Newcastle blues legend Eric Burdon talks about his early days and The Animals

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Newcastle blues legend Eric Burdon talks about his early days and The Animals

Posted: 01 Jul 2010

Newcastle-born Eric Burdon is the finest blues singer of his generation. As lead singer of the chart-topping Animals his fame rivalled that of The Beatles and The Stones in the Sixties.

Now living in California, he is still touring and making records at 69. He plays a rare hometown gig at Newcastle's O2 Academy on August 8. He gave this exclusive interview to Michael Hamilton.

All Eric Burdon pictures copyright Marianna Proestou
The Animals pictures copyright John Steel

MH: Tell me about your great-great uncle Geordie Ridley (he wrote The Blaydon Races) – and of the similarity between you.

Eric: I guess the similarity between the two of us is that we are both pretty radical in our music along with our notoriety in the field of music coming out of Tyneside. It seems his spirit has followed me around through the years.  After a hundred plus years he is still remembered for his music – I can only hope the same goes for myself.  Proof of family ties was a medal given to his brother for running the mile at record time.  My uncle Jim gave it to me. Some years later I swapped it for a pair of cowboy boots.  I kept it a secret from the family of course. 

MH: I believe Johnny Handle was an influence at an early age?

Eric:  Johnny Handle was a folk artist, singing in Newcastle pubs and clubs.  He was a miner, unlike other folkies at the time.  He was not an American copyist.  He sang of local tragic events such as mine cave-ins and tragedies on the high seas.  He was a realist and reported important events on Tyneside.

MH: You have talked of having divided loyalties in terms of your sense of place and identity with Scottish and Tyneside parents.

Eric:  Most of my summer school holidays were spent in Edinburgh. The military regiment from the North East is known as the Tyneside Scottish Infantry.  My uncle was an RSM so how could I not be made aware of the border heritage?
My mother’s side of the family came from Ireland, they moved to Scotland then down to Newcastle during the 30s boom industry.  So my mother’s side of the family lived in North End, Scotswood Road.  My father’s side of the family lived on the Tyne Bank, half a mile from Tyne Tees TV.

MH: Tell me about the first records you bought and earlier musical influences.

Eric: My first 78 was Johnny Ray’s Cry, which started my singing in the bathroom.  The second was Shotgun Boogie by Tennessee Ernie Ford, but the B-side was even better –  16 Tons recorded in 1941, the year I was born.  Then Shame, Shame, Shame by Smiley Lewis – I still sing this one today. This song was featured in the movie Baby Doll, directed by Eli Kazan and starred Carol Baker.  I saw it with many other radical movies at the Stoll theatre, which became a music venue I believe.  This venue should be treasured as a true remnant of Tyneside's theatrical history. I think it dates back to the late 1800s. Then came a revolution with 45s and jukeboxes in Whitley Bay at the Spanish City. Ray Charles’s What’d I Say was a big international hit. Other American imports were Fats Domino, Elvis, Gene Vincent and Buddy Holly. My friends and I would spend the entire day on Sundays hanging out with a pocket full of change to feed the machine.

MH: What about your memories of school and art college and cultural scene in Newcastle in the early Sixties?

Eric: Early school years were a dark nightmare. It could have been penned by Charles Dickens. Rather than Oliver Twist, it became Twisted Oliver, with me playing the lead.   A combination of the river pollution and humidity lead to a series of asthma attacks, which I still encounter today.  A little reminder of what I inherited from Newcastle.  As far as early education, in primary school I was stuck in the rear of a classroom of around 40 to 50 kids and I received constant harassment from kids and teachers alike. 

This primary school was jammed between a slaughterhouse and noisy shipyard, on the banks of the Tyne. Some teachers were sadistic – others pretended not to notice – and sexual molestation and regular corporal punishment with a leather strap was the order of the day. 

But later I remember in secondary school, a teacher by the name of Bertie Brown was responsible for getting me into art school and changing my world. It was like the heavens opened up.  And there were girls, lots of girls! Possibly this didn’t help my asthma either.  But I did meet John Steel (The Animals’ founder drummer) and other young rebels who shared the same interest in jazz, folk and movies. During the same period of time I met a great gang of older guys The Squatters, out of which evolved the Pagan Jazz Band.   Folk, jazz and blues could hold us up and give us hope for a new future.  There was also the Tyneside film club, right there off Northumberland Street, of which I was member number 27. This is where we could see movies that were banned from general release.  There was a coffee shop upstairs where we could hang out and discuss the movies, smoke cigarettes and wish we were James Dean, Rod Steiger, and Marlon Brando.  We were awakened to the method school of acting and curdled our desire to get to New York.

MH: There are various versions of how The Animals came about. What is your recollection?

Eric: I can tell you this, The Animals did not evolve from the Alan Price Combo, neither gained its name due to our stage behavior, which I admit, was pretty wild.  Everybody’s got his or her own version; I’m tired of telling mine.  

MH: How important was Paris in the early 1960s in terms of politics and music to you?

