As the years go by, the opportunities to speak directly to those who were there when rock and roll first exploded into our global consciousness become rarer and rarer.
British drumming legend, John Steel, was a gigging musician, playing trad jazz in the fifties, and was around to witness the first embryonic stages, as well as the first birth cry, of British rock music, and then went on to be one of those in that first vanguard of acts who took their new baby out into the world during the first wave of the British beat boom in the first half of the 1960’s, nursing it through its rites of passage as it grew towards achieving world domination.
John was the original drummer of Tyneside tearaways, The Animals, while they were enjoying those first manic days of success and adulation, and, again, after a hiatus of a few years, he rejoined the band in the late seventies and has been gigging with various incarnations of the band ever since.
Last year, the latest line-up of The Animals came to Adelaide and the demand for tickets was so strong an extra show had to be added.
Back again this year, the band have scheduled return shows at The Gov in early November.
Having spoken to John about more general Animals topics in the lead-up to last year’s triumphant return to town, I decided that this time out I would probe a bit deeper, and ask him the truth behind a number of stories about the band’s early days that have now been circulating around for so long that everyone just assumes them to be true…
The Upside News: Hi John, good to catch up with you again. We spoke last March, you may remember, and…
John Steel: I remember your name, yeah…from The Upside News?
TUN: That’s right. We had a great chat last year, but I’m hoping we can dig a bit deeper into The Animals history this time around? I’ll link last year’s discussion for people to read and we’ll just consider this ‘Part 2’ if that’s alright with you?
TUN: Firstly though, last year’s tour must have gone really well for you to be heading back here so soon? You must have really enjoyed yourselves?
JS: We did. We had a smashing time, yeah. And we’re really looking forward to this one coming up. We’re playing some of the same places again, so it’s all good stuff.
TUN: Were you surprised to see that level of demand for the band last year? I mean extra shows were added here and in other places…
JS: Yeah, it was really good. And again, we’re going to be playing two shows at The Gov this time out. We must be doing something right, you know?
TUN: Last week we were privileged to have The Pretty Things in town for their first ever Australian tour, and they were fantastic. I noticed some visibly emotional old fans at that show, and it made me wonder whether there is a noticeable difference between playing for audiences who do not get to see you that often, compared to audiences in those cities you tour more regularly?
JS: Yeah, I think so…you know, it’s a long way to go for all of us! (Laughs)
So how were The Pretty Things? Were they in good shape?
TUN: Excellent. Fantastic set full of unexpected things – an Electric Banana track included! And Dick Taylor can still play a mean guitar…
We’ll be playing two or three, at least two or three – well even more than that – a few numbers we didn’t have in the set last time. We’ve refreshed the set, and we’re going to spring a little surprise here and there. In won’t be exactly the same [as last time].
Well, it’s never exactly the same every night. Danny [Handley], our lead singer, is really big on digging into the old repertoire and coming up and saying ‘Hey, we haven’t played this one! Let’s do this! And let’s do that…!’
So, he keeps refreshing the set with old stuff that we haven’t played for donkey’s years! It’s good – it keeps us on the ball.
TUN: That must make it fun for all of you, rather than just relying on rote memory every night. It’s always good to challenge yourself, isn’t it?
JS: That’s right, yeah.
TUN: You mentioned Danny, the singer…
Mick Gallagher and yourself, are both old Animals from way back, but Danny and Roberto [Ruiz]? Their musical lineage is maybe not as well known. Can you fill us in on what they were up to musically before they joined up with you and Mick?
JS: Well, Danny is an excellent guitarist and he’s done work with the likes of Spencer Davis, gigging all around England. He’s basically just been a gigging musician.
He was a bit of a discovery actually because our agent, Peter Barton, was singing with us for many years and then he decided to retire from touring to concentrate on his business, and we had Danny in just as our guitarist at the time – which was excellent. He’s a really brilliant player.
But then he took over the role of lead vocals from Peter, and he was a revelation! As soon as he settled in and relaxed into the job he was phenomenal! He’s a real good front man. He really puts his heart and soul into it. There’s a lot of energy there…
Roberto, he’s had a bit of a chequered history. His parents are from South America, but Roberto was born in New York City. He’s been around. He was touring in the U.K. about ten years ago and he met a girl in Lancashire, which is where Danny comes from, and they got married. So, he settled down and he became great mates with Danny and they played local stuff there and when our last bass player, Scott Whitley, was offered a job with Big Country – and he took that because he felt it was more in his age group (laughs) – Danny suggested Roberto audition for the gig and he was the man for the job.
It’s an excellent vibe in the band now because everyone gets on so well and there’s a lot of good banter. Roberto is a lot of fun and he’s a good backing vocalist as well as a brilliant bass player. Everything is just great, you know!
