Interview with Eric Burdon
BROADCAST: 1967 | DURATION: 00:34:44
Eric Burdon discusses life, music, and musical influences.
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Studs Terkel Listening to "House of the Rising Sun," we think of how this song has traveled, this ballad, this blues, and hearing The Animals, the earlier edition of The Animals with their spryte, their creative spirit, Eric Burdon in the lead, whaling it. Thought Eric Burdon, I think audiences understand is someone of another land yet would seem of our country. There's a connection here. Though he comes from Newcastle from England and is singing a song that is primarily American. Supposing Eric is now the formulator leader of the new Animals new, the new group now Eric, your group. I'm thinking of the song "House of the Rising Sun" your thoughts and singing how you came to find your own way of interpreting.
Eric Burdon Well I used to go to a jazz club when I was about fourteen, fifteen, and I heard, first heard it played by English musicians rather than. I think the first time I ever remember hearing by an American was by Josh White, I think.
Eric Burdon In Newcastle. There's a jazz club there where they believe in playing New Orleans music and the exact New Orleans tradition of New Orleans style. Came out of [unintelligible] And so George Lewis.
Studs Terkel Well, suppose we just keep this very free and easy for free association. Story of Eric, Eric Burdon and also the story perhaps of a new kind of music. Folk rock, rock, whatever you wish to call it. And the changes you see and how what folk music really is. Now you heard an early American ballad or a blues sung many ways first sung by a young Englishman, in an industrial town where you came from, Newcastle, at the time.
Eric Burdon Well I think the definition of folk music is got to be what, what the, what it implies. You know it's, it's folk music it's people it's music of the folk in. People's music. And it's, I don't care, whether, whether it's performed with electronic amplified instruments or with a Spanish guitar without any amplifier, it's folk music. And obviously the folk artist of the past only used acoustic guitars because there wasn't amplifiers available. Such as you know Broonzies and the Robert Johnsons and people like that. And then because today we have amplified instruments and you know I think we should use them. They should be used in folk music. Should be accepted as such.
Studs Terkel This a fascinating point, a very key point that Eric Burdon is making. This continuously there is this conflict of those we might describe as purists and those who take liberties again quotes around these words and your dispute has been with those who seem to be clinging to a past way that may have no relation to reaching people in the middle of the 20th century.
Eric Burdon Sure. [Well you would with them?] Just playing with Ewan MacColl recently in England. And he and he said that he agreed with me, that the greatest thing in folk music was communication and getting people to, to play the music. And as far as, as far as I'm concerned, the greatest sense of communication, the greatest act of communication I've seen is, is watching Ray Charles in a football stadium communicate with seventy, with seventeen thousand people. That to me is communication. And that to me is folk music and the Beatles have done exactly the same. You know they've, they've communicated with more people in the last five years than so-called folk singers who accept it as such have done in their whole lifetime.
Studs Terkel But basically, is this what you're saying Eric and I follow this and I happen more and more I tend to agree with you, even though I feel-lean toward Child ballads sung a certain way. You're saying that if that singer who first sang that song were living today, he would have an amplified instrument, since
Eric Burdon Oh yeah, yeah. I'm quite sure that, in fact, I know without a doubt that if if Robert Johnson had been alive today and if Broonzy had been young today, he would be using a Fender guitar with an amplifier.
Eric Burdon Right.
Studs Terkel By the way this is amazing to me. Eric Burdon, you're the young Englishman who was the creative spirit behind the New Animals. These are groups that have affected young Americans. It's as though a cycle has, has come to an end. You heard music of early American Negro singers [unintelligible] how it's come back. If you tell your story, just just your memories in a way it'll be almost symbolic of everything else, Eric. Newcastle is an industrial city on the River Thames, where you came from.