Answer:  Paris is very important to me.  It was the first place I met US jazz & blues men. There was a clique of black Americans living there such as Memphis Slim, Bud Powell and Milt Jackson. These performers were true icons. I met and became friends with Jeanne Moreau and danced the tango with Brigitte Bardot. I worshipped these movie stars and to see them up close and personal was such a thrill to me. Paris then was a dream state. The food, wine, movies and the dangerous erotic reality were intoxicating to me. The Olympia in Paris was always a special venue for me to perform.  One of these days I’ll return to close the circle. 

MH: What are your memories of House of the Rising Sun?

Eric: It was the one song that allowed me as well as the band to enjoy the red carpet treatment to the land of the blues. This song is more than a memory – it’s become a way of life.  It’s a song that I live with every day.  

MH: What are your memories of playing the Club a Go-Go?

Eric: As soon as I finished my art studies, I was offered the job of designing the interior of a club project.  It became the Club a Go-Go.  It was my first and only job as a designer in the commercial world. The Club a Go-Go was a shining star of the northern British club world, which meant it also had to be a den of iniquity.  It’s where the North East mob was born – they ran several clubs in the area.  It was a mixture of teen heaven, with the devil running loose wielding a hatchet.  It was the only place outside of one club in London that actually had a full-on gaming licence. It was very clear that the mob from London would take interest, as gaming back then was strictly controlled in England and only one club in London’s West End had been allowed the game of roulette.  I have many great memories from Club A Go-Go. I remember when the late John Lee Hooker played there, he said to me: ‘Man, I’ve seen some wild stuff in my years but nothing like this. This is Newcastle Mississippi.’  

MH: You've had your wild and rebellious moments what does it mean to you now to be a grandfather?

Eric: The word grandfather is not in my realm of thoughts – that is until I see my grandchildren! But I do have memories of my grandfather Jack from my mother’s side, who I loved.  He was a monster gambler, cured me for life. I know he’d be proud to know that these day casinos PAY ME.  My grandfather on the English side I never got to meet but I just found out recently that he was the wheelman on the Swing Bridge on the River Tyne. So that river and myself have a long-standing relationship.  I must say the most difficult part of growing into the end stages of your life is talking to people on subjects they only pretend to know.  Then it’s a joy to run into someone who knows more than I can ever know. 

Only my body is a drag, I’ve got to slow down to 95 miles per hour.  It’s a wonderful thing the human body.  It could be improved upon, but pain is there to teach us a lesson.  Anyway, for me, stage performance is the only true way of travelling forward and it’s true to say, I feel no pain or stress for the time on stage.

MH: What do you think music has taught you?

Eric:  There can be peace on this earth, but don’t count on it lasting very long, possibly the length of a song.  I believe we were lucky just to be able to believe in peace and discuss the possibilities.

MH: I believe you said Sting was the template for what you wanted to do with your life?

Eric: Yeah well, there’s been a handful of notables from Tyneside that have had the fortune to  ‘do it right’ such as Sting, Mark Knopfler and Bryan Ferry. I thank them all for keeping Newcastle live in my memory as I sit here at home thousands of miles away in California. 

MH: Any thoughts of retirement? What do you have coming up?

Eric:  Not really.  Other people keep bringing up the subject but not me.  I have plans for the future and gigs coming up all over the world, Moscow, Paris and Newcastle – I hope.  And my next record is going to be better than the previous one.

MH: Do you think you would ever move back to the North East?

Eric:  If my soul resides anywhere, it must be on the road from Newcastle to Lindisfarne.  It’s cold, mysterious, dark and yet a bright light breaks through the clouds. And there is the imagined fear of invasion. It’s truly Northumberland.  

As for moving back, if I could find a cottage near a stream, with a border collie, underfloor heating, a large fireplace, a Range Rover outside, a local pub down the road – then I could stand a little drizzle.

 For tour news and information on his new album go to:

Key dates
1961: Alan Price Combo formed.
1962: Eric Burdon joins the band and the name changes to The Animals, also featuring John Steel on drums, Hilton Valentine on guitar and Chas Chandler on bass.
1964: Baby Let Me Take You Home is their first hit, reaching 21 in the UK and 57 in the US. House of the Rising Sun is a global chart topper in June. 
1965: Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood gets to number three in the UK and 15 in America. Club A Go-Go, a tribute to the Newcastle club they started out in, is on the B-side. Alan Price quits the band.
1967: The Animals go their separate ways, Eric Burdon to the States, Chas Chandler discovers Jimi Hendrix in a New York club then becomes manager, promoter and businessman. He opens Newcastle Arena in 1995. Hilton Valentine and John Steel both launch their own bands.
1969: Eric joins forces with Californian funk rock band War.
1971: Eric begins solo career.
1975: All five get together for a reunion album, Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted.
1983: The original members make a reunion tour of the UK.
1986: Eric publishes his autobiography ‘I Used to be an Animal but I’m Alright Now’
1994: Animals inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
1996: Chas Chandler dies, aged 57, in Newcastle.
2001: May 11 The Animals inducted into the Rock Walk of Fame on Eric’s 60th  birthday
2004: Eric releases a comeback album – his first new recordings for 16 years
2008: Eric tours again as Eric Burdon and The Animals but John Steel wins the legal battle to use the name The Animals in the UK.
2010: Eric touring again with Red Young on keyboards, Billy Watts on guitar, Terry Wilson on bass and Brannen Temple on drums.

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