With a staggering 9 Top 50 hits in Australia, The Animals were one of the leading acts of the British Invasion. While The Beatles and Rolling Stones were headliners, The Animals were considered to be the backbone of blues. Australian audiences are in for a treat this May when original members, John Steel and Mick Gallagher, along with Danny Handley and Scott Whitely, bring The Animals live experience to our shores. Thanks to our good friend, John Howarth of Nuclear Blast, we had the chance to chat with the band’s drummer, John Steel, about his memories of the early days of the British Invasion, touring, and coming down in May for the latest Oz tour.
SR: You’re coming down to play some shows for us in May. What have you got in store for fans with this tour?
JS: Yeah! We’ve got a band that’s really good, tight, and live – we play live. We play because we love playing. And we’ll be playing all the best Animals hits. There’s a dozen numbers that we do every night, and the rest of the set we play various kind of album tracks and B-sides and things. We freshen it up – we don’t play the same set more than a few times before trying something else. A lot of good stuff that wasn’t necessarily hit singles, you know? We play Boom Boom — that was a great one. And yeah, you get a good live set with energy – lots of energy on stage. That’s what we do (laughs).
SR: When you hear people – and Bruce Springsteen, very vocally, for instance – citing you as massive influences, how does it feel? Do titles like ‘rock legends’ and ‘rock icons’ every really sink in, do you think?
JS: It’s fantastic, really, you know. It was great when Bruce Springsteen came out with that. It makes you think, ‘Well, wow!’ (laughs). It was very generous of him and it’s amazing how much of an influence The Animals’ recordings have had on various people. I mean, House of the Rising Son, for instance was a massive hit for us, obviously, but we kind of first realised how good the song was when we listened to Bob Dylan’s debut album and there was a track there – acoustic folk, you know? But then we made an electric version of House of the Rising Sun, and we met Bob Dylan not long afterwards and he said it had inspired him to take a different direction and become electric folk. It’s been amazing. Songs like We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place…I mean, that’s become an anthem for all kinds of people who are leaving school or changing their jobs or whatever, you know? It’s so good to feel that we’ve kind of had an influence on things.
SR: And you started out doing rhythm and blues covers for some time until that breakthrough with House of the Rising Sun. Do you remember where you are and what you were doing when you first heard it on the radio?
JS: Ah, not exactly, no. We would’ve been on the road, that’s for sure – probably listening to it on the van radio (laughs). It’s an exciting thing, to hear your own stuff coming out of the radio – it really gives you a buzz. You think, ‘Woah! That’s cool!’ (laughs).
SR: How quickly did that success engulf you after House of the Rising Sun was released, and was it difficult to cope with, initially?
JS: Well, it wasn’t difficult. It was exciting. It was wonderful. It was very quick. I mean, we left our home town in Newcastle to try our luck in London at the end of 1963, and within a few months we had a record deal, with Don Arden as an agent. Don had us support Chuck Berry for his first visit to the U.K. We had a single, a big nationwide tour – it was all happening so fast it was incredible, but it was very exciting. It was a lovely time to be young and suddenly famous. We’d never been famous before (laughs).
SR: You were main players in the British Invasion. What are some things that you look back on most fondly now?
JS: Oh, just the excitement of it all. When we were teenagers growing up in the mid-fifties, all of our influences then – musically, especially, and movies, whatever – all of our influence seemed to be coming from across the Atlantic, you know? From America. And it was fantastic for us to have been fans, at the start, and then think, ‘We’re not going to be fans, we’re going to be players.’ So a whole generation of us in the U.K suddenly started to develop our own style of music; and, behold, we all got hit records in America! It was the first time the traffic was going the other way (laughs). It was a big thrill. It was a big thrill for us to go to America where all our inspiration had come from initially. So, it was a very exciting time.
SR: What were your first impressions of America, when you finally arrived?
