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Revisiting Eric Burdon

Eric Burdon 1

The memory of hearing Eric Burdon sing “House of the Rising Sun” with the Animals at the Odeon, Nottingham one summer night in 1964 — a week or two before it was released as a single — is as clear as yesterday. In some ways it was the precursor of a new kind of rock music. But to Burdon, as he explains in a new biographical documentary shown on BBC4 this weekend, it meant something different. When Alan Price, the group’s organist, took credit for the words (traditional) and the arrangement (borrowed by Bob Dylan from Dave Van Ronk), it damaged the singer’s faith in music as a collective endeavour: all for one and one for all.

Luckily, although the animosity towards Price is still burning fiercely more than half a century later, it didn’t cause Burdon to end his career. As Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt testify in the programme, post-Price Animals hits like “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “It’s My Life” were nothing short of inspirational to the next generation. But as the decades went by, there was always a sense that Burdon, one of the great English R&B voices of the ’60s, never quite recaptured the same level of fulfilment.

The hour-long Eric Burdon: Rock and Roll Animal, directed by Hannes Rossacher, is a co-production by the BBC with ZDF and Arte. There are interesting passages on his apprenticeship at the Club A Go Go in Newcastle, his relationship with Jimi Hendrix, his time in San Francisco and his collaboration with War — who dumped him, he claims, because he was the white guy in the band (there was actually another, the harmonica-player Lee Oskar). There’s quite a lot of stuff about his 50-odd years of living in California, and we see him cruising through the desert in some ’70s gas-guzzler or other.

We leave him, weathered but unbowed, with his new American band — new in 2018, anyway, when the film was made — preparing to record an album. He sings “Across the Borderline”, the great song written in 1981 by Ry Cooder with Jim Dickinson and John Hiatt for the soundtrack of Tony Richardson’s The Border, a film about immigrants. Originally sung by Freddie Fender, it subsequently found its way into the repertoires of Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Willie Nelson. It suits Eric Burdon just fine.

* The screen-grab is from Eric Burdon: Rock and Roll Animal, which can be watched on BBC iPlayer until the end of March.

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. Max #

    Patti was recently asked this question in an interview in a book reading gig :
    Q. The Beatles or the Stones ?
    A Her answer was a resounding “the Clash”

    Glad that she talked so enthusiastically about
    The Animals and Burdon. Maybe they were really
    Her band after all

    February 29, 2020
  2. Tim Adkin #

    Looking forward to watching this as Burdon is both an interesting and frustrating figure in equal measure. Undoubtedly his is a tale of unfulfilled potential but one often has the feeling he’s very much the author of his own misfortune. I was a student in Newcastle in the mid 70s and saw Burdon in summer 76 at the City Hall fronting a lovely little band featuring the great jazz organist (and Ian’s kid brother) Mike Carr (RIP). As far as I’m aware they sadly never recorded and Burdon instead embarked on an Animals reunion in 1977 which was just the wrong place and the wrong time.
    There are a number of British vocalists from that era who never fulfilled their potential: Terry Reid, the Jackies Lomax and Lynton and, slightly later, Jess Roden immediately spring to mind. Burdon can be added to that list although at least he had his moments in the sun.

    February 29, 2020
  3. Eric Victor Burdon lived at our Paisley Underground house at 7621 West Norton Avenue in the 1980s off and on. Usually when he was too tired to go to his own home which was out in the desert. We kept his Harley-Davidson in the garage, it was so heavy I could hardly keep it upright when I tried to fire it up.

    Those were happy days.

    March 1, 2020
  4. Lynden Swainston #

    I can remember telling parents I was off to the
    Church Youth Club and heading to South Shields
    to see the Animals on several occasions whilst at school ( and the Yardbirds)
    However was madly in love with Alan Price so in later life was amazed to find he was a neighbour in Barnes and totally disinterested in fact that I had gazed at him in wonder at the Cellar Club !

    March 1, 2020
  5. Brian Hancill #

    Curious to know if Alan Price has ever said a single word about him getting all the House of the Rising Sun royalties and the half-century of animosity that it caused. I can’t find anything online – perhaps he’s just been savvy enough not to defend the indefensible.

