Eric Burdon: A Conversation With an Animal

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Eric Burdon at Monterey in 1967

When Eric Burdon appeared at the 50th anniversary edition of the Monterey Pop Festival last month—one of only a few artists who also played the original—festival-goers raved about the quality of his performance. It’s a rare artist who can still display as much passion and fire in their 70s as they did in their 20s!

Burdon sang several of his hits with the Animals at Monterey, as well as his new cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” a song that is, in a way, as relevant today as it was in the ’60s. Burdon remains a force of nature in rock music.

This interview was conducted in 2013, when Burdon was promoting his newest album, ’Til Your River Runs Dry. Most of it has never before appeared in print.

Is it hard to get your new music across because people want to remember you from the past?
Actually, it’s real easy. The only thing is that I have a lot of work to do, catching up to learn the lyrics like I know them inside out, backside forward. I probably did at the time of the recording session. I have to convince people that I’m as familiar with the new stuff as I was the old stuff.

How do you balance keeping it fresh for yourself and giving the audience what they expect?
I learned that lesson a long time ago—you can’t ignore it. It’s quite easy to balance it out. It’s whether the fish bite on it or not. If you see the audience moving and excited by it, it’s OK. We have a wide catalog, performance-wise, of Animals songs to choose from, and people still think they’re fresh today. So that’s cool. And then there are wilder cards—songs that I just love and want to sing. Then there’s the new material so actually, it’s too much.

You could probably do a four-hour show.
Well, my mind could but my body wouldn’t.

On this album, you are looking back a lot.
Well, I’d be a fool to say that’s got nothing to do with my age in time and space. When you get to my age we’re all looking at mortality. You’re missing so many people that aren’t there anymore so you have to think about yourself. And strange things start happening to your body—hmm, why won’t my leg work this morning? It worked yesterday.

Related: When “House of the Rising Sun” debuted

Do you do any vocal exercises to keep your singing voice in shape?
The voice lives within me and it comes out and I don’t know why or how but I don’t do nothin’ to keep it in shape. It’s a gift and therefore I have to keep on using it. I’ll be condemned to hell if I don’t use what I’ve been given.

What’s the story behind the song “27 Forever” on the new album?
It started when I realized quite some time ago that people who were close to me and always on my radar had passed on, sometimes under questionable circumstances—it doesn’t make any difference now, they’re gone, but why should they have died at the age of 27? If you look into it, the list is as long as your arm, and it’s not only musicians doing drugs and that kind of stuff, but people in worlds where you wouldn’t even think that would happen. One of Britain’s top spies in World War II disappeared in action and after the war all of his fans were trying to find out what happened to him. He died, strangely, at the age of 27. Robert Johnson, Pigpen of the Grateful Dead—the list is incredible.

Debut album by the Animals, 1964

What do you remember about the time you spent with Jimi Hendrix in his final days?
It was dark. I didn’t try hard enough but it was my best at the time to warn the guy that his time and place was dangerous. I couldn’t reach him. I don’t think that anybody was really Jimi’s friend, except maybe his old buddies from Seattle. When he was in London he was a stranger in a strange land, and the people who wanted to “help” him were just helping him find more coke or the latest hot acid. Having said that, in all the time I knew Jimi he never was into heroin, but I could be wrong. He was a very psychedelic person. In my mind, a psychedelic person looks into a bright future and is blessed with an insight into the good things in life.

How did you personally escape the “27 club”?
Having both parents in my life helped. I went home stoned one time to see my father, a working guy from Newcastle who had no idea what drugs were, and I told him I was going to be picked up by flying saucers and they were going to fly me to all points of the world and we were going to save the planet, some kind of bullshit like that. And he said, “If you really believe that, and why should I doubt what you’re saying even though I don’t know where it’s coming from, how about going to the bar and having a pint?” Reality, you know?

What was it like to meet some of your other musical heroes?
I met ’em all and it was surprising to be in the same world as they were. Shock upon shock when I was part of the Animals and we went on in New York after Chuck Berry. What do you mean, I have to follow Chuck Berry? But that’s the way it was at the time and it taught me a lot about the energy I have to put out in order to captivate people.