TUN: Sounds like great chemistry! Thanks for that quick update on the guys.
Can we go back to last year’s chat. I didn’t get around to asking you then, but I have always been fascinated by the fact that Eric Burdon, joined an early version of the band, when I think you were called the Kansas City Five, originally as a trombonist, not a vocalist. Is that right?
JS: Not quite. Well we first started off, well, when Eric and me met as first year students at the Newcastle College Of Arts. We met in 1956, when jazz was still the most popular form of dance music – big band and swing – for the young people and that.
I played trumpet then and I met up with Eric on the first day of the induction at the art school, and we immediately hit it off. We had the same tastes in music and movies – we were both big movie fans – and he had a couple of friends he was forming a band with and they had a trumpet player who was even worse than me! (Laughs)
So, Eric asked me to come along and have a blow with them and that’s when we started. Eric was playing trombone and I was playing trumpet. He did used to sing a couple of songs but that was never his main job. He was the trombonist – but he was a terrible trombonist anyway (Laughs).
But this was 1956, just on the cusp of when rock and roll was taking over as the [preferred] ‘youth music’, if you like, and Eric wanted to sing. That’s all he wanted to do.
So, we suddenly did a switch. The band was called The Pagan Jazzmen – we had a banjo player, a drummer, me on trumpet and Eric on trombone – and we just did this osrt of musical chairs thing. The banjo player said, ‘Right. I’m going to play electric guitar.’ The drummer said, ‘I want to play this new electric bass.’ You know, Fender basses were just coming out. And Eric said, ‘I just want to sing. I don’t want to do anything else.’ So I said, ‘OK, I’ll play the drums then!’ (Laughs) And then we became The Pagans.
Then the next formation, when we met with Alan Price, a year or so later, and he came in on keyboards…well, we changed the whole vibe of the band because we were so impressed with an album called Boss Of The Blues by Joe Turner and it was Kansas City blues, you know? There was that big rolling piano by Pete Johnson. And we just started calling ourselves The Kansas City Five.
Then we added a couple of brass [players] and we were The Kansas City Seven! (Laughs)
It was a good time, you know, originally we were just playing local, but that’s where you learn your ropes.
When Alan came in on keyboards, on piano, that was where The Animals got their, sort of, core. Alan, Eric and me became the foundation of what was to become The Animals.
TUN: And you got the name – The Animals – from your fans, didn’t you? I read that somewhere…?
JS: That’s right, Ken – you did read that somewhere…
But that was like, you know, a PR thing where the record company said, ‘We have to think of a good story.’ A good story like the fans named us that because of our crazy stage act…
But the truth is, it was given to us by a guy named Graham Bond. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him?
TUN: Yep, [leader of the band] the Graham Bond Organisation…
JS: That’s right, yeah. He had Jack Bruce on bass, and Ginger Baker on drums, Dick Heckstall-Smith on tenor sax…and Graham came to Newcastle to play at the Club A’Gogo in ’63.
Photo: John Steel drumming at Newcastle’s A’Gogo Club in the early sixties. Source: http://www.readysteadygone.co.uk/club-agogo-newcastle-2/
We were the house band there by that time, you know. We were the ‘hot band’ in the city and that was our regular gig. And when there were travelling musicians from America, or people like Graham who had come up from London, we would play their support spot.
And Graham loved the band.
When we did our spot, he got up and joined in. He played the Hammond organ, but he was also a brilliant alto sax player because he was a jazz guy originally.
So, Graham was very enthusiastic about the band, and he arranged for us to be ‘swapped’ with The Yardbirds in London. He knew people in London, and one of those people was Giorgio Gomelsky, the manager of The Yardbirds.
And we did this ‘swap’. They came up to the north-east, and we went down to the south-east, and we did each other’s gigs.
Our manager, Mike Jeffrey, who owned the Club A’Gogo, went down to set this all up with Girorgio, and also Ronan O’Reilly – who became the man who started pirate radio stations off in the U.K. – who had a club just off Piccadilly Circus. And Mike came back with the news. ‘It’s all fixed up. You’re going to do The Yardbirds’ gigs and they’re going to come up here and do your gigs, but by the way, Graham came up with a good suggestion – you’re going to be called ‘The Animals’. (Laughs)
TUN: And there’ll be no argument…!
JS: And that’s where it came from. I mean, at that time, the last incarnation of the band had been Alan Price’s idea, because we’d split up and moved around with other bands [for a while], and Alan had got us together again, but he called the band The Alan Price Rhythm & Blues Combo, which was a terrible mouthful.
And Graham had said to Mike, ‘You ought to get rid of that clunky name, and think of something a bit more snappy.’ And that’s when he came up with ‘The Animals’.