    March 1, 2020
  6. James Allen #

    We’d gone to see Sister Rosetta Tharpe at a Sunday afternoon Ricky Tick session in Reading but she refused to go on as there were only 30 or so of us in the audience.
    As compensation we listened to a very long set by a then unknown,in Reading at least,band from Newcastle Eric Burdon and the Animals who I remember played a version of Smokestack Lightnin’ which went on and on for nearly half an hour!
    The promoter refunded our ticket price due to the non appearance of the Sister,which amounted to 3 shillings(15p).1963 or 1964 it must have been!
    I really enjoyed the Burdon film on Friday,what a great story teller he is and what a story he has to tell.

    March 1, 2020
  7. stuart jenner #

    Eric Burdon Declares War is still regularly played on the radio in Chile where I used to live. What a fine album it is too.

    March 1, 2020
  8. rob chapman #

    I found the doc a bit of a hotch potch to be honest, bitty, clearly aimed at being sold to the US market and it skimmed over crucial areas I would have liked more on, in particular the psychedelic period albums and War. I saw Eric with War in Hyde Park in 1970. It remains one of the best half dozen gigs I ever witnessed and I’d love to hear a tape of that performance to see if it confirms or kills my memory. Half way through Michael Chapman’s set that day the heavens opened and it didn’t stop pouring for over an hour. A crowd of about 60,000 dwindled to half that as those of us that remained sought shelter where we could. Our persistence was rewarded when Burdon walked out on stage. I can still see him now, hair matted, rain dripping down his nose. “You all must be crazy to stay out here in the pouring rain” he said. “That’s ok cos I’m crazy too”. He and War then proceeded to take the roof off of rainy London with a non-stop set of material from that first album. No breaks between numbers as I recall. Just non-stop percussive heavy funk. They were followed by John Sebastian. As soon as he walked on stage the sun came out. Well of course it did.

    March 1, 2020
    • GuitarSlinger #

      ” Aimed at being sold to the US market ”

      A bit of misinformation and misinterpretation on your part Mr Chapman . The reality is … the film is aimed squarely at the mass market … most of whom including in the UK only know Eric for his performance on ” House …. ”

      NOT the more discerning and discriminate music lover such as you and I … on both sides of the pond .

      No surprise really … as this is the SNAFU when it comes to the majority of music and pop culture docs attempting to appeal to a generation which has no clue what discerning and discriminant even means … never mind practices them

      FYI; Other than that one quoted statement you and I are in complete agreement

      March 1, 2020
  9. mick gold #

    I loved the Animals. The first record I bought was “The House of the Rising Sun”. So when I read Bruce’s SXSW rap about the greatness of the band I was delighted. But I was puzzled by his statement “The Animals were a revelation. The first records with full blown class consciousness that I had ever heard. “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” had that great bass riff, that (plays bass line) and that was just marking time: (sings) “In this dirty old part of the city, where the sun refused to shine.” Surely the song was written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, two New York Jews. The Animals give a great performance but it wasn’t written by class conscious Geordies.

    March 1, 2020
  10. Tim Clark #

    Newly arrived from Kenya, that voice was an introduction to a whole new world. It still resonates after all these years.

    March 1, 2020
  11. RONALD McNEIL #

    I remember when the Eric Burdon Declares War tour reached Glasgow a team wearing army fatigues and gas masks was sent out to distribute flyers on the afternoon of the show. Tickets hadn’t been selling.
    Eric gives a more fulsome account of his departure from the band elsewhere. He had wanted, apparently, to include some straight blues in the set, an idea several of the band weren’t happy with, and when he forced the issue was told what he could do with his ‘cotton patch shit’.

    March 1, 2020
  12. Hello This is Harold Ray Brown the Original Drummer and writer with the Band WAR. Eric V. Burdon came to me in my room while we were Touring Great Brittan. He was all Burnt Out from Touring and Wanted to return back to the United States. I told him it was OK … We could keep moving Forward and Finish the Tour … Howard Scott, Lee Oskar, Charles Miller, Lonnie Jordan, Morris Dickerson and Sylvester Papa Dee Allen. I, Harold Ray Brown grow up in Long Beach California and We were and Still are a Melting Pot of All Nationalities. In Fact I grow up as a Lutheran … So the Quote that Eric V. Burdon left the Group Eric Burdon & War was because hew was the Only “White Guy” in Group is Like “WHAT?” To me … Much Love to my Big Brother ERIC V. BURDON!

