1 – The Animals: The House of the Rising Sun

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I went to school with Eric Burdon.

Actually, I didn’t, but when I watch the Animals’ 1964 performance of ‘House of the Rising Sun’, I almost imagine I did. He’s the kid in my form class who lived on the edge of the village in the middle of a barbed-wire junkyard; the canny delinquent who stole Swiss army knives from Boyes or smoked Silk Cut down by the baths. He has that aquiline profile, those narrow eyes – the sort that flash a shifty glance every time teachers’ footsteps are heard down the corridor. Hair tousled and un-brushed, as though his mother has woken him late with barely time to hurry him into his blazer. You know his shirttails will be showing within ten minutes of the assembly bell.

In 1964, Eric Burdon was a slip of a lad really – a mere twenty-three years old. In the North East of the early sixties, young men of his age usually followed their fathers in a trade or into one of the heavy industries. Swan Hunter and Vickers-Armstrong ruled the river, while beyond it north and south were the pits: Ashington, Easington, Seaham. My own grandfather migrated north from Wakefield to work the Durham coalfield (though they had their collieries down in Yorkshire too of course). I’ve always been inclined to romanticise it, though I know it must have been a rickety, wheezy sort of occupation. Dust everywhere, and claustrophobia, and emphysema, though the pay was good and you could retire relatively early to race pigeons or grow leeks. Somehow all that soot didn’t matter so much once you could devote yourself to pulling good, green things out of the earth for Sunday dinner.

Nevertheless, the predominant colour of the age was brown. If the photographs are anything to go by, the sixties in the North East had little in the way of Carnaby psychedelia. They ran a spectrum of cocoa to beige. Mohair suits and chocolate-striped ties. Tan boots. Wallpaper and sofas the colour of wet sand; the walnut and teak of radiograms and undusted dressers. Most meals suspended in gravy: mince and dumplings, liver and onions, toad in the hole. All washed down with a Newcastle Brown (in a half glass) or a pint of mild at the working men’s club on a woozy Saturday afternoon. Strong tea (let it mash). And most of all, the brown, brown river, with its own sparkler-head of foam, the toxic leach of the world’s workshops. This is the Tyneside of Our Friends in the North, of intergenerational seething and causes at crossed purposes. It’s also the landscape of Mike Hodges’ Get Carter, still one of the finest British movies of all time. Plenty of grey, brown and pit-black in that: only the momentary blue-steel flash of the Tyne Bridge cuts through the cloud.

Rock ‘n’ roll hit the British provinces with a crash and a bump and came up wearing Happy Days frills and beehives. Many a time my mother would tell the story of Grandad wanting to cleanse his pores of coal-filth, only to happen upon her jive skirts starching in the bath. In my overactive imagination, this is the point at which black and white might have turned to technicolour; it’s that Wizard of Oz moment, a decisive step over the threshold. And it’s true to a degree. Milkshakes happened, popcorn, doughnuts, the instant energies of Philadelphia and Detroit shipped along the Tyne, offloaded along the keel row for goodtime Geordie lads and lasses. Brown got brighter and bonnier. You might get Arctic roll or Battenberg after your roast. Though the gravy, of course, remained.

There’s no such tension between breaking through and holding back in ‘The House of the Rising Sun’. It’s the sound of a door unlocking into the light, of something letting go; it’s a prisoner walking free. What catches me in the heart every time I hear it is the liberation in Eric Burdon’s voice. He barely sings half a verse before he’s up the octave: ‘And it’s been!’ he cries out prematurely, anticipating the glory of his own unhinged holler, impatiently interrupting the preamble. This story is too urgent for niceties. It’s a warning: don’t succumb to the flophouse. When Burdon goes up that octave, you not only realise he has succumbed, but that it’s very easy to fall into vice again: carnal submission is a continual threat. We need to be persuaded of this, of course. The lyrics imply age and wisdom; this guy has been there, and has emerged on the other side to give his testimony. It’s a stretch to think of tousled little Eric in his grey blazer staking his life on a royal flush or selling his soul to a lady of the night. What he does to get round our incredulity is spectacular. Unleashing his yell on an unsuspecting world, he’s initially startling, but we’re almost instantly convinced within half a verse.

