INTERVIEW: John Steel (THE ANIMALS)
Back in the 1960s, a group of teenagers got together and decided to give the new-fangled rock and roll thing a go - but little did they know that over 50 years later their music would still be as popular and ground-breaking as it was back in the days of recording in tiny basement studios in London. Brit superstars The Animals took the world by storm as part of the British Invasion in the mid-60s, alongside fellow icons The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and were branded as the "backbone of the blues".
Despite numerous line-up changes over the years, the band continue to play their legendary songs live all over the world. And ahead of their upcoming tour of New Zealand and Australia, founding member and drummer John Steel took some time to chat about the incredible journey of a band who truly changed the face of the music industry.
THE CURRENT LINE-UP FOR THE ANIMALS: (L-R) John Steel, Micky Gallagher, Danny Handley, Roberto Ruiz
TIANA SPETER: HI JOHN! WHERE IN THE WORLD ARE YOU RIGHT NOW?
JOHN STEEL: Hello! I'm in my home in Northumberland in North East England, which is about 50kms north of Newcastle where The Animals first began - where we all came from!
TIANA: SO IT'S VERY EXCITING TIMES OVER ON MY SIDE OF THE WORLD - THE ANIMALS ARE COMING OUT TO NEW ZEALAND AND AUSTRALIA IN MAY!
JOHN: Yeah, yeah! We've got a couple of gigs in New Zealand kicking off on the 3rd of May and then over to Australia.
TIANA: AND IT'S NOT THE FIRST TIME YOU'VE BEEN OVER HERE, HOW DO YOU FIND PLAYING TO THE CROWDS IN AUSTRALIA?
JOHN: It's been a while, but it's always a pleasure and I really like working in Australia - there's always splendid hospitality, really nice. Looking forward to it!
TIANA: NOW IT'S OBVIOUSLY HARD NOT TO TALK ABOUT THE ANIMALS WITHOUT TALKING ABOUT THE ICONIC 'HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN'
JOHN: Oh yes!
TIANA: BUT I'VE FOUND IT QUITE INTERESTING, A LOT OF PEOPLE I'VE SPOKEN TO AND MYSELF INCLUDED DIDN'T ALWAYS KNOW THAT THE VERSION YOU GUYS RECORDED, WHILE WITHOUT A DOUBT THE MOST SUCCESSFUL, IT'S ACTUALLY A COVER OF A TRADITIONAL FOLK SONG!
JOHN: Yes, yes, that's true! Nobody actually knows how old the song is and nobody knows if any one person wrote it. I think over the years it seems to be generally agreed to probably be an Irish or Scottish folk song that kind of went over to the States and ended up god knows where before it eventually ended up in New Orleans. We as 'The Animals' first heard it on Bob Dylan's first album which was purely acoustic. We loved Bob Dylan from the very start and we met him on our first trip to the US, we made a special effort to get to meet him. By that time he had three or four albums out, all of them acoustic folk, but he was just getting better and better. 'The Freewheelin', his second album, was just superb and when we recorded 'House of the Rising Sun' it was just one of those things, we just liked that number. And we were just kicking it around and we just did it in our own style, you know the band was keyboards, organ, guitar, bass - we just played it with what we had. We didn't really plan on having (laughs) a seminal song!
TIANA: A MONSTER HIT!
JOHN: (laughs) It was a monster hit! Yeah, we hadn't really planned it, we just liked the song and we just did it the way we could, and it turned out to be an absolute giant of a song. By all accounts when we met Bob Dylan in New York when we got over there in 1964 he told us he had just been in the studio recording his first electric folk album and he said he'd been driving his car and had the radio on and our version of 'House of the Rising Sun' came on and he said he had to actually pull the car over to stop and listen. He said that gave him the idea of changing direction somewhat, which upset a lot of purist folk people. But it changed his career and made him a giant. It was fantastic, we sort of nicked a song from him and he sort of got the idea of going electric from us!
TIANA: JUST A CASUAL FULL CIRCLE OF CHANGING LIVES AND MUSIC FOREVER!
JOHN: (laughs) Yeah, exactly!
