An interview I recently ran with Imelda May about her duets with Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones and Noel Gallagher of a band that it should have been illegal to disband turned out unexpectedly as she told me off at various stages for various reasons – the most provocative of her observations being: “you cannot live in the past of rock music”.
It sounds as obvious and as uninteresting as a rap song, but when you hear whatever is being produced today and you compare it to even just the average stuff made in the golden years of rock and generally speaking up to the 1990s, I tell you that yeah, living in the past of rock music is probably getting you nowhere and just serves to further alienate you from today’s world, which is why I would totally recommend that.
And so, as I was busy nurturing my musical loneliness by reminding myself that the skill in attending a party is knowing when it’s time to leave which is what R.E.M. said when they split in 2011 after more than 30 years together, I decided to dive into the world of real rock, proper great music and the 1960s British Invasion.
This came after I got blessed enough to interview the man who introduced The Beatles to Brian Epstein and also members of bands like The Zombies, Christie, The Merseybeats, The Tremeloes, Gerry and the Pacemakers that made the history of the British Music Invasion in the 1960s and 1970s together with people like The Kinks, The Yardbirds, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and everybody else that either:
1) has died too soon
2) is now old, grumpy, has unfashionable hair but for some reason, he’s way sexier than your 30-something peers.
Long story short, I had the huge honour of speaking with John Steel, who is the original drummer of the British Invasion band The Animals that shook the music world in 1964 when their marvellous House Of The Rising Sun rocked the charts worldwide, finishing number one in both the UK and the US.
That song, together with the iconic Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood and We Gotta Get Out Of This Place earned the five Northeastern English boys everlasting success and was praised by the likes of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.
But the best things rarely last, and so the band split as early as 1966, the lead singer Eric Burdon formed another group, then the original line-up reunited for a charity event in 1968 and then later on again in the 1970s and the 1980s, and after this, many of the guys that played either in the original formation or sporadically into later reunions – and we’re talking about 17 people in total – went on joining just too many bands calling themselves The Animals such as Animals II, Eric Burdon and the Animals, Eric Burdon and the New Animals, Animals and Friends, and so everything eventually ended up in a legal dispute over the ownership of the band name.
My guest John Steel is the very Animals’ co-founder together with Eric Burdon and is also the only original band member playing in the current incarnation of the band, which is now called Animals and Friends and also features Danny Handley, Roberto Ruiz and Mick Gallagher.
The latter had briefly acted as The Animals’ keyboardist in 1965 before the role went to Dave Rowberry, who kept it until his sudden death in 2003.
In 2022, the band embarked on a tournée featuring Maggie Bell of Stone the Crows titled The Animals and Friends Farewell Tour which offered the opportunity to arrange this interview with John Steel about The Animals’ legacy and what it was like to become a global superstar alongside The Beatles.
John, how do you feel when you hear one of your songs playing on the radio?
I feel proud, really, you know – we did all that, wow! Well, I mean it’s a strange thing to say but it’s been so many years since we recorded those songs that occasionally when I do hear, I think yeah, we were good!
Which one of your songs are you most attached to?
Well, there are two, actually. The House Of The Rising Sun, obviously, and then the other one, I guess, is We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, which has become a kind of anthem all over the world where people sing it along whether they leave school, they graduate from university or they change jobs, people say We Gotta Get Out Of This Place! It’s become an international anthem, and it also became an anthem of the Vietnam War for the Americans, it was number one on the Armed Forces Radio for three years, I think.
What achievements are you most proud of?
Oh, well, we recorded a song that has kind of crossover boundaries between folk music and rock. The House Of The Rising Sun was the first folk-rock song number one on the charts. I think we managed to do a lot with The House Of The Rising Sun – and not only that, but it was the first single that actually broke the old barrier of maybe two-and-a-half, three minutes maximum. The industry was stuck in a rut there because the original singles used to be recorded at 78 RPM in the UK, so you couldn’t actually physically get more than two-and-a-half, three minutes-long with those… but in the vinyl edge you could do more, so when we recorded it, we didn’t actually make it at the time. And then when we listened to the playback, our producer said “That’s a hit single, that’s a hit”, but the engineer on the desk said “We have a problem here: it’s four-minute and 35-seconds long, you’re never going to be played on the radio”, and then our producer just said, “The hell with that, let’s go with it!” And so we broke. We broke through another barrier in the music business by making an extended single. And then, another thing about that song is Bob Dylan. We were big fans of Bob Dylan from his very first album, and we master-engineered a meeting with him in New York while we were doing The Ed Sullivan Show which used to take a week. And so a friend who was a journalist, an English girl actually working as a journalist in New York, knew Bob, and she arranged this meeting. We went to Bob’s manager, Albert Grossman’s flat, and Bob was there, he was just in the studio playing the first electric track – instead of acoustic – he ever recorded, and it was Like a Rolling Stone. And he said, “The reason I’m going this way is because I was driving along and I heard your House Of The Rising Sun playing on the radio, and it was like a lightbulb moment, and that’s what made me think yes, this is really good”. So we had a good night in Greenwich Village, the part of New York City with all the folk clubs where Bob used to play.
