Gary James' Interview With
One of the best known bands to arrive in America during the height of the British Invasion was a Newcastle, England band called The Animals.
Their first hit record, and it was a big hit, was "The House Of The Rising Sun". Other hits followed including "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place", "It's My Life", "I'm Crying", "Inside Looking Out", "The Story Of Bo Diddley", "Bring It On Home To Me" and "See See Rider".
Eric Burdon was the lead singer of The Animals and he spoke with us about his early days in music, the history of The Animals and what he's up to these days.
Q - Eric, you've lived in California since the 1960s?
A - Yeah.
Q - What do you like about California?
A - Back in the UK, the attitude is, you left the UK for the US and sold out, and that's why you'll never work in this town again. That may be true, but my basic reason for living in California is it's a desert. It's an arrid zone. I'm an asthmatic and I can breath here. In comparison to where I was born and raised, it's day and night. So, it's basically for health reasons that I live in California. It's a healthy place to live. I'm in the mountains above Palm Springs. I love it. It's wonderful.
Q - There really is no preparation for a singer to go from singing in a club to touring around the world, is there? How did you handle that success of being in a group like The Animals? Did you ever say to yourself "what's with these people? Why are they acting like this?"
A - Yeah. I found it very frustrating. I think all of the bands did. I think a couple of people revelled in it. I think Mick and The Stones revelled in it. I'm not sure the whole band did. I mean, Mick did. That's why The Stones stayed together and went on to have the popularity they have. I know The Beatles hated it. On more than one occasion, I saw Beatles gigs where John Lennon or Paul told the audience to shut up, because they wanted to sing a ballad as opposed to more up tempo songs. With The Animals, they started throwing boxes of animal crackers. They weren't into the music. The whole idea then was to go and see The Animals...see The Beatles. It was more of a visual thing. The music really didn't count that much. So therefore, I wasn't really comfortable with it.
Q - How hard is it for you today to get radio airplay on any CD you might put out?
A - Well, it's pretty much impossible. Satellite radio plays my new album. I think that's the only place that I've heard it, which is heart warming to know that at least you're reaching somebody, somewhere. I have a satellite radio in my car, and it's also exposing me to a lot of new music that I would never come across if I wasn't tuned into satellite.
Q - Are you surprised there isn't a radio station somewhere that would play the music of the British Invasion artists, then and now?
A - There's no surprises any more (laughs) The surprise has gone out of it. It's the deterioration of radio all over the world. It's become a slow moving erosion. It's a pity because it's such a great medium. My way of trying to fight back on this level is I'm taking my book and doing a CD version of my book. The format would be an old fashioned radio play, the kind of radio plays I grew up with as a kid. Only difference is it will be on a CD platter and you'll play it in your car. The first one is in the German language because it's quite a good market over there for that kind of thing. But obviously I'm going to do an English version of the same project. I personally like this medium, especially when I'm driving long distances in my car. It's really cool to put on a play or a spoken word from a book which I wouldn't have the time to consume if I was reading the book. So, it's a small market but it's a very vibrant market. The few people that do tune into that are really appreciative of it. I hate to belabor it, but satellite radio is one way to go. There's a local radio station here I rarely listen to, but because I'm doing construction on my house at the moment, I've got several construction crews here and they've got a radio going while they're working. So, I'm listening to a local classic radio station. But, there's obviously no human beings in the radio stations. It's just pre-programmed 'cause I hear the same songs every day.
Q - At the same time probably.
A - Yeah. It's just day in, day out. It's turning good strong music into just background noise. On the low end of it, the worst aspect of it is, it's not so much in the States, but in Europe, constant high speed rhythms that are going on in restaurants and public places. I get offers all the time in re-doing Animals classics with this kind of tempo, with this kind of high speed techno tempo. They'll pay massive amounts of money if you want to go there and do it. I just think it's really derogatory to get involved in such a thing.
Q - I read your book "I Used To Be An Animal, But I'm Alright Now". You also wrote another book, "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood". Which book is on CD? Both?
A - Could be. We don't know where it's gonna go. We're just concentrating on the opening segment at the moment. Because it's the German language, we're using a thread of my voice through the book, and then the German translator comes in. We're still working on the technological approach to it and what kind of sound effects we're gong to use, and musical links we're going to use to keep the listener interested. But, I'm writing a lot these days, not just music ideas, but working on a treatment for a screenplay at the moment for some guys in Hollywood. Some producers saw a chapter in my book "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and feel it could be do-able as a movie. So, I'm working on a treatment which will be developed into a screenplay I hope. If it doesn't make it to that stage, which is a long shot in Hollywood anyway, it'll be a format for another book, but more of a novel based on my experiences as opposed to a biography.
