"Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" / The Animals
When I first heard this Animals track in 1965 I had no idea who Nina Simone was, or where the Animals had found this tune. Not that it would've mattered; I was too young, and too white, to figure out why Nina Simone was so woeful and angry. I didn't really know what the Animals were singing about, either, despite all the uneasy chord shifts and the ominous nagging sigh of that organ -- I figured it was just a boy telling his girlfriend she didn't understand him. But it became so familiar to me that when I finally heard Nina's version, it seemed too torchy and histrionic. It's a perfect example of a cover version completely stealing the original's thunder -- something the Animals did on a regular basis.
Of course, the darkness of the Animals' version completely escaped me, until I started listening to their music again in college -- at which point the threatening edge to Eric Burdon's street-tough voice registered loud and clear. "Baby, do you understand me now?" he starts off, as if shaking a warning finger under her nose (or more likely a fist). When Nina sings "Sometimes I feel a little mad," you feel sorry for her; when Eric sings it you get ready to run for cover, because it's clear he's a ticking time bomb. "Don't you know that no one alive can always be an angel?" he declares, with a sarcastic trill on the "always." I would NOT want to be that woman who's accusing him of misbehaving.
When Eric (with his mates right behind him, backing him up) declares in the chorus, "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good," notice how he flings his voice nastily into the final "good." "Oh lord!" -- a single hard drum slap slams the exclamation point in place -- "please don't let me be misunderstood," Eric protests, biting off his syllables, his voice shivering with self-pity and barely suppressed rage. And yeah, that rage may have less to do with his girlfriend than with living in a slum and working at the docks (I always think here of that raw desperation of another Animals track, "We Gotta Get Get Out Of This Place"), but it's real rage all the same.
He goes on, "If I seem edgy, I want you to know / That I never mean to take it out on you," and my heart sinks, realizing he probably slaps this girl around. But then his voice turns hoarse and earnest, cracking a little as he tells her he loves her, and he's only human; I can't help it, I begin to forgive him as he pouts and pleads, "Sometimes I find myself alone regretting / Some foolish things, some little sinful thing I've done." Awww, gee -- until just in time I notice how he rushes over that word "sinful." He has been cheating on her, hasn't he? He may blame it on everything else -- the stresses of his life, the inherent weakness of human nature -- but he's admitted it.
Now it's up to her to forgive him, though he's a Geordie and too proud to beg; instead he'll gruffly accuse her of not understanding him. And the weird thing is, I already know she's going to forgive him. Just because the timbre of Eric Burdon's voice is so rich and rough and goddam sexy -- he's going to get away with it. I feel my own knees buckle as I listen to him. Okay, Eric, just this one more time. Only...don't hit me, please?
Here's a video link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QY7ZBhLXoQg&mode=related&search== Don't be fooled by the suits.