When people look back at who were the seminal bands of the sixties British Invasion, a small number of bands hold their place in the top echelon: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks and The Animals.
John Steel was the drummer on all of the huge hits The Animals chalked up between 1963 and 1966, and he is still touring the world with the band and enjoying every minute of the ride that he has been on for close to sixty years!
The Upside News had the chance to talk to him about those heady years when British pop and rock bands dominated the globe, and also about his years working on the other side of the fence, in rock management.
The Upside News: So, nearly sixty years in the business, John!
You’ve been a part of rock ‘n roll’s life for as long as it has been in existence. What is it you love about still being a part of the music industry? Is it an addiction?
John Steel: Yeah, I think it is really. It’s something you get hooked on, no question. I still love touring and performing and I get a lot of satisfaction out of it. I get a buzz out of it. I just feel I’m a very lucky guy to still be doing it whilst…I’m still alive! (Laughs)
TUN: So what do you think it was about The Animals music, in particular, that has ensured its longevity and its continued popularity?
JS: Well, I mean, that was a good band – no question – and we were up there with The Beatles and The Stones, and we could hold our own with just about anybody.
So it was a good band. But I think the important thing, you know, with the years that have gone since then, is the strength of the catalogue. The strength of the songs.
You know we had some really good, adult, dark-edged type of songs. You know, It’s My Life and We Gotta Get Out Of This Place and [Don’t let Me Be] Misunderstood and [The House Of The]Rising Sun…they’ve all got a kind of dark edge to them, I think.
So, we were playing really grown up songs before we were really grown up!
And I think that’s why they’ve stood up so well in all the years since. Whole generations of people seem to have absorbed those songs.
You know, we still get teenagers coming to all of our shows who seem to sing along to all of the songs and seem to know know all of the words. It’s incredible how kind of influential we’ve been.
We never thought of ourselves as that important, but in hindsight, you think: ‘Bloody hell! We seemed to have caused a lot of damage around the world!’ (Laughs)
TUN: So, you really had no sense of…I mean, can you remember how you felt, say, directly after recording We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, or whatever. Did you sense then that these were songs that would have this life of their own? Was it a special feeling?
JS: I can’t remember so much with We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, although we knew it was a good song, you know. But the one song we did really feel was special was Rising Sun. There was definitely something about that one.
It was important enough for us to insist on Mickie Most – who was our new producer, the guy who first recorded us and we had one single out with him at that time – that we felt very strongly that this [Rising Sun] had to be the next single.
We turned out to be right. It just became an instant classic.
We were touring with Chuck Berry at the time. Supporting Chuck, [on] our first proper theatre tour.
We had been signed up, soon after we left Newcastle, to the Don Arden Agency. And he was bringing Chuck Berry to tour the UK for the first time. It was a three-week tour, and it was sold out every night – two shows a night.
It was a big deal for us, you know, as we’d only played clubs and bars before that.
And there was definitely a response from the audience from the first time we played that song, and every night. So we thought, ‘This is important this…’ and we persuaded Mickie [to record it].
We broke off from the tour in the middle. We left Liverpool after playing the last show – we closed the first half of the show – and we drove down to London to this tiny little studio in Holborn. It was just a basement. It was only a one-track studio, and we went in there.
In a one-track studio you are effectively recording it live, you know, so you just set up the sound when you‘ve got a band, and then play the song once.
Mickie said, ‘Come in here and listen to this. That’s a hit record.’ (Laughs) And it was.
TUN: It certainly was, and it ran and ran!
JS: Within three weeks or so, it was number one. So that changed our lives completely.
TUN: And Eric Burdon’s voice was a big part of that being a success wasn’t it? Because he sounded so much older than he was…
JS: Oh, yeah!
TUN: And you couldn’t really tell if he was a white singer, or…
JS: It was perfect. And [Hilton} Valentine’s guitar intro, that arpeggio intro – the number of people over the years who’ve come up and said, ‘That was the very first song I ever learned on my very first guitar!’
And Alan Price’s solo in the middle, and on and on – it was just a magic song. Tt was just a classic, and that really set us on our way.
Then we got to number one in America with it, and that was like a dream come true for us guys, because every inspiration and influence we’d had up to that time came from America, and had done since we were teenagers in the fifties.
So for us to go banging off to America with the number one song was our dream come true.
TUN: It must have been unbelievable.
So you were part of that first wave of hits between ’63 and ’66 – but then you left the band. What made you walk away from that level of success?
JS: Well, I guess it was bad management really, I think. We had worked so hard, we never seemed to get time to stop and think about anything. It was just touring, recording, photo sessions, photo shoots, and every day seemed to be going round and round and round. It got to be a bit of a grind. I mean, I think every band gets to a point where they say, ‘Whoa, hold on! Let’s just stop for a minute.’ In The Animals case though, it was more like ‘Hold on! Get me out of here!’ (Laughs)
TUN: So you went from working with the band, to working with your old bandmate, Chas Chandler, or at least with his management company for a few years…
JS: That’s right, yeah.
TUN: What was your role there? You were still working within the industry. Were you working with people like Jimi Hendrix?
JS: Well, Chas had just parted company with Jimi Hendrix when we got together.