TIANA: NOW I'VE READ THAT WHEN YOU GUYS RECORDED 'HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN', IT WAS DONE IN ONE TAKE, IS THIS TRUE?
JOHN: It is true, yeah! And I've got the exact irrefutable proof of this. There are so many false memories and people have ideas about what might have happened. But a couple of days after we recorded it I wrote a letter to my girlfriend, we were on the road at the time and it was the first time that Chuck Berry had come to the UK and we were playing support to him. We did 'House of the Rising Sun' on the tour and we found it was going down so well so we persuaded our new producer who had only done one single with us, Mickie Most - he took us into this studio in London in the middle of the night. We went in and it was just this single track studio down in a basement, very cheap and primitive and we set it up and did it in one take! And as I said I wrote a letter to my girlfriend and this is why I can guarantee this is true - she kept all the letters and then we got married! (laughs) We're still married and I still have the original letter that said "we were in the studio a couple of nights ago and we did this thing and recorded it in one take". So there's no question - it's no folk story, it's true!
TIANA: AND THAT WAS BACK IN THE 1960s...DO YOU THINK YOU COULD PLAY THE SONG LIVE NOW WITH YOUR EYES CLOSED BY NOW?
JOHN: Probably, yeah, I think muscle memory would take over - if I fell asleep at the drums I could still play it. (laughs) I've never fallen asleep at the drums ever in my life though, I enjoy it too much!
THE ORIGINAL LINE-UP FOR THE ANIMALS - John Steel on the far right
TIANA: LOOKING BACK TO THOSE REALLY EARLY DAYS, IT'S 1963 AND YOU'RE ALL SITTING AROUND IN A ROOM - DID YOU HAVE ANY IDEA YOU WERE MAKING HISTORY AT THAT POINT?
JOHN: No, I think we were just enjoying ourselves and couldn't believe our luck. We were all fans, you know, fans of rock and roll, rhythm and blues, jazz, and we just thought "well, we could try it!" and wanted to see what we could do. (laughs) And that's as far as it went really, we never had a master plan, you know "let's go and conquer the world!" - it was more "let's do what we do and just enjoy ourselves". And everything seemed to happen completely by chance - we became the hot band in Newcastle and by 1963 we were the top band in the town. And by that time The Beatles had kind of kicked the door down and so the record companies and just everybody were looking for the next Beatles, and the next thing there's The Rolling Stones..
TIANA: THE BIG BRITISH INVASION!
JOHN: Yeah! Everything happened like that, once The Beatles had shown the way, everybody realised we'd all been doing the same kind of thing all over the country without knowing it was happening. And suddenly the record companies were searching everywhere thinking "let's get some of this!" (laughs). So by 1963 we finally found our name, The Animals, and the next thing we knew we were being head hunted by record companies and agencies and within a very short time we were touring and playing support to one of our heroes which was Chuck Berry when he was touring the UK for the first time ever. And he was just one of the greatest rock and rollers ever. So on our first ever tour we were playing support to him - and it was magical, just magical to be part of that.
TIANA: THAT'S A PRETTY WILD FIRST SUPPORT SLOT! AND YOU KICKED OFF YOUR MUSIC CAREER PLAYING TRUMPET?
JOHN: I sure did!
TIANA: WHAT PROMPTED THE SHIFT OVER TO DRUMS?
JOHN: Rock and roll! And a thing called "skiffle", I don't know if skiffle happened anywhere else in the world except the UK but it was a movement that started in 1956 with a guy called Lonnie Donegan who had a hit with a song called 'Rock Island Line'. It was version of primitive kind of folk music from America using washboard, guitar, tea-chest bass - really just primitive instruments and Lonnie had this fantastic number one hit, and we were all 15 at the time and we all went "Well, listen to that! Three chords! Buy a cheap guitar, learn three chords, form a band, let's go!"
TIANA: AHA, THE SECRET FORMULA FOR ROCK AND ROLL!
