Of the first run of British bands who rose to fame in the wake of the Beatles breaking through in America, none were tougher and more forbidding than the Animals. They were also one of the first English acts to break internationally while aligning themselves with the blues. While the Rolling Stones were steeped in that genre, it would take them years to summon the sort of menace that the Animals delivered on their second single, 1964′s “House of the Rising Sun.” The band moved into a more pop-oriented direction over the next two years without stripping songs like “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” and “It’s My Life” of their passion and intensity. Vocalist Eric Burdon would take the Animals into a more adventurous, psychedelic-infused direction after the dissolution of the original lineup in 1966, while the songs would remain proudly uncompromised to the end of their run. 2000′s The Best of the Animals is a fine selection of the group’s best singles, the American Animalism and the British Animalisms (both released in 1966) represented the original group at its peak in the studio, and 1977′s Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted was a reunion album that showed the group’s spirit had not dimmed.
The Animals were founded in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in Northeast England in 1963. Their roots lay in the Alan Price Rhythm & Blues Combo, who had in turn evolved out of two other popular Newcastle groups, the Kansas City Five and the Kontours. The Combo featured Alan Price on keyboards and vocals, Hilton Valentine on guitar, Bryan "Chas" Chandler on bass, and John Steel on drums. Eric Burdon, who had sung in the Kansas City Five, had left Newcastle for London when Price quit the Five in favor of the Kontours, but when he came back home, he joined Price’s new Combo as lead vocalist. The group’s powerful style soon earned them an audience, and they adopted a new name, the Animals. (Depending on who tells the story, the name came either from their ferocious on-stage attitude or a tip of the hat to a good friend nicknamed “Animal.“) In the fall of 1963, the newly branded Animals headed to a small recording studio and cut a four-song EP of Rhythm & Blues standards that faithfully documented their live sound. A copy of the disc made its way to Giorgio Gomelsky, who was managing a like-minded R&B outfit called the Yardbirds, and he encouraged the band to relocate to London and pursue a larger audience. The Animals became a regular attraction at Gomelsky’s London venue The Crawdaddy Club, and they were spotted by successful producer and manager Mickie Most. Most signed the Animals, and engineered a deal for them with EMI’s Columbia Records imprint (not to be confused with the American label of the name name). Columbia brought out their first Animals’ single, “Baby Let Me Take You Home,” which fared well in the U.K., rising to number 21 on the singles’ charts. MGM Records signed the band for the American market, and their second single, an ominous reworking of the folk ballad “The House of the Rising Sun,” became their international breakthrough, going all the way to number one in England, the United States, and Canada, and reaching the Top Ten in Germany, Australia, and Sweden in 1964. MGM released an album titled The Animals in the U.S. in August 1964, and Columbia followed suit in the U.K. a month later, though the two albums only shared seven tracks, with differing British and American releases becoming common in the group’s discography. The Animals also made their big screen debut that year in the movie Get Yourself a College Girl, a lightweight comedy that also included appearances by the Dave Clark Five, the Standells, and Stan Getz & Astrud Gilberto. In early 1965, MGM put out a second American LP, The Animals on Tour; despite the title, it wasn’t a live recording, but a collection of single sides and British album tracks.
While “House of the Rising Sun” made the Animals major stars, it also led to discord within the group. While the song was in the public domain, Alan Price claimed copyright on their arrangement of the song, which meant he received publishing royalties on the track and his bandmates did not. While Price would appear on the British and American versions of the album Animal Tracks (both issued in 1965), as well as the hits “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “Bring It on Home to Me,” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” the tensions between him and the rest of the group came to a head, and in May 1965 he left the band. Mick Gallagher, who years later would find fame with Ian Dury & the Blockheads, was Price’s initial replacement, though a month later Dave Rowberry took over on keys. In October 1965, the Animals scored another hit with the song “It’s My Life,” which made the Top Ten in America; however, the band was becoming disenchanted with the less blues-oriented material their manager, Mickie Most, was placing with them, and they fired their him before the end of the year. They also severed their deal with Columbia and signed with Decca Records in the U.K., while remaining on MGM in the U.S. In 1966, MGM would issue two albums with confusingly similar titles, Animalization and Animalism, while Decca delivered the U.K.-only Animalisms, which shared several tracks with Animalization. By 1966, drummer John Steel had dropped out of the Animals, to be replaced by Barry Jenkins, and Hilton Valentine was considering following suit. In May 1966, the Animals landed another hit with “Don’t Bring Me Down,” but it was a last moment of glory for the original lineup, and they disbanded by the end of 1966.
In early 1967, Eric Burdon revived the group with a new membership, calling this edition Eric Burdon & the Animals. Burdon kept drummer Barry Jenkins, and brought aboard Vic Briggs on guitar and piano, John Weider on guitar, bass, and fiddle, and Danny McCulloch on bass to fill out the lineup. March 1967 brought the release of Eric Is Here, credited to Eric Burdon & the Animals, though it was dominated by pop numbers featuring orchestral arrangements by the Benny Golson Orchestra. Winds of Change, which followed in October 1967, was Burdon’s first album with the new band, and saw them moving into psychedelia; the group had played the epochal Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of 1967, and the influence of the progressive sound of many of the groups was not lost on him, reflected in songs like “When I Was Young” and “Warm San Franciscan Nights.” (They even recorded a tune about the festival, titled “Monterey.“) March 1986′s The Twain Shall Meet found the band digging deeper into psychedelia and social commentary, and the anti-war track “Sky Pilot” would become a staple on FM rock stations. In April 1968, the Animals expanded to a sextet with the addition of organ player George Bruno, aka Zoot Money, a longtime figure in the U.K. R&B scene. Bruno would appear on August 1968′s Every One of Us, while Love Is, which appeared in December 1968, was a two-LP set that introduced another edition of the band, with Burdon, Jenkins, and Bruno joined by bassist John Weider and guitarist Andy Summers. (Years later, the latter would become a major star with the Police.) It would prove to be the end of the line for the Animals; by the time the album appeared in shops, Burdon broke up the act, and a year later he would re-appear fronting the Los Angeles R&B/funk band War.
In 1975, the original Animals lineup of Burdon, Price, Valentine, Chandler, and Steel reunited to cut a new album, Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted. The LP was a throwback to the tough R&B sound of their early work, and it was well-received by critics, though poor promotion prevented it from making much of an impression in the marketplace. The group toured briefly in support of the release, but by the end of 1976, they had once again disbanded. Another album featuring the original lineup, Ark, came out in 1983, and was a modest commercial success, rising to number 66 on the American album charts, and the subsequent concert tour was documented on 1984′s Rip It to Shreds: Their Greatest Hits Live. It marked the end of the Animals, though in the 1990s Hilton Valentine and John Steel toured with a group known as Valentine’s Animals and later Animals II, while beginning in the 2000s, John Steel led a band called Animals and Friends that through most of its existence featured Mick Gallagher on keyboards. (Eric Burdon would also sometimes bill his backing band as the Animals.) The original Animals lineup was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. Bryan "Chas" Chandler, who went on to manage Jimi Hendrix and Slade, died in 1996, while Dave Rowberry lost his life in 2003 and Hilton Valentine passed in 2021. ~ Mark Deming