Q - How were you able to re-call all the times, dates, events and conversations in these books? Did you keep a running diary when you were on the road?
A - I did some of the time. Early on, I had a collection of writings and newspaper clippings and whatever else I was able to get. A lot of people borrowed it. Nina Simone borrowed it and she had it for months before she returned it to me. She told me the way she saw what I did in the music business was in the realm of music creativity, a musical journalist. That impressed me. So, I tried to uphold that. I believed in her and her music so much. She's probably one of the most heaviest, creative forces around. She was able to produce pop records as well as be very political and radical in her own way. So, I've tried to stay there. I've tried to keep that alive. It was very difficult during the years of the late 80s, through the 90s until the millennium because I became totally bored with the music world and the music business. I really didn't have anything to say. What I watched happen, with the advent of the digital world and computers and the advent of the world wide web and watch the record companies do nothing about it. Now, they're beginning to wake up to the fact that they've got to join the fray. Of course this is after millions of dollars have gone missing in bootlegs. That's what I'm writing about. The screenplay I'm working on is about encryption within the recording industry.
Q - Do you watch American Idol?
A - No. I have one reaction to that kind of television viewing...I go ouch! I really feel it for these kids that one minute are nobody and then all of a sudden, they're hit with all this publicity. I feel for them as individuals as to whether they'll be able to retain this. I don't think anyone even cares, having experienced that myself to a certain degree.
Q - My problem with the show is this premise that you have to have this wonderful voice to become a pop star...an American Idol if you will.
A - Of course not. That's why rock 'n roll is everyone's music. I would say that anybody can sing. Anybody can get a message across. You can't say an icon like Bob Dylan has a great singing voice. He doesn't, but he has impeccable timing and of course it's his writing and what he says, not particularly in the way that he says it, but is important and goes to peoples hearts. That's not to say there haven't been any great voices in the pop world. There have. But, it doesn't matter so much. That's what broke down the old world order around the time of the 1900s, when the recording system was invented. It was good-bye to the opera singers...not good-bye, but they were eclipsed somehow. The advent of electronic music where people started to play with electricity, particularly through electric guitar. It's so powerful. I call it Bone music because it goes through the skin. It goes through the actual bones. It shakes you up. That's why it's a strong element in our lives. And now I just see it as being watered down.
Q - It's so strange isn't it? Singers can't sing today. Musicians can't play. Writers can't write. What happened? Mediocrity seems to be the order of the day.
A - And yet they have everything at their disposal. All dressed up with no place to go. That's what draws me to World Beat music. Today I find myself listening to anything but what is left over on the radio. When I travel, I collect CDs, DVDs of people I can't even pronounce their name or even read the label on the record because it's in Arabic or Spanish or whatever. But, that's my source of listening these days, anything international that breaks down barriers between people. That's what music is all about anyway. With the political climate today, we're becoming very insular in this country and I don't think that's necessarily a good thing.
Q - You told Sharon Lawrence of the L.A. Times back in 1970, that you formed a band in order to "entertain yourself". I don't understand. You mean there was nothing else going on in Newcastle at the time? No TV? No movies?
A - Well, that's not necessarily one hundred percent true. There was a cinema in my hometown where they showed foreign movies, imported movies which you couldn't see in the normal cinema releases. I was an art student. That actually became my own personal curriculum was to go at least twice a week and catch movies by people like Salvador Dali, all the foreign imports and great American movies too like the United Artists movies that were produced by Burt Lancaster's company and Stanislavski movies with Marlon Brando. Stuff like that. Movies had a great influence on me, probably more than music, 'cause I was exposed to movies earlier than I was exposed to music. I've always been frustrated in the fact that I've been trapped in the role of a rock 'n roll entity. I've always wanted to make film. Now with the advent of the digital world and DVD, one afford to make movies. That's why I'm working away on this screenplay project.
Q - Did you know what was going on in other parts of England when you were growing up? Were you aware of the other bands that were around?
