Graded on a Curve:
The Animals,
The Best of The Animals

Celebrating Eric Burdon on his 80th birthday.Ed.

No single album can encompass the range of The Animals’ ’64-’65 run, but ABKCO’s recent vinylization of the ’88 compact disc The Best of The Animals comes pretty close. Gathering all the early hits without neglecting the enduring appeal of their R&B core, it sports the same cover photo as MGM’s 11-track ’66 LP while slightly modifying and significantly expanding the contents. 

The pop success of great rock bands, and the one formed in Newcastle upon Tyne when Eric Burdon joined the Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo definitely qualifies, often gets belittled as concession, cash-in, or more likely some combination of the two. The reality is that music and commerce, particularly in the middle of last century, weave together like amorous but argumentative vines. The four largest hits of The Animals’ first two years are all represented on this fresh reissue, which places onto vinyl the contents of a CD designed to usurp an LP not all that hard to locate in used bins at the time, at least in my neighborhood; this sequencing of The Best of The Animals (there have been others) includes the A-sides from the first nine 45s.

“House of the Rising Sun,” easily The Animals’ biggest commercial success, also endures and by a wide margin as their most famous recording. Indeed, sans exaggeration it can be described as one of the defining singles of the 1960s. A few may balk, but the sheer seriousness, ambition and intensity was unusual for ’64.

Gleaning a traditional tune found on Bob Dylan and Just Dave Van Ronk and in the process setting folk-rock into motion with an intercontinental smash (#1 in four countries, #2 in Australia, Top Ten in two more), it was a massive chart breakthrough achieved without compromising The Animals’ angelic comingling of blues, R&B, and R&R (it’s gobsmacking to note, but their producer Mickie Most was initially disinclined to record the song).

Just as impressive is how it has retained the ambiance of alluring menace over time. Not strictly a blues cop (waxed by Texas Alexander, Leadbelly, and Josh White, it was also cut by Appalachian Old Timers Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster and early country pioneer Roy Acuff while entering the folk milieu through Woody Guthrie, the Weavers, and Pete Seeger), The Animals’ version is drenched in a feeling of bluesy foreboding that rarely invaded the pop charts.

Fifty years later, through the ominous atmosphere of Hilton Valentine’s guitar and Price’s organ as Burdon repeatedly succumbs to anguish in the unraveling of his cautionary tale, the song still embodies Bad Shit Going Down. To illustrate; shortly after receiving a copy of this LP for review I watched a movie, a modest indie drama filmed in 2013 with a soundtrack of current material except for J.S. Bach and “House of the Rising Sun.” The latter landed smack dab in the middle of the flick, playing out for nearly its duration behind a scene of substantial tension and turpitude.

ABKCO’s Best of The Animals opens with this classic, the company obviously knowing their product well enough to realize the consistency of the following 14 selections would transcend any potential aesthetic letdown. However, the placement of the rest is far from random, the band’s other big hits wisely positioned across its running time.

Their second transatlantic score was a tune written for Nina Simone; in her well-realized version “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is a fully-orchestrated hunk of emo-explication enhanced by a slow tempo. Featured on her uneven ’64 LP Broadway-Blues-Ballads, it was released as a single (backed with the mildly kooky “A Monster”), but didn’t chart.

The Animals pick up the pace and increase the forcefulness, primarily through the extraordinary kick drum-centric rhythmic pattern of kit-man John Steel. As on “House of the Rising Sun,” Valentine and Price lock into a terrific dialogue, though instead of escalating the dark moods of a folk standard they’re ushering a piece of then contempo pop balladry into the rock arena; another of the track’s swank qualities is the deft stop-start execution during the chorus.

Reclaimed is the male point of view of the song’s origins, reportedly inspired by an argument between co-writer Horace Ott and his future wife Gloria Caldwell (who subs for him in the tune’s credits due to a technicality). Through Burdon’s vocalizing it’s transformed into a plea for consideration from the midst of working-class pressures, going over like gangbusters because it’s not a ploy; The Animals were a legit proletarian unit.

