No nostalgia, just blues and Animal magic

john steel adelaideAnimals co-founder John Steel.    Mandy Tzaras photo

Remember the screaming '60s? If not, you’ve seen the footage, in particular of the Beatles in "A Hard Days’ Night", of hordes of howling fans hurtling after their fantastic idols … when the object of pursuit becomes less than human, almost a fetishistic object.

Those days are gone, thank god. The other influential band which everyone remembers is the Rolling Stones, long regarded as the great survivors of the Sixties. Until their last LP of blues covers, their LPs were not selling well. One of the reasons I think their last LP sold so well is, I think, the intimacy implicit in the release. That, and the knowledge that the Stones are rediscovering their roots again.

Truth to tell, if you pull the original versions of the songs the Stones covered … you’d probably enjoy the originals just as much, if not better.

john and dannyThe Animals and Friends
The Gov, Adelaide,
May 13, 14, 2017
Mandy Tzaras photos

However, when The Rolling Stones came to Adelaide a while ago, for me it was an awkward, uncomfortable experience. Sure, the band were very good but there was little closeness (the stage was something like twenty metres from the front row) and less warmth. Perhaps the Stones are scared of their fans. Understandable, of course. 

But it’s difficult to enjoy yourself (let alone warm to a band) when you’re standing with the back of your knees against the seat of your little plastic chair, itself chained to a row of little plastic chairs, with a standing space for the happy punter of about 40cm by 20. And these were the expensive seats.

At the Gov, The Animals walked onto a semi-circular stage which isn’t all that large. Punters can come right up to it, and the stage is as high as your hips. That is, not very high. And people came right up quite quickly. 

So I confess I enjoyed The Animals far, far more than I did the Stones. The Animals walked on stage with a confidence born of the joy of life, a relaxed and welcoming attitude worn around their shoulders like a comfy old coat. You warmed to them before they’d played a note. I had a big stupid smile all over my face for most of both nights. Am I a huge Animals fan? To be honest, I wasn’t. But I am now.

The first night was sold out, the second almost so … and the second night was better. Call the first night 4 out of 5, and the second, 5 out of 5.

The support act was Sean Kemp. Two acoustic guitars and a backing singer. The potential for brilliance. He’s new on the scene, and he’s been getting big support gigs and, tonight being the type of crowd which turn up to many of these ‘older band’ events where it seems that half the crowd are sitting on seats, only a few die-hards paid attention. A pity, because the Kemps were good.

Sean’s brother Drew is an excellent musician, and when we see him work it’s a delight because he offsets what Sean’s doing. The band came to life the most when they just relaxed and pulled out all the stops and made a big racket (bashing the guitar bodies and a tambourine). The sound was a lot better for some reason on the second night; curiously, in some songs they played better the first night. Even more curiously, I found myself warming to them on the second night.  

Today’s Animals and Friends are about that joy of life I just mentioned, engaging with the crowd, entertainment and simple truths of life written in songs which are, no matter how you shake it, are classics played by men who live and breathe and walk among us. Sure, there’s an element of nostalgia - it’s unavoidable for god’s sake, the crowd is peppered with men and women in their late sixties (if not seventies) - but the thrill was that here was a band out to have fun with their material, to push the songs around a bit, and to enjoy performing. And the Gov, if you’re in the right spot, can be one hugely intimate venue.

The gig-going landscape has been awash with cover bands, of course. Bands who do ropey versions, bands who do note-perfect crowd favourites, bands who specialise in one band - from the Stones to Acca Dacca and into the heart of misery… But those are money-making ventures, of course. 

For a band starting out, covers are how you learn, of course, how a song is set up, how it moves, whether it can be used as a vehicle to ‘wig-out’ (I believe the term is). And back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was almost the only way forward: in the rather drab musical landscape of the day The Animals sounded fresh, modern, desirable.

Like a lot of' 60s bands coming up, The Animals, like the Stones and the Beatles, were principally a r’n’b band, and they mostly did covers. As they went along The Animals developed an earthy, moving style which reset the covers into a new, urgent framework. These cover bands we can now see were the beginning of modern music (no, the 1950s was not the beginning of modern music - the 1950s was a flame snuffed out too soon). And there’s precious few of these pioneers left, and even fewer walking onto stages, and even fewer than that making a decent job of it.

So, sure, The Animals’ hits were either written for them, covers or traditionals which they’d arranged themselves (such as House of the Rising Sun), and across their first 4 studio albums there are only a handful of Animals-written songs. But that’s not the point. The point is that here is a band still doing what they have always done, reinterpreting and reinventing their roots. We can’t go back, of course, to the days where youthful braggadocio, piss and vinegar thrust the band into the spotlight. What we can see is a band at the top of its game after so many years, able to command the love and delight of a crowd reluctant or disinclined to party or even get involved.