Eric Burdon Yeah. It's just-I think the first time that I came in contact with the, the music that I felt was different from run of the mill pop music was there's a seaman used to live downstairs to me and he used to go to America and he used to bring back seventy-eight records, and he loaned, loaned them to me. Amongst all the records which was so popular that time like sort of "Shotgun Boogie" by Tennessee Ernie Ford and that sort of stuff. Yeah, there would be things like, "Don't Roll Those Bloodshot Eyes at Me" by Wynonie Harris. And there was one or two Fats Domino singles and soon as I heard them, I knew there was something different in that music and this'd make much more stronger and more meaning in it. You know, it was it had more depth. And that was where I was at that time I was a big traditional jazz fan and eventually I just suddenly owned up. As I say I went from traditional jazz to modern jazz and when I got deep into modern jazz, I eventually owned up and to myself, and I agreed that rock and roll music is the greatest music in the world because it's created for people by people without any inhibitions. It's just simple and it's. And I mean people like Chuck Berry have made so many great statements in it. And I think the big difference is the English- you see we didn't have payola in England which broke the whole rock n roll scene opened in Ameri- as you know about you know five, six, seven, ten years ago. In England, we didn't have that so the kids kept on buying Chuck Berry and Ray Charles and Bo Diddley and we kept on learning from them and that's where the white kids lost out in this country because at that time they weren't listening to them.
Studs Terkel This is by the way, I think we're listening quite powerful to me and this is sort of this part of a subculture of our country to which listeners of our station may not be acquainted. There's a groping, a reaching on the part of young music that is vital and supplied to a great extent by groups like Eric Burdon of the Animals, originally by The Beatles and others, The Rolling St-is it British groups we're talking about? You're saying that because of a certain kind of commercialism in our country involving the phrase, familiar to all us, as "payola," certain records were pushed by jockeys. This did not affect England. And so the young white kids of England heard the good Negro artists who were off the market in America because of payola.
Eric Burdon Well you know I remember way back in about 1957, I think. They even had a society in America to stop white kids from buying Negro records and it was-went that bad, you know. And to, you know, way back just before that period I mean it must been actually I mean that rock n roll music did more for integration in America than anything ever done because at that time, you had white kids and colored kids digging white and colored artists without even thinking whether Negro or white. Just accepting them for what they were.
Eric Burdon Well if you're interested in, in the basics of anything, you have to find out where it stems from. I mean if you interested in an automobile you find out who invented the automobile and who first built it, you know. So I mean I was, I was originally interested in traditional jazz and I found out where the roots of traditional jazz came from and then where the roots of where the roots of the roots came from. I even went back to Africa and saw this in Africa and so forth.
Studs Terkel In the background as Eric is talking we're in the, in their hotel suite right now in Chicago on this Saturday, the eleventh. They'll be performing Arlington Heights High School. Eric and his new colleagues, The Animals, who are here just preparing having a bite or so. And we come back so it's always the roots which you were so you always wanted to find out why your curiosity led you to kind of music you now sing.
Eric Burdon Yeah. It's I mean the blues is a- you know Rhythm and Blues is a product of American life. You know, it's a product of of Cadillac cars and jukeboxes and Coca-Cola machines and so then police forces, hardship, steel mills.
Eric Burdon Every-, everything. You know it's just the it's one of the most genuine art forms in the world produced out of one of the hardest social, you know, indignities for every race. You know, really. I mean that's where it comes from. It's a very strong music.
Studs Terkel It's interesting to think of the knowledge of Eric Burdon here of America. A basic America really. It's astonishing and bit exhilarating, too, to hear him. You admired Big Bill, who was a friend of ours, and the station. Bill had a phrase about the blues. "The blues is nothing but a good man feeling bad."
Eric Burdon Well back to the jazz club again, you know. We'd play records at the end of [unintelligible]. I'd listen and say, "You know, I like that. Who's that?" and so you would say. It's Big Bill Broonzy. Then I'd start buying his records. And I actually met him, one night outside, outside the city hall in Newcastle when he was performing there just before he died. I was glad that I, you know, that I was able to meet
Studs Terkel I'm certain that had Bill been alive today he'd have approved very much of what Eric Burdon and his colleagues are doing because he continually said this before he died that some of these young kids in this, this idea that Bill sensed an ever changing aspect to music that since he worked and up in Mississippi, behind a plow, he sang a certain kind of blues. But had he been living here longer and longer in the big city, his blues also be-changed, you know.
