Published: 22/11/2012 16:29 - Updated: 23/11/2012 12:22

Skyfall track proves Animals far from extinct

Written byby Margaret Chrystall

The Animals And Friends.
The Animals And Friends.

IT may be 50 years and counting since Newcastle’s The Animals got together, but it’s their 1964 version of John Lee Hooker track Boom Boom that appears near the climax of five-star Bond movie Skyfall.

And with the most recent line-up – The Animals And Friends – original drummer John Steel reveals he’s still up for the kind of international travel that takes the band to places like Russia to play.

After last year’s Inverness date with Steve Cropper, John will be back on Wednesday with the Animals’ line-up to play and recall stories from the early days, this time at Strathpeffer Pavilion.

But in a couple of minutes, he can take you back to the band’s Highland tour back in ‘64 – "hospitable" is the word he uses for what you suspect might have been a dram or two.

You don’t have to have been around in the early 60s to have come across some of the band’s classic tracks.

Is there a guitar beginner out there who hasn’t attempted the intro to the band’s signature song and number one single House Of The Rising Sun?

But other familiar hits from the line-up that included legends Eric Burdon and Alan Price are We Gotta Get Out Of This Place and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.

"These songs always get a big round of applause, even from people who were nowhere near born then!

"We Gotta Get Out Of This Place is always a big one for people getting out of school and the armed forces – and at the time for Americans in the Vietnamese War. It was kind of an anthem for them.

"We did record some iconic numbers, and ones like House Of The Rising Sun, It’s My Life and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood stand up today – they weren’t lightweight pop things, but definitely dark-edged songs about the edgy side of life!

"They still stand up. They have been good for us – and everybody can stand up and sing them."

The impact of The Animals

In 1964 a wave of new energetic rock and roll swept over the youth of the world. On the crest of this wave was The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and of course The Animals. From the banks of the River Tyne came the North Easts offering; a brand of rhythm n blues that the whole world seemed to grasp greedily.

Bruce Springsteen recently revealed on stage in the USA that it was The Animals, not The Beatles or the Stones who were his favourite British Invasion band. "Their singles were the first full-blown class-consciousness Id ever heard". After playing a short burst of We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, Springsteen then confessed: “That’s every song I’ve ever written. Born To Run, Born In The USA, all of them".

The Animals were the second British band to top the American charts after The Beatles with the now multi-million selling and legendary anthem, House of the Rising Sun. The band subsequently achieved over twenty global Top Ten hit records, many of which gained the Number One slot in various parts of the world. In Britain alone, the band had no less than twelve chart entries. The Animals were the first British band to tour Poland and Japan.

The Animals story goes back to the early 60s, though the roots of the line-up go back even further.

Has John ever thought about writing a book about his experiences with the band?

"It’s not like we are The Beatles or The Rolling Stones," he laughed.

"But it’s still been an interesting life. I finally came to a point where I thought ‘Well, if I write stuff down, even if it’s for no-one else but my family or nephews, it would be something to leave behind’.

"So now I’m working on it.

"I’ve got to where we leave Newcastle in the 60s..." he laughed.

John paints a picture when the band was getting off the ground as a heady time to be a young musician.

"We were teenagers in the 1950s, the UK was trying to pull itself out of the mess left after World War Two.

"But it was also a really exciting time because rock n roll was brand-new and suddenly became the music -  there had been a lot of jazz around at that time.

"America had been basically untouched by the war.

"They had pots of money and when you went to the movies you would think ‘This is another planet!’."

But, as in America, teenagers in the UK suddenly felt the world belonged to them too.

"That whole thing was happening in the UK as well

I think probably, again, inspired by the freedom of the teenagers in the US.

"American teenagers were driving around in cars. Over here no-one had cars – you had to be pretty well-off to have a car here in 1955.

"And suddenly you had the teddy boys, the first teenage cult who dressed differently from their parents and had different attitudes.

"Another thing was full employment.

"Everybody had a job and if you didn’t like it you quit and stepped into another one the next day! People can’t imagine that these days.

"But it gave youth a freedom that our parents had never had."

John Steel as part of The Animals And Friends.
John Steel as part of The Animals And Friends.

