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Published: February 17th 2021
I’ve just read the obituary of Hilton Valentine, lead guitarist with The Animals in 1964, the year they achieved musical immortality with their single ‘The House of the Rising Sun’
. Never a guitar hero, this relatively unknown man will, though, be remembered for the distinctive A-minor arpeggio chords which open that track. Reading about him has prompted me to write an appreciation of ‘The House of the Rising Sun
’ – The Animals’ version of which is, for me, an enduring masterpiece.
I was hooked the very first time I heard it. In 1964, on a Saturday afternoon, I always listened to the football results being read out on BBC TV. Then I would watch ‘Doctor Who
’, followed at 5-40pm by ‘Juke Box Jury
’. This show was hosted by David Jacobs, who asked a panel of judges what they thought of the latest pop singles. The judges on Saturday June 13th
1964 were Adam Faith (English pop singer), Zsa Zsa Gabor (movie actress), Des O’Connor (TV personality) and Juliet Prowse (dancer and movie actress). The new songs – or, rather, snatches of songs – under review were: ‘That’s Alright
’ by Jimmy Powell, ‘So Long Little Girl
’ by the Dictators, ‘Kissin’ Cousins
by Elvis Presley, ‘I Don’t Want to Know
’ by Shirley and Johnny, ‘Sweet William
’ by Millie, ‘You Came Along
’ by The Warriors and ‘The House of the Rising Sun
’ by The Animals. The judges’ job was to say something witty and then vote each song a ‘HIT’ or a ‘MISS’. ‘You Came Along
’ was deemed a ‘MISS’; the rest were ‘HITS’.
And what a hit ‘The House of the Rising Sun
’ became. It soon reached No. 1 in the UK singles chart, was played endlessly on radio and TV and was voted ‘British Disc of 1964
’. And by September it had topped the US single charts. Since then it has acquired legendary status.
Listening, aged 12, to ‘The House of the Rising Sun
’ on ‘Juke Box Jury
’, I realized the song was a cut above, a pearl amongst the dross. There was only time for us to hear the guitar intro and the first few lines, but I was blown away by the beauty of the guitar and the power of Eric Burdon’s voice. Brought up on a diet of corny popular songs, mostly about love, I had never heard anything like this before. It ranks as one
of my great popular musical epiphanies – alongside first hearing ‘Please Please Me
’ and ‘She Loves You
’ on the radio and ‘Pinball Wizard
’ on ‘Top of the Pops
’. Now I desperately wanted to hear the whole track.
I loved it then and I still love it today. The things that make it special for me are 1) the guitar intro 2) Eric Burdon’s voice 3) the storyline 4) Alan Price’s organ solo. If you compare The Animals’ version with previous non-electric versions, the difference is astounding. I suppose die-hard folkies still prefer the versions by Leadbelly, Josh White, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan but, to my mind, they all pale into insignificance beside The Animals’ recording. I am not the only one impressed; Bob Dylan was said to have been so stunned on hearing the Animals’ version of the song he promptly decided that he too must embrace electric instruments - a seismic event in rock music history.
The Animals transformed a traditional folk song whose origin is lost in the mists of time. Nobody knows where it came from – perhaps from England, perhaps from France. What we do know for sure is that the oldest known
version of the lyrics was printed in 1925, in 'Adventure'
magazine, in a column called ‘Old Songs That Men Have Sung
’. The earliest known recording of the song, under the title ‘Rising Sun Blues
’, is from 1933 by Appalachian artists Clarence Ashley and Gwen Foster. Ashley said he had learnt it from his grandfather. After that, the song was recorded by many artists. I have listened to several earlier acoustic recordings - by Leadbelly et al – and find them all quite undistinguished compared to The Animals’ 1964 electric version.
The Animals took a traditional song, tweaked the lyrics, added a memorable guitar intro and an astonishing organ solo and let Eric Burdon’s voice do the rest. But, even without these innovations, the lyrics are compelling. Here they are: There is a house in New Orleans They call the Rising Sun And it's been the ruin of many a poor boy And God, I know I'm one My mother was a tailor She sewed my new blue jeans My father was a gamblin' man Down in New Orleans Now the only thing a gambler needs Is a suitcase and
a trunk And the only time he's satisfied Is when he's all drunk Oh mother, tell your children Not to do what I have done Spend your lives in sin and misery In the House of the Rising Sun Well, I got one foot on the platform The other foot on the train I'm goin' back to New Orleans To wear that ball and chain Well, there is a house in New Orleans They call the Rising Sun And it's been the ruin of many a poor boy And God, I know I'm one
The original song was quite different – told from the point of view of a female prostitute. The printed lyrics from 1925 begin: There is a house in New Orleans, it's called the Rising Sun / It's been the ruin of many a poor girl / Great God, and I for one.
Here the House of the Rising Sun is clearly a brothel. One theory is that the brothel in question was named after its proprietor, Madame Marianne Le Soleil Levant (which means ‘Rising Sun
’ in French) and was
open for business from 1862 (occupation by Union troops) until 1874, when it was closed due to complaints by neighbours. The Animals decided to change the speaker’s persona to that of a gambler to make their version more radio- and TV-friendly. Not as raunchy as the original, but it still packs a punch.
If you are unfamiliar with this great song, or merely wish to listen to it again, there is a high-quality video of it from 1964 on Youtube:
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