The Animals’ Gratefully Dead 1964-1968

MI0000421760Eric Burdon has been in the news recently. As of early July 2004, he has a new CD and a new book, neither of which we will discuss today. He is on tour, somewhere, playing a variation on the blues-based rock (dappled with psychedelia) for which he is famous. But the big news is that the antipodean re-issue label Raven Records has released a new collection of The Animals greatest non-hits! Entitled Gratefully Dead (after an obscure B-side) this new anthology should sit next to its sister disc, Absolute Animals, in any record collection that seeks to understand and appreciate British music of the late ’60s. This is great stuff!

The Animals were possibly the most authentic purveyors of the blues that England produced in those heady days. The Yardbirds had better guitarists, Them featured Van Morrison, but The Animals had it all. Eric Burdon’s vocals were the blues. His voice was a revelation, and the full power of Chas Chandler (bass), Hilton Valentine (guitar), John Steel (drums) and the great Alan Price (organ) matched or bettered any combo out there. The first 10 tracks were recorded by this band. They rock.

From the John Lee Hooker boogie of “Dimples” and “I’m Mad Again” to Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights Big City,” they display their mastery of the essential American 12-bar form. Finally, my favourite Animals track ever finds a place on a CD: Ray Charles’ “Talkin’ ‘Bout You” smokes. It was the B-side to “House of the Rising Sun” and I played that 45 to death. Price’s Hammond B-3 rocks over top of the solid rhythm section and Burdon’s vocals are revelatory. This is the ultimate track to play for disbelievers. And it’s under two minutes long. Whew!

Track nine offers a surprise. “All Night Long” is listed as a traditional tune, arranged by Frank Zappa! By now Alan Price had been replaced by Dave Rowberry, still strong on the B-3. John Steel had quit to get married; his replacement Barry Jenkins, another solid drummer, kept the beat. Zappa’s work lifts the band from blues band to rock band, and offers a portent of what was to come.

By 1967 Burdon was fronting a new band, now called Eric Burdon and the Animals. He was definitely the leader, and his vision directed everything they did. His vision was increasingly influenced by new pharmaceuticals and the impact Jimi Hendrix had on the music scene. The early blues is now squeezed through an acid-drenched filter. Vic Briggs (guitar), John Weider (guitar + violin) and Danny McCulloch (bass) created a bottom-heavy psychedelic sound that explodes out of the speakers on “A Girl Named Sandoz.” The title tune, “Gratefully Dead,” is a blues, with fuzz bass, lots of guitar and Burdon’s screaming vocal. Then there’s Burdon’s take on the Stones’ classic “Paint It Black.” Electric sitar sounds and a synthesized acid trip, all very ’60s. Groovy baby!

This is followed by one of Burdon’s most touching ballads, “Anything.” “For you my love I’d do anything,” he sings, and you almost believe him as the strings well up, “kiss your photograph, even though you’d laugh . . . stand beneath your wings . . . ” Hmmm. Don’t bogart that joint man! More blues, more psychedelia, phased vocals, and long instrumental sections, this is where it came from. “It’s All Meat,” “St. James Infirmary,” “Year of the Guru,” and “White Houses.” By now Zoot Money was a member of the group that would soon evolve into the New Animals, and move even further from the blues-based foundation of the Original Animals.

The album concludes with Burdon’s last legitimate hit. “Spill the Wine” was recorded with War, and released in 1970, somewhat outside the scope of the collection . . . and yet it is the perfect finale. Audacious. Funny. And relentlessly funky. Eric Burdon’s current tour might bring him to a small theatre near you. I think he’s playing in Ontario’s cottage country next month. Seeing him live might be a risk, but for a good 77 minutes of historic re-mastered tracks, with an informative and well-written essay by Ian MacFarlane, look no farther than Gratefully Dead. Psychedelic, man!

(Raven Records, 2004)