    March 2, 2020
    • Harold — Great to hear from the man who laid down the groove on “Slippin’ into Darkness”… and to hear your side of a fascinating story. There’s always room for drummers on the Blue Moment! — Best, Richard

      March 2, 2020
  13. Paul Tickell #

    What an interesting array of comments especially from the War drummer!

    Agree with Rob Chapman about the quality of the film: it was very watchable but far from great. Eric needs a longer and more definitive film, including filling that psychedelic gap. ‘Sky Pilot’ got an airing but there was little exploration of the work from this era. One of Eric’s guitarists circa 1968 was Andy Summers, later of The Police. Why was Sting preferred as an interviewee over him?

    Along with the presence of Eric himself, the interview with Steve Van Zandt was great. I was intrigued by his idea of “the 30 great years” in which popular music drew on music from the margins, like rockabilly and blues, and made them mainstream. There was also an attitude – a young “lifestyle” – which went with this Outsider invasion of the entertainment industry. He doesn’t give a precise time-frame but I like to think of it as coinciding with what French sociologists have called ‘Les Trentes Annees Glorieuses’ – the thirty glorious years following WW2 and ending around 1975. It’s an era which marked a high-point of working class prosperity and the hopes for a much better and more equal future. It’s a time span which also coincides in Britain with the great cycle of youth subcultures – Teds, Mods and Rockers et al culminating in Punk, by which time there was No Future. There have been subcultures since of course but none of them have had the feel of being so of the moment and part of history in the way in which Van Zandt was describing things.

    ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’ might not have been written by class-conscious Geordies, as Mick Gold points out, but how they made it their own and in a way which chimed with the aspirational times that better was going to come out of misery. It was not intended by the Mann-Weil team to be that uptempo but they were more than pleased with the Animals’ rendition.

    Since seeing The Animals on TV performing ‘Baby Let Me Take You Home’ (with my father cursing them predictably as “real bloody animals”), I have loved the band and everything Eric has done since, particularly with War. Apart from maybe his version of The Younbloods’ ‘Darkness, Darkness’, I’ve liked all the covers (e.g. ‘Ring of Fire’ – which by the way features Andy Summers).

    To that Tim Adkin list of unfulfilled British vocalists like Jess Roden, I would add Mike Harrison of Spooky Tooth, Graham Bell (Skip Bifferty etc), and Franke Miller whose ‘A Fool In Love’ written by Andy Fraser of Free is a great single which never charted. It would make an ideal Eric cover.

    March 3, 2020
  14. Stephen Goldsmith #

    Although he appears to have had managerial problems, Artistically, I think he finally met a powerful group of musicians with War. I am unaware of what problems caused the fracturing of Burdon’s relationship with his groups and management.
    Watching the recent documentary,
    I was at Hyde Park on 12 September 1970, prior to his performance,he addressed the crowd by saying ‘you’re all crazy, and I’m crazy too”. Despite the weather he gave a great show.The band played powerfully in the rain that afternoon.
    Burdon and War went on to perform a series of shows at Ronnie Scotts Club the following week. On the last night of his life Hendrix performed onstage with Burdon and War. An extant tape exists of this performance.
    A pity that Burdon and Hendrix were beset with managerial problems. Eric Burdon should write an honest account of his career and the difficulties with management- if he can remember the details

    May 4, 2020
    • Martin Veitch #

      Hendrix’s manager was of course Chas Chandler of… The Animals (and later a highly successful entrepreneur). Alan Price still gigs monthly in the Bull’s Head, Barnes (pandemics allowing). The other guys ended up playing in small bands and I saw Hilton Valentine playing what was reputedly an old Hendrix guitar in a working men’s club in Gateshead circa 1982. The divison between Price and the others always made me think of Robbie Robertson and The Band. A shame because together they were something to behold.

      June 18, 2020

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