John was into music from his schooldays.

"I went to a grammar school, but I was a flaky student, I was hopeless.

"I wasn’t stupid, but couldn’t settle down," John explained.

"But I did have an artistic streak.

"And in that period, 1956 when I was at school, there were a series of art schools and colleges opening up which were designed to encourage the youth of the day – who didn’t want to be factory fodder – to do something else.

"So I moved from grammar school without a single GCSE – or whatever they were called then – and went to art school at 15 in 1956.

"That’s where I met Eric Burdon.

"Eric and me were in the first year that year and we immediately hit it off as friends. We had similar tastes in books, movies and music.

"Within a very short time we had formed a band because we had that thing that it wasn’t just enough to listen to music and be a fan – why not play it?

"I think a lot of people at that time did exactly what we did.

"John Lennon went to an art school, Pete Townshend went to an art school, I think Ray Davies too.

John laughed: "There was a whole bunch of us who weren’t aware of each other who were doing exactly the same thing and inspired by the same people from America.

"But it wasn’t until The Beatles broke that we looked around and realised.

"Eric and me formed our first band just after we met in 1956/57. I think 1957 was the first time we started playing together in a band which eventually morphed into the line-up that eventually became The Animals in the 60s."

The original line-up changed its name from The Pagan Jazzmen to The Pagans as they moved into rock n roll and rhythm n blues.

John said: "By the end of the 50s we were much more influenced by rhythm n blues – Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino and people like that and we were also discovering that underneath that there were guys like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and all these fascinating black American guys who were coming out with gritty music that raised the hair on the back of your neck.

"We were drawing our influences from that kind of music by the early 60s.

"When the Beatles kicked the door down, everybody, all of us from all over the place were looking around going ‘Bloody hell!'. People from Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, we had all been doing exactly the same thing and that's when the 60s exploded with all these bands appearing from nowhere."

Soon the band was looking to London.

"It was the end of 1963 when we made the move," John revealed.

"We were the resident band at a great club in Newcastle called the Go Go, owned by Mike Jeffreys.

"The Rolling Stones played there before before they took off and we would also have guests like Sonny Boy Williamson.

"And we would go on as support for a band called the Graham Bond Organisation.

"Graham – who was a terrific Hammond organ player – and had Ginger Baker on drums and Jack Bruce on double bass, really liked our stuff.

"He spoke to Mike Jeffreys and said ‘You want to get these guys down to London’ and put Mike Jeffreys in touch with some important people there.

"One was Ronan O’Reilly who became the founder of the first pirate radio station Radio Caroline and the other one was Giorgio Gomelsky who managed The Yardbirds.

"We had been through several names since The Pagans and had found Alan Price playing at a church hop in 1959.

"But after several changes and break-ups, Alan persuaded us to re-form again after a bit of a row and we called the band The Alan Price Rhythm n Blues Combo.

"A right mouthful!

The Animals And Friends live onstage.
The Animals And Friends live onstage.

"Mike went to London to talk to Ronan and Giorgio and they agreed we would exchange with The Yardbirds. They would come up to Newcastle and do all our gigs while we went down to London and did theirs.

"Mike said ‘And, by the way we’ve got a new name for the band, you’re called The Animals!’.

"The name was Graham Bond’s idea. It sounded outrageous at the time, but we loved it – all of us except Alan!

"Anyway we became The Animals, just like that.

"We went down to London and did all these gigs and almost instantly we made it.

"We went back up to Newcastle for Christmas and to do our New Year dates at the Go Go, then we loaded the van with everything.

"Ronan had organised an empty apartment for us near Olympia and we just arrived there in London with our sleeping bags and camped out there for the first few weeks, before we started to find our way around in London."

John recalls playing a really buzzing rhythm and blues club one January night a few weeks after their arrival.

"These two dudes were checking us out and they turned out to be Mickie Most and Peter Grant.

"Mickie became a massively important record producer.

"Peter Grant – who went on to manage Led Zeppelin – was a phone plugger for the Don Arden Agency at the time and the next thing we knew, we were in Don’s office."

Arden – Sharon Osbourne's dad – was a famous and extremely influential music manager and agent who was nicknamed "The Al Capone of Pop", among other things.

