50 Years Ago: The Animals Claim ‘House of the Rising Sun’ as Their Own
The Animals' take on "House of the Rising Sun" has been hailed as a folk-rock breakthrough, the first non-Beatles-related British Invasion No. 1 smash, and the song that convinced Bob Dylan to go electric. But producer Mickie Most hated it, at least in the beginning.
"We were looking for a song that would grab people's attention," singer Eric Burdon later told Rolling Stone. This had become a pressing need during an on-going package tour with early rock legend Chuck Berry.
"Everybody's going to try to out-rock Chuck," Animals drummer John Steel remembered bassist Chas Chandler lamenting. "Which was impossible," guitarist Hilton Valentine told Uncut in 2013. "We wanted to do something moodier and slower."
They found it by trying out an old folk ballad about a girl who can't escape life in a New Orleans brothel. The song, though it dates back to at least the 18th century, caught the Animals' ears via an English singer named Johnny Handle. By then, "House of the Rising Sun" had already been covered by Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Roy Acuff and, just a couple of years earlier, by Nina Simone and Dylan.
The Animals changed the gender, created a new arrangement (credited to Price, who added a Jimmy Smith-inspired Vox Continental organ solo) and then began trying the song out before audiences. As fans warmed to this eerie waltz, the Animals became certain of their next move – despite Most's reservations.
Listen to Lead Belly Perform 'House of the Rising Sun'
"Playing 'House' on the Chuck Berry tour, we all knew it had to be recorded and released instantly," Burdon told Uncut. "It got our biggest reaction – constantly, every night, in spite of the fact the packed house was waiting for Mr. Rock ’n’ Roll to take the stage. People were leaving the theater singing it. We could hear them through the dressing-room window."
Most had already booked a mid-tour session in London, with the aim of covering Ray Charles' "Talkin' 'Bout You" for use on Britain's Ready Steady Go! television program. Steel said they were so convinced that "House of the Rising Sun" would be a hit that they finally convinced Most to let them commit the song to tape.
The Animals were said to have nailed it on the very first try, a credit to their touring familiarity. By the time they finished, Most was on board. In fact, he began animatedly arguing to keep the song just as it was, without any edits.
"We set up for balance, played a few bars for the engineer – it was mono with no overdubs – and we only did one take," Steel said in 1000 UK #1 Hits by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh. "We listened to it and Mickie said, 'That's it, it's a single.' The engineer said it was too long, but instead of chopping out a bit, Mickie had the courage to say, 'We're in a microgroove world now, we will release it.'"
Issued in June, "House of the Rising Sun" hit No. 1 in July 1964 in the U.K., then followed in the U.S. that September.
"'House of the Rising Sun' is a song that I was just fated to," Burdon told Songfacts in 2010. "It was made for me and I was made for it. It was a great song for the Chuck Berry tour, because it was a way of reaching the audience without copying Chuck Berry. It was a great trick, and it worked. It actually wasn't only a great trick; it was a great recording."
The Beatles, who had previously held a firm grip on the top spot, sent a congratulatory message. Dylan started thinking about plugging in. And the Animals? Well, they started breaking up.
Listen to the Animals Perform 'House of the Rising Sun'
It all went back to who got credit for the song's arrangement.
"We were in a rehearsal studio in London when [manager] Mike Jefferey came in and said it was too long to put 'Trad. Arranged by' with all our names on the record," Valentine told Uncut. The Animals, he added, were told that equal compensation would be sorted out later.
"Can you believe that we were so naive? Well – we were," Burdon added. "We all could have done with the extra cash, but I guess Alan Price felt he needed it more than anyone else."
Tensions continued to mount and, by the next year, Price would abruptly quit. Chandler reportedly quipped: "He must've got his first royalty check."
They split with Most later in 1965, Steel left in 1966, and the reconfigured group was then briefly renamed Eric Burdon and the Animals. By 1967, Burdon had gone solo.
What remained: "House of the Rising Sun," both in Burdon's set lists and on the charts. Re-releases of the Animals' version have risen to the U.K. Top 40 twice since its breakout moment, going to No. 25 in 1972 and to No. 11 in 1982.
"This is a song that will never go away," Burdon admitted after a solo performance of "House of the Rising Sun" in 2015. "When they put me in the grave, there will be angels flying around singing this song."