No white singer of the British beat boom sounded blacker than the Animals' Eric Burdon, and no English band of the era deserved to sing the blues more. The Animals, who came from the northern industrial city of Newcastle, signed some of the worst record and management deals this side of Jimmy Reed, seeing little coin for their hits. Adding insult to robbery, British albums by the 1964-66 R&B incarnation of the band were cut up by MGM in America into slapdash packages like Animalization, a mess of '66 singles and tracks from the British Animalisms.
But an import CD reissue of Animalisms combines the two, and the result is essential British Invasion fire, a visceral portrait of a beleaguered band (founding organist Alan Price was gone; drummer John Steel was about to split) in its fighting prime. Burdon's voice is as hard and dark as Jack Johnson's fist, a weapon of plantation sorrow in "Gin House Blues" and kicking-mule joy in John Lee Hooker's "Maudie." The early blues singer Ma Rainey was a tough old bird, yet even she would have been impressed with how the Animals hijack her signature tune "See See Rider": Dave Rowberry's runaround organ lick; Hilton Valentine's drunken-wasp guitar outbursts; Burdon's orgasmic barks and howls, especially his electrifying "Yeeow!" just before Valentine's solo.
The Animals were not prolific or accomplished writers. But as interpreters, they were fearless in attack and astute in the dynamics of swing. Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" becomes rent-party punk; "Don't Bring Me Down," a song of bittersweet dismay written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, is turned into a seesaw ride between the creeping evil of the organ paired with Valentine's throaty fuzz in the verses and Burdon's crucifixion cry in the chorus. And for guys who had no firsthand experience of chain-gang life, the Animals' reading of the prison lament "Inside Looking Out" is vividly brutal. Burdon wails like he's being horsewhipped; Steel, Rowberry and bassist Chas Chandler throb underneath him with war-dance brawn; Valentine's guitar is tense with neurotic treble. For those four minutes, the Animals never sounded more like real animals - vicious, hungry, desperate.
The Animalisms reissue comes with a notable bonus: all four tracks from a one-sided independent EP that the pre-fame Animals cut in 1963 as the Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo. The songs are all blues standards, including an early stab at Hooker's "Boom Boom." But there is original muscle there, and Burdon's voice is honest and strong - solid proof that the blues is a white man's music, too.