As 1964 began coming to a close, the flood of U.K. acts reached critical mass
“There is…a house…in New Orleans.” The mystery was in those pauses: this person was going to tell a story about destiny and consequences, and he was not going to be rushed.
Everything about this record was deliberate and ominous, and if we’d thought we heard everything this new wave of groups from England had to say, and that the riches were finite, “The House of the Rising Sun” proved we were very, very mistaken. “The Animals.” No attempt at cleverness there, a name they had to live up to, because what if the record sounded like anyone else’s? It came on the radio in the second half of the summer of 1964, by which time anyone glued to his or her seven-transistor portable had been surprised so many times since the start of the year. But nothing, not even those early singles by the Rolling Stones (“It’s All Over Now” was the most recent one), had this kind of simmering menace. Eric Burdon sang as though he’d just surfaced from a Newcastle coal mine, his lungs coated with dust, and Alan Price’s organ created a swirling vortex, pulling Eric towards his fate. There was a verse cut from the 45 that made it all sharper:
“I got one foot on the platform, another foot on the train
I’m going back to New Orleans to wear that ball and chain”
The folk song dated back decades, was recorded as early as 1933, and had been done by Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Nina Simone, Dave Van Ronk, and Bob Dylan. But what the Animals did—in one take, on May 18, 1964—was take this American cautionary tale and make it gripping, modern. It was obvious, the first time you heard it, once you’d absorbed everything that was going on, that it was a creative flashpoint. Certainly Dylan’s ears must have perked up, because he’d cut it on his debut album and now this British group had a #1 hit with it. When Al Kooper sat down at the organ at the “Like a Rolling Stone” session and played his now-classic part, would Dylan have been thinking about what Price had done on “The House of the Rising Sun”? (On the record, Price took credit for the Animals’ arrangement, which meant he raked in more loot than the rest of the group, and that was kind of a crumbum move, and did not make his fellow Animals at all happy.)
VIDEO: The Animals perform “House of the Rising Sun”
While “The House of the Rising Sun” was still ascending, another U.K. 45 got its U.S. release, and we met yet another (how many were there?! And we still didn’t hadn’t heard the Who or the Yardbirds yet!) game-changing English band. “You Really Got Me” began with a slashing Dave Davies guitar riff (don’t believe the legend that it’s Jimmy Page on that track) that still resonates in rock, and then his brother Ray comes in: “Girl…you really got me now” (more suspenseful pauses). I remember it coming on WMCA in September ’64 and nearly bursting out in laughter, like the first time I saw the Ramones live: it was just so unpretty, so direct and unaffected. If “The House of the Rising Sun” was a building block of folk-rock, “You Really Got Me” played a similar role in the evolution of garage-rock, a first cousin of “Louie Louie” (part of the Kinks’ arsenal) that any aspiring high school band could master. Both the Animals and the Kinks are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, of course: they earned those spots with two singles.
Their debut albums came out within a couple of months of each other 55 years ago this fall. They would each, it goes without saying but I will say it, make far better albums afterward. The Animals and You Really Got Me (an abbreviated version of the album just called The Kinks in England) are scrappy efforts, filled with covers, giving an inkling of where these groups were heading. Both albums bow in the general direction of Chuck Berry—as most U.K. bands did at the time; the Stones’ 12 X 5 was another fall ’64 U.S. LP, kicking off with Berry’s “Around and Around,” also featured on The Animals—with Dave Davies taking lead vocal on “Beautiful Delilah” and Ray singing “Too Much Monkey Business,” and Eric and company romping through “Talkin’ ’Bout You” and “Memphis.” The Animals also did songs associated with Little Richard (“The Girl Can’t Help It”), Ray Charles (“The Right Time”), Fats Domino (“I’ve Been Around”), and John Lee Hooker (“I’m Mad Again”), while the Kinks covered Bo Diddley (“Cadillac”) and Slim Harpo (“Got Love If You Want It”), while making room for embryonic Ray Davies originals like “Stop Your Sobbing” and “So Mystifying.”
VIDEO: The Kinks perform “You Really Got Me”
Everything was happening so fast. The Nashville Teens, who were neither from Nashville (they came from Surrey) nor teens, put out a stomping version of John D. Loudermilk’s “Tobacco Road,” nearly as radical a transformation as the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun.” Manfred Mann dug up a non-hit by the Exciters and went to #1 with “Do Wah Diddy Diddy.” Joe Meek produced the Honeycombs’ tensile “Have I the Right.” The Zombies’ “She’s Not There” had a cool mystery, with suggestive blank spaces in the narrative. All shared residency on radio playlists in September 1964 with the U.S. chart debuts by the Animals (they’d just missed cracking the top 100 with “Baby Let Me Take You Home”) and the Kinks (their prior cover of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” came and went without creating a buzz).
The American albums—in the U.K., The Animals didn’t include “House of the Rising Sun” and didn’t come out until November—were marketed as single follow-ups, but the Animals’ hit had enough momentum to push the LP into the top 10, and what buyers got was an album as steeped in American rock and roll and R&B as the first albums by the Rolling Stones. One thing that sometimes goes unnoticed is how deep a cultural education some of the British Invasion albums were, even the covers. The jacket of The Animals’ first LP listed the members’ favourite singers and composers (and favourite drinks, clothes, etc.) and these are some of the names that get mentioned: Jimmy Witherspoon, Ketty Lester, Bobby Bland, Thelonious Monk, Elmer Bernstein, Horace Silver. Think about that. Think about a young teenager hearing “House of the Rising Sun” on the radio, getting The Animals, wondering where this music comes from, who John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Smith are. That’s how we became fans. And critics.
AUDIO: The Animals s/t 1964 (full album)
AUDIO: The Kinks s/t 1964 (full album)