INTERVIEW: Eric Burdon: “Good Stuff Comes Out of Absolute Catastrophe”
Story and interview by Don Wilcock
“I hated that expression – ‘the English Invasion,’” says Eric Burdon a half century after his band the Animals became the second British rock band after the Beatles to hit Number One on the American hit parade. “It put all of us together and didn’t allow the individual groups to express themselves, and you’re all just humped together. We were all just little knock-offs of the Beatles, and then the Stones came along and broke that open, broke that mold, thanks to great management as well as the talent to play the stuff.”
Fifty years after “House of the Rising Sun” changed the very definition of rock and roll, Eric Burdon has released the best record of his career, ‘Til Your River Runs Dry, and is touring the album with a stop in Albany at The Egg on Sunday evening (May 19).
“Sometimes I’ve complained about singing ‘House of The Rising Sun’ so much,” says Burdon today, “but once you get past that first verse, it’s like you’re lost in this dreamscape of what happened sometime in 1914 or something like that, you know?”
In his 2001 memoir, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” Burdon said, “It was that one song that fired me up, that opened the doors to my wildest dreams and lured me into the land of blues. I had more than a dozen other hit songs in the years that followed, but ‘House of The Rising Sun’ burned its mark into my soul and changed my life forever.”
On a British tour with American rock and roll icons Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry, the scruffy young band from northern England made a calculated decision that they couldn’t out-rock the headliners. Instead, they closed their show with a 17th century British folk melody first recorded by African American bluesman Texas Alexander in 1928 and later by Roy Acuff, Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White and Bob Dylan. The Animals had beat out the Stones and the Beatles to capture the opening slot for this tour with a No. 15 British hit “Baby, Let Me Take You Home,” a cover off Dylan’s debut acoustic album. Why not close the set with another song from that Dylan album?
“The Animals come on, and there was this little guy singing this song that’s not about rock and roll,” recalls Burdon. “It’s like folk, running the folk roots down their throat with sexuality thrown in, and it just affected the people so much. For a minute, they forgot about Chuck Berry, and I thought, ‘Gee, we’ve got to record this right away.’”
On their first day off, the group took the train to London, and hired a recording engineer who until that morning had never recorded anything but classical music. In 10 minutes and for about $10, they recorded the song that forced the music industry to rethink rock and roll. They changed the protagonist from a female prostitute to a male in a gambling house, electrified a traditional folk standard – until that point a line no rock act had dared cross. At more than four minutes, it pissed off EMI, their record label, but when it sold four million copies – 250,000 in the first week of release in Great Britain alone – and went to No. 1 in 12 countries, everyone forgot the rules. In his book, Burdon takes credit for influencing Dylan to go electric with this song. In our interview, he toned down the rhetoric a notch.
“Well, it has been written. Than again, nothing is written. You’d have to ask the guy. We were all on that same sort of crusade, you know, but we all had our own personal experiences and usually the press takes it and reshapes it the way they want it, but I don’t know… probably!
“The song suddenly sprung out of the history archives. A few people went up for the net, and we happened to be the ones who did it electric. So, the result was much more delivery and sound quality than you would have gotten from a folk artist, nothing to do with downloading the value of the performance or the song. It’s a brilliant song. And it has great history to it, and it has something that’s disappearing in the world today, mystery. I have to live with it, so I do live with it.”
The next time the Animals performed on the same bill with Chuck Berry, they were the headliners.
The Animals went on to have several hits, including the anthem “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” which was the song in Vietnam that every Filipino band ended their set with at the NCO clubs. Overworked and badly managed, the original Animals went their separate ways. Burdon had success with the funk band WAR in the late ’60s and has toured for decades on the initial success of the Animals repertoire from 1963 to ’68.
His new CD ’Til Your River Runs Dry, features 12 songs, 10 of them original and autobiographical. “Good stuff comes out of absolute catastrophe,” he says today.
And he proves that on a release that describes a man, who at 72, has finally caught up with his image, a dangerous sage who pushed the envelope in all the classic rock star ways. “Myself and the people we hung out with had the collective opinion that we wouldn’t live to see 30.”
Here Burdon confirms that he has the most evocative voice of the British invasion. He has always had a vocal delivery that was older and blacker than any of his contemporaries, and now that he’s survived into his 70s – he celebrated his 72nd birthday just last Saturday – his experience has caught up with that voice and is delivered with wisdom and a bit of dread. He is dangerous, but his destruction has only been to himself. His voice has the kind of gravitas and weight of a man who’s lived on the outside and whose expression is breathed through vocal cords of cracked leather.
Taken as a whole, the CD combines the urgency of youth with the creative sharpness of a seasoned juggernaut and the wisdom of a sage. “I never had a brother. He would have kicked some sense into me. It would have been great, you know. But I didn’t. I didn’t have a brother, and we were living in a house my mom had been on the waiting list for 10 years to get it.”
