There’s some wonderful stories in Rock and Roll and getting to chat with John Steel of The Animals ahead of their Australian Tour is always a treat. Bands don’t come more influential than these guys and John still drums like a man half his age! We talk about returning to Australia and dig up some wonderful stories from the band’s past. Talking with John is always like getting an insight into real Rock and Roll history.
Mark: Hi John, Mark from The Rockpit checking in, how are you?
John: I’m OK thank you Mark, how’s yourself Sir!
Mark: Very good thanks John, it’s always great to catch up with you every few years when you visit us, it’s been a bit longer this time though sadly. I must say that the last time that you were over it was one of my favourite converts of the year. You’ve still got it! I see we have a new member this time?
John: Yes there’s one change in the line-up from the last time, we should have been back in 2020 and that got cancelled because of the pandemic and then 2021 came and went and here we are now in 2022. So in the meantime Mich Gallagher who was on keyboards took retirement, and so we have a new guy on keyboards now call Barney Williams who you may not have heard of but he’s a brilliant player, absolutely brilliant, two handed, plays boogie and sings like the clappers. He’s been an old friend of Danny’s the led singer and guitarist for years and he’s worked with him over the years so when Mick dropped out we asked Barney in and it’s been a really refreshing change, you know. He’s got a different way of playing to Mick and it’s much more like Alan Price used to play – two handed with plenty of freedom to explore.
Mark: Sounds like we’re in for a treat!
John: Absolutely yeah, it gives us the freedom to roam, it frees us up a lot. Micky was a very good player but he liked to stick to the script, you know, whereas Barney flies free! (laughs)
Mark: So we’re in for a bit more of a jam! Sounds fantastic! It’s Sixty years this year isn’t it?
John: Well it was ’63 when we officially became The Animals so next year will be the big anniversary! (laughs)
Mark: It’s been a wonderful journey so far and long may it continue. I thought this year I’d like to kick off by asking you a couple of things about the long distant past if that’s OK?
John: Yeah sure!
Mark: One of the things I’ve always wondered about is, you were obviously pretty big locally in ’63 – ’64 before you moved south to London. Everyone hears things about the scene in those days but when you made the move how much of a change was it? It was a very short time from being big up in Newcastle to being huge nationally?
John: It was a big transition. We were the House band at the Club A Go-Go in Newcastle which was a great venue and we met and played with so many, we backed John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson and several other people. So we weren’t complete hayseeds! (laughs) We had, had contact with the outside world!
John: I’d also been down to London with Eric, checking out Ronnie Scott’s club and things like that, so it wasn’t a complete culture shock. But when we physically moved there being the top band from where we were from, all of a sudden we were up against loads of stuff. But I remember distinctly one of the guys who was instrumental in settling us down in London was Ronan O’Rahilly who I think we talked about before, he started up the first Pirate Radio Station. We were playing this club called The Scene Club, just off Picadilly and we were playing a set and then during the interval just before we went back on stage, this guy came up and we immediately recognized him as Georgie Fame, who was a great musician and had a great band. Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames were residents at the Flamingo Club on Waldorf Street in Soho, and he just kind of mooched up to the stage and said “You’re going to be stepping on a few toes in this town!” (laughs)
Mark: (laughs) And you did!
John: We did yeah!
Mark And fairly quickly too, you were the first British band on the Ed Sullivan show, that very same year, things just seemed to move so fast, it must have been an amazing time?
John: Yeah, within months we were signed up to a record deal, signed up to a major agency The Don Arden Agency, and we were on our very first tour to the U.S. An in the U.K. we played support to Chuck Berry one of our heroes and all of this was within three months of leaving Newcastle you know. It was pretty good stuff!
Mark: What has always fascinated me about the story, John, is that as quickly as it came it then started to fall apart…
Mark: And in ’65 you were going your own separate ways again for a while there before you finally left in ’66?
John: Yeah, Alan quit in the Spring of ’65. It’s a bit of a joke but there’s a lot of truth in it. You know the story about Alan getting the credit for the arrangement of ‘Rising Sun’? That was always a bit of a thorn in our sides because we all contributed towards it. The song was in public domain, no one knew who recorded the original version of it, it was so old. So the law was that anybody who could make a new arrangement of it could claim that particular version as their own, in other words as a song-writer. (laughs) and Alan got that privilege which was a bit of a shock when we saw the record label. This is a true story, Chas and Alan were sharing a place in London at the time, a Mews House and as Alan got them morning post and opened it up, Chas said ‘Alan quit the band there and then when he first got his first royalty for ‘House of The Rising Sun’ (laughs)
Mark: (laughs) That’s crazy, I always loved that story and its great hearing it first-hand.
John: Next thing you know he’d got up and formed his own band (laughs) that’s when Dave Rowberry took over.
Mark: And then you were off the next year. Things kept coming back together again though. There were various reunions over the years. I was actually listening to the ‘Ark’ from 1983, I love that album, how do you look back on stuff like that now from the later reunions?