A - It was real magical on that level. We were convinced up in Newcastle that we were the only people. I used to hitch-hike to Paris to buy imported American records. I had a guy who was in the merchant navy who was my neighbor. He would bring me back records from the States. It became like a secret little club within the art school I went to. We firmly believed that we were the only people that were doing it. Then I made friends with Alexis Koerner who was like a godfather of the British blues movement and spent time with him in London. He had a club in Ealing, just outside of London and that's where I first ran into Keith Richards, Mick, Brian Jones and several other up and coming guys like Eric Clapton and of course The Beatles out of Liverpool, and we realized that in a way, this was quite magical that guys from different towns, from different ends of the United Kingdom, at the same time all into the same thing. It grew into what was termed as the British Invasion. But, it was nothing more than English kids going out of our way to save from destruction and oblivion, the one thing we believed was America's true art form, blues, rhythm and blues and jazz.
Q - How many bands were there in just Newcastle? Any idea?
A - There was a lot of jazz going on. A lot of folk music going on. Venturing into electronic music, there was about three other bands that I know of which eventually we took members from each of those bands to formulate The Animals.
Q - Why did this musical invasion or musical explosion come from Britain? Why not France or Germany?
A - They did, but it was jazz. I was just talking to someone before about this. During the National Socialist Germany, the way of having an underground against what the belief of the stage was, people were listening to American jazz. And the same underneath the Communist countries in the Eastern countries, Poland, Czechleslovakia. But, if you were a member of an underground political organization that hated the ruling party, the Communist party or the Nazi party, strangely enough both ends of the spectrum, the people caught in-between were listening to American jazz. In particular in England because we speak the same language, sort of, and we were surrounded by US Air Force personnel. England, when I grew up, was, as a lot of people use the terminology, a permanent aircraft carrier. We were surrounded in our everyday lives by American servicemen who brought music with them. So wherever the American military was, were the dudes who created the music and they were available, and made friends with us, and that's where we were first exposed to jazz music.
Q - You actually wanted to be a set designer or an art director didn't you?
A - Not really, no. I had my heart set from the get-go to want to be involved in cinematic production. But, there wasn't anywhere in England where you could get schooling. Nearest thing you get was RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and study acting. But, there was no way you could get training as what was known as a set designer. These days, it's production designer. In a way, that's one of my regrets that I wasn't able to follow through on that because I've watched where movie production has gone to and production design in almost as important as editing is in the world of cinema these days.
Q - Irwin Stambler, the author of the Encyclopedia of Rock, Pop and Soul wrote "The Alan Price Combo became The Animals because of audience reaction to their playing. And some of the members of the band overheard onlookers agreeing that the band played like a bunch of animals." Is any of that true? Is that how you got your name?
A - No. That became an easy way to describe who we were and what we were doing. That's just a press release. In fact, the name The Animals came from a member of a gang that we were a part of. The most engaging character I found in this gang of older guys that I hung out with... his name was Animal. That was his nickname. I suggested that in the spirit of that gang, name the band after him. And eventually, we became The Animals. It was just an easier way for the press to latch onto a story by saying we behave like animals onstage.
Q - I used to think that you had the greatest job going. But, after reading your first book, I thought otherwise. You were under a lot of stress. How is it different today? Are you still under considerable stress?
A - It can be (stressful). I did a tour at the backend of last year that was one of the busiest years I've had since the 60s. Within the last two months leading up to Christmas (2004) I did a tour which took me from Mexico, Spain, Germany, Italy, Greece and back to Germany to do a major TV show and back to Greece to launch my book in Athens. At the last week in Athens, at the very last show, I totally collapsed and was admitted to the hospital due to exhaustion. That was a lesson. It really shook me. It really made me feel that I'm not above breaking down due to stress. I just recorded a blues song that says, "I've been up. I've been down, under duress I've suffered from stress and I never, ever, gave up. Don't give up blues."
Q - What did you think of Ed Sullivan?
A - Not very much. I thought he was a bit of a bore, a boorish guy, which was re-enforced by the fact that one day I was with him in the corridor at the CBS Studios during rehearsals for one of his shows. We were on the show with The Supremes. I remember he had the Supremes in tears and all crying. "You'll never work in this town again." He was an enigma. What can I tell you? You had to admire his power and how he'd gotten into that position of power was quite amazing. What did he do to get there? I have no idea, but he certainly was a force in the music industry. If you didn't get on The Ed Sullivan Show... The strange thing is, alongside my dislike for him and his personality, he must've liked us because we were on the show six times.
Q - Ed Sullivan knew what the public wanted...and he gave it to them!
A - Oh yeah, sure. He'd given them everything. Being on one of his shows was like being in a circus. You'd have a rock 'n roll act following a family balancing act from Poland. He knew exactly what he was doing. It's a no brainer once you're in that position of power...pick the best of what you feel is going to entertain people.
Q - You never did find out the reason behind his anger with The Supremes did you?
