Off the Charts

The Animals: Don’t Let Them Be Misunderstood

Issue 142

In the town of Newcastle upon Tyne in northeast England, keyboardist Alan Price invited the energetic and big-throated Eric Burdon to sing with his Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo. This was 1962, and within two years the band had moved to London and caught the first wave of the British Invasion. They called themselves The Animals.

Unlike most of that onslaught of British rock talent, at least among the bands still considered significant, The Animals focused on covers rather than on original material. But the music-lovers of Britain weren’t very familiar with traditional American numbers like “The House of the Rising Sun,” and American listeners had never heard Brit rockers sing John Lee Hooker, so there was still excitement on all sides.

Their first album after they signed with MGM was called The Animals (1964). Right out of the gate, they took the UK and US by storm with “House of the Rising Sun,” which they had started performing while touring as the opening act for Chuck Berry; the audience reaction inspired them to include it on their debut record.

The lineup at the time, besides Burdon and Price, was Hilton Valentine on guitar, Chas Chandler on bass, and John Steel on drums. They chose a wonderful collection of American blues-based numbers, including songs by Berry, John Lee Hooker, and Fats Domino. Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” demonstrates their confident and distinctive hand with this material.

 

In 1965, The Animals on Tour was released in the US, while Animal Tracks came out in the UK. The majority of the songs are the same, although ordered differently. Among them was the hit single “I’m Crying,” which did well on both sides of the pond. Like the first album, these two were produced by Mickie Most, a go-to guy for British acts in the 1960s, creating hits for Donovan, The Jeff Beck Group, and Herman’s Hermits.

A couple of the songs only appear on the UK release. One of those is “Roberta.” The raggedy edge of their recording of this 12-bar blues by Al Smith gives it an authentic, magnetic kick. Valentine contributes a short but terrific guitar lick.

 

Around this time, The Animals also had a huge hit with “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” a cover of a song written for Nina Simone. But Burdon and company were getting tired of Most choosing all their material. They wanted more control and a chance to write for themselves.

Animalisms (1966) and its American equivalent, Animalization, were the result of a renegotiation with MGM to get them a new producer, Tom Wilson, who made a name for himself working with Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Velvet Underground. But the bigger change for the band was the loss of founder and keyboardist Alan Price, who left for a solo career. He was replaced on keyboards and organ by Dave Rowberry. Halfway through the recording sessions, drummer John Steel quit, so Barry Jenkins plays on three tracks.

The album’s big single was “Don’t Bring Me Down,” written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King. A look at the track lists on both American and British versions, however, shows a fair number of band-composed songs for the first time. “She’ll Return It,” credited to Rowberry and Burdon, captures the sardonic humor that characterizes a lot of blues and found its way into the British rock vernacular.

 

The last time an Animals album made the Top 40 was a US-only Animalism (1966, not to be confused with the unrelated British release, Animalisms, mentioned above). The band brought in a host of session musicians to bolster their sound on bluesy classics like Percy Mayfield’s “Hit the Road, Jack,” Little Richard’s “Lucille,” and Chester Burnett’s “Smokestack Lightning.”

Frank Zappa sang and played guitar on his own song, “All Night Long.” He also a provided a funky bass guitar line on “The Other Side of Life,” by Brill Building regular Fred Neil.

 

The most surprising record ever to bear The Animals’ name is Eric is Here. Made in 1967, this is actually a solo album by Burdon accompanied by two big bands: the Benny Golson Orchestra and the Horace Ott Orchestra. Jenkins does play drums, which apparently was enough to justify the band’s name on the cover. This release was a ploy by Decca, The Animals’ British label, to distract from the fact that the group had split up and was trying to rebuild itself.

And rebuild it did. They got a new manager, since their old one chronically mishandled their money. Only Burdon and Jenkins stuck around, so they added John Weider on guitar and violin, Vic Briggs on guitar and piano, and Danny McCulloch on bass. And, crucially, they all relocated to California; The Animals, now officially called Eric Burdon & The Animals, became a psychedelic band.

The appropriately titled Winds of Change (1967) announced this new sound with atmospheric effects and spoken word meditations, hardly the stuff of blues rock. All but one of the tracks are originals. The only exception is Jagger/Richards’ “Paint It Black.” An interesting piece of music history lies in Burdon’s song “Yes, I Am Experienced.” It is an answer to the question posed by his friend, Jimi Hendrix, even though “Are You Experienced?” was yet to be released to the public.

 

The first of the three albums put out by Eric Burdon & The Animals in 1968 was The Twain Shall Meet. It produced the hit “Sky Pilot,” about the Vietnam War, which reached the No. 14 spot on the US charts, despite being so long that it had to be split over both sides of the 45 rpm disc. Also on that album is the free-for-all “All Is One,” strange both for its lyrics and its instrumentation; the bagpiper is uncredited.

Hammond organist Zoot Money (who had not yet changed his name from George Bruno) joined as a sixth bandmember for Every One of Us (1968). Guitarist Weider gets the writing credit for the jazzy, Spanish-influenced “Serenade to a Sweet Lady,” unusual among Animals tracks for being purely an instrumental.

 

Love Is was their monster project of 1968. McCulloch had left, so Money stepped in on bass. The record was released as a double LP, with Side D offering material originally written for Money and Andy Summers’ former band, Dantalian’s Chariot. Summers (yes, the one from The Police) plays on this album, marking the only time he recorded with The Animals.

One of the Money/Summers songs is “The Madman.” The high-arching melodic style is completely different from what The Animals usually played, and the complexity of the arrangement is closer to prog rock than psychedelia.

 

Although the new iteration of The Animals was a success commercially, the band fell apart. A major factor was a disastrous tour of Japan, during which their tour manager was briefly kidnapped by yakuza, and they had to flee so quickly that they left their equipment behind. But that insane adventure was just the icing on the cake for a bunch of guys ready to go their separate ways. Burdon immediately took a job as the frontman of the band War.

But The Animals were not finished. In 1975, Burdon reassembled with Price, Valentine, Chandler, and Steel, and called the resultant album Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted (1977). This was the first time they had all recorded together since Price had left in 1965.

Besides the lineup itself, they also returned to their musical roots. “As the Crow Flies” was written by American blues guitarist Jimmy Reed, who died right around the time they recorded this, so perhaps it was a tribute. Valentine goes for the essence of Reed’s guitar style without the flashes of high-speed ornaments for which the bluesman was famous.

 

It was a short reunion, followed by another one-album stint in 1983, which produced Ark. Since then, Valentine, Steel, McCulloch and Rowberry have been variously involved in groups that toured or recorded under the Animals name. (Sadly, Valentine passed away in January 2021.) Even Burdon revived the name, and he continues to perform as the head of Eric Burdon & The Animals. And you can be sure that, at every show, they sing about a certain place in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun.

Header image: the Animals, circa 1964: Eric Burdon, Alan Price, Chas Chandler, Hilton Valentine and John Steel. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Richard William Laws.

One comment on “The Animals: Don’t Let Them Be Misunderstood”

  1. Although I absolutely loved it, Nina Simone hated it. I also love Nina’s version, and obviously, both have so totally different vibes. I guess the change in feeling from her version to theirs was too stark for her to embrace it.

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