There are a thousand stories about Eric Burdon, most of them true. Like freaking out Jim Morrison by playing Russian roulette with a glass chandelier. Or dropping acid with Janis Joplin at the Fillmore. He was tight with Jimi Hendrix, hung out with John Lee Hooker in Detroit, was once sacked at gunpoint, tore through the desert with biker pal Steve McQueen, and, after one episode of cuisine-related fellatio, became the inspiration for the Eggman in The Beatles’ I Am The Walrus.
Burdon’s life is as storied as those of the great bluesmen he aspired to as a kid. He had one of the most declamatory voices of the post-war era, and his 60s tenure with The Animals led Brian Jones to call him “the best blues singer to ever come out of England”.
Others in awe of his guttural boom included Robert Plant, Iggy Pop, David Johansen, Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen. At 2012’s SXSW festival in Austin, Texas the latter credited The Animals with shaping his own musical vision. There was Burdon, he said, resembling “a gorilla in a suit”, who sounded “like Howlin’ Wolf coming out of some 17-year-old kid”.
Monster Animals hits like The House Of The Rising Sun, We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood bottled the raw sexuality of white-boy blues for British and American audiences alike. Springsteen guitarist Steve Van Zandt has called Burdon’s voice “big and dark. He invented the genre of the white guy singing low.”
After The Animals split, Burdon helped usher in 70s street funk with Californian groove-lords War. Yet none of it ended prettily. Eric Burdon is a man for whom the term ‘survivor’ is, for once, more than just a rock’n’roll platitude.
The low burr that greets Classic Rock down the phone line from his home some 70 miles north of LA is a curious mix of Californian and Geordie. A US resident for over four decades now, Burdon explains that the mountain air is good for his asthma. He moved there just after the original Animals bit the dust.
“So when the band broke up, I took off to join the revolution in San Francisco,” he says. “And that suited me fine, to be amongst that lot and all of the dope and everything that went with it. That was part of growing up, that was part of getting through my late 20s and into the 30s.”
Burdon may have thrown himself into the hedonistic pleasure palace of the hippie revolution, with its ready promise of hallucinogens and free love, but it wasn’t an age he took lightly. One of the key songs on his last album, 2013's Til Your River Runs Dry – easily his best for some years – was 27 Forever. Like much of the album, it transposed Burdon's preoccupations on to a map of his younger self. It was both a requiem for those whose lives were snuffed out prematurely and his own narrow escape from the same fate.
“Back then, I remember having endless discussions with people like Hendrix and John Steel from The Animals. We were convinced we weren’t going to live past 30. So that made us wanna live life to the full, which led to the consumption of alcohol and drugs. Every time you tried something new you took a chance. I made it through, but a lot of my friends didn’t. Janis Joplin was someone I knew personally and I realised she was a wreck in the making.
"And Jim Morrison was absolutely out of control, all the time. They were both very talented, but also very mixed up. Jimi was someone I saw more of, so I was around to see what was going wrong. He was in such a mess. But I knew I wasn’t going to get across to him. That act of trying to reach him was one of the things that got me through that period. I was depressive, but I was distracted by other things.”
’Til Your River Runs Dry found Burdon in pugnacious mood. Memorial Day decried the global conflicts that blighted his lifetime; Old Habits Die Hard addressed the rebel blood pumping through his veins (‘They know me as Mister Anarchy’); Water was a scathing piece of eco-polemic. On a more personal level, Bo Diddley Special was a tribute to one of his heroes, compounded by a rousing cover of the Gunslinger’s Before You Accuse Me.
Both songs tied in to Burdon’s lifelong admiration of the iconic bluesman. The Animals opened their 1964 debut LP with Burdon’s Story Of Bo Diddley, set to his shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits rhythm. Yet despite a mutual appreciation of each other’s talents, the pair could never get together. “We were always in the same building but in different rooms,” says Burdon. “I would’ve left when he was on stage, and vice versa. We were ships passing in the night. But there was an understanding between the two of us about what we were trying to do. The last thing he said to a road manager of mine was: ‘Tell that little white bastard to record more of my songs!’”
American blues was Burdon’s first love. As an art student in Newcastle in the late 50s and early 60s, he soaked it all up.
