What have we here, then? A riff kicks in – and keeps on kicking for the next four and a half minutes – beckoning us towards a song about a whorehouse-slash-gambling den. Is this the moment in which the ‘and roll’ is dropped, and ‘rock’ strikes out on his own, with a capital R, O, C and K?
The House of the Rising Sun, by The Animals (their 1st and only #1)
1 week, from 9th – 16th July 1964
It’s an ominous, minor-key intro. Nothing good is going to come of it. And when the vocals start, the mood darkens further. There is, A house, In New Orleans… They call the Rising Sun… (I’ve always liked the flamboyant way that the singer pronounces ‘New Orlay-ons’ in his sonorous voice.) And it’s been the ruin, Of many a poor boy, And God, I know, I’m one…
A young man, son of a tailor-woman and a gambler, heads into the latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah that is The Big Easy, and comes unstuck. How exactly he comes unstuck isn’t elaborated on – it is still only 1964, after all – but you can imagine. Cards, booze, women… If this were a movie, then the frenzied organ solo at the midway point would be the soundtrack to his descent into depravity.
Then comes a word of warning: Oh mother, Tell your children, Not to do what I have done… Except, the singer can’t heed his own advice – can’t resist the temptation of New Orleans: I got one foot on the platform, The other foot on the train, I’m going back to New Orleans, To wear that ball and chain… The organ grows more and more intense, the vocals wracked and howling – a voice that could cause avalanches. It’s completely different to Roy Orbison’s approach in the preceding #1, but it’s every bit as impressive. And the final, drawn-out horror movie chord that the song ends on is, frankly, terrifying.
This is something different… Every so often we arrive at #1s which feel like a level-up – chart-topping discs that raise the stakes (gambling pun very much intended). ‘Rock Around the Clock’, ‘Great Balls of Fire’, ‘How Do You Do It?’… and now this. After ‘House of the Rising Sun’ has blasted your eardrums, The Beatles and their Merseybeat chums sound like school kids. The Animals were men. The name alone is raw, and untamed. It’s also the longest number one single so far by some distance. The Animals didn’t edit their singles for nobody!
They were a five-piece from Newcastle, and the lead singer with the voice of a wolf was one Eric Burden, a man who started smoking aged 10, fell in love with an older woman aged 13, and who preferred drinking ale to going to school (they breed them tough in the north-east.) He is, allegedly, The Eggman of ‘I Am the Walrus’ fame, due to an incident involving amyl nitrate and a fried breakfast… I really want to read his autobiography. Besides this disc, The Animals gave us two more ‘Best of the 60s’ perennials – ‘Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ and ‘We’ve Got to Get Out of This Place’. They weren’t ones for shortening their song titles either…
‘House of the Rising Sun’ has an equally interesting, and hard-edged history. Sources differ, but it seems certain that the song is as old as the 17th century. It originated either in England or France. The lyrics were originally about a woman led astray; The Animal’s version was the first to reverse the gender.
If this record hitting #1 is a game-changer – giving us pure, southern R&B at the top of the hit parade – then it has to be viewed as the first of a two-parter. While this is a seminal record; The Animals chart career didn’t last. Our next, bluesy chart-topper may not be as well-known, but the group that recorded it are perhaps the most famous rock ‘n’ roll band in history…