“Old Habits Die Hard,” “Devil and Jesus” and “In the Ground” each deal with the tight rope he’s walked in a life style that killed a lot of his friends at a young age. He specifically addresses their early demise in “27 Forever.” He says that song doesn’t depress him. “When you’re inside those songs, it’s not you. It’s always the other guy that gets the ….[Laugh] You just have to think that way. I think music allows you to say a lot of things that if you said them in a speech to an audience, they would throw rocks or something or whatever, popcorn.
“But that’s one of the secrets you achieve in music if you keep working at it. You can say really pretty much – you can live up to what America promises, liberty, freedom, freedom of speech. The great line from the Neville Brothers: [New Orleans accent filtered through a working class British thickness] ‘Freedom of speech if y’all don’t say too much.’ You have to live by that to a certain extent.”
“River Is Rising” co-written by Tony Braunage and Jon Cleary, is Burdon’s personal favorite on the album. Spoken like a dirge delivered by ghosts headed for a second line celebration in New Orleans, the song reminds me of the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon LP: “The river is rising/Carry me away to another world/The river is rising/Carry me away to another world.”
Jon Cleary is a British keyboardist who emigrated to New Orleans decades ago, and has become a respected figure in the Crescent City. “Cleary is what his name says. He’s clear, and he’s hardly ever there,” says Burdon. “He’s in a bar in New Orleans jamming somewhere. Yeah, his story is magic to me. The English kid that made it to New Orleans and became a local and was thrown out of the country and made his way back again.
“We recorded in his wife’s dressing room where she makes costumes for the parades. There are all these clothes hanging down. It was really New Orleans to the max. He is New Orleans to the max, and it’s great that he’s English. It makes me feel really good.”
“Wait” is a slow Latin-flavored love song for Burdon’s wife, Marianna: “I see your smile that I adore/Then we’ll climb the stairs together/True love comes to those who wait/True love comes to those who wait.”
“She’s got a touch of Maggie Thatcher. Kick my ass, not with her boot, but mentally. Like she’s a mental equal.” I asked him if he needed that. “Yeah, I needed to wrestle with it.”
And how does she become his equal without setting him off? “Oh, she does! And then I realize what an asshole I’ve been, and I realize my voice which I’ve developed through years of singing to other people if I raise it off stage it’s pretty scary.”
“Memorial Day” deals with a long-held distaste for war. Burdon’s childhood in the hard scrabble Stratford in Tyne in northern England was apparently more difficult than American post-war existence, a detail brought into focus in Keith Richards’ memoir, “Life,” and one that Burdon plans to address in his own upcoming third autobiography, “Breathless.”
“I’m reading a few corrected pages now. I did them quite some time ago, and they’re about my youth, and they’re hilarious. It’s dark. It’s doomy. It’s slimy. It smells, but it’s funny in retrospect. Nevertheless, it’s dark, and that’s what I’m getting off on. Born in World War II, I can’t get it out of my blood, and now it’s big business.
“So many people swept away in that insane conflict. What blows my mind is that I can understand the Germans marching off to war in their regalia. They’re all pumped up with propaganda and all of that stuff, but America really didn’t have a Bible thumping leader to push them on to war.
“It’s like it wasn’t taken seriously to start with, and there’s a story there for me that is the postwar years of growing up in Britain and realizing that we were going to have food rationing until – well, we didn’t realize it. They just implemented it all the way through the ’50s. I mean, it’s uncomfortable.
“And then the tragic thing is who did it first? Was it them that did it to us, or us that did it first? It doesn’t matter. It was madness, and there was nothing for Britain to pick up through the ashes and try to keep up the face. It was like the English Army just won the war. Yeah, right. We were beaten. We were completely beaten down.
“My hometown was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, and all of the slack and old iron and filth that went in it, and I would say they pulled themselves out of it very nicely, but it took a long time, and Germany was rebuilt overnight with the aid of the Marshall Plan. We didn’t have nothin’ in England, but we had this ideal we lived up to. Eh, the British Army just won the war.
“Even the Beatles went for that one, whether it was tongue in cheek or not. That was our attitude. We won the war. Winston Churchill got us through the war. Bullshit! We had nothing to eat. And bare feet for most kids. I was kind of lucky. I was lucky. My parents took care of me, and we did well, better than most people.”
Often dismissed for not having written more originals with the Animals that might have put them in the same league with the Rolling Stones or Beatles, Burdon says, “There’s a lot of songs that I did write, a very long list, and we didn’t put the work into it that we should have, but I was struggling to write. I was just in a band that didn’t want to go along with that particular avenue. We were too busy being worked to death.”
Who: Eric Burdon
Who: With Erin Harkes
When: 8pm Sunday (May 19)
Where: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
Tickets: $34.50, $44.50 & $54.50; also $74.50 VIP tickets which include a meet & greet with Burdon.