A Conversation with The Animals’ John Steele
The Animals are a band which needs little in the way of introduction. With a string of hit singles from 1963-1966, including We Gotta Get Out Of This Place and House of The Rising Sun, the fiery four-piece landed themselves on the vanguard of the British Invasion. While explosively short-lived; the group’s rawness and wild offstage antics have cast an enduring impression over generations of musicians and fans. A founding member, John Steele was the man behind the drums for the scruffy R&B outfit’s legendary run of songs. Ahead of an Australian tour with his latest incarnation The Animals, we caught up with Steele to talk about his working class childhood, turning on to rock & roll, jazz and working with hitmaker Mickie Most.
RR: Eric Burdon and you started out playing in a trad jazz band before falling under the spell of blues and rock & roll. Was there an element of jazz that fed through to what you were doing with The Animals?
John Steele: I think there was always kind of a slightly jazzy element to The Animals that stayed with us all the way through, especially with Eric and I as well as Alan [Price], our first keyboardist. Dave Rowberry, the third keyboard player in The Animals, was also very much a jazz player before he came into the R&B world. There was always a strong element of jazz in the band.
RR: Relative to the sounds of a lot of the other R&B and British Invasion groups, The Animals’ music had some really tough and dark dimensions to it. Was it a product of growing up in Newcastle after the Second World War?
JS: Well I think we were of our region. We were all working class lads. The Northeast at that time was a heavy industry and coal mining area. It was dirty and damp. People had had a rough time. The post-war years were very austere. We were children of that age. There was always a dark edge to our lives. The light didn’t really come on until rock and roll (laughs) in the mid-fifties!
RR: There was a lot of punch to the drum sound you lent to The Animals. Who were your influences as a drummer?
JS: Ah, well I was always a jazz fan. I started off being heavily influenced and inspired by very early New Orleans jazz from the mid-1920s, Jelly Roll Morton and Bix Beiderbecke. It was quite weird for a kid of my age to be taking it up with that particular music, but it did have its effect. I’ve stayed with jazz all my life. People back then were purists, modernists or whatever. But it didn’t take me long to realise that was all a bunch of bollocks! You had good jazz in all sorts of spheres, from traditional to modern.
Then in the middle of the ‘50s when I was 15, we were all suddenly hit by this storm of rock and roll from The States. Guys like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino. Bands like that were suddenly just, WOW! You could really identify with that. So thinking about it as a drummer it didn’t come from any particular person or a particular style of anything, it came from the whole mix.
I just play the way I play! I just play the way I feel. My playing has a sort of natural infusion of jazz in it but I’m also I’m not that good of a drummer that can play that jazz that I loved when I was little. To be like Elvin Jones or Art Blakey? Ha! Well out of my league! But I could play rhythm and blues. I could play rock & roll.
RR: How were you getting turned on to all this music?
JS: It was records mostly. There wasn’t too much on the radio that I can remember. There were a few jazz records around the house. I was the youngest of four, two sisters and one brother. This meant that there were one or two things lying around. Fats Waller was a particular favourite of my elder brother and that was the start I suppose. When I got to school, grammar school, I was adopted some guys who were a couple of years older than me. It was a big stretch at that age, being an 11-year-old and talking to these guys who were 14 or 15. They took me under their wing because they thought “I’ve got to tell this guy which way to go!” So they became my jazz mentors and took me to concerts at Newcastle City Hall to see live music for the first time.
RR: You we quite young, were you sneaking in?
JS: Well the first time I went to the city hall I suppose I must have been maybe 14, but there wasn’t any age limit on that. If you bought a ticket you could get in. The second concert I saw there was Louis Armstrong which was fantastic. It was his first visit to the UK since the ‘30s and he was a giant! I’ll never forget. I found my way after that with the combination of jazz influences along with blues and rock & roll that ended up with me becoming an Animal!
RR: Mickie Most was an interesting character in the history of English music. His minimalistic production on House of the Rising Sun shaped a sound which cemented the group’s reputation in the US. Yet he and the band didn’t have the easiest relationship. What was it like working with Most?
JS: Mickie was a lovely guy. He was our producer but he wasn’t really a technical guy. He really didn’t know how to operate the control room; he had an engineer that sat at the desk. But Mick really knew what he wanted to hear and he could recognise a potential hit record. It was because of Mickie that we had such early, strong successes. He knew when something was going to sound good on radio. After that he became a hugely successful producer, but as I say he wasn’t hands-on. He was kinda just a good ear.
RR: I guess a good ear can go a long way.
JS: It went a long way for Mickie!
RR: The hard and heavy sounds of British R&B, The Animals especially, were a really big influence on Australian music at the time. Were you familiar with of anything going on in Australia during the ‘60s? Admittedly, many of these acts didn’t make much impact overseas…
JS: Well the Animals never got to Australia, the original band broke up. When Eric formed his Eric Burdon and New The Animals they toured in Australia after that, which was in the late ‘60s. The original band never made it over there. The first time I got to Australia was in the ‘90s really. I was very much taken with the country and loved the atmosphere and every time I’ve been since I’ve had a good time. There’s something about the place which is friendly, it’s a good place to play and a good place to tour.
RR: Kids today are still listening to that music you cut in the ‘60s. What is it about the music of The Animals which has had such a lasting impact?
JS: Well we’ve got a great catalogue of songs. When we play today we can afford to mix them around so we don’t play the same songs every night. We keep everything fresh. We always play the big hits obviously, people want to hear that, but we’ve got a whole lot of other stuff, album tracks and B-sides, that we can mix around. So we keep digging them out and putting them into the set, it’s never quite the same. It keeps us fresh and keeps the audience interested.
RR: Do you have a favourite Animals song?
JS: Of the big hits?
JS: Well this one song that we just resurrected fairly recently is just going down really well. I hadn’t played it for years and years, it’s a Ray Charles thing called The Night Time Is The Right Time. We’ve got an arrangement for that now which the audience are really joining in on. We like to, every once in a while, bring an old song out to refresh it. It’s a good feeling to get an audience reaction from it. Right now that’s my favourite new-old song.
RR: You’ve made music with the Animals, played in a number of others bands and even gone into the business side of music as well. You’ve been doing this for a long time, what has changed and what’s stayed the same?
JS: For me what’s stayed the same is that you can still play basic live music. You don’t have to have big pre-recorded tracks and big light shows and stuff like that. You can actually just play like how we used to play. Live music, in your face good stuff! So from that point of view, nothing’s much changed as far as I’m concerned.
The business itself has changed dramatically. Technically, something I don’t like so much is the way that a lot of music is kind of contrived. People can sing out of key and have it changed digitally to have it in key. It still feels like kind of a cheat to me! I’d rather hear someone do a belting song, even if there was a bum note in it somewhere.
RR: So you’re all about the one take recording?
JS: Yeah! We were very much that kinda band. I mean it was pretty primitive when we started off. When we recorded House of the Rising Sun it was in a single track studio. We just did it one take and knocked it off. There you go! All done in 15 minutes!
Interviewer: Riley Fitzgerald