A lot of blues have gone under their musical bridge in the four years since the Animals first exploded on the pop music scene–blues musical and personal.
A dozen sidemen have come and gone, the billing was changed to read “Eric Burdon and the Animals,” they stopped recording blues classics preferring to present original material, and where once this young English mining town tough was the critics’ darling and voted the best white male blues singer in the business, he now is relegated to a position somewhere in the Siberia of Teenybopperland.
Burdon has also changed personally. Once upon a time he was remote and uptight. Today he is friendly and relaxed. The ego you think might have dictated the changes in billing and personnel is, if present, not apparent. So it is not difficult to ask Burdon, quite bluntly: What happened?
“I got changes to go through and I’ve got to go through them,” he said recently, between out-of-town concert gigs. “If I worried about what people said in the beginning, I’d never have done anything. When I was still in school I said Ray Charles and Bo Diddley were where it’s at, not Bobby Vee. So after a while I was right, and blues was right. Then, later, when I did something else, they came to me and said I should be doing blues and not Ravi Shankar and ‘Sky Pilot’.”
He made this short speech with conviction, but without anger. “It took Don Ellis ten years to get his band together where it is now,” he added. “When I think of that I know I’ve got plenty of time.
“You know, I can still walk out on any stage and get a good reaction The record business can take second place to that. Performing for people is where it’s at. I guess I find it difficult to connect through a record.”
Burdon has a home in Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles now and it is this city he uses as a base for his far-ranging, continuing concert tours. There is a new album out–Every One of Us, the band’s tenth–and there are certain to be several more, but it is the stage act Burdon seems to believe in.
“If you get hung up in a studio, you lose people,” he said. “If you live in a castle, you can’t take a walk on the Sunset Strip. I think the Stones are finding this out right now. I think the Beatles may learn the same thing. You got to be out in front of the people.
“The English critics thought ‘Sky Pilot’ was bad when they listened to the record, but they liked it in the stage show. You got to see it with the film and the light show to know what we are talking about.
“You see, I can’t get it out of my head every time I make a record I’m making a documentary movie, and records you can only listen to. You can’t see them. What we really are, right now, is a stage act.”
Eric Burdon and the Animals travel with a light show team and currently there are four films included in the presentation, so it is not surprising when Burdon defends visuals.
“The best way to communicate is to make a movie,” he said. “No one will let me make a film now, just like when I started out I couldn’t make a record; no one would let me get into a studio. That’s okay. I’ll keep on making records until someone lets me make a film, and then I’ll stand on people’s fingers with what I do.
“Film is the medium. If people have eyes as well as ears, records only half-satisfy.”
Why has Burdon abandoned the blues classics that were so good to him?
“I haven’t, really. Not altogether. I still do some of me old things in the stage act occasionally. I still sing blues, even if they are original. Most of the new album is our own stuff, but ‘St. James Infirmary’ is in there. Besides, I did all that before. Why do it again?”
(It’s a pallid rendition of “St. James Infirmary” the Animals provide on this album, sharing the second side with a 19-minute-long “documentary” called “New York 1963–America 1968,” which might best be described as Burdon’s latest sophomoric attempt to convince us his soul is black. The first side is somewhat less offensive, although it features, for elusive reasons, “The Immigrant Lad,” running 6:15 and being little more than a seagull track with intruments and a mundane conversation between Engish workingmen. The album was produced by the band, Tom Wilson having gone on to other things. It is not a collector’s “must.”)
As shy and uptight as Burdon was in 1964 when “House of the Rising Sun” was a hit, even then he was outspoken. He is no less honest today, and some of the things he says are the sort that send record biz execs running for drink.
About drugs and booze: “I usually don’t go on stage unless I am stoned out of me head. Or after drinking half a bottle of scotch. I’ve decided there’s nothing like dope . . . booze . . . meditation . . . anything to get high.”
About his record company: “Stanley Kubrick gets $15 million and doesn’t have to show one foot of film to MGM for three weeks, and I can’t get them to put a billboard on the Strip to advertise me records.”
About London: “The whole city has gone homosexual. All me friends have gone bent. They’re freaking out . . . looking for something to do, I guess.”
Burdon made several small speeches in a short period of time. There was no uptightness, no matter how strong the opinions. The man had been relaxed. He grinned when he talked. He was, like too many others in his field, talking too much about film and paying too little attention to music. But he was exceptionally likeable.
“Meanwhile,” he said, finishing one of his small speeches, “it’s off to Portland for a gig. We are but strolling minstrels.”
Also meanwhile (and a week following the interview) two of his guitarist-bass players, Vic Briggs and Danny MeCulloch, left the group. Briggs was replaced by Andy Somers, formerly with the Soft Machine and Zoot Money’s group before Money joined the Animals. McCulloch, who already has cut an album with a new group, has not been replaced.