From there, the emergence of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” might seem somewhat predictable retrospectively, and based upon the outfit’s urban image many have doubtlessly assumed it an original. But no, it comes from the pens of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and was intended for The Righteous Brothers.

Pop success once depended heavily on channels of distribution, though the flow of “regional-hits” basically dried up after the rise and dominance of corporations. Timing was often just as crucial. Mickie Most had a firm grip on the hourglass, and once Allen Klein hipped him to “We Gotta…” he let no grains of sand slip by in bringing it to market (this is all according to Mann, who was apparently planning on recording it himself through a contract with Leiber and Stoller’s Red Bird, which is why a Righteous version never materialized).

In the Animals’ hands (and with an adjustment in lyrics), “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” is exemplary evidence of the increase in social consciousness in mid-‘60s pop-rock, and it’s just as interesting on a purely sonic level. It’s also the first single issued without Price; the reliable “musical differences” as well as fear of flying saw him leave to form the Alan Price Set.

His replacement Dave Rowberry (ex-Mike Cotton Sound) is immediately lesser, though he’s more than serviceable here. And in this instance, that’s adequate, for the opening is for the ages. Whether it’s in a pizza shop, laundromat, or dentist’s office waiting room, whenever this song begins droplets of moisture sprout on the upper lips of those codgers perpetually delighting in the movements of the E Street Band; Chas Chandler’s bass is that kind of foundational stuff.

Steel’s use of the tom is superb, and Valentine’s guitar, especially its increase in sharpness as the second verse rises in power, is truly memorable. Along the way Burdon goes bananas, conjuring a tight maelstrom of Soul-sourced Blues-gritty emotionalism without a trace of embarrassment as the backing vocals seal the deal. Arguably as major as “House of the Rising Sun,” it nicely foreshadows the existence of “It’s My Life”; Most had made a call for tunes and one result was this very solid Roger Atkins/Carl D’Errico composition.

You can take the songwriter out of the Brill Building but you can’t take the Brill Building out of the songwriter; I don’t know if anybody’s said that, and I don’t even know if it’s actually true, but it applies in this case. Specifically written for The Animals, “It’s My Life” sounds like it could’ve been tackled by any number of the decade’s girl groups minus a hitch.

This isn’t necessarily a flaw. Price is certainly missed, but the band is in fine form and Chandler unleashes another huge opening. As a young listener getting acclimated to Rock Music, the guitar and vocals were easiest, the drums a bit harder, and bass the most resistant to full understanding; frankly, hearing “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” and “It’s My Life” on the radio lent much insight into Rock as a band-derived art form. Thanks, Chas.

The Best of The Animals holds 15 examples of prime mid-‘60s Brit rock ‘n’ roll. They had other hits of course; some were minor, but all the A-sides here made the charts in either in the US or UK, seven in both. That includes “I’m Crying,” an energetic Burdon/Price original that’s descended from Diddley as it sets the stage for the garage scene. Had it sold better Most might’ve allowed more group-penned ditties onto the plug sides of those 45s. But then The Animals’ tale would be different.

Speaking of Bo and stories, the band’s lovely tribute to that giant is here, as are a slew of glorious blues/R&B-based nuggets, counting two by John Lee Hooker, with “Boom Boom” delivering the essence of a Windy City gin joint directly into a London discothèque. And again, the running-order is quite thoughtful, culminating with a splendid version of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me.”

In terms of exhaustiveness, the 2CD Complete Animals documents this fruitful period very well, but as single disc compilations go, this one’s difficult to beat; EMI’s ’97 CD (identical cover and title building on the ’71 UK album The Most of The Animals) adds five more tracks, but the trimness of these 15 cuts is preferable. Plus, it’s on LP. In a shade over 46 minutes it concisely synopsizes the early motions of a frequently exceptional band.


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