What brought us together was a guy, a businessman, in Newcastle, who wanted us to perform just a one-night show in Newcastle’s main venue, which was, back then, the City Hall. He got us together just to do a charity show to raise money for a cancer charity. I don’t know how he did that, but he did it!
So, we got together in 1968, and Chas, by that time, had had fabulous success with Jimi Hendrix, and he had a management company and had also become a record producer, and he said, ‘It was great to see you guys again’.
So he had a little get together, that was where Chas came over and said, ‘I could use you.’
I don’t know why really, we liked each other, and he just thought I could be of use to him, you know.
I had invested in a kind of fashion shop in Newcastle straight after I left The Animals, with an old arts school friend. I’d opened what was called a ‘boutique’ in those days, but it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. And Chas heard this and came up with an offer. He said, ‘Well, why don’t you come and work for me?’
So I said, ‘OK. I’ll do it.’ And I moved back to London and started working.
He introduced me to this new little band that he had decided to promote. And they were called Slade. And they became enormous in the UK and Europe! And they did very well in Australia, as I remember.
So, pretty much from the end of the sixties to the end of the seventies, I worked on the management side of the business with Chas.
There was one peculiar little ‘kink’ in that experience.
There was an American friend of Chas’s, called Peter Kauff, he was a manager and an entrepreneur, who was into movies and things…anyway he’d found a little band.
Three guys who were multi-instrumentalists and all of them wrote songs. They were a terrific little band. They were called Eggs Over Easy. You can check them out, they’re on Wikipedia or whatever.
Peter brought Eggs Over Easy over to London for Chas to work in a studio with, to produce an album.
They didn’t have a drummer, so Chas…well actually, no, it was Noel Redding from the Jimi Hendrix Experience, who suggested a guy that he had just met. He had just come to fix his pipes. He was a plumber! (Laughs)
But he played drums, and Noel suggested that Chas should try him out.
Chas put him in a studio with the guys from Eggs Over Easy, and he really could drum. But he was a rock drummer, you know, and he didn’t have a kind of swingy feel to his playing.
Anyway, I went to the studio one day with some contracts for Chas that needed his signature and he said, ‘Perfect! You have just arrived at exactly the right time. Johnny, get yourself in there and try this number out, because – Les, I think his name was – because Les is having trouble’.
So I went in there, and it was actually brushes because it was a jazz thing, basically, and I’d played a lot of that kind of thing.
So I just played this track – it was called One Eleven Avenue C – it was a swingy sort of thing, just in one take.
And that was it. I was suddenly in the band. (Laughs) So, I was working for Chas in the office every day, and I was playing with Eggs Over Easy.
They found a great pub in Camden Town, what used to be a jazz club, and it was empty. So we said, ‘Can we play here?’
We played for nothing. We played and passed a hat round, you now. We started this gig, one Tuesday night a week, and after a month or two, we were packing it out several nights a week. And Sunday afternoon – we did that as well.
It seemed like they were just on the point of, you know, going to another level, but they all suddenly decided to go back to the States and try their luck there again.
It couldn’t have been a worse time, because if they stayed there in London for another few weeks longer…
There’d been DJs like John Peel coming to see them. Do you know of John Peel?
TUN: Yes, yes…
JS: John Peel was a very important DJ at that time and he turned up one night to check the band out because he’d heard about them.
But anyway, they went back to earn a living, basically.
But it was a great time, and I really enjoyed that.
It turned out that they have since been acknowledged as the founders of what became called ‘pub rock’…
TUN: And therefore the grandfathers of punk rock too…
JS: Yeah, exactly. You know, people like Elvis Costello and Ian Dury were checking us out at The Tally-Ho every night, and the band really set this movement going that, as you say, eventually morphed into punk rock – so I was a founding member of that! (Laughs)
TUN: That’s a badge you can wear proudly!
JS: A strange little event…
TUN: I could talk to you about that strand of your career for hours, but getting back to the impending tour in May. You’re playing in Adelaide on the 13th.
JS: Oh yeah.
TUN: The set you ‘ll be playing, is it going to cover the whole range of eras and incarnations of the band? I mean, will you be playing San Franciscan Nights or Sky Pilot, for example?
JS: No, no. They were purely Eric Burdon songs. That was Eric when he was in his psychedelic era, you know.
No, we’ll be playing the original Animals repertoire with the hit singles, and we’ve also got a lot of material from the album tracks and b-sides that we throw in.
The way we construct the set is, basically, play the hits and then have sort of a ‘pick and mix’ from all the rest of the stuff, so that the set is never quite the same every night. We always take one number out and put another number in, and shuffle things about a bit.
Then we finish off with The House Of The Rising Sun.
And that’s the end of it because you can’t seem to follow that number… we just play Rising Sun, and we get a standing ovation! That’s lovely isn’t it!
TUN: And I’m sure you’ll get one here too, because a lot of people have been talking about your upcoming gig since it was first announced.
JS: Great! It’s The Gov we’re playing, isn’t it?
TUN: Yes, The Gov.
JS: So I look forward to seeing you there. Make yourself known and we’ll say hello!
The Animals play The Gov on May 13th. Tickets from the usual outlets.