“The blues pretty much meant the world to me,” he says. “It was my escape, and I made a crusade of it. I tuned in to guys like John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, and found they were doing the same thing but in a much more sophisticated way; it was the first time we’d heard electric guitars. It sounded very exotic to a young hot teenager running around art school chasing the girls.”
When these great bluesmen passed through, the local promoters would ask Burdon and his mates – the music-loving “lags of Newcastle University” – to look after them.
“Back then, the Brits in every level of life didn’t know how to deal with black folks. Especially black Americans. So I was given the job of minding John Lee Hooker when he came over, showing him around. I also used to sign his autographs; at that time he couldn’t even write his own name. He was really appreciative of that. When I eventually got to America with The Animals, the first thing I did was go to John Lee’s house in Detroit. We spent the better part of a week there.”
The two defining features of The Animals’ sound were Alan Price’s wailing Vox Continental organ lines and Burdon’s vocals. His approach was to take the soulfulness of Ray Charles and give it the wallop of Big Joe Turner. Burdon was primarily a blues shouter. His voice, in the words of Price’s replacement Dave Rowberry, “came from the bollocks”. As the singer himself admitted in the lateperiod Animals track New York 1963 – America 1968: ‘The Negro was my hero and leader… I tried my best to sound just like him.’
Originally known as the Alan Price Rhythm And Blues Combo, The Animals were formed in late 1962. A big hit in their native North-East, their rowdy live shows at venues like the Downbeat and Club A’Gogo became the stuff of local lore. Soon they were supporting John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson. By January ’64, they’d settled in London, signed to Columbia and been taken under the wing of producer Mickie Most.
Success was almost instantaneous. The band’s emotive cover of the traditional The House Of The Rising Sun, reached No.1 in the UK that June. By September it had repeated the feat in America, becoming the first post-Beatles chart-topper of the British Invasion.
Yet all was not well. Due to lack of space on the label, only Price’s name appeared in the song’s arrangement credits. The result was that none of the others saw any royalties. According to various sources, the idea had been for Price to share the proceeds with the rest of The Animals later. Burdon was convinced that Price and manager Mike Jeffery had planned the scam between them. The incident magnified the growing friction between the pair, with Burdon contending that Price was jealous of his role as frontman.
Talking about Price with Animals biographer Sean Egan, Burdon didn’t hold back: “I hope he fries in fucking hell.”
More transatlantic hits followed, but The Animals suffered the same fate that befell so many of their contemporaries: bad management. It was too much hard graft for precious little financial reward. By the time Price quit in May ’65, citing exhaustion, the band had already released three albums and six singles, done three tours of the US and two in Europe – all in the space of 15 months. For Burdon, The Animals is a stained legacy.
“In essence, it ruined my life. At art school we had long holidays, during which I’d take jobs doing anything I could to make enough money to trek to Paris and London to buy records. And I got to jam with people like Alexis Korner. I’d go down south and meet up with Mick [Jagger], Keith [Richards] and Brian Jones. It was a wonderful life.
"Then when we got into The Animals, what seemed to be a wonderful life suddenly turned into something else: being locked up in dressing rooms, having to be at certain places on time, photo-shoots. It wasn’t really what I signed on for. It was fun for a while, but it soon became really tiring. As soon as you got into a band like that you were a prisoner."
His mode of escape was to fully embrace the 60s lifestyle. His first acid trip was at a James Brown gig in Paris, after which he became a serious devotee of mind-altering substances. One of the reasons he took LSD, he explained in Animal Tracks: The Story Of The Animals, was “to heighten my sexual performance. I wouldn’t put anything into my body that would stop me from having sex.”
Today he explains that “acid let me see things in a different light. It made me aware of different forms. It made me aware of plant life. You could go into the forest and watch the trees grow. It was pretty amazing. It woke me up in a lot of ways. And it opened me up to a lot of things. I admit I did a lot of experimentation with various alkaloids. Some of them were nothing short of amazing.”
A favourite acid hangout was the Belgravia flat of Beatles manager Brian Epstein, whose lavish soirees would be attended by the cream of the British rock establishment.
“We were neighbours, and went to a lot of parties where there was a whole bunch of people,” Burdon recalls. “He bought a theatre [the Saville] in the West End, and it opened to a great fanfare, but it died on the vine. It looked like the whole of Brian’s world collapsed. And when The Beatles ran off with the Maharishi, stuff was crumbling all around him and he just couldn’t take it any more, I guess.
