THE ANIMALS: Do you rate them in the same category as The Rolling Stones or The Beatles?

STEFAN FOCH writes ...

The short (and incomplete) answer is that The Animals are not in the same category of The Rolling Stones or The Beatles in terms of overall financial success, commercial success, or as a pop cultural institution today. No one is. That aside, the Animals were in the same category during the first wave British Invasion, landing multiple hits before the Rolling Stones had even charted with a minor hit covering a Beatles song nonetheless. But the answer to the question is far more nuanced. The Animals as a blues band far surpassed the Rollings Stones or any other band from the first wave British Invasion, including the Beatles, in terms of musicianship and authenticity. Listening to early Stones albums playing R&B live and the studio, while spirited, were rather amateurish. Mick Jagger who would come to be appreciated and emulated later on, was not a traditionally good vocalist and he hardly sounded like a black American bluesmen. When comparing early Rolling Stone’s live performances with the Animals in 1963 playing with the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson, the Animals are at a different level with an authenticity that belies their young age and origins. It is not easy for skinny white British teens to sound like middle age black working class musicians. Nevertheless, Eric Burdon’s vocals are remarkably authentic and in a league well above Mick Jagger’s for that genre. Alan Price musicianship on keyboards cannot be matched by anyone in the Rolling Stones or the Beatles on their respective instruments during that era. Chas Chandler was also a much better bass player than Bill Wyman or Paul McCartney of that era (note: Paul of course would become a wonderful bass writer during mid-career Beatles albums). I say these things being a huge fan of all of them and I say that being a blues musician. However, I say this with an asterisk. The Beatles musicianship talent was in their unique sound and their ingenuity of pushing the envelope of popular music. The Beach Boys, for example, also displayed musical ingenuity that only the Beatles could contend with, but they were average musicians with their instruments, relying on the Wrecking Crew session musicians to deliver.

The early Rolling Stones of course exceeded the Animals in the guitar department, though Keith Richards and Brian Jones did not have mastery of the guitar the way Alan Price did on the organ or piano. The original Animals however are not the institution the Rolling Stones ultimately became and that is quite frankly because the original Animals were already disintegrated by 1965. The Rolling Stones, who were mocked in 1964 by no other than Dean Martin as being terrible, played to empty arenas while the Animals were on the Ed Sullivan Show and played to sold out shows. The Stones musicianship and sound was proto-punk in those days, though wonderfully degenerate, and their hitherto image right for the times as the counter-Beatles. “The Rollings Stones don’t play concerts, they play riots” would be promoted to the masses of teenagers by Andrew Loog Oldham. On the other hand, The Animals never really pursued true packaging beyond a degenerate name and some natural grungy imaging. Unlike the Stones and many British groups of the time, who would spend weeks picking out their clothes and hairstyles for upcoming TV performances, the Animals as a group frowned on packaging. While Hilton Valentine would sport a trendy hairstyle and Vox teardrop on the Ed Sullivan Show, Eric Burdon who wrote blues lyrics in his own blood was never going to put eyeliner on or wear the latest Carnaby Street fashions. His poor working class heroes from the Delta did not have or require packaging! His venture into San Francisco hippie scene a few years later being another matter…Aside from “I’m Crying” and “Inside Looking Out”, importantly, the Animals never really mastered songwriting which ultimately pushed the Beatles and the Rolling Stones into the next level.

By 1966, the Rolling Stones really came into their own as writers. The surprise 1965 hit “Satisfaction” was fantastic as was its predecessor “The Last Time”. These hits, modestly replicated live, were essentially three chord songs that relied on a catchy guitar hook, defiant attitude, and risqué lyrics. While great songs, I would be hard-pressed to say that these vocal or musical performances were as masterfully done or as breathtaking as the one-take and live-in-the-studio performance of the “House of the Rising Sun”, with vocals blacker than Jagger’s, an ominous guitar, and a swelling gospel-tinged organ performance that reached sweltering heights. Don’t get me wrong, the guitar sound and those Stones songs are great. They are indeed part of the very fiber of rock history. But to my ears, they are not as brilliant, raw, or authentic as the aforementioned Animals performance. The Rolling Stones survived as a group for decades and this also explains their cultural impact and why most lay persons know the Stones and not the Animals.