TUN: You were just saying Mike Jeffrey was your manager. I recall that Peter Grant – later famous for being Led Zeppelin’s legendary imposing and intimidating manager – had been your manager around that time. Was that true?
JS: That’s right. One of the gigs we played on the old jazz circuit, you know, was at a place that became a rhythm & blues club – a place called Eel Pie Island. Which was literally an island in the Thames, with a rickety bridge that went across to it. It was an old boathouse.
We were playing there, very early on, in 1964, when we had decided to move down wholesale and had started picking up gigs.
And it was Ronan O’Reilly who was mainly getting our gigs for us, but this night, early in January ’64, two guys who obviously weren’t blues fans – you know, two business guys – were checking us out.
One of them was Peter Grant, and he would become the ‘general manager’ of Led Zeppelin, but at the time he was a booker for the Don Arden Agency. The other guy who was with him was Mickie Most, who was from South Africa. He had a single on the charts with his brother – they were called The Most Brothers – but he was starting to look into producing records as an independent.
So, suddenly we had this deal where we went to Don Arden’s office and Peter introduced us, and Mickie Most was there too. Then suddenly we had an agent, a proper agent, and a record deal signed directly with Mickie.
Mickie would record us, and then, if you like, ‘sell the product’ to the record companies. So, we weren’t signed to a record company, we were signed to Mickie Most.
Don [Arden] was in the process of setting up a tour in the Spring of ’64 for Chuck Berry. It was the first time Chuck Berry ever came to the U.K., and suddenly we were going to be playing support on his tour!
He was one of our idols, you know? We were big Chuck Berry fans…
There were other bands on the tour. Carl Perkins – he wrote Blue Suede Shoes and Matchbox, and it was only a really bad car accident that stopped him from being a really big star. He was just on the way up. He was a great player!
Anyway, that was the first time we went on a proper tour doing theatres, two shows a night and all sold out. It was a brilliant tour.
TUN: I was just going to say, just before you move on from that story, that Eric says in his autobiography that Jerry Lee Lewis was on that tour as well, and that there was a few fireworks between Jerry Lee and Chuck. Is That how you remember it?
JS: (Laughs) Eric’s memory is a bit scatterbrained to be honest. To be polite! (Laughs again)
Jerry Lee Lewis wasn’t on that tour. I mean, I’ve got both the programmes from when we toured with Chuck Berry, and later that year when we toured with Carl Perkins, when we were suddenly top of the bill. So I’ve got both of those, and no, Jerry Lee Lewis wasn’t there.
But on the second tour, when we were headlining, we had Carl Perkins on the bill, and we had Tommy Tucker. He did High Heeled Sneakers. And that was where the big friction was – they hated each other! (Laughs)
TUN: So Eric just got it mixed up?
JS: Yeah, yeah…
With those two it literally came down to them throwing rocks at each other in a car park! (Laughs) It was brilliant! We were all stood outside the theatre watching them throwing bricks at each other, thinking isn’t it great! (Still laughing)
TUN: This is great because you read these things and you take them as gospel truth, and here you are disputing some of these ‘facts’!
Now, I’ve also read that Alan Price left the band because he was afraid of flying. Is that true?
JS: Well, he was definitely afraid of flying, but there is another side to that story as well…
Chas (Chandler) and Alan actually shared a house in London and …Now, I don’t know if you know the story of The House Of The Rising Sun, and the credit for it?
TUN: Fill me in…
JS: The House Of The Rising Son was a traditional song – ‘unknown author’ – in other words, it was what they call in the public domain.
TUN: I heard that you took it off a Bob Dylan album, but there was a dispute about that too and that it was actually a Josh White version that you preferred?
JS: Well, we first heard it on a Bob Dylan album, and it was credited to a friend of Bob’s – Dave Van Ronk.
It had been recorded before in many different forms, by Leadbelly, Josh White and people like that. It’s a very old song. It’s probably originally Irish or Scottish.
By the time we heard it on Bob Dylan’s album it was about a house in New Orleans and was about a prostitute, basically.
We turned it around. Eric rewrote the lyrics to make it more acceptable for radio play, and the central character becomes a gambler, you know, rather than a prostitute.
Hilton [Valentine] came up with this great introduction on guitar, the arpeggio at the beginning. And I used this sort of drum pattern I pinched from Jimmy Smith’s Walk On The Wild Side. With that [scats the drum riff] – you know that?
TUN: Yes, I have actually heard that…
JS: So, we all chipped in. And when we were rehearsing the song, Alan was against doing that arpeggio. He wanted to do it acoustically, you know, like, strummed. We all said no, and that we preferred Hilton’s [intro]. So eventually it ended up as it is.
But in our rehearsals, Alan went off in a bit of a huff. We carried on and got our bit nailed. Then Alan came back, he’d calmed down, and he just plonked this brilliant keyboard solo right in the middle of it.