Eric Burdon Yes
Studs Terkel See himself grew. Eric Burdon a product of an industrial society, Britain, no longer has an empire. Has something to do with, doesn't it Eric, the fact that now Britain is free of quote unquote white man's burden. Must have a lot do with this explosion doesn't it?
Eric Burdon Well you know I feel very strongly about that because I can sit back and realize what Britain has done to the rest of the world you know. I mean. We've, we, we first invented concentration camps in India, you know, and the things like that, you know, and I accept it. And I know what we did and you know I hear I hear the same happening anywhere else and to a lot of people. And I think because we've been taught this in school and so forth. That there's no longer a sort of sense of out and out patriotism, you know sort of like over the hill boys know this sort of stuff you know isn't taught in English schools any longer and because of that I think that most English kids have got a very easy outlook on life. We're more interested in England really and, and and enjoying ourselves than anything else, you know, which is a good stage to be at. As long as you don't harm anybody else in the process.
Studs Terkel Do you feel Eric what you represent to you and your colleagues and the Beatles the other groups, do you feel this represents a great deal of British young people today, this feeling of joy, you know, without hurting anyone else and without the self-righteousness that has been the case in many people's in the past?
Eric Burdon Yeah. Yeah. I think you know it's a product of a lot of things, as was the blues was a product of of what we just talking about the music that the Beatles and ourselves play as a product of of us listening to you and learning from you but bending it and twisting it to our own requirements. And there's only one thing that brings me down right now about the whole scene is that I'm sure you ask any member of the top groups in England is musical history and you know, they'll be be able to quote you anything you want and tell you, give you any information yet on recording sessions, American recording sessions of the past and it's the same generally with a lot of white kids in America now, you know. But the American Negro is missing out a lot now because you know, he's so insular in his own scene. A few years ago I wouldn't have said this was relevant because our music was so bad but there's so much good being done now by groups like The Mamas and the Papas, The Beatles, The Lovin Spoonful, for instance, and so many things being said, you know, by Buffalo Springfield, things like that, if the Negroes would turn and listening turn onto them a little instead of the perverse procedure which had been going on for so long, I think they could've learn something, too now.
Studs Terkel This is now I think Eric Burdon is now touching on a very key point. It's a very delicate point yet a key point. You saying now that because the tensions have developed, that is, an insularity among young Negroes that, that you're saying even though the white kids borrowed, originally as you did and inspired by the great Negro artist of the past that a new, a new kind of music is developing.
Eric Burdon Sure.
Eric Burdon Yeah. Yeah. They've taken it because there's no. Because we learned from the position that the Negro was in in degregation and the blues in the cotton field sort of stage of the blues and the work songs and things. Because we learned from that and we're not American and we're not Negro and we're not in the same position. We're now, we're now singing and making statements about things from within instead of things, out. And everything starts from within. And I think now that we've taken the music stage further I'm not saying that all the groups are good, you know, because there's some complete rubbish around [unintelligible]. But the, the better of the good groups, you know, such as of course, the Beatles, the Beatles, the stuff that they're doing lately. A lot of Negro musicians could learn a lot from what they're doing. A perfect example is as a young guy in England, a young American Negro in England and we took back to England with us called Jimi Hendrix, who is basically a blues artist. He's done a lot of session work throughout his career with people like Little Richard and so forth but he's learned from people like The Spoonful and the, the Beatles and The Stones and you know he's taking what he's learned and he's twisted it and put it in his own manner, and now he's one of the top artists in England, because he's not just singing downhome floozies. He's singing downhome blues with, with new kind of lyrics.
Studs Terkel Everyone now. You know this, this point about singing from the inside. Now a certain freedom was found. I remember this brings back conversation to me, as I talk with Eric Burdon now with Colin McGinnis, young British writer who was saying he's very much excited about London, this was several years ago. He says since the Empire is no more and that phony patronizing is no more, young people suddenly find themselves unburdened. The albatross is off their neck. And suddenly this explosion, symbolized by groups such as yours has made them free inside.