John: Yeah, it’s always been interesting and it was fun. Personally I never thought there was any reason why we couldn’t keep doing that – getting together every year or every couple of years, but I think the stumbling block was always Eric. He kind of got it into his head that he didn’t want to be under The Animals name, or be in its shadow for the rest of his life. He wanted to become his own brand name, he wanted to become Eric Burdon, but he never quite managed that somehow, the way say Van Morrison did.
John: Nobody says Van Morrison and ‘Them’ anymore, but Eric just never quite managed to get out from under the name, I think he had his best times when he was the lead singer of The Animals.
Mark: Oh Absolutely. We sadly lost Hilton (Valentine, The Animals original guitarist) last year, just a couple of days before my birthday. What was he like in those early days?
John: Oh Hilton was a funny guy, you would have loved him. He more than any of us was like an excitable schoolkid! He couldn’t believe he was doing what he was doing and getting paid for it you know! (laughs)
John: (laughs) And getting paid for it was always a big thing for Hilton, he was always very money conscious. He was working class lad from North Shields on Tyneside and he was a couple of years younger than us so hadn’t been round the block quite as much, so it was all very much an exciting game for Hilton, and he loved what he was doing. He used to take a bit of ribbing for it, but it was OK!
Mark: For me there was always this wonderful dichotomy with The Animals, on one hand there were the wonderfully rough and ready Pop hits and then when you dig into the albums that’s where you get the real love and the appreciation of Rhythm and Blues. Mickie Most was sourcing great songs from the Brill Building writers but at the same time there was this real reverence for where the Blues came from. Did it ever become hard to find the right balance, dd it maybe lead to a bit of friction?
John: Yeah there was little bit of that, but to be fair to Mickie and us, Mickie would present us with things that he thought were commercial for maybe a single, like ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’ or ‘It’s My Life’ or whatever it might be, but we always had the option of saying ‘no’ if that wasn’t something that we wanted to do. We only played the songs that we thought we could do justice to, which turned out great for both us and Mickie, because we got the hit records out of it and made some songs that have stood up so well over the years like ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’…
Mark: A song we hear down here on the radio every day, either the original or the cover by The Angels.
John: Yeah, ‘The Angels’ I liked that.
Mark: You’ve inspired so many bands and continue to do so this day.
John: The most significant one for me in recent years was Bruce Springsteen, he was doing a major World Tour, and you can see it on YouTube, every night he played on that tour he would give us credit for songs that inspired him. He’d talk about a song and tell the audience how much we inspired him with our songs. It was lovely to hear that! (laughs)
Mark: He’s right though, it’s that birth of what has since been called Blue-collar Rock and which Bruce and guys like Bob Seger are well known for. I can just imagine him watching that Ed Sullivan show in 1964 when you guys took to the stage.
Mark: I think it would be fair to say that you’ve been drumming for a few years now. Is there ever any thought of putting the feet up, sitting on the porch and playing some Blues?
John: (laughs) well at my last birthday I was 81 and I’m headed rapidly towards 82 in February so you would think what’s he doing? But to be honest I just enjoy it too much and my feeling is that as long as I’m not embarrassing anybody, and I do feel as if I’m playing as well as I ever have.
Mark: You were playing like a man half your age the last time we saw you!
John: (laughs) I feel like one some days! Since lockdown eased up we’ve been playing a lot this year and with Barney the new keyboard player there’s a freshness in the band and I’ve been really enjoying it! So why would I stop?
Mark: Absolutely I’m completely with you – why wouldn’t you keep on doing the things you love as long as you can. That’s the meaning of life and if it keeps you happy I can tell you it’s keeping us happy too!
John: My body will tell me when it’s time to stop, when I can’t get out the chair! (laughs)
Mark: We’re a long way off that I’m sure. It’s just a few weeks until you get back Downunder and you’ve been over a few times now, do you have any favourite memories?
John: We’ve played some great gigs, there’s such a good vibe about the whole place and people are always very kind to us. We always great treated well, the hospitality is great, the food’s good, the wine’s good, the beer’s good and the weather’s good! (laughs)
Mark: It can’t be bad can it?
John: Plus we always try to come over when the British winter is closing in which is another good reason.
Mark: Now that’s just smart! Do you still listen to a lot of music John?
John: Oh yeah, I do. I must confess I can’t keep up with what’s going on these days there’s so many streams of everything going on, but I still listen to a lot of my first loves – Jazz, Blues and Rock and Roll from back in the day.
Mark: I love going back and finding the old stuff, you can find so much stuff from the 50’s and 60’s on places like YouTube, I’ve lost a few afternoons chasing those!
Mark: It’s always a pleasure to speak with you John. I can’t wait to shake your hand when you get over West.
John: I’m looking forward to that.
Mark: Take care and safe travels.
John: Thanks Mark it’s always great to talk to you and I’m looking forward to meeting up in Perth. Bye for now.
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Ticket Link: https://metropolistouring.com/the-animals-2021/