The Importance of Being Burdon

Why Eric Burdon matters: UK Rock Icon Lives Up to His Legend

An early publicity shot of the Animals taken in early 1964. Left to right: Eric Burdon (Vocals) Alan Price (Keyboards) Chas Chandler (Bass) Hilton Valentine (Guitar) John Steel (Drums)

An early publicity shot of the Animals taken in early 1964. Left to right: Eric Burdon (Vocals) Alan Price (Keyboards) Chas Chandler (Bass) Hilton Valentine (Guitar) John Steel (Drums)

Ferdy Belland

Britain’s venerable blues-rock legend Eric Victor Burdon was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1941, and was lucky to make it out of the crib; as an important British seaport on the North Sea coast, Newcastle was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe during World War II, but the embattled citizens of that city endured and triumphed. The tough Northern working-class stoicism of postwar Newcastle provided the ambition and drive that has seen Burdon remain a vital musical force around the world for over five decades.

Burdon’s musical career began at the tender age of 16, playing trombone in the Pagan Jazzmen (which, after the addition of keyboardist Alan Price in 1959, swiftly evolved into the Pagans — focusing on electric blues). The UK’s burgeoning blues-revival scene (spearheaded by Cyril Davies and Alexis Koerner) enthralled Burdon, who was quickly respected around the Newcastle scene as a powerful vocalist and an energetic stage performer. He spent the turn of the 1960s as a journeyman singer, briefly sharing bands with other future UK luminaries such as (Rolling Stones drummer) Charlie Watts and (Cream bassist) Jack Bruce before reuniting with Price to form the nucleus of what became one of the most popular UK bands of the 1960s: the Animals.

The Animals exploded internationally in 1964 with their searing interpretation of the traditional folk-blues classic “The House of the Rising Sun,” which went to Number One in the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, Sweden, and Finland. It remains the band’s most recognizable song, although the Animals cannot be casually mistaken as one-hit-wonders; as one of the first-wave bands in the so-called “British Invasion” pop phenomenon of the early/mid-1960s, the Animals were outranked in transatlantic chart action only by the Big Four (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and the Kinks), and were the first of the new UK stars to emerge elsewhere than Liverpool or London (future Newcastle-based musicians such as Lindisfarne highly credit Burdon & Co. for opening industry doors to Northern bands).

The Animals’ hits are many: “We Gotta Get Outta This Place,” “It’s My Life,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “Monterey,” “Sky Pilot,” “San Franciscan Nights,” and the deeper album cuts are as strong as the familiar tunes. Sadly, internal tensions within the band split the original lineup in 1966; Alan Price went on to a successful solo career, while bassist Chas Chandler made his own name in rock history by discovering and managing the then-unknown Jimi Hendrix. Undaunted, Burdon assembled further crackerjack lineups for the Animals and has kept the train a-rolling ever since.

Note: John Lennon nicknamed Eric Burdon “The Eggman,” which found its way into the Beatles song “I Am the Walrus.” Fact.

Eric Burdon, 2015 (Marianna Burdon photo)

Burdon’s heartfelt love of black culture and black music found him briefly enjoying a parallel career as lead vocalist for the Californian funk-rock band War, whom he first joined forces with in 1969. Thrilled by the band’s multi-ethnic openness, their adventurous funk-blues-soul-reggae fusion, and their lyrical focus on brotherhood and harmony, Burdon lent his bellowing baritone to War’s best-known single “Spill the Wine.” Burdon’s stint with War was also notable for the last living performance of Jimi Hendrix; the iconic guitar hero sat in with War for almost 35 minutes at a September 1970 concert; Hendrix died the next day. Burdon himself left War after collapsing from a sudden asthma attack mid-tour; War continued enjoying much 1970s success with hits such as “Slipping Into Darkness,” “Low Rider,” “The Cisco Kid,” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends.”

In true never-say-die Newcastle spirit, he re-focused his considerable frontman energies after his recovery, both with new Animals lineups and yet another bold musical experiment: the Eric Burdon Band. The EBB was a pioneering hard-rock / heavy-metal unit which fit neatly into the new blues-based, high-volume, post-psychedelic scene rising with the success of Deep Purple, Vanilla Fudge, Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express, Beck-Bogert-Appice, Free, and the mighty Led Zeppelin. EBB recordings have now become prized collector’s items.

And for the past 40 years, Eric Burdon just has not stopped … something very few of his surviving original British Invasion contemporaries can boast. A regular favorite at blues-rock festivals across the world, a sought-after collaborator for young modern artists, and a consummate professional, he continues to write and record new material, he refuses to rest on his laurels, and is more than happy to merely please himself … although millions worldwide also remain more than pleased.

It remains an admirable and enjoyable experience to witness a true living legend onstage here in the East Kootenay. It’ll certainly be a show not to miss. Take a good look at Mr. Eric Burdon, Ladies and Gentlemen: you’ll never see another one like him again.

Eric Burdon and the Animals perform in Cranbrook at the Key City Theatre, Thursday April 16.