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.