When I was in high school I took a college-level music theory class. It was hard as fuck. Especially because, as I’ve said before, I love music, but I don’t have a natural talent for it. So interpreting notes and naming chords in front of the class caused a lot of anxiety. Because I sucked so hard at it, I worked harder, and passed it in the end.
One of the things I’ll never forget, though, is one of the assignments I had for the music appreciation class I was taking simultaneously. I had to choose an artist and write about them – their members, songs, impact, etc. I chose The Animals.
That served me well in the end, because for the theory class I had to arrange a piece of music for an orchestra. I chose “House of the Rising Sun.”
Just as with many other white musicians of their time, The Animals lifted this song from a traditionally black line of blues artists. Leadbelly and Nina Simone are just a few that had previously recorded it. When The Animals stumbled upon it, they first heard the Nina Simone version, which is much more upbeat and uses keyboards and harmonica heavily.
Luckily for The Animals, due to the amount of artists that have recorded it and the fact that it’s viewed as a folk song, no one can truly claim rights to it, so it was fair game for them. They first started playing “House of the Rising Sun” when they were on tour with Chuck Berry, and it went over so well with the crowd that they decided to take time to record it. On a stop during the tour, it took 15 minutes to complete the recording. Eric Burdon has been quoted as saying that he believes that he and the song were “fated” for each other.
The success of the track helped The Animals knock The Beatles off of the top of the charts. Which, as you can imagine in the 60’s, was unbelievable.
No matter how you feel about the appropriation of folk and blues music by white musicians, it really can’t be argued that Burdon was a phenomenal voice to be paired with the song.
It’s ominous, overcast and powerful. The combination of the crescendoing guitar line and organ solo with Burdon’s voice are perfection. I mean, really, can you believe it took 15 minutes to record that version?! And it helps that Burdon’s powerful voice is surprising for a British white guy. No, seriously. You wouldn’t expect that bellow or soul from a scrawny chap from England.
Unfortunately, the song has been re-recorded and bastardized over time. Even Five Finger Death Punch couldn’t keep their gnarly mitts off of it. UGH. But Burdon’s version is the one that stands the test of time.
I think that again, this song goes to show that it isn’t the presentation that should matter as much as the talent. They stood there in their matching suits, looking dorky as ever, and produced one of the most haunting ballads I’ve ever heard. I’ve listened to it since I was a child, and I’m still not sick of it.