"I felt really guilty, because I felt that I could’ve maybe done more for him. But I was afraid that people were going to think that I was as gay as he was. Back then it was a big no-no, socially. That’s what made me back off from Brian and his problems. He was a guy you couldn’t reach. You’re not gonna change the mind of somebody who goes skirting around the West End of London in a white Bentley/Rolls-Royce with the top down, looking for rough trade. His death was inevitable.”
Burdon was already living in LA by the time Epstein overdosed on barbiturates in August 1967. He rented a hilltop house in Laurel Canyon where his neighbours included Canned Heat, David Crosby, John Phillips, Cass Elliot and Frank Zappa.
Further up the coast in San Francisco, he also found himself in the crucible of the 60s counterculture, hanging out with the Grateful Dead. For the working-class boy from the North East, it was a heady trip, a flood of the mind and senses. Burdon began documenting the times in song. Now backed by a fresh version of The Animals, songs like San Franciscan Nights captured the lysergic dream-life of Haight-Ashbury.
The song itself was inspired by an evening at the Fillmore with Joplin, Morrison and the Grateful Dead. Burdon was ushered in at the venue’s side door by Joplin, who slipped a small red tab into his hand with the words: “It’s hot off the press. [Grateful Dead acid guru] Owsley’s. You’ll love it.”
San Franciscan Nights was his biggest US success since The House Of The Rising Sun. Others songs, like Monterey, served as a victory lap for the festival that took place at the County Fairgrounds in the Summer of Love. But, as ever in Burdon’s world, it wasn’t all utopian bliss. Sky Pilot, in 1968, was a seven-and-ahalf-minute epic that lambasted both the war in Vietnam and the hypocrisy of organised religion.
Maintaining his flat in London meant that he was also something of a go-between for like-minded groups in California and at home. “I remember gathering round a record player at the Grateful Dead’s house in the Haight. I put The Beatles’ I Am The Walrus on and they went: ‘That’s the most psychedelic thing we’ve ever heard!’ They were raving about it.
"On the other hand, I took Frank Zappa’s Freak Out! over to England and played it to The Beatles. They were like, ‘Wow! Where did this come from, man? This is incredible!’ They couldn’t wait to meet him. So I did a lot of shipping stuff back and forwards, trying to turn people on to stuff."
In the past, Burdon has claimed to be the Eggman referenced in I Am The Walrus. He had told Lennon that the nickname came about after a Jamaican girlfriend had once broken an egg over his naked body and begun sucking the yolk from his cock. He gives a dry chuckle. “I just remember being at a party and eyeing up this girl. John Lennon was standing next to me and saying. ‘Go for it, egg-man!’ And it kind of stuck.”
The next major phase in Burdon’s career began in 1969. Producer Jerry Goldstein introduced him to Night Shift, a predominantly black funk band from Long Beach. Renaming themselves War (the idea being to take the most negative word possible and spin it into a positive), they became Burdon’s new backing band. The only other white member was harmonica player Lee Oskar.
“They were gang guys, really,” Burdon remembers. “They were from the South Bay area, and I always loved those Latin flavours in the music. It was a good marketing idea to put a white English rock’n’roller with a black band. They didn’t know me from the far side of the moon. I had a lot to pass on to them about stage performance and how to reach a wider audience.
"And I learned a lot from them about the funk movement. In fact they were the funk movement in the beginning. A lot of bands came along later and copied what we were doing – Earth, Wind & Fire and even Sly Stone. I really enjoyed playing with the guys in War. We did a lot of damage for the time we were in the music world together.”
In 1970, Burdon and War had an immediate US hit with their debut single Spill The Wine, which slipped an insidious groove under Burdon’s partly spoken narrative. Meanwhile, debut album Eric Burdon Declares War also made the Top 20. Yet his world was about to come crashing down.
After their debut UK gig, in Hyde Park on 12 September, 1970 (on a bill that also included Canned Heat, John Sebastian and Michael Chapman), one NME journalist gushed that War were “the best live band I ever saw”. But what should have been a triumphant stand at Ronnie Scott’s club the following week turned to heartbreak when Jimi Hendrix, who’d guested with the band, overdosed in an apartment in a Notting Hill hotel two days later. Burdon and two of Hendrix’s girlfriends helped clean up the place before the police arrived.
