Our Own Worst Enemies – Eric Burdon of The Animals
Contributing Writer – Garret K. Woodward
photo : Marianna Proestou
It is a voice that is not only haunting, it is also the essence of rock-n-roll.
What came out of the mouth of Eric Burdon, as lead singer of The Animals, ultimately settled the score between the American Delta blues forefathers and those across the pond trying to showcase their best interpretation of what true blues and the nitty-gritty really was.
The Animals created a string on unforgettable melodies (“We Gotta Get Out of This Place”/“The House of the Rising Sun”/“It’s My Life”/“Sky Pilot”/“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”), which have stood the test of time, in sound, in showmanship, and in the pure vindication of the personal demons we all must evoke from our souls
Burdon remains the sole inheritor of the bayou blues. His presence and influence, to the music which rings loudly and soundly through our ears, casts a long shadow upon the meager contributions of the present.
By all accounts, modernity needs a crash course in the beauty and chaotic turmoil of those who walked tall, and walked before them with such swagger and elegance, we must recoil in the attempts any may try to present to the judges of style and grace.
Garret K. Woodward: How did 2010 treat you?
Eric Burdon: 2010 was a very busy year. To me, it was representative of the end of an era before the start of another. In the summer, I toured in Europe and it was a long, arduous tour. Sometimes, toward the end, it was a bit stressful because of the weather. Although it was summer, it felt like winter, especially in Germany. Some of the shows that stick out in my mind are Amsterdam, which was an excellent show with a great crowd, and the Edinburgh Festival in August. Also, we explored new territory by going to Russia for the first time and we had a great response from the Russian fans. A great finish for the year was my show at the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert, California. The show was close to my home, so I had a chance to play for a crowd full of familiar faces.
GKW: What groups influenced, and continue to influence, the direction of your music?
EB: Some of the older blues cats like Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley have always influenced me. Something a little bit newer, to me anyway, is Dire Straits. I often feel like they’re chronicling my life from living in Newcastle, to leaving Newcastle, and coming to America.
GKW: Do you listen to modern radio, and if so, what recent groups are currently catching your eye?
EB: I guess “modern radio” would be satellite in my car. I get Sirius in my car and I like the ecclectic mix of music that they have available, including bands like Calexico and Solomon Burke. Is that new?
GKW: What’s the difference between a rock guitar riff and a blues guitar riff?
EB: I think the blues riffs are much lighter in their approach, but stronger in their delivery. Rock riffs are louder, but have less impact.
GKW: Do you have to experience the blues to sing them?
EB: What can I tell you? I was born during an air raid so maybe that did something to my psyche and changed something in my DNA, but I don’t think that you necessarily have to live them to sing them. I do, however, think that to sing the blues you have to have soul and heart.
GKW: “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”. One of the rock-n-roll’s most cherished melodies. How did that song come about?
EB: It came from the Brill Building in New York. It was passed by the publishers to Mickey Most, then he passed the song on to us. We felt like it was made for The Animals. “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” was recently selected to be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It’s a song that never seems to die.
GKW: At what moment did you know The Animals would forever be a household name in rock music?
EB: I think it was when my mother started singing, “Baby Let Me Take You Home”, while she was washing the dishes, that I realized we had something.
GKW: Brian Jones (The Rolling Stones) once said you were “the best blues singer to ever come out of England”. Your voice is one of the most distinct vocals in all of rock music. I always felt The Animals were underrated, in comparison to The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin for example, in terms of a true blues frontman with a Delta blues voice. Do you feel The Animals got the attention they deserved or were pushed aside in the spotlight by others in British Invasion?
EB: I can only say that The Animals got what they deserved and we were our own worst enemies. Having said that, we did manage to make some memorable recordings and lets leave it at that.
GKW: The Animals played the Monterey Pop Festival. I recently had a conversation with Jim Yester of The Association. We had a fantastic talk about his experience there. What were your memories of that event and your performance? What was running through your head when you witnessed Jimi Hendrix set fire to his guitar?
EB: I thought that the Monterey Pop Festival was one of the most enlightening and enjoyable weekends of my life. I can still remember it like it was yesterday. I spent quite a bit of time with Jimi. In fact, we took the same plane over the Atlantic and through New York with Brian Jones. We partied all the way to the West Coast and we partied when we got there. I did see Jimi’s set. In fact, we were all waiting for it to come to the stage because it was Jimi’s first performance in the U.S. for a long time and with the Experience line-up. I spent time with young kids telling them to make sure that they got a good seat to see him because they wouldn’t be disappointed. I was standing right beside the stage when the gasoline was poured over the white Fender. I knew what was going to happen, but it’s a completely different experience when you can feel the heat on your face.
GKW: You played at the Newport Pop Festival in 1969 alongside Hendrix. This year, as in every year, more material of his is being released and the conversation continues over his place in rock-n-roll. What are your thoughts on him?
EB: That was a really bad festival. It was not a Monterey or Woodstock, which it was supposed to be. Jimi was not comfortable and he messed up. Actually, the next day he went back to play again for free, just because he wanted to say he had done his best. It took me a long time to realize that the first time I met Jimi, I didn’t even know that we were in the same room. It was backstage at the Paramount Theatre in New York. Jimi was playing guitar for Little Richard. Little Richard was flipping out backstage because he had gone into overtime for his set, which cut into The Animals time. There was this young black kid running around trying to cool him down and I didn’t realize that it was actually Jimi Hendrix. Later, we spent time together in London. He would quite often come over to my apartment and listen to classical music. I wouldn’t say that we were “close”, but we did enjoy some down time away from the madness and I treasure those times we had together. I thought he was a very strange, but beautiful guy.
GKW: You turned 69-years-old this year. What does that number mean to you?
EB: It means that I’ll be 70 soon, which means that I don’t really give a damn about much anymore. There’s a great thing about turning 70 and it’s that you don’t have to pretend to care about things you don’t care about anymore.
GKW: What would your older self say to that teenage Eric Burdon, a kid just starting out in his music career in the early 1960s? What would your teenage self say to you in response?
EB: I think I would say to a younger me, “Listen, slow down and stop drinking so much, get straight.” But I think that a teenage me would just say to that, “Piss off!”
GKW: How do you avoid becoming a nostalgia act, like many of your radio peers?
EB: When I go on stage, I realize that I’m dealing with a collective wild animal, the crowd, and if you make even one mistep, they’ll devour you. I have to be on my toes. I take every song that I sing and live it. I become my songs. It’s up to me to be in front of the band and deliver the word. I’m fortunate to have a good catalogue of songs, most of which have now become anthems for peoples lives.
GKW: What do you like and dislike about being on the road?
EB: The road, while you’re young and full of booze or drugs, when all you live for is the gig and the roadies need to drag you out of bed to get on the bus or plane, it’s okay. These days though I’m up at four or five o’clock. I’m always on time and it’s mostly about business. It’s even hard to look at the cost of a plane ticket today and know that at the airport is just going to treat you like a criminal. Traveling is getting harder, but luckily I’ve got a great band and we have a lot of fun while we’re going around the world and doing what we do.
GKW: When all is said and done, what is the legacy of The Animals? What is your legacy as a lead singer and storied performer?
EB: I don’t know what The Animals legacy is, so much as me as a singer. Chris Barber said to me recently, when I met him in Scotland, “You’re the blues man”. I can’t say it any better than that. I may sing songs that are not blues, but there is always a blues element. Nina Simone said the same thing. There are two great people that have pegged me as being a blues guy, so I take their comments and say that I guess that would be my legacy.
GKW: What’s your state of mind right now?
EB: Crowded, as usual.