Bruce Springsteen said that The Animals were his favourite British Invasion band, which means he preferred you over The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
Oh, it was fantastic. It was only a few years ago, like three or four years ago. He was doing a major world tour, and he said that all the songs he performs are based on sounds by The Animals: It’s My Life, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, We Gotta Get Out Of This Place. That inspired me so much, you know, that’s fantastic and very generous of him!
What’s the legacy of the British Invasion?
The British Invasion stimulated a whole international world of music: I mean, before the British Invasion, every decade was coming all the way from America. When Eric Burdon and I first met we were 15 years old and we hit it off with each other, and everything that inspired us at first was American rock and roll, blues, jazz, books, movies – everything. And so, we didn’t realise it at the time but this was happening all over the UK with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones: we were all listening to the same things and being influenced by the same things. So by the time it goes to the very early 1960s, we were gone, you know – The Beatles were suddenly becoming a world thing. As The Animals, we went to America for our first tour in 1964, and everybody was so crazy about British music, you know? I mean, we were interviewed by people who would say, “How did you invent this music?” And we said, “We didn’t invent it, all we listened to is American!” I guess that still stands up today; at that time, there was a tremendous influence all over the world. So, basically, we wrote a new chapter in the history of popular music.
What was the British music scene like in the 1960s?
At that time, there were a bunch of clubs in London, there was The Scotch of St. James, The Marquee Club and those kinds of live music venues – and back in those days, we all used to meet up with each other whenever we could do that. I remember our record label’s PR man came over to London from America, very early on. We were just newly famous, we’d had number one hits and we took him down to The Scotch of St. James; there were two Beatles over here, and a couple of Rolling Stones over there, and The Animals, and The Kinks… this guy was looking over and was like: “I cannot believe this, if this was in New York, the kids would have this place torn down to get in here!” It was a very exciting time. As I said, when Eric and I started together aged 15, we would never go to dream about going to America. You know, in those days nobody travelled the way they do these days, and if you went to America it was because you were very famous or very rich – or whatever. And here we are some five young guys from a provincial town flying across the Atlantic to open up the Paramount Theatre in Times Square. It was fantastic. Back in the days, when we played in the Club a’Gogo in Newcastle, the blues bands from the United States we played with were a big influence on us. Ray Charles also was massively influential back then, a kind of gospel, soul music. And a lot of jazz, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus – these guys were from America, so when we were still at the top of the game when we first went over there I was in heaven! The first time we went to America, we played at the Paramount Theatre for a week, just in Time Square, New York, doing four shows a day or something like that. But just up the street, just a few blocks away was Birdland, the famous jazz club, and while we were there, there was John Coltrane and his quarter, alternating with Mose Allison, another brilliant guy, doing one set each. Absolutely, I was in heaven!
Where did the name The Animals come from?
The name The Animals came from a guy called Graham Bond. He was a brilliant musician, he was a sax player and played out organ at a time before The Animals when Newcastle did try and look at London, we would have this spot called the Club a’Gogo in Newcastle, which was featuring all the guest bands and guest musicians from all over the world, and then Graham Bond came to play one night and he had a great band, he had Jack Bruce on bass, Ginger Baker on drums, Dick Heckstall-Smith on saxophones and himself on organ. We played as a support band, and their manager said “You should get these guys out there in London quicker” because by this time it was 1963, and The Beatles were already storming the world. So Mike Jeffrey, our manager, introduced us to Lauren Riley who had a look at all the scene clubs in London, and Giorgio Gomelsky, who was the manager of The Yardbirds. At this time, the band was called The Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo, which is a horrible name, so we were told, “Okay, you’re going to get a great deal, you are going to swap gigs with The Yardbirds, they’re going to come up here and do your gigs, and you’re going to go down there and do their gigs, and by the way, Graham Bond came up with a great name for the band, so we’re going to be called The Animals!” Unfortunately, Graham died tragically under a tube train, he apparently did use a lot of dopamine and he was also kind of into supernatural things. And some people say that he fell in front of the train… I don’t know but anyway, when I think back, I mean, God, he was only probably in his thirties.