Eric Burdon Well you know that, it's reflected in lots of ways and I mean, one of the biggest influences in English rock n roll right now is Indian music. The use of sitars, tablas, and you know, we're turning more to Europe than we are to the United States. We've got, we've got the
Eric Burdon Right. You know we've got the basis of the body of it from the United States you know the hard backbeat. And we're now looking towards like Europe, you know, even Yiddish and Yugoslavian and Indian, Pakistani sounds have been called [unintelligible] music now.
Studs Terkel And so, this is again, we come to something very exciting that's happening, a new stage maybe in which a group such as yours, Eric's, the New Animals will be singing a music of the world by a process of some osmosis. And this will come from something else, it seems.
Eric Burdon There's another thing as well. Lyrically, I mean everyone, everyone you know, recently well, you know, within the last 30 years of pop music have been hung up on the one or two things, you know. It's been about sex and love and things that we need, you know, like a desire to own a Cadillac or a house. Now I think you'll find if you listen to the lyrics of, speaking again of the good groups on the market and listen to the lyrics of their songs, you'll find that they're concerned with one thing and that's beauty and self and religion in a way, you know and that's, that's all they're singing about. The Beatles are singing about you know Penny Lane back and Liverpool. It's, it's reminiscent of reminiscent record of where they were, where they come from. And it's also a sort of social satire I think. Yeah. And the Mamas and The Papas you know they're doing the same thing and the Buffalo Springfield, [better of record] which impresses me a great deal. You know, which is a social common thing.
Eric Burdon Right.
Studs Terkel Now you're talking about something inside a person bothering. Beauty. You said, see you just said something about beauty. Earlier, you were saying joy and now the two words together, joy and beauty.
Eric Burdon Yeah well joy and beauty to me goes back and sums up gospel singers in a in a Negro church, you know. That's, that's all they're concerned with. And you know I think that's all, if everybody was concerned with the same thing, there wouldn't be any problems, would there?
Studs Terkel You know, Eric, as, as you're talking now, remember we opened, we heard your voice, group singing, "House of the Rising Sun" and you had you say you first heard Englishmen sing it in Newcastle. It's your way of singing has a marvelous freedom and even the name itself, "Animal". We're accustomed to think of the word animal as something hostile. You use it, animal, as something free.
Eric Burdon Well, when we first started out, we found this, the different countries we went to. We got a different reaction to the name. They would come to the United States and everyone would say "animals?" Why? You know, lions and tigers and we'd get comments in the streets like "Hey I don't know where your tail ends over". But when we went to France, you know, the kids didn't even speak English. We'd say, you know, animal means earthiness, you know, animalistic. It's good. It's basic, you know and that's why the name was conceived because you know animal life is the most basic form of life, but it's the most honest form of life,
Studs Terkel And so we come back again to this even in the manner of singing. The manner as that, that's quite exuberant and free and giving of yourself. Exactly the opposite. You know, the funny thing is what happens to all our stereotypes? The American story for years had been the Englishman. Thin-lipped, you know, formal.
Eric Burdon Right
Eric Burdon Well that's still, you know, that's still retained a lot a in many ways. [In Uma?] in particular. And while it's in it still remains in lots of forms of English life and it can be good. It can be bad but it can be very good, you know, because basically it's, its own, what's the word, you know, you can't bend it. You can't twist it's. It's there, and it's straight and it's solid. Like in England you find it even difficult to bribe a guy who operates the parking meters in the streets because they're in that job because they're looking after her majesty's parking meters and you know and you know that's that's the sort of thing there is about, you know and it's a good thing really. If a cop's going to nick you in England, he's going to nick you, you know and that's the way it is, you know. If you've done something wrong, he's going to have you, whether you could be doing [unintelligible], but he's still going to nick it because he's a cop and it's his job, you know. And in a way I like that, you know, because at least you know where you stand.
Eric Burdon Yeah.
Eric Burdon Yeah it makes a very solid [telephone rings] basis for a living, you know. We don't have as much violence either. That is one of the biggest things I like about England more than anything else. I think I wouldn't protest about anything at the moment. I would know there's nothing would induce me to get in the streets and carry a banner, at the moment, that I could think of. The only one thing, if the cops in England started wearing firearms, that's the one thing that I would protest about and if they did eventually have them, then I'm leaving then, I think.
