Saturday, March 30, 2013

Eric Burdon: Still Standing High by the Mountain Tops

Eric Burdon, former lead singer of The Animals, in 2013 (Photo courtesy of  ABKCO Records)

Some time in the summer of 1964, I came home from a friend’s house to hear strange music coming from the living room.  My mother and my brother were together by the stereo, playing a 45.  Organ music dominated and then a powerful voice began to sing: “There is… a house... in New Orleen... they cawwlllll the Rising Sun.. n’it’s bin the ruin of many a poor boy… an’ God… I know… I’m one…”  I had never heard this song before.  My brother said, “Oh, Dave’s home!”  My Mom tried to cover it up but finally had to say, “It’s a new record from England. I got it for your birthday but now that you’ve heard it you might as well have it.”  It was my first introduction to the music of Eric Burdon, lead singer of The Animals.  The second time I heard them was when I turned the record over and played an even better song, “Talkin’ ‘bout You”.  That one’s a killer! 

I stuck with the Animals for a while, digging the bluesy sound of the organ and Eric’s voice, even through personnel changes and the loss of Alan Price.  When they became Eric Burdon & the Animals, I still picked up their 45s “San Franciscan Nights”, “It’s My Life”, “Anything” but by the time Eric got to “Monterey” and “Sky Pilot” he was seeming a little bit weird.  Although I do recall a day at the beach when my brother and I popped our quarters in the juke box and played “Sky Pilot” over and over again, that was just to drive the older guys crazy.  By the time, he joined up with WAR and released “Spill the Wine” I thought Burdon had really lost it.  After all…

I was once I was strolling one very hot summer's day
When I thought laid myself down to rest
In a big field of tall grass
I laid there in the sun and felt it caressing my face
As I fell asleep and dreamed
I dreamed I was in a Hollywood movie
And that I was the star of the movie
This really blew my mind
The fact that me an overfed, long-haired leaping gnome
Should be the star of a Hollywood movie, hmmm
But there I was
I was taken to a place
The hall of the mountain kings
I stood high by the mountain tops
Naked to the world
In front of
Every kind of girl
There was long ones tall ones, short ones, brown ones,
Black ones, round ones, big ones, crazy ones
Out of the middle, came a lady
She whispered in my ear
Something crazy
She said,
“Spill the wine and take that pearl…”

Now, after reading two of Burdon’s three attempts at autobiography, I’m sure that this song was another chapter in his life story.  “Overfed long-haired leaping gnome” describes him, and he’s always been on the prowl for “every kind of girl… long ones, tall ones, short ones, brown ones” and the rest.

Eric Burdon (right) and the Animals
Burdon’s first book was entitled I Used To Be An Animal, But I’m All Right Now and has the distinction of being one of Pete Townshend’s earliest attempts as an editor for Faber & Faber in 1986.  I think it must have been a tough one to edit, as it is essentially a 220-page stream of consciousness ramble through the Animal years, with girls and drugs taking the main stage.  He tells a fascinating story beginning , “I was weaned on war. I was born in 1941. The whole world was in flames… the first ten years of my life seem to roll by like one long grainy black and white newsreel from the front.”  Of course, once he starts singing the Technicolor drops in.  His spats with Alan Price, his life in the big leagues, and also his life after the hits stopped when he struggled to get by: it all tells a story of the rock’n’roll lifestyle that we don’t often get to hear. He continues the story in Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood (Da Capo Press, 2002), wherein he repeats some events, fleshes out others, and adds new chapters of excess.  Recently Burdon announced that he is nearly ready to release another volume, this one called Breathless because, he says, “I live my life breathless.  A life of constant motion and excitement.  A life that many will envy and most would avoid.  I’m extremely fortunate, at age 71, to look back on my life and write down some of the incredible things that have happened to me. . . . I am writing this book to help myself remember the past, acknowledge the present and help the new generation to discover their own truth... I am writing this book for all of you who helped me discover who I am today.”    

Lofty goals, indeed. 

His relationship with Jimi Hendrix is a theme that runs through both books, and is likely to appear in Breathless as well.  Animal’s bassist Chas Chandler discovered and managed Hendrix, so they were all quite close.  The first person Monika Danneman called the night Jimi died was Eric Burdon, his reminiscences of that night are moving and tragic.

Above all, however, Eric Burdon is a singer.  He has recorded dozens of albums over the years, some of his projects, which sound quite exciting, have never seen release.  Others came out in Germany but not North America.  Some arrived only in bowdlerized versions, or bootlegs. But in the last 12 months, two major releases have found their way out! 

It was Record Store Day last November that saw a collaborative EP with Cincinnati’s Greenhornes issued.  I scored a copy of the 12” vinyl as a Christmas gift from my son, and was thrilled to drop the needle on it to find Burdon in superb voice, backed by a solid band that had regard and respect for the man they were backing.  So much better than his 70s pickup band (the Eric Burdon Band released two albums that Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood tells us were demos put out by the label without his consent).  The 12” begins with a mumbled message from Eric, “My name is Winston Churchill and I’m having a fucking breakdown!” then raw guitar noise until the Greenhornes settle into a blues groove and Burdon joins with some fine singing about the “Black Dog”.  “Out of My Mind” follows, a slow blues that takes Burdon back to Louisiana.  “Can You Win” is more blues with a dynamite wahwah solo, and the last track is a long rap about an Iraqi “Cab Driver” that displays questionable taste, but takes Burdon and the band far away from the rest of the music on the record.  This EP may be the best recording he has issued in the last 20 years.  Or it was until ABKCO issued ‘Til Your River Runs Dry, a full-length CD in January. 

This new album features a reinvigorated Burdon, fronting a good band.  Long plagued by back problems, Eric has finally had a successful surgery relieving him of the pain that has haunted him for years.  He lets us know his concerns both political and spiritual.  He sings in favour of water conservation (“Water”), about the struggle of good and evil in our lives (“Devil and Jesus”), and dedicates “Old Habits Die Hard” to the people in Egypt and Libya who are trying to escape centuries of brutality.  He pays tribute to Bo Diddley with two songs: an original, “Bo Diddley Special”, and a cover of Bo’s “Before You Accuse Me”.  “River is Rising” was inspired by the survival of Fats Domino through Katrina and was recorded at Jon Cleary’s studio in New Orleans with musicians from Fats’ band.  The album is a wonderful complement to the EP which preceded it, and taken together bodes well for the future.   

How long will that future be?  He has outlived many of his contemporaries.  He is a survivor, in fact he named an album that in the last ten years or so.  He has managed to find labels (or create them) which continued to release his stuff, which may not have always been well recorded, played, or produced but the vocals were always 100% Eric Burdon.  I recently read one of Robert Christgau’s old reviews of a Burdon album.  He said, “for many it will be like the radio interview where the first question phoned in was, ‘how did you get the guitar sound in Layla?’”  Til Your River Runs Dry rocks a lot harder than Clapton’s Old Sock.  The time might just be right for a new Eric Burdon era. After all he’s only 71!

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

1 comment:

  1. Eric BURDON est le meilleur, depuis toujours !