Did audiences from the UK and the US behave differently at your live shows?
Speaking personally from The Animals’ point of view, we were always a band in the UK and attracted mainly a male audience, young guys because our music was kind of hard-edged and dark, it wasn’t pop. It was the same when we played at the Olympia popular music venue in Paris in 1964, where everybody famous played at the time. And again, that was the same sort of thing, it was mostly young guys. But when we went to America, it was completely the opposite. It was screaming teenage girls, teenyboppers, and it was a bit of a scary change… it was a bit weird to have all these girls just mess around! As I said, the music we played was like The Rolling Stones, a kind of blues music, you know, while The Beatles and the Liverpool bands played a more mainstream kind of pop. I mean, they were all good-looking, so they would attract the young girls, while we would attract very young guys in jeans!
Do you believe a band could potentially never split? What does it take to stick together?
Strange thing, I think The Animals actually split up too soon. There was a bit of personality clash that got in the way and we didn’t have glue to keep us together the way The Rolling Stones and The Beatles managed to. And it is a shame really, because one of the benefits of staying together for a long time is that when your first record’s contract comes to an end, you’re in a position to negotiate a much better deal, which is what unfortunately The Animals didn’t do, as we just kind of broke up at the end of our first record’s contract, so we never got the chance to do it. We were on very small royalties, but what then happened in the late 1960s with supergroups like Cream and all those guys, is that they managed to get much, much bigger royalties negotiated for their albums and stuff, so that was one of the disappointing things about not lasting a long time. But then the music has long lasted in the end, didn’t it? The music still stands up!
What was your dream job as a child?
We went to art school, there’s where I met Eric, on our first day at the Newcastle College of Art. And so I had sort of big pretensions to be something artistic; visual arts, but not fine arts and oil paintings and these things, it was more album sleeves and graphics. Maybe it was a waste of time, maybe it was just trying to find a job and go to work for a living somewhere. I actually did get a job after that in the drawing office of an aircraft company: big drawing boards and doing big exploded diagrams of the inside of the aircraft… it was awful. Then I met with Eric again and we got the band together that became The Animals very soon and then I didn’t have to worry about being out and stuff like that.
What do you think of the current state of rock music?
I just have the vaguest idea of what’s going on just by listening to the radio, I don’t even try to keep up with what’s going on. You know, young bands make music for young people, it’s aimed at a completely different audience. It’s only occasionally when I hear something, like for instance when Amy Winehouse came on the scene, I think “Wow, she’s something else”. But then Amy Winehouse was a kind of throwback to the older people of who they had loved, so, it’s just once in a while that somebody like her would come on the scene and I think that’s great, that’s great because I can associate her to something else. But you know, a lot of modern current pop music is not really something I’m interested in. I don’t care for rap music or that kind of stuff. I just like blues music and rock ‘n’ roll – wholesale rock ‘n’ roll, a collection of vinyl and other stuff, I’m just listening to stuff I’ve always listened to. Early rock and roll like Little Richard, Chuck Berry – jazz, like John Coltrane and Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and people like that. Madonna is brilliant, she knows everything about music, much more than me.
What do you think of talent shows like The X Factor?
They serve a good purpose, I mean, those kinds of things have always been there. There was a show called Opportunity Knocks, donkey’s years ago.
Glen Matlock of The Sex Pistols also mentioned that TV show in his interview.
Opportunity Knocks gave young people with some talent the chance to make a breakthrough, and that’s very very good, it really does serve a good purpose. But then I’ve got to say, I’ve got to be honest, I don’t watch these shows. They are very valuable, and for some certain kinds of people and certain kinds of music and acts, well, it’s just terrific for them.
Unless stated otherwise, pictures were provided by John Steel’s publicity team © belongs to their respective owners
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