The Animals’ Blues-Rock
American blues take a British band to the top of the charts
There was a golden period in the middle 1960s when America was in love with all things British, from the campy The Avengers television show to miniskirts and go-go boots to the many rock acts which made up The British Invasion.
Everyone remembers the Beatles, the Stones and the Who. But perhaps forgotten by now are Freddy and the Dreamers, Unit 4+2, and the Animals – and all the other British groups which followed the headliners over, both with grueling tours and with their wannabe-hit singles, hoping that familiar American blues songs would sound fresh and new when sung in British accents.
Most of these British groups had a better knowledge of and understanding of American blues and R&B than most urban white Americans did. And as American rock and roll was taken over by commercial interests and the big record labels in the late 1950s and early 1960s it was these British blues and R&B bands who helped revitalize the music.
The Animals started out as the Alan Price Combo in 1958. Price played keyboards, and was equally influenced by jazz and Mose Allison. Byran “Chas” Chandler played bass, Hilton Valentine played guitar and John Steel was the drummer. They were an R&B band based in Newcastle, England. Singer Eric Burdon joined the band in 1962.
The band was known for its wild on-stage behavior, which led locals to call them “animals.” They changed their name to The Animals in 1963, a carefully calculated ploy which caused immediate problems with the BBC. They’d been booked to appear on Saturday Club as The Alan Price Combo, and the BBC was not happy featuring a group which called itself The Animals – but eventually relented.
The band moved to London in January, 1964, and were quickly signed by producer Mickie Most, who in turn signed them with EMI’s British Columbia label. They made three albums for that label, one each in 1964, 1965 and 1966, and then dropped Most and Columbia, moving to British Decca, which released their final album.
By then Alan Price had left the band in early 1965. Singer Burdon had taken over as the band’s front man and leader, and indeed would later create an American group called Eric Burdon and the Animals before moving on to record with War and eventually as a solo artist.
Collectors will find that, as was true with the early Beatles albums, the Animals’ American releases (on MGM) varied from the British. In general this was due to the fact that British pop LPs typically had 13 tracks, while American pop LPs had only 11. Albums would also be rearranged to accommodate a late-breaking hit single in the U.S.
The first Animals recording is a genuine rarity and a real collector’s item. It was a 12-inch EP, recorded on only one side, and released privately in an edition of 99 copies in 1963. It was a recording of “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” (Graphic Sound ALO 10867). It was later included on the British Decca EP, In The Beginning There Was Early Animals (DFE 8643), issued in 1966, and also relatively rare now.
The Animals’ first single was “Baby Let Me Take You Home,” b/w “Gonna Send You Back To Walker,” released in the spring of 1964. The A-side was a cleaned-up version of a traditional blues, called “Mama, Don’t You Tear My Clothes,” which had been recently recorded as “Baby Can You Follow Me Down” by Bob Dylan. It made it to No. 21 in the U.K.
Then Burdon discovered another traditional blues on Bob Dylan’s first album. It was “The House of the Rising Sun.” The British version of this single, released later in 1964, was at that time the longest single ever released, clocking in at 4:20 (most singles averaged 2½ to 3 minutes in length). It entered the British charts at No. 15, but after selling 250,000 copies in only three days, it shot straight to No. 1. In the U.S. an edited version was released at 2:58 – supposedly for the benefit of jukeboxes, but in reality because of radio-station pressure (gotta have room for those commercials!). It sold 150,000 copies in America in its first two weeks of release, and also went to No. 1. Based on the success of this single, the band’s first single was reissued in the U.S. – but it was its B-side which took it up to No. 57 on the charts.
The first Animals album, The Animals, was recorded in February, 1964 – before the first single – and was released first in the U.S. (in a slightly different version) to coincide with their September, 1964 American tour. With a boost from the tour it climbed to No. 17 in the American album charts. It didn’t come out in Britain until November, but went to No. 6 there.
In 1965 they released a single which covered Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” It was a powerful song and Burdon delivered a strong version which took it to No. 4 in the U.K. and No. 15 in the U.S., but producer Most had insisted on speeding it up, and the band was not happy with it. Simone called it the worst version of her song she’d ever heard.
1965 saw the release of their second British album, Animal Tracks. Their final Columbia album, in 1966, was Most of the Animals (a sly acknowledgement of the producer they had rebelled against). That same year they released Animalisms on British Decca. In the U.S. their albums also included a soundtrack album, Get Yourself a College Girl (1964), The Animals on Tour (1965), The Best of the Animals (1966), Animalization (1966), and The Best of the Animals, Vol. 2 (1967), all on MGM. They were also included on two other American soundtrack albums, The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood (1965, on ABC-Paramount), and The Biggest Bundle of Them All (1967, MGM), both now rarities.
In the late 1990s Eric Burdon formed a new group, The New Animals, and embarked on a come-back tour of Singapore and Hong Kong. He takes them next on a tour of Australia this spring  and is planning a new album, Coat of Many Colors. The British Invasion is long over, but the invaders play on.