So we had it. We’d nailed it. The arrangement was sorted.
When the record came out, it’s got – on the label – ‘Trad. Arranged Alan Price’.
We all went, ‘What??’ And when we challenged Mike Jeffery, he went, ‘Oh, don’t worry. It’ll be shared equally, but there wasn’t room for everybody’s name on the label of the forty five.’
We went, ‘What? Oh, right…’ Unfortunately, we were too green to get it put down in writing.
So that’s what happened.
When Chas was living with Alan at the time, he said that when Alan got his first royalty cheque – he suddenly got this big cheque for the royalties from the writing arrangement – well, that was what prompted him to take off on his own.
He quit the band without even telling us.
We were due to fly out to Stockholm for a tour of Scandinavia, and Chas went home to get ready to fly out – and no Alan! Alan had done a moonlight flit!
The next thing we knew, he was back in Newcastle forming his own band.
That’s when Mick came in – Mick Gallagher, who’s with us now – we got him to fly out to Stockholm at very short notice and replace Alan.
So, yeah, Alan was always cagey about flying. He never liked it very much, but there was a lot more to [his departure] than that, and I prefer Chas’s story about the first royalty cheque making his mind up for him, you know?
TUN: Thanks for clearing that one up, too.
Now, I’ve got so many more questions, but we are running out of time. Maybe we’ll have to do ‘Part 3’ one day…!
JS: (Laughs) Okay!
TUN: Now, you originally left the band just before the release of the band’s third studio album, Animalisms…
TUN: And you were replaced by Barry Jenkins from The Nashville Teens. I’ve got that album, and on the back of the cover, in the liner notes, which were sixties ‘humourous’, there’s a transcript of a discussion with Barry as he is listening to the tapes and the way he is talking, it seems that you played on the whole album, and he didn’t play on any of it. Is that right?
It seems like he is a little bit in awe of your playing. On I Put A Spell On You, he actually comments that he can’t pick how you managed the drum tricks you’re playing, and how great it sounds. So, did he play on any of that album, or was it all you?
JS: He did. Barry did play on some of the tracks. I can’t remember the whole track list off the top of my head, but there was One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show and a couple of other numbers. I think he did two or three numbers, but I’d have to look at the liner notes myself to pick them out. So, it was a bit of a shared effort that.
TUN: So what actually made you leave the band right at that point in time?
JS: To be honest, I was just fed up. It was bad management, basically. I mean, we were being run into the ground. Mike Jeffery couldn’t turn anything down as long as there was some money in it. We were just run ragged, and when we weren’t actually playing, we were doing photo shoots, and interviews and da de da de dah…it seemed like that there just wasn’t enough time in the day.
The sad thing was, we were on a retainer. We were on quite a comfortable retainer, but we never actually saw the big money because that was being put in offshore accounts and stuff, you know, that kind of thing.
What we didn’t realise was that we were being absolutely ripped off! (Laughs)
And when it came to it, I thought, ‘What are we doing this for? I’m not seeing the money and the [manager] guys are driving round in nice cars, and I can’t afford a car’, sort of thing.
So I said, ‘Oh to hell with this!’
I was never really star-struck, you know. Initially, privately, I thought I’d give it a couple of years and then get back to a normal life. It wasn’t a big deal for me to say I could walk away, you know, which is what I did.
And when I did, and I was replaced by Barry, well within a short time the band fell apart anyway. It was self-destructing.
When the dust settled – there wasn’t any money. It was all gone. And no-one’s ever really found out who’s got it, because Mike Jeffrey had brought a couple of slick city slicker accountants into the mix and they cleaned us out I think.
So, it was a pretty messy business.
We were just on the early days of the learning curve. I think a lot of others had a similar experience – you know The Beatles and The Stones. It wasn’t until they signed up to renew their contracts that they were able to say, ‘Look, it is going to be different this time round’. That’s when people started to take control of their own money and destiny.
We didn’t have that with The Animals – it was just a car crash at the end.
TUN: Well it was obviously a car crash that you survived and we are glad that you are still out there touring as The Animals, that’s for sure.
JS: It’s water under the bridge now – I don’t cry myself to sleep at night, that’s for sure. You’ve just got to get on with it, you know.
TUN: Well, thanks for letting me speak with you again. It’s been really enjoyable.
We are really looking forward to you coming back to Adelaide in the first week of November.
JS: It’s the 8th and 9th, at The Governor Hindmarsh in Adelaide!
TUN: And there’s no reason why you shouldn’t get another big turn out – it will be another great night out and your songs are now a part of all of our cultural DNA aren’t they?
JS: Absolutely! Looking forward to it! See you there!
The Animals play The Gov on November 8 & 9, 2018.
Tickets are available here: The Animals at The Gov