THE ANIMALS: THE ANIMALS (1964)
1) The House Of The Rising Sun; 2) The Girl Can't Help It; 3) Blue Feeling; 4) Baby Let Me Take You Home; 5) The Right Time; 6) Talkin' 'Bout You; 7) Around And Around; 8) I'm In Love Again; 9) Gonna Send You Back To Walker; 10) Memphis Tennessee; 11) I'm Mad Again; 12) I've Been Around.
This and the following two albums are most easily acquired today on the 2-CD set entitled The Complete Animals — but "complete" only as far as their 1964-1965 Columbia recordings go, i. e. representing the "Alan Price" era in which the band had not yet turned into the custom-made vehicle for propagating Eric Burdon's limitless ego, but, rather, was simply one of the tightest, strak-raving-maddest British R'n'B combos that ever came out of Newcastle-on-Tyme. (Now that is a statement that'll be pretty hard to beat).
Eric Burdon, at this point, is merely the vocalist: an essential part of the band, the rough, rowdy, ballsy exterior, its bullroarer communicator. Alan Price is the organist, creating grim, moody atmospheres derivative of Ray Charles but in a class of their own. Hilton Valentine is the guitar player — nothing particularly special but it was he who first put on record the arpeggios of 'House Of The Rising Sun', and that alone should suffice. And the rhythm section is... decent.
As with most British bands of the period, it is of no principal importance whether the reviews center around their US or UK discographies — none of the albums were intended as 'concept' pieces, and, in the case of the Animals, producer Mickie Most could care less about proper track sequencing regardless of the side of the Atlantic ocean that sequencing was delivered to.
Anyway, The Animals — the American version, which, for some reason, happened to come out about a month earlier than the UK counterpart — does faithfully include the band's two first singles, plus seven LP tracks that would also be on the UK album and 'Blue Feeling', which would later be used as the B-side to 'Boom Boom'. The sequencing is a mess indeed, but, more importantly, there is not a single Animals original: all of the tunes are blues / R'n'B / rockabilly covers, with 'House Of The Rising Sun' thrown in for good measure. So, how does it measure up today?
Still great. At the intersection of Burdon's vocals and Price's organ playing, the Animals had developed a unique sound that made these songs their own and make even such universal chestnuts as Chuck Berry's 'Around And Around' or Ray Charles' 'The Right Time' well worth hearing in these versions. Price, in particular, almost singlehandedly turns the electric organ into a rock weapon as powerful as the electric guitar; his playing may be simpler and more "rootsy" and traditional than that of his main concurrent on the instrument — Rod Argent of the Zombies — but, before his successful quest of conquering the organ, no one had ever explored its potential so thoroughly. On the fast numbers, Price-led instrumental passages create an atmosphere of proto-psychedelia that must have driven rock'n'roll dancers punch-drunk in 1964 ('Talkin' 'Bout You'); and the slow ones, through his subtle uses of various effects and volume levels, are transformed from generic blues into artsy explorations of human emotion ('I'm Mad Again').
As for Eric, it is tremendously hard to understand and describe the secret of his singing. He never had much range, and his "powerhouse" delivery, shocking and stunning in 1964, has long since been beaten by far throatier powerhouse vocalists like Noddy Holder of Slade. But perhaps it is exactly the combination of the powerhouse approach with a certain amount of refined finesse and intelligence — something Noddy could never have been suspected of — that does the trick. Burdon knows how to play with his voice and intrigue the listener with this play; he knows the value of silence and quiet just as he knows the value of all-out screaming, and he, perhaps best of all the early British R'n'B-ers, had mastered the voodoo art of classic bluesmen and R'n'B-ers who could easily lure the audience into a trance through simple repetition of the simplest phrases. You will know what I mean if, just like me, you will not feel that 'Talkin' 'Bout You' has lasted all of seven minutes, a record-breaker in 1964.
In between these two masters of the trade, even thoroughly lightweight tracks like 'Baby Let Me Take You Home' (copped by the band from Dylan's earlier 'Baby Let Me Follow You Down') are delightful, although I personally lean towards the darker stuff, like 'I'm Mad Again', arguably the most believable impersonation of a nervous breakdown in British pop music up to that time. The only catch is that the darker stuff is in the minority here — in their earliest days, the band liked to rave and rock their audience more than it liked to hypnotize it. But can we blame them?
Then again, of course, few things could be darker than 'The House Of The Rising Sun', which has not lost one ounce of its terrifying power ever since. Its historical influence can hardly be overrated — it may not have singlehandedly invented 'folk-rock', but it certainly was one of the earliest indications that pop music made by young rebellious people could have brains and soul in addition to brawn and lust. It also served as an important watermark in the evolution of rock lyrics: apparently, Burdon did not feel as comfortable as Dylan about singing 'it's been the ruin of many a poor girl, and me, o God, I'm one', and changed 'girl' to 'boy' — immediately and, probably, unintentionally, transforming it from a tragic, but generic, folk lament of a brothel-locked girl with family troubles into an equally tragic, but far more mysterious — mystical, in fact — plight of The Disspirited Young Man, with no common idea whatsoever of what "The House Of The Rising Sun" really is or should represent.
The historical side should then be reinforced by mentioning the record-breaking length of 4:29 for a single release (kudos to Mickie Most for greenlighting the idea), and the emotional side — by mentioning the fantastic crescendo, as the song slowly and steadily gains in volume, beginning with little other than Valentine's arpeggios and then gradually becoming a bloody battlefield between Burdon's epic vocal stand and Price's keyboard-generated tempest. For all its purposes, for all its simplicity, it is most certainly "art rock" at its earliest and freshest, and that organ solo should be canonized; is there anything like an "organ solo Hall of Fame"?
So the album should be getting a thumbs up even if it had nothing but 'House' on it — in terms of historical importance, that's probably just the way it goes — but its overall sound is such a delight that I am even happy about relistening to the band being proverbially mega-repetitive and ultra-monotonous on 'Memphis Tennessee'. Classic.