A - I have no idea. He probably invented something. I mean that's what I didn't like about him. He had to assert his power and demonstrate his power over people, just to sort of gain control and let you know that he was in charge. You don't have to do that to people. I didn't like performing on his show. It was long, hard hours of three days of rehearsal, just to get your camera angles right. Then, after three days of rehearsals, he would suddenly appear from stage left instead of stage right and bump into everybody. It was crazy.
Q - What did you do after the Sullivan shows? Go out for a drink? Go back to the hotel?
A - Every opportunity I got, I would head to the Black part of town. I'd go across the tracks and get my head into the Black clubs, the Rhythm 'n Blues clubs. When I was in New York, I spent more time up there in Harlem up there at the Apollo. I hung out there quite a lot. Took a lot of photographs...made friends with the manager, whose name was Honey Coles. I didn't find out until later that he was one of America's greatest dancers who retired and became the manager of The Apollo. I was fortunate enough to meet people like Mohammad Ali and become friends with people like Jimmy Witherspoon. It was a magical time and a great time. But, as soon as I found myself in the spotlight with The Animals, I was threatened with losing the freedom that I'd had as an art student. So, I had to make sure that I could make my getaway and make my escape. Like I said, get to the Black clubs and absorb the music that I loved so much.
Q - Did you travel with a bodyguard in those days?
A - No. Protection always makes you a target. I don't believe in security. I think it's phoney. I mean, if you look at people who use a lot of security, anybody who wants to upset you, attack or assail you, all they gotta do is watch where the security guys' go and you're there. You're in the middle of it.
Q - Except if you're Frank Sinatra.
A - Yeah. Frank had a lot of power...more than people realize.
Q - The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock 'n Roll wrote: "With their (The Animals) success, Eric Burdon took to drinking, womanizing, and shooting his mouth off." What were you saying?
A - I was always shooting my mouth off. (laughs) I don't know what that means. Does it mean I became a popular singer? I think that's what shooting your mouth off is. I don't know. I have my opinions and I try to stick to them. If I offended people in the past, maybe I should say "I apologize"...but, I don't think so.
Q - I can't recall you making any controversial comments.
A - Well, you know they gotta write something in the pop press. Just like where did the name, The Animals come from. It's all just press people re-inventing things the way they want to see it. It's not necessarily the truth. I rarely believe anything I read in the newspapers. You've got to learn to read in-between the lines. That's were the truth is. That's where I think the most important aspect of life is. It's not in the Black areas. It's not in the White areas. It's in the gray areas, in-between where the real story is.
Q - How long did The Animals stay together after you came to America?
A - Two years.
Q - Why couldn't the band have stayed together? What was the problem?
A - Well, there was a lot of...I can't call it anything else...thievery from within the structure of the band, I'm sad to say. At the end of two years of non-stop touring, exhausting work, only to find out there was no money to be had. There was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow...there never is. We should have known better. I should have known better. When members of the band begin to fall off and fade away, I woke up one morning and realized that this is not what I signed up for. It's not the band I left my hometown with. So, I headed for the San Francisco scene and put a new band together and retained the name The Animals. It was a totally different band.
Q - Do you play an instrument? How do you compose your music?
A - I have played percussion in the band. I suffered a hand injury from that. My right hand in particular is precious to me. I write with it. I draw with it. I'm basically just a singing in a rock 'n roll band and a lyricist. I write from personal experience. It's like the only thing I can write about. Or, if I try to insert myself in someone else's experience, it's always based on my experience first.
Q - As you see it, what's been your contribution to pop music and what's been The Animals contribution to pop music?
A - Well, have to stand outside myself to answer that. I have an anthology out at the moment on ABCKO Records. It's re-mastered Animals' tracks. It's a good album. It was a good band. I think that we, in very simplistic terms, without any trickery in the studio, overdubs, we didn't even know how to edit music back then or overdub stuff back then, and everything was done really quickly. There were no rehearsals. I tried to retain some of that in my work today. It's still an attitude I have. Keep the tape rolling from the minute the band gets into the studio. But, anyway, listening to that anthology album, I realized that The Animals did have their place in the early days and I think what we did helped turn a lot of people onto the blues music and onto the original American blues players. That was...how can I put it...our vocation. Our job was to turn people onto the real thing, and I think we succeeded in doing that.
© Gary James. All rights reserved.
The Animals placed 14 songs in the Billboard Top 40 between 1964 and 1968.
Eric Burdon was with the band War for their #3 hit "Spill The Wine" in 1970, but left in 1971