Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Animals

For this writer, a handful of 45s evoke the 60s and 70s far more than others.  When we declare a song to be the greatest of all time, our codicils stem from personal memories to endless critical treatises.  There are few doubts of the perpetuity or brilliance of "Stairway to Heaven," "Strawberry Fields" or "Bohemian Rhapsody," but singles are far more impactful on a personal level than the songs that everyone but imbeciles (and Drake fans) demand we crank up.  For me, more important are five singles that I carry around like an Anacin tin: "Bennie and the Jets," "Ventura Highway," 10cc's "I’m Not in Love," "McArthur Park" and the greatest of them all – based on my personal appendices – "House of the Rising Sun."

To most, "House of the Rising Sun" is instantly recognizable based on its circular chord pattern in A-minor (brought to life by a swirling Hammond organ) and Eric Burdon’s monstrous voice; not to mention the incredible film that, despite Dylan and the Beatles, was in fact the first music video – not mere concert footage or a vignette from The Andy Williams Show, but the real thing: a song specifically created as a short film. The song itself, however, enjoys an elusive history that spans every folk-inspired corner of the United States, and dates far earlier than the mid-1960s when it's popularity exploded.

Folk singer Clarence Ashley can claim the first known recording of the song in a definitively bluegrass style in 1933. Ashley said that he learned the song from his grandfather, meaning the song’s origins can be dated even earlier, but like so many folk and blues songs, "House of the Rising Sun's" origins are truly unknown. In 1941, Alan Lomax recorded the 16-year old Georgia Turner singing the song a cappella in the Appalachian hills of rural Kentucky. Lomax included the song in the popular 78 "album," Our Singing Country in 1941.

While both Ashley and Turner come from Appalachia, Clarence was from Tennessee and Georgia from Kentucky. The two were over 100 miles apart, a considerable distance in the 1930s, yet both sang eerily similar versions of the song. In an age where few could afford record players or radios, before cars were common and highways still 25 years away, how did songs like this manage to spread across the country? One such theory is the popularity of the medicine show. Clarence Ashley traveled throughout Appalachia in the 1920s with medicine shows similar to that portrayed in The Wizard of Oz: "Doctor Marvel – Acclaimed by the Crowned Heads of Europe." Medicine shows, popular in the early-to-mid 1900s, were traveling bands of musicians and salesmen. The musicians would sing songs to entertain and draw crowds, and the salesmen would take advantage of the gathering to sell bottled "medicine," often referred to as Snake Oil. Clarence, and others before him, may have sung of the dreaded House up and down the Appalachian Trail, the words often improvised. 

No real history of the House itself exists, despite the claims of tour guides and B and B’s throughout New Orleans. The most likely location is 535-537 Conti St. in the French Quarter.  The Rising Sun Hotel is mentioned in the Louisiana Gazette, Monday, Jan.29, 1821 in an advertisement. The same newspaper on Thursday, Feb.28 reported that "About two o’clock yesterday morning a fire broke out in the Rising Sun Hotel, Conti Street. The whole of that extensive building was entirely consumed." It was never rebuilt. Whether or not the Rising Sun Hotel was the ruin of many a poor boy remains doubtful.

From the 1940s on, many artists recorded various versions of the song. Leadbelly released several versions of the song in the 1940s. In 1958, Pete Seeger recorded a version on the banjo and, as was often common in earlier versions of the song, sang it from the perspective of a woman. Woody Guthrie recorded a version, as did Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, who had arguably the most famous version until the Animals' cover several years later. The Animals recorded their world-famous version in one take during a May, 1964 recording session. It became an immediate hit, and topped both the U.S. and U.K. single charts that year. The song has been continuously lauded for its sound and staying power, and has remained The Animals' most popular single.

Denny Ave.
As for my personal bent, "House" takes me back to Denny Avenue in North Hollywood, California, 1967, a house in which I never lived but have massive memories.  Denny Avenue was the home of the man my mother would eventually marry and his three children.  We'd spend myriad hours there, the house activities centering on the Doughboy pool in the backyard and the stereo in the living room.  It was the House of "In a Gadda Da Vida" and Tiny Tim, of David Houston, Vanilla Fudge and my brother's band, The Sounds of Shadows.  The middle child, my brother's age, was also in the band and the resident 60s poster child. His room was black light posters and strobe lights; he loved The Lovin' Spoonful. Despite its release back in '64, "House of the Rising Sun" was a staple of Denny Avenue in 1967, cemented in my psyche along with peace symbols, a flocked poster of Alice in Wonderland and the smell of cannabis. Is it the greatest single ever? Maybe. Or maybe its enormity in my mind stems from memories and fantasy, nostalgia and melancholy; whatever, there are few more memorable moments in rock.

By April of 1967, the band that had the most passionately, if recklessly, embraced the psychedelic scene, released "San Franciscan Nights," a paean to the hippie movement in San Francisco and antiwar protest song. The song opens with a parody of the Dragnet TV series opening credits followed by a spoken work intro: "The following program is dedicated to the city and people of San Francisco, who may not know it, but they are beautiful, and so is their city. This is a very personal song, so if the viewer cannot understand it, particularly those of you who are European residents, save up all your bread and fly Trans Love Airways to San Francisco, U.S.A., then maybe you'll understand the song. it will be worth it; if not for the sake of this song, but for the sake of your own peace of mind." The melody then begins with lyrics about a warm 1967 San Franciscan night, with hallucinogenic images of a "strobe light's beam" creating dreams, walls and minds moving, angels singing, "jeans of blue," and "Harley Davidsons too," contrasted by a cop's face filled with hate, pulling in as many 1960s themes as possible. The song concludes with a plea that the American dream should include "Indians too." Really funny. Nonetheless, while not "House of the Rising Sun," "San Franciscan Nights" is as 60s as it gets, as was the LP from which it came, 1967's Winds of Change.