Episode 115: "House of the Rising Sun" by the Animals
Episode one hundred and fifteen of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "House of the Rising Sun" by the Animals, at the way the US and UK music scenes were influencing each other in 1964, and at the fraught question of attribution when reworking older songs. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.
Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Memphis" by Johnny Rivers.
Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/
A couple of times I mispronounce Hoagy Lands' surname as Land.
As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.
Information on the Animals comes largely from Animal Tracks by Sean Egan.
The two-CD set The Complete Animals isn't actually their complete recordings -- for that you'd also need to buy the Decca recordings -- but it is everything they recorded with Mickie Most, including all the big hits discussed in this episode.
For the information on Dylan's first album, I used The Mayor of MacDougal Street by Dave Van Ronk and Elijah Wald, the fascinating and funny autobiography of Dylan's mentor in his Greenwich Village period.
I also referred to Chronicles Volume 1 by Bob Dylan, a partial, highly inaccurate, but thoroughly readable autobiography; Bob Dylan: All The Songs by Phillipe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon; and Revolution in the Air, by Clinton Heylin.
Today we're going to look at a song that, more than any other song we've looked at so far, shows how the influence between British and American music was working in the early 1960s. A song about New Orleans that may have its roots in English folk music, that became an Appalachian country song, performed by a blues band from the North of England, who learned it from a Minnesotan folk singer based in New York. We're going to look at "House of the Rising Sun", and the career of the Animals:
[Excerpt: The Animals, "House of the Rising Sun"]
The story of the Animals, like so many of the British bands of this time period, starts at art school, when two teenagers named Eric Burdon and John Steel met each other.
The school they met each other at was in Newcastle, and this is important for how the band came together. If you're not familiar with the geography of Great Britain, Newcastle is one of the largest cities, but it's a very isolated city.
Britain has a number of large cities. The biggest, of course, is London, which is about as big as the next five added together. Now, there's a saying that one of the big differences between Britain and America is that in America a hundred years is a long time, and in Britain a hundred miles is a long way, so take that into account when I talk about everything else here.
Most of the area around London is empty of other big cities, and the nearest other big city to it is Birmingham, a hundred miles north-west of it. About seventy miles north of that, give or take, you hit Manchester, and Manchester is in the middle of a chain of large cities -- Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, and Sheffield, and the slightly smaller Bradford, are more or less in a row, and the furthest distance between two adjacent cities is about thirty-five miles.
But then Newcastle is another hundred miles north of Leeds, the closest of those cities to it. And then it's another hundred miles or so further north before you hit the major Scottish cities, which cluster together like the ones near Manchester do.
This means Newcastle is, for a major city, incredibly isolated. Britain's culture is extraordinarily London-centric, but if you're in Liverpool or Manchester there are a number of other nearby cities. A band from Manchester can play a gig in Liverpool and make the last train home, and vice versa. This allows for the creation of regional scenes, centred on one city but with cross-fertilisation from others.
Now, again, I am talking about a major city here, not some remote village, but it means that Newcastle in the sixties was in something of the same position as Seattle was, as we talked about in the episode on "Louie, Louie" -- a place where bands would play in their own immediate area and not travel outside it. A journey to Leeds, particularly in the time we're talking about when the motorway system was only just starting, would be a major trip, let alone travelling further afield. Local bands would play in Newcastle, and in large nearby towns like Gateshead, Sunderland, and Middlesborough, but not visit other cities.
This meant that there was also a limited pool of good musicians to perform with, and so if you wanted to be in a band, you couldn't be that picky about who you got on with, so long as they could play.
Steel and Burdon, when they met at art school, were both jazz fanatics, and they quickly formed a trad jazz band. The band initially featured them on trumpet and trombone, but when rock and roll and skiffle hit the band changed its lineup to one based around guitars. Steel shifted to drums, while Burdon stopped playing an instrument and became the lead singer. Burdon's tastes at the time were oriented towards the jazzier side of R&B, people like Ray Charles, and he also particularly loved blues shouters like Jimmy Witherspoon and Big Joe Turner. He tried hard to emulate Turner, and one of the songs that's often mentioned as being in the repertoire of these early groups is "Roll 'Em Pete", the Big Joe Turner song we talked about back in episode two:
[Excerpt: Big Joe Turner, "Roll 'em Pete"]
The jazz group that Burdon and Steel formed was called the Pagan Jazz Men, and when they switched instruments they became instead The Pagans R&B Band. The group was rounded out by Blackie Sanderson and Jimmy Crawford, but soon got a fifth member when a member from another band on an early bill asked if he could sit in with them for a couple of numbers. Alan Price was the rhythm guitarist in that band, but joined in on piano, and instantly gelled with the group, playing Jerry Lee Lewis style piano.
The other members would always later say that they didn't like Price either as a person or for his taste in music -- both Burdon and Steel regarded Price's tastes as rather pedestrian when compared to their own, hipper, tastes, saying he always regarded himself as something of a lounge player, while Burdon was an R&B and blues person and Steel liked blues and jazz.
But they all played well together, and in Newcastle there wasn't that much choice about which musicians you could play with, and so they stayed together for a while, as the Pagans evolved into the Kansas City Five or the Kansas City Seven, depending on the occasional presence of two brass players. The Kansas City group played mostly jump blues, which was the area of music where Burdon and Steel's tastes intersected -- musicians they've cited as ones they covered were Ray Charles, Louis Jordan, and Big Joe Turner.
But then the group collapsed, as Price didn't turn up to a gig -- he'd been poached by a pop covers band, the Kon-Tors, whose bass player, Chas Chandler, had been impressed with him when Chandler had sat in at a couple of Kansas City Five rehearsals. Steel got a gig playing lounge music, just to keep paying the bills, and Burdon would occasionally sit in with various other musicians. But a few members of the Kon-Tors got a side gig, performing as the Alan Price Rhythm & Blues Combo as the resident band at a local venue called the Club A Go-Go, which was the venue where visiting London jazzmen and touring American blues players would perform when they came to Newcastle. Burdon started sitting in with them, and then they invited Steel to replace their drummer, and in September 1963 the Alan Price Rhythm And Blues Combo settled…