It’s even more impressive when we account for geography. It turns out that New Orleans has floated adrift of the Mississippi delta and repositioned itself on the North Shields fish quay; ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ is a Northumbrian folksong. In that one translation, you have the 1960s in microcosm. Britain produced many great white soul and blues singers through the decade – Steve Winwood, Gary Brooker, Colin Blunstone, Dusty Springfield – who managed to assimilate American idioms and anglicise them. The Beatles and the Stones, of course, were crucial, but ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ is more thrilling to me than any of those early Merseybeat ditties or Chelsea foot-stompers. Fair enough, I have a Tyneside bias; but then, this is the track that reputedly inspired Dylan to go electric, conscious that his own version had been overshadowed by the glory of the Animals’ finest four and a half minutes. Al Kooper on ‘Like a Rolling Stone’? One of the great organ parts of all time. But here’s Alan Price on his Vox  Continental. He almost annihilates it. It wails and wheezes, bubbling and roiling underneath the vocals like some medieval hyperactivity of the humours. There’s black bile and blood there. Let that organ be a warning to any young guy who can’t keep his bits in his trousers or his bets within his means.

Still, despite the frowns and glowers, what lingers after that swelling ninth chord at the end of ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ is mainly a smile of disbelief at the audacity. You wouldn’t think it to see Eric Burdon casually pouting through the film, but I’ve no doubt he was grinning all the way out of the studio and into the light after nailing this in one take. His music would get heavier, bluesier, jazzier, and ultimately erratic (check out his underrated, if slightly unhinged, period with funk jamsters War). But as with so many, his first was his best. It’s the sound of British pop music flexing its muscles further than ever before: not dipping its toe in the water, but insouciantly jumping all the way in. It’s the sound of five likely lads standing in the bollock-freezing North Sea, closing their eyes, making a wish and imagining it’s the Atlantic Ocean.

I may not have gone to school with Eric Burdon, but it’s fun to think that the guy in the bumblebee-striped Park View uniform queuing for lunch at Citrone’s might have had the sort of voice that turned Dylan electric or reached number one in America. Shame I only ever heard him ask for chips and gravy and a Fanta.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “1 – The Animals: The House of the Rising Sun

  1. ben

    hello hello! mutual blog-respect! can’t wait for more tracks. i always wanted something like this to read — a literate perspective on music from someone who knows about it and isn’t, as you say, nick hornby. power to your pen, or rather turntable. ben

    • Thanks Ben – very pleased you found my page! I’m still designing it, and am just testing the waters before I start the weekly drip-feed of entries. It’s great to see we have both entered the Noughties (!!)

  2. Hi there Andrew – great choice of song, I’ve always loved this rendition, for pretty well exactly the reasons you talk about so eloquently here. When Price’s organ really rips in its like hellfire licking at your ankles. War is great too, if wayward at times, though if you’re ever tempted to buy a Burden solo album called something like ‘I used to be an Animal’ (see what he’s done there?) then for the sake of all the above, DON’T.

    Looking forward to more.

  3. Great stuff. I will look forward to new additions. This is a good place to start too, because (as you have implied) it bridges the gap between the pre-pop and pop eras just as well as anything going on the the trendier (overhyped?) cities further south and west.

    And you’ve really nailed the key moment – twenty-five seconds in. I’ve never quite thought of it as “a prisoner walking free” but that’s absolutely right. This is a future recidivist but one who will use his freedom wildly if not wisely. Or perhaps both. I’m sure the writers of Our Friends in the North were appropriating that feeling of temptation and underground menace as much as the geographical connection with all their Animals references.

    The addition of the Get Carter mood to the traditional folk song also lifts it into the classic bracket; compare it with the Woody Guthrie version which is a Foggy Bottom Boys style dirge (in the nicest sense of the word) – some interesting suspensions and sevenths but ultimately a rambling, shambling trot, far from the vibrant, menacing, funereal powerhouse the Animals created. It is immediately clear why this track was so influential.

    What’s interesting to me is that with “House of the Rising Sun” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” the Animals created a sinister, soulful and stripped-back sound which is entirely at odds with so much of their other work – the chorus of “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”, say, or their very tame run through “Baby Let Me Take You Home”. Ironically it was Dylan who installed some Burdonesque desire and abandon into what I consider the definitive version of the latter.

    • You’re quite right – nothing else the Animals did really lived up to it. They’re just as famous for being early Hendrix champions as anything (Chas Chandler being his manager and all). But the sad destiny of this track is to be plum in the middle of endless sixties compilations, when really it sounds like nothing else from 1964. Famously the longest 45RPM to that point. A milestone in so many ways…

  4. Shanna

    This is brill! Looking forward to the next installment.

  5. Congratulations on the new blog! Looks excellent. I’m always looking for further edification on this topic, and I’m glad to have found a good source.

    Really enjoyed this first post. Taught me something about the song, but also about New Orleans in the North East.

    All the best.

    • Thanks, Truffle, this is the intention – some social history / politics / film / literature in the mix too. The North East will reappear at least another three times, though in very different guises!

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