The Rolling Stones and the Beatles helped to define the image and formula of rock bands to come. Four piece bands with two guitars, bass, drums, vocal harmonies, multiple vocalists/songwriters, and great songs render homage to the Beatles. Bands such as Aerosmith, New York Dolls, many 70’s punk bands, and even 80’s hair bands, trace their style, sound, and degenerate image to the Rolling Stones. In the early mid-60’s, an era of great looking male crooners, teen idols, and professional orchestras, Mick Jagger and the Stones presented as homely ruffians with little musical talent. But they were everything parents hated. The formula of the sole instrumental-less, gritty, countercultural, untraditional, and charismatically sexual male vocalist prancing the stage aligned with a right hand man guitarist is now accepted textbook. The Rolling Stones would go on to have far more hits as the decade went on and beyond. But always remember that Brian Jones aside, the Rolling Stones required session musicians to bring their sound and complexity to the next level (as did the Beatles). The original Animals never used session musicians. So, for people to compare “Ruby Tuesday” or a later Stones recordings to the 1963–1965 Animals period is not an appropriate comparison. But if you compare apples with apples, the Animals exceeded their British Invasion compatriots in the blues genre and in terms of musicianship and during that era. Most convincingly, the Animals far exceeded their contemporaries in blues authenticity. For an original band that was together narrowly 15 months, were tirelessly toured, had little time to practice or write, and who unlike the Beatles and Stones, were thrust into time-limited studio sessions, the Animals truly shine bright.

As for the Beatles, they surpassed their British Invasion compatriots in many ways, including songwriting prowess, vocal harmonization, cultural impact, number one hits, and so on. They sounded great in the studio and as well as live. They were more charismatic as a group than the other British bands. It can be argued that their weakness was in their applied musicianship. They were, like many of these British bands, self taught; this of course is not always a bad thing! Hearing the very early Beatles live in 1962, their musicianship was not on par with the Animals live recordings of that period and they certainly could not improvise to a blues jam, jazz, classical, or in any other way on their instruments aside from some impromptu sing alongs with a single chordal instrument. However, after crafting their own songs and honing their performances, they reached a level of excitement and mastery by 1964 not attained by their contemporaries. They had become not only professional, but the most exciting British Invasion band to see and hear. History has corroborated this.

I digress but I think a lot of people here have missed the point when they posit things like “more people showed up to see the Stones live than solo Eric Burdon”. I have news for you. More people would show up to see Pitbull than a Yardbirds reunion. More people would show up to see a K-Pop boy band than Van Morrison. More people would show up to see the Jonas brothers than the late Chuck Berry. What is the point? Incidentally, the Animals reunion tour in 1984 in the USA was nearly sold out.

While the Animals were not in the same league as the Stones and Beatles after 1965 in terms of success, cultural impact, songwriting, or longevity, the Animals were the better and more authentic musicians during that contemporary period. The Animals remain one of the most beloved bands of the 1960’s. Many artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Bon Jovi, and Heart, to name a few, repeatedly say the the Animals and Eric Burdon were among their biggest influences. I have incidentally spoken to quite a few people in England who saw these bands in the early days in clubs, including one of Twiggy’s early photographers, and several pointed out that it was the Animals who were the best musicians and most exciting to see live. The Animals studio records, as great as many were, did not capture their true sound, something that Alan Price bemoaned. The Animals 1963 live recordings with and without Sonny Boy Williamson become essential listening! Producer Mickie Most cared little about authenticity but rather getting on TV and radio, and making a lots and lots of money [Producer Mickie Most and Manager Michael Jeffries were to get almost all of the monies earned by the Animals in the 1960’s. Alan Price alone would get songwriting money for House of the Rising Sun, but that is a different story].

I will conclude by bringing in opinions from the industry. Legendary British Invasion producer Mickie Most in an interview in 1976 on Burns Media Radio said, “I felt then that Eric was a superstar…and there was no doubt that the Animals were, as a group, superior musically at that time to the Rolling Stones...” On the same radio special, blues musician Jimmy Witherspoon goes on to say, “I want to tell you something, and not because you asked me about Eric, but to me Eric Burdon is one of the greatest contemporary white young blues singers in the world. He could do it without yelling. He could do it without screaming. ‘House of the Rising Sun’. Nobody in the world could do it like him. No Beatles, no Rolling Stones, no Mick Jagger, nobody could do it like him. They don’t have the feeling he has…”

Finally, it is important to remember that the lack of commercial success belie talent, musicianship, and contribution. The Animals were one of the greats who left an indelible footprint and following in music history.

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