Eric Burdon Well you see, though you know America has, has got a particularly bad problem. I mean, the cop here obviously couldn't go into his job without a gun because this country has been, was conceived through firearms. It was, you know, this country was built on the hardness of the front [yard?] and you know and it's just part of this, this civilization. You know, it's like, "Oh, we went past that stage before weapons were you know firearms are even invented I think and I know it would take a long time, you know, for Ameri- to get past this stage.
Studs Terkel [unintelligible] but I'm thinking about this, this insight you have into the origins of countries, the fact that violence was our basis. This feeling you have. Oh, you said you would not protest. This is interesting. You would not carry a banner. There is no, other than that you say, you feel what? That your songs will tell it without your-
Eric Burdon Yeah but I think you know the only time that I would ever employ, you know, I know I'm not a no pacifist by any means because I know, I know violence exists and it's part of the pattern of life. You know animals are violent. They have to kill to eat. The human race is violent basically. I don't think it's a thing that you'll ever change. There's only one thing to do and that is to make sure that it never comes your way. Now when it comes your way, that you're prepared for it. But I don't think I'd ever employ violence myself personally until it affected me personally.
Studs Terkel It's just a moment ago, this is an interesting point. I don't mean to contradict you here but you're talking about the nature of man, animal violence, and yet you speakin' of the tremendous developments musically. Ecumenism, Indian music, music of the world, one worldism. Don't you see these two possibly maybe being in conflict? That maybe a, a stage can come when the nature of man might be somewhat
Eric Burdon Well I'd certainly hope so but it hasn't arrived yet. And it, you know this world's been existence for quite a long time. There's been good people before, before this. I mean, I don't, I don't particularly I'm not a particularly believer in the Christian religion because I don't believe as it's taught. But I mean Christ must have been, if he existed or whether he existed, he must have been a good man. And look what they did to him. They crucified him. And I, you know, it's gone on and on and on. They'll always crucify. The mass will always crucify and stamp on the person who like is a little different or a little you know, tells them not to do certain things and just do good things, you know. That's the way it happens. And I, if it happens to me, if I come in contact with violence, then I'd think I'd retaliate in the only way I know, and that's a basic human way of protecting myself to the best of my ability.
Studs Terkel You're talking about always some person with a vision. The visionary's been attacked by the majority, you say. Using Christ as a case, you know. And yet there's Gandi, isn't there? You know, the way in which he affected a whole land, didn't he?
Eric Burdon Yeah well you know, they're getting you know, different civilizations. This is where the Indians, you know, are so far ahead of us and we, the Eastern people in general have got a greater conception of life than we'll ever have. And I only wish we could learn from them and be like them, you know. But you know for instance, there's a guy in this country right now, he's trying to teach an eastern religion, a, a basic form of an eastern religion and he's just been, well, he's got 40 year sentence in prison hanging over his head. Because he's using, and what is classed as a narcotic drug to do it. But he's still there only one thing this man is preaching is from what I've read and from what I've seen of is nothing but love and beauty. And yet they're they're putting him in prison for 40 years, or they're trying to.
Eric Burdon Timothy Leary. Yeah, I mean there's a, perfect example. The kids today who are in this country saying, "Don't fight in Vietnam. Don't go to war. It's wrong. It's bad." They're the ones who are like I should imagine in their own neighborhood who are being like classed as cranks and you know, he didn't dig the war baby, he's bit of a nut case, like you know. You know, you know, this is the scene because like they are the individuals and the mass are the people who, who, you know, just don't seem to think that little bit more.
Studs Terkel Yeah but don't, as you say this, Eric, I'm thinking about you and the impact you and your colleagues, groups like you are having upon the young. This may indicate something hopeful. The fact that so many do admire you. They sense it. What is it they. What do you think it is? Now aside from the song and the vitality and your arrangements. You think they, they sense what you sense, too, your young audiences?
Eric Burdon I think a percentage of them do. Now when we, when we do the right kind of gig which is the right kind of gig for us university, a college gig, they know, you know, they sense it, obviously. They, they, they can feel it. But generally, you see where this is getting back to the to the way the two different kinds of people again the guy who is at the moment protesting about the war in Vietnam is more liable to be a college student than he is to be a mechanic. Now this is a fact you know whether people like it or not, it's true, that the, the sort of academic student is the person who is more likely to be protesting against war than a postman is or a mechanic. Or a sailor in the Navy. See what I mean?
