“The House of the Rising Sun” / The Animals
ALAN PRICE WEEK
In 1964, I was too young to be a rock ‘n’ roll fan, but once the Beatles hit America there was no escaping it. Here I’d just gotten my first Barbie doll (blond ponytail, black-and-white striped swimsuit), and I was pulled away from it to obsess over John and Paul and George and Ringo. (I did get a set of Beatle dolls. They’d be worth a fortune today if my mother hadn’t sold them in a yard sale.) The Beatles dominated the charts in 1964 -- in April they held the top 5 spots on the Billboard charts, with "Can't Buy Me Love", "Twist and Shout", "She Loves You", "I Want to Hold Your Hand", and "Please Please Me". The remaining spots were nabbed by Merseybeat bands like Gerry & the Pacemakers (“Ferry Cross the Mersey”), the Swinging Blue Jeans (“You’re No Good”), Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas (“Little Children”), and the Fourmost (“A Little Loving”), or by other Brian Epstein clients like Cilla Black (“Anyone Who Had a Heart”) and Peter & Gordon (“World Without Love”), most of them recording discarded Lennon-McCartney songs. If you were alive at the time, if you had ears at all, you must remember: The world changed overnight.
But I remember very distinctly riding in our family car that summer – at the intersection of Kessler and Washington Boulevard, I can picture it now -- and hearing this new song come on the radio. It didn’t sound anything like the bright pop Merseybeat songs. I heard a haunting minor-key guitar riff, a raw bluesy singing voice, and dark warning lyrics about gamblers and trains and ruined girls; it was set in New Orleans, not Liverpool, though the singer’s broad vowels told me he was English too, imitating Delta bluesmen even better than Mick Jagger. I leaned forward over the seat and asked my brother to turn it up. “Who is this band?” I demanded.
“The Animals,” my brother said. (He was thirteen. He knew everything.)
“Animals,” my mother snorted. “What kind of a name is that for a musical group?”
Just then came the bridge, that long furious organ solo, full of desperation and sorrow and guilt and longing. I had never heard anybody play the organ that fast or with that much power. My heart ached, physically ached.
My next question should have been, “Who is that playing that organ?” I doubt my brother knew the band members’ names yet (this was the first Animals single to break onto U.S. radio), but anyway I didn’t ask. Instinctively I knew that I wasn’t ready yet for this music -- the Beatles and Peter & Gordon and Herman’s Hermits, yes, but nothing this dark and compelling.
It would be nine years before I found out that that organist was Alan Price. But the song remained filed in my memory, seared on my brain. And when I finally learned who Alan Price was . . . well, that’s tomorrow’s story.
House of the Rising Sun video
P.S. I have to mention the controversy over “House”s authorship. Dave VanRonk’s arrangement of this old folk ballad, which Bob Dylan adapted for his 1962 debut album, was influential, but the songwriting credit on the Animals’ version reads “Traditional, arr. By Alan Price” -- so Alan Price got all the royalties. The other Animals claimed that was an accidental misprint, that it was a group effort and they deserved money too. Price left the band abruptly less than a year later, citing the pressures of touring (he’s phobic about flying), but there was bitterness on both sides -- though not enough to prevent the Animals from doing two reunion tours in the 1980s.