Well, when were in Detroit I caused a bit of a disturbance there because I said on the radio I didn’t like Motown, I thought it was whitened Negro music, it had taken the wildness and corralled it. I don’t know if that’s the new development or not, but I don’t like it. … Motown is just too pretty for me. Some of their artists are good, obviously, but I don’t like it.
I’ve had a couple of offers for acting in films. When a good one comes along, I want to take it, because I really think I could act, because in my position, being English and not really into the American way of life, I’ve had to act the blues anyway. I’ve had to get inside it and think about it and feel it, before I even got here, because the blues comes out of police with nightsticks and Cadillac cars and the heat, and we don’t have that in England.
-Eric Burdon, interviewed by Paul Williams for Crawdaddy! #5 (September 1966)
Berry Gordy founded Tamla Records with a mission: to make black music part of the American pop mainstream. Artists were sent to charm school to learn to carry themselves with class. Crooning became the default mode of singing. Fridays were reserved for quality control meetings to guarantee only the best material got the Hitsville USA seal of approval. It was an unabashedly pop approach, but it worked. Motown records became fixtures of the Top 40, and black music became firmly entrenched in American popular culture.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the British Blues scene was gaining traction. Adherents tried to recreate the sounds they discovered on scratchy import singles. The twin watchwords were authenticity (recreating the records as closely as possible) and obscurity (proving the intensity of your devotion). This was music with no place on BBC Radio, and no interest in adapting to it.
Of course, a scene based on white teenagers affecting the voices and guitar licks of Delta bluesmen was inherently inauthentic. And even if Motown could be derided as “whitened Negro music,” the unavoidable truth was that it would always have an edge in the authenticity department. Motown artists might have made pop music, but they also lived the African-American experience. They were surrounded from birth by blues, gospel, R&B and legalized discrimination. No number of note-for-note covers of rare 78s could override that fact.
Which isn’t to say that the British blues scene was strictly posturing. The music tended to attract working class kids from industrial cities in Northern England, an environment parallel to what was fast becoming the American Rust Belt. These Scousers, Mancs and Geordies were familiar in their own way with prejudice and the futility of upward mobility. It’s not hard to see why they were attracted to the sounds of a similarly disenfranchised group. But it wasn’t until a few of these bands stopped slavishly imitating the ghosts on American vinyl that the British blues started to matter. These were the groups that understood the flexibility of the music, its capacity for absorbing other sounds and genres without betraying the urgency and emotion that made the blues so visceral.
The Animals, hailing from the declining coal city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was one of the first of the British blues groups to make it big on both sides of the Atlantic. Along with The Rolling Stones, they were one of the early British Invasion bands most heavily indebted to the blues. But while the Stones were still plugging away at Willie Dixon covers, The Animals had already begun to incorporate outside influences – namely, Bob Dylan. The group’s first record, “Baby Let Me Take You Home,” was adapted from the same folk song as “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” on Dylan’s debut album. And when it came time to record a follow-up, The Animals turned to the next track on Bob Dylan.*
Dylan’s version of “The House of the Rising Sun” is more or less the song as it had been performed for decades. With nothing but acoustic guitar and a ragged, old-before-his-time rasp, it could be a relic from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. The intimacy of the arrangement and Dylan’s matter-of-fact delivery combine to create a record haunting in its stark simplicity. It also provided a barebones foundation for The Animals to layer on the drama. Hilton Valentine’s guitar arpeggios and John Steel’s clattering cymbals act as the spine of the record, circling and repeating infinitely through the song, never gaining ground. Eric Burdon’s voice starts as a thunderous growl, then leaps into the fire-and-brimstone prophesying of a Pentecostal preacher. Alan Price’s electronic organ, simultaneously of the church and the nightclub, simmers below the verses, gradually bubbling up until it erupts in a solo. (It’s why the song runs 90 seconds over pop radio’s allotted three minutes – but who would dare get rid of it?) No longer is the song the common tragedy of a fallen girl. This is the sound of an apocalypse staged in pool halls and opium dens, prisons and brothels.
“The House of the Rising Sun” is not only the darkest, most terrifying song to net the #1 spot, it’s also a rare glimpse of a genre’s birth on the charts. The record was too baroque for the blues, too doom-laden for rock and roll. By reviving an old folk ballad and electrifying it, The Animals had invented folk rock a year before Bringing It All Back Home and the success of The Byrds.
A commonly repeated anecdote tells of Dylan hearing The Animals’ version of the song on his car radio and pulling his car off the road, hit by the realization of what he needed to do next. The folk revivalists – another scene obsessed with the elusive ghost of authenticity – would decry him as a traitor. But, in the end, it’s the innovators, the ones who add something new to the pop landscape, who get remembered. Those determined to repeat the past are condemned to be left there. 10
*Burdon has variously claimed to have first heard the song from blues singer Josh White, English folkster Johnny Handle and Joan Baez. However, the Animals’ melody, tempo and lyrics bear the strongest resemblance to Dylan’s (which, in turn, he borrowed from Dave Van Ronk). Nina Simone has also been suggested as a source – and The Animals would go on to cover “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” the following year – but her version is up-tempo, with somewhat different lyrics.
Hit #1 on September 5, 1964; total of 3 weeks at #1
117 of 989 #1’s reviewed; 11.83% through the Hot 100