John took up the story: "He was this sharp London agent with a massive big desk in his office in Curzon Street in Mayfair – it was all very posh.

"He said to us ‘I’m bringing Chuck Berry over to the UK for the first-time ever and also Carl Perkins. I’m going to make one band famous this year – and it could be you. I’ll put you on this tour’ – and we couldn’t believe it!"

Mickie Most produced their first single, Baby Let Me Take You Home.

John recalled: "He chose it and it wasn’t really our sort of thing.

"We thought it was a bit poppy compared with what we were playing. But at the same time we fell in love with Bob Dylan’s very first acoustic album and there’s a track on there called Baby, Let Me Follow You Down – basically the same song.

"Take You Home one was basically a rewrite of the same old folk song made into a pop song.

"We recorded it thinking if it was good enough for Bob Dylan, it was good enough for us.

"It got us up and running.

"It was a minor hit, between 20 and 30 in the charts and it got us radio play and got us on TV show Ready Steady Go.

"So by the time we got onto the Chuck Berry tour in 1964, we already had a record."

Then came the song that took them to number one and has since become the band’s singnature song – House Of The Rising Sun.

John explained: "Again, it was a lift from the first Bob Dylan album. We just sort of kicked it around and made it an electric folk rock thing and played it the way we played everything else."

The band were still on the Chuck Berry tour when the track was recorded.

"It was two shows a night for three solid weeks playing the biggest halls at the time, cinemas or 2,000-seater concert venues – the Manchester Free Trade Hall, Hammersmith Odeon - and they were packed and sold out all the time. Though Don Arden seemed to have a different memory of it!

"For us it was a very big deal.

"But we found House Of The Rising Sun was going down so well – there was a definite buzz about it – that we persuaded Mickie that we should record it.

"We were still on tour, so we played Liverpool, went down to London for the recording with the next gig to be in Southampton.

"We arrived at the studio in the middle of the night to do just the single track, knocked out a few bars to get the levels, then did it in one take.

"And Mickie said: "I think you’ve got to come and hear this!'

"It was like ‘Woah!’ We were so tight from all the playing on tour that we could play at the drop of a hat.

"So effectively it was a live performance.

"They played the track back again and Mickie said ‘That’s a hit!’ He was never a big hands-on producer, but he had a great ear for a hit.

"But the engineer said ‘Damn, there’s a problem – it’s four and a half minutes long’.

"Back then, everybody was setting the time for a single at about two and a half minutes, a hangover from the days of 78 records when three minutes or so was all you could fit on it.

"But Mickie said ‘Oh, to hell with it, we’re in the vinyl age now! He was a smart guy, made the recording, paid for the production then went to EMI to present them with the finished package.

"The label were having trouble getting the BBC to play it.

"But Ready Steady Go came to the rescue because we did it on there and it shot off up the charts after that.

The Animals line-up in 1963.
The Animals line-up in 1963.

"Once it started selling in big quantities, the BBC just had to pick up on it and within three weeks it was number one – and there you go!

"It all happened that quickly.

"Within a few months of leaving Newcastle in December ‘63, we were number one just about all over the world."

John is modest about his talents.

"My drum influences were within jazz, some of the jazz drummers were so technically brilliant that it would scare you.

"I’m not what I would call – I would never pretend to be a great jazz drummer – a great drummer of any kind, you know.

"I just play, I’m an OK drummer."

"Over the years I have slightly lost that over-effacing inferiority complex about my playing."

But he laughed: "I AM the best Animals drummer in the world!

"I love doing it and it still feels cool to play these songs.

"I've never been embarrassed by anything that we recorded and I still play them today with pride.

"It’s good stuff!"

John also feels he has the best of both worlds as a touring musician and in his home life.

He said: "I lived down in London during the 60s and 70s and then I moved back up North and I live in Northumberland now, between Newcastle and Berwick.

"So I’ve got this lovely situation where I love being on the road and socialising, staying in hotels and playing live music.

"Then, when I am off the road I just disappear into the Northumberland hills."

Maybe no surprise that an Animal's a little bit susceptible to the call of the wild...

The Animals And Friends are at Strathpeffer Pavilion on Wednesday.

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