Are young people a big part of your audience today?
Most certainly they’re a part of my audience, especially in Europe, but in the U.S. too now that I’m getting better exposure and attention, thanks to Mr. Bruce Springsteen. He helped me get a leg up, so to speak. And I’m doing a lot of interviews, onstage Q&As, and some of the people asking questions are young kids asking what they should do to move forward in the music world. And I say, “Get a better job.”

Why would you discourage young people from working in the music business?
When I wrote “27 Forever” I was thinking of it as a warning to young kids like Justin Bieber. One minute they’re normal kids and the next minute they’re thrust into this madness. How are they gonna deal with it? What happens to the individual?

What was it like for you to be suddenly famous during the British Invasion?
I had a wonderful life before I joined the Animals. I was an art student, living up to the reputation. I was crazy and as out of control as possible, traveling across to Paris and London on the way back to buy records that I couldn’t buy in my hometown, meeting people who were enamored by the blues the same way I was, going to nightclubs, hitchhiking around. In art school I had two months of summer holiday so one month I would be doing a ridiculously tough job, which nobody wanted to do, and get a good wad of money and take off for the Continent. Paris was like my first experience of New York. I knew that life in New York was probably very similar to Paris. That was helped by the fact that there were so many expats there playing in the clubs.

Watch Eric Burdon sing “House of the Rising Sun” in 2011

What first attracted you to American blues?
It became my religion. It elevated me into awareness of the strength of the human spirit. I mean, when you look at Tina Turner and remember that she used to pick cotton, and she says, “That’s what made me strong!” But we were just fascinated by the exotic, erotic feel that could be gotten out of three chords and a backbeat and learning how to sing that style. People accosted me once or twice and said, “How come you’re singing in an American accent? When you talk you’re a bit British.” I said, well, it’s like Italian opera—it’s best if it’s sung in Italian.

Didn’t you also listen to a lot of jazz in the ’60s?
I grew up on jazz. There was a procedure I grew up on: English pop, which was terrible, then imported records like Johnnie Ray and then going toward country and folk, then skiffle. Then from skiffle, electric guitars appeared and that became the birth of the rock craze. And then guys like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker would come through my hometown and that would set us on fire. We just wanted to be like those guys.

Eric Burdon today

How did you find song material with the Animals?
“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” was from Nina Simone but that was a rare case. A lot of songs came from the Brill Building through our producer. We had no idea what the Brill Building was or who the people in it were. We just thought the songs were written for us. We just put our own greasy fingerprint on it.

How did “House of the Rising Sun” come to be your first hit single?
I had been listening to “Rising Sun” in various folk clubs in Newcastle for quite some time. They didn’t know all the lyrics. Then I found Dylan’s first album and I realized there was more information and more lyrics that I never knew existed. Then we did a Chuck Berry tour and everybody was trying to out-rock Chuck Berry and I thought, let’s take this song “House of the Rising Sun,” stick it in the middle of the show, and it worked great because the audience remembered us.

What was the catalyst for breaking up the original band in 1966 and forming a new group of Animals?
I got high! My first visit to San Francisco was with Chuck Berry back in ’64 and I wanted to go straight downtown to the hungry i [nightclub] and see Lenny Bruce. Everybody was in black—the beatnik look. Then I came back [a couple of years later] and it was like somebody had taken paint and just splashed it all over the walls. The change had arrived. There was nothing happening in England and I went for it hook, line and sinker. The new Animals were all Brits as well. I met them in London and they all expressed enthusiasm about what was happening in San Francisco so I signed them up.

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How did you and War come together in 1969?
I took some time out to drive to Mexico, and when I got back I signed up for the Actor’s Studio and I was there for a year. I met these guys who said to me, “What are you doing in the Actor’s Studio? You’ll never make it. You gotta do what you do best, and that’s sing. We’ll find a band for you.” They scouted around and found War and I chopped them down to size, which wasn’t easy, and then we went on the road.

What would you still like to do?
I don’t know [laughs]. Be successful at my next gig.

Watch the Animals perform “I’m Crying” in 1964

Jeff Tamarkin

Jeff Tamarkin

Best Classic Bands Editor Jeff Tamarkin has been a prolific music journalist for more than four decades. He is formerly the editor of Goldmine, CMJ andRelix magazines, has written for dozens of other publications and has authored liner notes for more than 80 CDs. Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. His first book was 'Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane.' He is also the co-author of 'Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc.,' with Howard Kaylan.
Jeff Tamarkin
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