“We were the last people Jimi ever played with. It shook me up pretty bad. I went back to California for, I hoped, peace of mind. But it just got uglier and uglier. It was a pity to see a guy with whom I’d had lots of conversations about life and death end up like that. What started out as a really beautiful period of my life and great friendship turned into a real tragedy.”
He was tiring of his other associates, too. After one debauched night out too many with Jim Morrison, Burdon came downstairs the next morning wielding a .44 Magnum, which he fired into the chandelier. Morrison fled as the glass rained down. It was the last they ever saw of each other.
Already disturbed by the fallout on LA’s musical community from the Manson murders, Burdon thought about quitting. Early in 1971 his mind was made up for him when a contingent from War summoned him to the office and informed him – at gunpoint – that he was no longer needed. “It was hurtful for me when the band went to a record company across the street, got a deal and I was never told about it,” he says.
The 70s were not kind to Burdon. He was prevented from working in the first half of the decade because of red tape over an old contract. He spent a year in Mexico trying to escape. He also decided to try his hand at acting. “I went to the Actors’ Studio in Los Angeles one year, only to be grabbed on the street by people telling me: ‘What’s all this about you wantin’ to be an actor? You’re never gonna make it. The only thing you can do is use what you’ve got. You’re a singer.’”
In 1975, against his better judgement, he took part in a reunion of the original Animals. The resulting album, Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted, became a subject of legal issues. By the time it was finally released, two years later, at the apex of punk, it never stood a chance.
Burdon contented himself by hanging out with famous non-musician buddies like neighbour Steve McQueen. The two bonded over a mutual love of motorbikes. “I went riding one morning and saw this guy go past me doing 80 miles per hour across sand dunes. I was like, who was that? And it was Steve. I tore after him and caught him up. He actually had a berm of sand, naturally formed by the moving desert, that was the same dimensions as the jump he was supposed to have done in The Great Escape.”
Germany became Burdon’s main stomping ground in the late 70s, playing the club circuit and touring with the likes of Udo Lindenberg. In the early 80s there was another attempt to revive The Animals, this time via a largely flaccid collection called Ark. Unlike Noah’s Biblical vessel, it sank without making a ripple. The accompanying tour of the US and Europe did little to quell the simmering bitterness and warring egos within the band. As Burdon wryly noted later: “The Animals could never stay together and should never have even attempted to reunite. With our personalities, it could never be just about the music.”
There followed sporadic solo albums, two volumes of autobiography, various tours, the odd guest appearance, and an album with keyboard player Brian Auger. But Burdon seemed to have lost focus and direction. The situation wasn’t helped by the ongoing bitterness over The Animals. When the band were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1994, Burdon was conspicuous by his absence.
By 2008 a British court had granted drummer John Steel full ownership of the Animals name, preventing Burdon from touring or recording under it. Undeterred, he appeared to be rejuvenated by the time of ’Til Your River Runs Dry, only his fourth solo album in a quarter of a century.
“Some of the tracks for ’Til Your River Runs Dry were recorded a while ago,” he says, “but I had to go through a back operation, which took me out of the game for six months of recuperation. Six months is a long time in my world, and you get to thinking that this stuff’s gathering dust and it’s never going to rise. So I had to step up to the plate and make it count.”
In 2013 he toured the US and Europe. Plus there was a triumphant appearance at music and film bash SXSW, and an EP recorded with singer-songwriter Brendan Benson and garage rock linchpins The Greenhornes. The truculent blues roar of Old Habits Die Hard, from ’Til Your River Runs Dry, is perhaps the most apt expression of the hard-nosed defiance that Burdon has shown throughout his life and career.
“That song was my portrait of a guy like myself, who from time to time was on the barricades. Someone who knew it wasn’t gonna fly. So for me itwas amazing that I could have that attitude when Iwas young and be singing about it today. I’m still getting away with it, but that’s what music allows you to do. In rock’n’roll you can say anything you like, as long as it’s got three chords and a backbeat.”
Despite the hard knocks, the bitter feuds and the deaths of those around him, hindsight has allowed Burdon to concede that his life could have worked out a lot worse.
“I was lucky to have been around at a certain point in time. I was in a bookshop in my home town the other day and saw an old copy of Life magazine. It was from 1968. And I realised I’d been just about everywhere. It was magic to realise I’d been a part of it. Now I can see the wonderful side of things rather than the dark side."
The original version of this feature appeared in Classic Rock 189, in October 2013.