JOHN: Yeah! (laughs) And that's what happened, and rock and roll of course was still brand new. The reason I was playing trumpet at the time was that until that point the dance music of the young generation was jazz - sort of swing bands or Dixieland jazz. And I just wanted to be part of it, and that's why people like me and Eric (Eric Burdon, original singer for The Animals) and everybody else got together. But almost immediately Eric said "no, let's go rock and roll". We had a little jazz band - Eric was playing trombone, I was playing trumpet, Jimmy Crawford was playing banjo and Alan Sanderson was playing drums, or a drum - a snare drum and a high-hat - and that was the band! Then one day Eric says "No, no, no, I wanna sing, I wanna sing!", and Jimmy says "Ok, well I'll play electric guitar instead of banjo" and Alan said "Oh, I don't wanna play drums, I wanna play bass guitar" because it was a new thing, bass guitar. And I said "Well, ok, I'll play drums then!" (laughs). And that was it! It was as easy as that, you know as 15 and 16 year-olds we just thought "Sure, I can do that!" and the next thing we knew we dropped the jazz band and became "The Pagans" and that was the first attempt at playing, basically, rock and roll.
TIANA: WELL THANK GOODNESS THE DRUMS WORKED OUT!
JOHN: Fortunately I have a natural flair for it, I was very lucky. I never got any better, though (laughs)
TIANA: UM, I THINK THAT'S DEBATABLE??
JOHN: Well, I took to it naturally, and that was where I stayed. I didn't need to look any further, and enjoyed myself for the rest of my life playing drums.
TIANA: CAN YOU STILL PLAY THE TRUMPET?
JOHN: No. No, my lips are completely gone. I did try backstage at a gig a year or two back and there was a trumpet lying around, and I tried to blow it and I thought "oh god, no!"
TIANA: SO NO CHANCE WE'LL SEE YOU BUSTING IT OUT WHILE YOU'RE HERE THEN. BUT YOU GUYS WERE ALL SO YOUNG WHEN YOU WERE STARTING OUT BACK IN THE DAY, AND THERE WERE SO MANY THINGS HAPPENING, THE MUSIC INDUSTRY SHIFTING AND CHANGING SO QUICKLY AND DRAMATICALLY - WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE CURRENT STATE OF THE MUSIC INDUSTRY?
JOHN: Bafflement. (laughs) I really can't pretend to try to keep up with stuff, you know, I haven't got time. I'll go and read a book instead, it's just too complicated - there's so many different strands of this and that and the other. But I think every generation has to have its own music, you know, it's several generations and decades down the line now and I can only keep up with so much and I just can't listen to all this stuff! Every decade there's a whole raft of different stuff, and personally I'm still listening to rock and roll, and jazz and blues from my youth. And the music of your youth is what stays with you throughout your whole life, and I'm resigned to that and I'm quite happy with that.
TIANA: I THINK IT'S QUITE TELLING THAT A LOT OF THE MUSIC YOU GREW UP WITH AND LOVE...FOR PEOPLE OF MY GENERATION AND YOUNGER - WE'RE STILL LISTENING TO IT AS WELL, AND I GUESS THAT SHOWS IT'S OBVIOUSLY GOOD STUFF IF IT'S STILL RESONATING WITH THE YOUNG KIDS ALL THESE DECADES LATER..
JOHN: Yes! I really find that encouraging. When we play, it's a mixed audience, we get people of our own generation - but there's a lot of young people coming to see us! And they're really getting off on it, they know all of the songs and lyrics. And I love to see them, they're down the front and when we go out after the show and sign CDs and things like that we're meeting these people - they weren't even born when we were doing this stuff! And I'm really enjoying meeting them. But we're a real band, we're a live band and there's no backing tracks. It's just us onstage with our instruments, playing and we love what we do and I think it comes across. We get a standing ovation every time, so we must be doing something right I guess!
TIANA: WELL THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR TAKING MY CALL, WE'RE SO EXCITED TO SEE YOU COMING OUT TO AUSTRALIA. AND I CAN'T GUARANTEE IT, BUT YOU'RE FROM NEWCASTLE IN THE UK SO MAYBE OUR NEWCASTLE OVER HERE WILL LET YOU TAKE OVER WHILE YOU'RE HERE.
JOHN: (laughs) Excellent! I'll look forward to that.
TIANA: THANKS JOHN!
JOHN: Thanks, lovely talking to you.
BY TIANA SPETER