Studs Terkel In your travels through the campuses of this country before, you know. Now, do you sense this feeling on, on the campuses when you perform? I know it's a minority but do you sense it's growing? You even-
Eric Burdon Oh
Eric Burdon Yeah.
Eric Burdon In fact there's more. You know this is what gives me great hope for, for America as a country because there's such a tremendous vitality in the young people. They've got so much more going against them to be like they are than than seeing a Swedish kid or a French kid or an English kid because to start with, you know, this country to a certain extent is weighed down with regulations. I mean you go to a swimming pool for first time. It's got no running, no jumping, no wearing facemasks. You know this is for your protection, you know and the you know every way. I mean I was in a club last night in Chicago and the police were coming around checking, checking people's identification papers. On the spot in clothes. This never happens in England. If this did happen in England, I think there'd be a great public outcry about it because to me that that is depriving people's civil rights. Haven't stopped them in the street and checked their identification papers. I mean we have to carry our passport with us everywhere we go in the United States. We don't have to do that in England. We don't have to have any identification of any sort in England.
Studs Terkel You just touched, two things I want to ask you about: the generations you talkin' to authorities and cops as you were most young people though. Is the battle of generations you sense a sharpening as it is here.
Eric Burdon Oh it exists. You know the basic relationships and families exist anywhere and from Japan to Anchorage, Alaska. You know all families are the same. But I think you'll find that in, in taking London as an example, you'll find all the people mixed with younger people in discotheques more than you do-
Eric Burdon In the United States yeah. I mean there's a marked difference between the different types of discotheques as well. You know they're much more relaxed in England and of course there's much more younger people as well because the alcoholic drinking age is much lower, you know. You can push it a little further and look at France and in France where there's no alcoholic drinking age at all. You never see a drunk in the street because all the kids go through the, the bit where it's a kick to drink you see because it makes you feel big and old. They go through that stage when they're like 11 and 12 years of age and by the time they're 14, 15, 16, 21 years of age, they're fully grown matured people who aren't like sneaking out in a Dodge Chevy with a beer cart and having a sneak-
Eric Burdon Right. Right. I mean it's a, but it's a it's a case with everything. If you forbid something, the human being wants it when he wants it more. And I think this country should have had the biggest lesson that any country in the world ever had, and that was prohibition. But it didn't learn from it.
Studs Terkel Eric, there's something you said and we come back to this earlier. You sensed here in America that the college kid generally is more keenly aware of the need for peace than say a non educat-, academic educated mechanic. What about the non-college kids of England? Are they? Do you think more in concerned about the world than his opposite number here? Or is it the same principle applies, here too? No.
Eric Burdon Right.
Studs Terkel [laughter]
Studs Terkel Reflecting here talking with Eric Burdon, who as, the audience can gather is quite perceptive more than about the music because the music concerns the very world in which he and his colleagues live. Opened with "The House of the Rising Sun". What is one you would like us to close? Before that, any, any number of bases. I know we haven't touched anything in your mind. Your repertoire itself, the broadness of it. Songs. You have no labels or categories, do you? Songs, what
Eric Burdon No. No. We do everything now from Stones numbers to basic blues numbers, you know are still very old blues numbers and new numbers are being done by young English groups. So our repertoire, repertoire is very wide at the moment.
Eric Burdon Well there's a track on the, on the new album which is just which I recorded in New York with, with American jazz musicians. Benny Golson did the arrangement. It's called, "I Think it's Going to Rain Today." It was written by Randy Newman, who's 22 year old, white kid in Los Angeles. And with him writing it and me singing it, Benny Golson's band in between, it's sort of a fantastic mixture of everything that's happening.
Studs Terkel I think we're talking now about a Negro jazz man accompanying a young British singer song written by young American white kid. This in a sense perhaps might be a beautiful way to end this conversation. Here's ecumenism in action. Any, anything you care to say just observation, experiences, Eric, before we hear the song.