Alright, so the thrill of The Animals in that early underground, apart from the excitement of youth giving old folks the finger and daring to live their lives differently, was that burgeoning potential - that almost ferocious sense of the Immediate and New. Rules are being bent. That ‘what’s next?’ factor … it gets a lot of bands into the spotlight, and it’s a slippery place, both feet in loose gravel… Very easy for a band to find fault with each other. 

Then The Animals got stupid famous. And then things went weird, and not right. I’d argue that, just about the time everything started to go wrong with them (perhaps toward the end of 1965?), The Animals were at that point where they ‘should have’ taken time to consolidate, rethink, get together more new and fab songs along with the old, and re-emerge. But who the hell could have known that then with the 60s well and truly morphing, shifting, changing so rapidly?

While 1966 saw the collapse of the original Animals - ironically, their LP "Animalisms" peaked at number 4 in the UK in June - it also saw the arrival and rapid rise of Hendrix; after leaving The Animals as bassist and manager, Chandler encountered Hendrix in New York and dragged his discovery back to London to sign a contract and play his first UK gig on the same day in September 1966. 

Burdon’s astonishing voice had seemed to promise so much… but the momentum stalled as The Animals folded. Burdon put out a solo album, well … ‘Eric Burdon and The Animals’, except it was a new band of musicians… 1967’s ‘San Franciscan Nights’ was Burdon’s biggest solo hit, from his second solo record. His first did not enter the charts. 

While crowds swooned over Jimi Hendrix (it’s difficult to explain now, but there was such a huge buzz about the man when he first appeared), they were less thrilled with Burdon’s new directions (which didn’t include his older songs). 

Frustratingly, Burdon never broke through in the way he’d hoped and, perhaps a bit like Chris Bailey (er, of The Saints), would prefer that his current material represents him better than his old stuff with that other band that people always want to see. In that sense it’s irrelevant whether Burdon’s LPs are any good (I confess I don’t much enjoy Chris Bailey’s solo stuff (including Ghost Ships, which everyone loves) but that might be my tastebuds again). And I’ve never heard an Eric Burdon LP. One chap I know who I might ask to set me right on the latter is noted Melbourne artist and musician Bryan Colechin, who confesses a love for Burdon, and remembers: 

"Still at Primary school in Christchurch in 1968, I won an art competition. I saw The Animals, Paul and Barry Ryan (Eloise) and Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich all on the same bill. Life defining evening… I can vividly remember Eric Burdon telling the screaming girls to shut the fuck up and listen in the middle of 'We Gotta Get Out Of This Place'." 

The screaming girls from the early to mid-'60s are now in their mid to late-60's, and we’ll come back to this. Thankfully, tonight there are no screams, placards, or incidents with large comfy underwear being hurled at the band, nor is their limo mobbed by hordes of grannies in spectacles clutching crocheted cardies with the member’s names in pink wool on the front. The police were not only not required, they were not even on alert. 

The title "The Animals And Friends" is a great way to include the audience - in the band’s name. The Animals have always played the things people love - entertainment with a rough, dark edge familiar to most of us. Also, they’re still deeply rooted in their origins. Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley … They’re not tired old farts plodding along with r’n’b riffs like so many we’ve seen in so many ghastly pubs, grinding away with no understanding of the song, or the idea of entertainment.

The Animals remind me of The Troggs in some ways. They’ve played the toilets of the world as well as the beer barns and stadia, they’ve waded through hordes of screaming meemees, been on the front page and have a grim familiarity with the obituary pages. They could be snotty and up themselves (as many with much less cause are) but … they’re not. 

And it’s not an act. They’re exactly the same offstage as they are on. They engage the crowd without apparent effort, bring everyone in, and the crowd gleefully responds to requests to sing along (I mean, ok, this is Adelaide and no bugger sings along, ok?) and that’s really rather wonderful. I lost count of the number of songs where the crowd joined in clapping, singing or hands in the air and so on. This just doesn’t happen, and it certainly doesn’t happen here. But it did. And we all had huge smiles on our faces.

Yes, of course The Animals do the songs you might expect. But they don’t play them note for note. They’re not a 90s covers band. That would be boring. So they find new life in the songs every night; Micky coming up with variant runs at the piano or organ (Night Time and Boom Boom being particularly thrilling), or taking a song a little further away, so that the band snap it back into place. It’s not so much that the band are tight, but they have such fantastic intuition with each other. They know what everyone else is doing, they’re listening, they’re switched on. 

micky and dannyMicky Gallagher and Danny Hadley

Danny Hadley is one guy you want in your band, for example. Great voice, great blues voice too, and improvises on his customised Gibson when he can get away with it. If you like the sweet blues sound (which I don’t, and too much of that in anything and I feel like resorting to the .303 solution) he’s a master of it. Also - and here’s the real key to the band’s improvising - every one of them is still communicating with the crowd. And they never once over-extend away from entertainment and into self-indulgent wank. Australian punters will recognise Ray Charles’ ‘I Believe’ instantly (since Hunters and Collectors’ version remains a great crowd favourite); Danny’s vocal is fine, powerful, emotional and brings new life to a chestnut.

