His Amazing Dancing Bear’, ‘The House That Jack Built’ (his own composition, both in 1967) and ‘Don’t Stop The Carnival’, a Sonny Rollins number, in 1968. The Set broke up in 1968 and apart from a hit with ‘Rosetta’ (on which he teamed up with fellow keyboard player Georgie Fame as Fame and Price Together) in 1971, he was absent from the charts for some years. Nevertheless, Price consolidated his position as a popular entertainer through regular television appearances and solo album work. Price recorded 10 albums between 1966 and 1978, including the film soundtrack O Lucky Man! and Between Yesterday And Today, a brave attempt to explore his northern, working-class roots in song, and a single lifted from the album, ‘Jarrow Song’, put him back in the UK Top Ten.

In 1968, the original members of the Animals had got back together for a Christmas concert at Newcastle’s City Hall and in 1976 they re-united to record and album, Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted, at Chandler’s home studio. Sadly, although Burdon’s voice retained the throaty attack of old, the performances of the remaining musicians proved to be workmanlike at best. The album was even more lifeless than the group’s first two Columbia efforts, barely hinting at the power of their achievements on single with Mickie Most or those moments of raw R&B magic captured in a dank Newcastle club more than a decade before.

© Tom HibbertThe History of Rock, 1982

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