Graded on a Curve:
The Animals,
The Animals

In addition to The Beatles and Stones, the British Invasion produced numerous other noteworthy groups, and one of the most successful was The Animals. A serious-minded bunch led by that brawny-throated student of American blues and early rock ‘n’ roll Eric Burdon, they persist in the modern memory mainly for their hit singles. But on the subject of albums, they also had a few very good ones, though differing US and UK editions have frustrated collectors on both sides of the Atlantic for years. Of the two versions of their 1964 debut The Animals, the Brit issue may not be the best, but it does give a deep glimpse into what this no-nonsense, solidly rocking band was initially all about.

Eric Burdon seems like the kind of cat who’d rather keel over dead than quit singing. Nearly fifty years after his first album came out he’s still out there doing it on stages, and like the R&B legends that provided him with his formative inspiration, his continued activity comes without a whole lot of pomp and circumstance. Because he played an enjoyably quirky role in the landslide of ‘60s psychedelic rock by fronting a later incarnation of The Animals and proceeded from that to get his fingers nice and funky on a pair of albums in collaboration with the California groove merchants War, Burdon’s profile has easily transcended the outfit that began in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1962, when he joined up with a group then called The Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo.

In addition to Burdon and organist/keyboardist Price, the other members were Hilton Valentine on guitar, John Steel on drums, and Bryan “Chas” Chandler on bass. Rechristened as The Animals and following the advice of Yardbirds’ manager Giorgio Gomelsky, who obviously saw something in the band’s early stage act that was comparable to the act under his supervision, they moved to London and quickly hit the big time.

Along with some minor rumblings in the US, their first single “Baby Let Me Take You Home” landed at #15 on the UK charts, and deservedly so, for it’s a good one. Though credited to writers Wes Ferrell and Bert Burns (the latter notable for penning such ‘60s warhorses as “Twist and Shout,” “Hang on Sloopy,” and “Here Comes the Night” by fellow Brit Invasion figures Them) it’s basically a rough retooling of the trad folk number “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” then popular for its version on Bob Dylan’s debut LP (as borrowed by the unjustly obscure folk personality Eric Von Schmidt.)

This first salvo is a sturdy depiction of The Animals graduation from club woodshedding; it was rock in a new vein but with deeper roots than most. They had set their eyes on Bob of course (and did so earlier than the majority of their contemporaries in the rock scene), but the group also ended the song with a rave-up, making it abundantly clear they’d also been studying up on the work of Sam Cooke. And the flip, “Gonna Send You Back to Walker,” is an organ-soaked rock transfusion of the Timmy Shaw R&B nugget.

But it was their follow-up 45 that exploded all over the place, landing at #1 on both sides of the ocean. Their treatment of the oft-covered traditional number “House of the Rising Sun,” also on Dylan’s first album (though according to Burdon inspired by a reading from English folk musician Johnny Handle), has subsequently appeared on a ludicrous amount of Animals’ hit comps and also lasted as one of the most repeatedly played and least hackneyed oldies of all time.

It also leads off the US edition of their self-titled debut, though in the inferior edited version that was the American single (the Brit 45 is a minute and a half longer, with the full take lacking release stateside until The Best of The Animals came out in ’66.) “House of the Rising Sun” is nowhere to be found on the UK issue of The Animals, however. Where US labels succumbed to the somewhat unfortunate tendency of stuffing LPs with recent hits in the obvious desire to shift more units, in the UK this phenomenon had yet to become prevalent.

Indeed, The Animals UK has none of the band’s previously issued singles tracks (the US disc includes all four sides), so instead of opening with “House of the Rising Sun,” it offers the album’s only original composition, the sly and humorous narrative “The Story of Bo Diddley.” It starts out doing exactly what the title describes, but is additionally a tale rock ‘n’ roll’s early development, and one that remains quite astute in how it sorts out the situation.

For as the account evolves Johnny Otis’ extremely swank ’58 Diddley-cop “Willie and the Hand Jive” not only gets a mention but also a short, loose musical tribute. And since Burdon openly calls out the payola scandal and goes on to compliment Norma-Jean Wofford aka The Duchess, Bo’s mid-‘60s (and second) female guitarist as “gorgeous” (and if you’re familiar with her visage from back then, you’ll have no trouble understanding why), it’s no surprise that MGM nixed this cut for inclusion on the US LP. At the time, its frankness was a surely too much for certain fragile and unenlightened sensibilities to handle.

It’s also no shock to hear Burdon call The Duchess Bo’s sister. Even though they weren’t related, that’s just what Bo did, probably in hopes of keeping the uh, animals at bay. But “The Story of Bo Diddley” has other cool aspects, including a very funny jab at crooner Bobby Vee via Burdon’s backhanded imitation of “Take Good Care of My Baby,” brief musical citations of The Beatles and Stones, and the culminating meeting between Diddley and the Animals in a Newcastle club. Behind Burdon the other four members deliver a very strong current of Bo-derived rock ingenuity, with Price’s organ especially well employed.