And… Danny has a big voice. And he doesn’t always let it rip (because it doesn’t always suit the song). But during Bright Lights Big City, Danny deliberately walked away from the mike, still singing, bellowing out the lyrics and demanding we respond: the music had shifted and we could hear him, the whole venue, as he belted it out. During Boom Boom (which has several parts) Danny perches on Mick’s stool while Mick’s playing, mock-serenading him, and … slips in a short couple of bars of ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ before walking back to Boom Boom.

Roberto Ruiz is the "newbie" of five years standing, and he’s a damn good bass player. Because he doesn’t just play along like a noddy dog, he listens, and applies what he’s doing. Danny lets him off the leash once, then asks him to do it again. Micky gets to scamper along and up and down both sets of keys (piano and organ), reminding me a bit of Jelly Roll Morton at times, others Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, and others again maybe Fats Waller. These guys have buckets of talent.

The last Animal in The Animals, John Steel, formed the band with Eric Burdon in 1957 (it wasn’t until some time later that they were given the name The Animals) and remember … drumming is not easy. At its best it is intuitive, powerful, and a huge release of energy. It’s not easy to do at all, especially once you press on past 40 years old. You need to be fit. And you can’t do it as well wearing something about the waist like someone got inside and died curled up in your belly. Like most of us past 40. Think of the drummers in younger bands who just can’t cut it anymore. Who, frankly, should be on the bar side of a drum riser.

John Steel is as fit, if not fitter, than Iggy Pop. He’s older, too: 76. 

Yeah, I’ll say that again.

John Steel is 76.

He’s touring with a rock’n’roll band. And it’s not four dates with a two day break in between. John Steel’s drums are as tuff as you’d want. And he mixes it with the boys. Comes out, tells a couple of stories and steps lightly back behind the kit. Where he keeps careful watch on everything. You can see the affection and delight in his eyes as he watches Mick. As he watches Danny take a solo. As he watches Roberto. 

And here’s another thing. Steel walked offstage after what, ninety minutes or more, without a dark mark on his back. You’d think that might mean he was holding back. But no. The man just doesn’t sweat. John Steel is so bloody fit you want to take a DNA sample and the number of his nutritionist and get CSIRO involved.

And after the show the band cheerily troop out to sign the merch (which includes a recently recorded CD of the band’s current set, which is pretty damn fine) and have their photo taken with punters and excitable sixty-somethings who may or may not be wearing underwear.

Here’s a list of the songs over the two nights, not in any particular order…

Baby, Let Me Take You Home/ It’s My Life/ Bright Lights, Big CityI'm Crying/ Bring It On Home to Me/ Don’t Bring Me Down/ Outcast/ Inside Looking Out/ Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood/ Night Time is the Right Time/ Big Boss Man/ High Heeled Sneakers/ Around and Around/ Club A-Go-Go/ Boom Boom/ House of the Rising Sun

You know it’s 50 years on when, toward the end of the second night, during a quiet bit, one 60-something lass in the front had buttonholed me for banter ("I was fifteen when I saw them!"), and, after realising she wasn’t going to shut-up, I broke free, she continued to loudly wonder whether to reach out to touch the Animals (she’d already told us she wasn’t wearing a bra, or knickers …yikes) so I suppose there’s a possibility that she was several sheets to the wind. In case Bryan Colechin ever wondered what happened to the yowling girls of 1968, it’s possible that they simply never changed much, finding that their need over-rode everything else in their path. Go on, go watch The Beatles’ film ‘Anthology’, or the documentary on Eric Burdon and The Animals…

Yes, of course we came away very happy. 

What other band make you feel like this - the 65 year old transformed into a flirtatious, noisy and selfish 15 year old again? (Maybe she was in the same Christchurch crowd with Bryan Colechin). 

Where else can you be three metres away from people who were crucial in making the 60s actually happen? (No? Fine. If Chas Chandler hadn’t been the bass player in The Animals, would he have found himself in New York and discovering Hendrix? He’d already been turned down by then… now there’s a thought: No Animals, no late '60s development…)

What other bands can you see where nostalgia is brushed aside in favour of - what did I say at the beginning? The joy of life.

john and mandyJohn Steel and fan Mandy Tzaras.

Tags: the animals, john steel, eric burdon, micky gallagher, danny hadley

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