When you think of the classic bands of the 60s, particularly those who were part of the so-called ‘British Invasion’ back then, there are names that immediately spring to mind, like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Yardbirds and The Animals whose distinct sound was influenced by rhythm and blues and the band will be bringing that sound back to Australia and New Zealand this May with their upcoming tour. I had the privilege of talking to John Steel, drummer for The Animals and the only remaining original member of the band, to learn more about the tour, the current line-up and how this legendary band began.
Quite a few years have passed since The Animals first formed in 1963 and, naturally, there have been a few line-up changes along the way. “It’s been a long, long time!” he agrees. “Right now, there’s me from the original days and Mick Gallagher on keyboards joined us to replace Alan Price when Alan left in 1965. Mick’s also got a brilliant track record. He was in a brilliant British band called Ian Dury and The Blockheads who had a hit with ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’. He was with them for twenty-five years and recorded ‘London Calling’ with The Clash. He worked with The Eurythmics and he’s been around the block as well. It’s good to have him. The young boys in the band are 40ish. Well, we think they’re kids,” he says with a laugh. “Danny Handley on vocals and guitar. He’s a great front man and a heck of a good player. And a young guy Roberto Ruiz who’s recently joined us. He is originally from New York but settled in England because he married an English girl. He plays bass and does vocals. It’s a lovely tight band. We get along together so well too and there’s a lot of laughs on stage and off stage. It’s a good mix and I just feel so lucky to be able to do that and I’m enjoying myself.”
John tells me that the band has been very busy. They have recently spent two weeks in Sweden and five weeks in Germany before that. “So, we’ve just done forty-one gigs in a couple of months.” And they are really looking forward to their upcoming Australian tour. “We love Australia and New Zealand. It’s a lot of fun. We are in Australia for three weeks and we’re all looking forward to it. It’s always a pleasure to play in Australia because the people are so nice; such nice hospitality there.”
And what can fans expect from The Animals on this tour? He explains that each show is never quite the same as the next. “We do have a core number of songs that we have to play at every gig; ‘House of the Rising Sun’, ‘We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place’, ‘It’s My Life’ and others we have to do. There’s about ten songs of that stature that we have had significant hits with but then we have some B sides and album tracks that we do a mix of every night so we always do a couple of different numbers every night just to keep the freshness in. Our lead singer is an excellent front man and a brilliant guitarist and he’ll pull out a number we hadn’t expected so it keeps everybody on the hop. I think what people can expect to hear is The Animals’ greatest hits plus some other songs that we did; really hard-edged rockin’ blues songs. Fortunately, everything we recorded back then still seems to stand up well today. They’re all sort of what I call ‘grown up’ songs; they’ve all got a dark edge and it’s all about real life so I’ve never been embarrassed by anything we’ve recorded. We’re very fortunate to have that. I suppose ‘We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place’ is kind of our anthem song. Even young people sing it in the pubs. We get a good sprinkling of young people who come to our shows and they come up to us afterwards to sign CDs and stuff and say ‘That was bloody good!’ It’s really good to be able to reach people like that who weren’t even born when we recorded the song!”
John recalls how he met Eric Burdon when both were fifteen years of age. “It was on our first day in Newcastle College of Art and we hit it off together because we both had the same influences in music. Back then everything seemed to be coming from across the Atlantic. It was a one-way street. Rock ‘n’ roll, blues, jazz, movies… and we both found that we were in tune with each other and so, in a very short time, we decided that we weren’t just going to be fans, we were going to try and play the stuff and so we formed a band and that, eventually, evolved into what became The Animals. The five-man line-up that was the original Animals, came together in 1963 and after that it was just like a runaway train. We moved to London at the beginning of 1964 and within no time at all got a record deal with Mickie Most as our producer. We got a new agent who put us on as a support band to Chuck Berry who was over from America for the first time in the U.K. and we were tinkling around with this old folk song, ‘House of the Rising Sun’ that we kind of made an electric version of. That was going down so well on that Chuck Berry tour that we went into the studio and did a very quick job of recording it because we didn’t have a lot of time. We did it in one single take in a single-track studio and then a few weeks later it was number one. And then it was No. 1 in America and Japan and, all of a sudden, the world was wide open to us.”
As he points out, “The Beatles had already kicked the door down. It was the first time I think that British bands could go to America and compete on any level. Certainly, there was a new movement of music. I mean, it was all of us; The Beatles, The Stones, The Animals, The Yardbirds... All of us, we all came out together.”
He remembers how interviewers would ask the question ‘How did you invent this stuff?’ and laughs. “I mean, really, it was American stuff originally and we put a new twist on it. They called it the British Invasion and that’s where it came from originally.”
John says that his musical influences when starting The Animals were ‘pretty broad’. “We were all rock ‘n’ roll fans particularly of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino but also we were digging deeper than that and finding people like Muddy Waters.”
He also used to play in a jazz band and he recalls the first time he went to New York with a band. “We were there for a week to play at the Paramount Theatre in Times Square and Birdland was just up the street and John Coltrane was playing there. I was in Heaven! I was going around to all these New York Clubs and it was the perfect time to catch what I would say was the best period of modern jazz so for me it was magic. So rock ‘n’ roll, blues, jazz, all of those things were in the mix and The Animals always had that kind of bluesy, jazzy edge to their music. We were never a straight pop band which I’m pleased about and the songs we recorded then still stand up today.”
Get your tickets to The Animals Australian Tour from Metropolis Touring
by Sharyn Hamey
Copyright © Sharyn Hamey 2017. All rights reserved
Last updated by Sharyn Hamey Mar 13.