The song sets this very enjoyable LP into motion, and if it lacks the heights of its US counterpart, it does give an accurate taste of what The Animals actually were before the influence of producer Mickie Most really began to assert itself. Next up is “Bury My Body,” an update of the trad gospel tune “In My Time of Dyin’.” While not mind-blowing, it does push all the right buttons through musical smarts and in particular Burdon’s soulful, but thankfully non-overbearing, vocalizing.

Coming next is the first of three John Lee Hooker swipes with “Dimples” (which some readers may note appeared in a different take on ‘65’s The Animals on Tour.) It’s a very successful run-through of a song already pretty primed for rock n’ roll hip-swing in Hooker’s original waxing. The rhythm section proceeds at a tidier clip of course, but Valentine does a fine job of replicating the tune’s crucial guitar line, and his solo is a short gust of electric blues conversion that’s tastefully handled.

Now some decry the young Animals as being a little too tasteful, but to my ear the studiousness goes down pretty smoothly. When considered against some of the horrid blues-based rock miscarriages to come, it’s really a breath of brisk air, with the band’s desire to do right by their influences emitting a warm appeal across the span of decades. Maybe it’s not at the level of the early Stones or Clapton-era Yardbirds, but it doesn’t miss that plateau by much.

And “I’ve Been Around,” the first in a duo of back-to-back cribs from Louisiana keyboard maestro Fats Domino, is rounded out with some nifty chick backup singing and connects like a short and sleek bit of early-‘60s R&B-laced studio pop. It displays both the breadth of The Animals’ inspirations and the sharpness of their execution; they were no collective one-trick pony, that’s for certain. Price’s piano is as on the money as his organ, the rhythm section is crisp and Valentine (who on this album emerges as a neglected rock figure) has no problem shifting into this more sophisticated of modes.

Domino’s “I’m In Love Again” (notably co-penned by central New Orleans dude Dave Bartholomew) does give off stronger bluesy vibes (a little understated Jimmy Reed action is detectable), but it’s not exactly purist in conception, with Price delivering a nice solo on what sounds like a Fender Rhodes. Said instrument also figures prominently in The Animals’ concise running time.

The cut trucks along in a swell confident tempo, and is followed up by the side-closing take of the Little Richard burner “The Girl Can’t Help It,” that if surely less manic than the original, does offer another kicking example of just how pivotal ‘50s R&R was to the whole Brit Invasion scenario, with the relationship getting amplified much further on the LP’s second side.

But not before beginning with Hooker’s “I’m Mad Again,” which is frankly a dicey proposition since the original holds a tough vocal resonance that’s far from easily replicable by mere youngsters. However, Burdon pulls it off as he detours from Hooker’s threatening simmer and heads into a region similar to the one inhabited by Them’s journey into youthful white-boy mojo, the indispensible “Gloria.” As the singer’s intensity rises Price’s organ doesn’t falter and Valentine’s strings are suitably grouchy, and it’s one of the album’s best tracks.

The version of Larry William’s ’58 b-side “She Said Yeah” (also adapted by the Stones and much later Paul McCartney) is secure if a bit more refined than the original, and their take of the frequently recorded “Night Time is the Right Time” is even better, this one clearly inspired by Ray Charles’ urbane study, with those femme backup singers stepping back up into the scheme. And if the cover of “Memphis Tennessee” will never replace the tossed-off likability of the Chuck Berry original, it’s got enough instrumental diversity from Valentine and Price to make it worthwhile.

The final Hooker nab is “Boom Boom,” and The Animals give it a very good revision, adding in enough Sam Cooke-sourced sweat-as-celebration to appeal to the kids, while also retaining their grasp on instrumental acumen, thus insuring that the more discriminating listeners standing with arms folded towards the back of the room don’t get fidgety.

Party music with a foundation that’s more solid than the norm for such stuff, it continues to please, as does the closing energetic zip into the terrain of Berry’s undefeatable jewel “Around and Around.” It ends a record that if not necessarily indicative of the group’s ambitions/chart victories, does spotlight the gig-based auto-didacticism that was essential to their overall success.

And as quality listening The Animals never really nosedived, not even in their sincere if often kooky California-based hippie reassembling, a band that retained only Burdon from the lineup found here. “Sky Pilot” is a classic of overboard psych moves paraded as pop, and “When I Was Young” provides a good roar. But I digress.

Surely, the UK edition of The Animals is going to be a very hard record to track down, at least on LP. I don’t recall exactly how I landed a stereo copy (the first pressings were in mono), but the sleeve and wax are so battered it looks like the album might’ve actually swam across the Atlantic to get here. The vinyl is so beaten up in fact that sadly, it rarely gets pulled out for play.

It’d make for a terrific reissue though, with the photo and design of the sleeve (dig that all lower case font) being preferable to the US jacket. No, it doesn’t have their most celebrated hit, but it’s still a total winner, and one that comprises a tidy little chapter in The Animals’ contribution to the epic encyclopedia of rock ‘n’ roll.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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