JS: If you can imagine this… We landed at JFK…well, it was actually called Idlewild when we first got to New York…and we found out that there was a big PR thing going on for us with Tiger. It was a British car company which had introduced a new two-seater sports car. They sent us to a press conference and they put each of us into a car. They had five cars and each of us had a driver — we were sat up on the back of the seat — and each of us had a six-foot model with tigers tails and whiskers. The connection, of course, was Tiger — Animals — and we were driving in to Manhattan with an escort — with the sirens going. We were looking at each other, going, ‘What the hell is all this?!’ and looking at the Manhattan skyline coming up before us (laughs) I’ll never forget that. It was really, really funny.
SR: What do you consider to be your career highlights, to date?
JS: Well a number one record’s not bad – it’s a hard one to follow. I don’t know — I don’t think anything’s ever topped those early years with the original Animals. There’s never been anything more exciting. But the highlight for me is that I’m still fit and I’m still playing and I’m still enjoying it. You know, it changed my life, that whole thing back then. I’m really grateful that it happened and I’m still here to enjoy it. That’s a highlight, isn’t it? (laughs).
SR: I’m in Brisbane and there’s a local act here called The John Steel Singers. I don’t know if you’ve heard of them.
JS: Really? (Laughs). That’s really weird!
SR: They’re really good, actually.
JS: Oh, there’s a club we always play in Switzerland, every year or so. There’s an Aussie guy there and he’s called John Steel and he always introduces himself and we get our picture taken together (laughs).
SR: You’re one of original band members and you also own the name. What does that feel like, and do you think of the old days much, when you’re not doing press and so forth?
JS: Well it’s always there in the background, you know? My life would’ve been a completely different life if it hadn’t been for that experience back then. So, it’s always in the back of your mind – ‘how cool is that?’ – getting to be famous when you’re a teenager and you can still do it 50 years later.
SR: Which are you favourite numbers to play live?
JS: Well it’s always a buzz playing House of the Rising Sun. We always keep that till last because it’s a hard number to follow and it always gets a standing ovation. Other than that, I’ve never been embarrassed by anything we’ve recorded which is a great place to be. I mean, I never thought, ‘Oh, I wish I hadn’t done that’, you know? I think especially songs like It’s My Life, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, and well, obviously We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place – they’re the great songs to play, and I never get tired of playing them because they’re such good, strong songs and they’ve got a kind of a dark edge to them. They’re proper grown-up stuff – you know?
SR: You did have a maturity beyond your years, didn’t you?
JS: We did, yeah! And I mean, we had good taste, don’t you think? (Laughs) We’ve stood the test of time very well. Those songs have gone through generations of people – people who weren’t even born then. It’s like osmosis or something – they absorb it. In Germany and other countries, there are young people singing all the words to the songs. It’s not even their language and they know all the words. I don’t know all the words. I’ve forgotten half of them.
SR: They’re wonderfully solid, well-constructed rock songs, though, aren’t they? And I mean, there have been other bands from that era that have fallen in and out of favour, but I don’t think it’s ever been unpopular to be an Animals fan.
JS: Yeah. Yeah, we’ve been very fortunate in that respect. Like I said, we never recorded anything embarrassing, or likely to be embarrassing. And that makes for a good feeling when you go onstage — you’re fully confident that you’re not going to make a fool of yourself (laughs).
SR: I know jazz was your first love. What do you listen to now? Do you get out to see many live shows?
JS: I don’t get out to see much live stuff and the music I listen to now is pretty much the stuff I’ve always loved. I still listen to jazz, I still listen to blues, I still listen to early rock and roll from the fifties. There’s a lot of good stuff around, but there seem to be so many different strains of music…hip hop and rap and dance and so on…whatever, but the’re so many different strains of music around it’s baffling. But then, it would be. That stuff’s really intended for people in their teens and twenties. I’m quite happy with the stuff I’ve always loved, you know? But I do like to hear newer stuff on the radio: people like Amy Winehouse and Adele. They’re doing great stuff. When I first heard them, I thought, ‘Whoa, that’s cool! That’s nice. She’s been listening to Billie Holiday’, you know? Every generation has its own music which isn’t intended for adults.
SR: How would you describe your playing style and how long did it take for you to establish it when you were getting started?
JS: It was very quick, actually. My influences were blues and jazz and rock and roll. I started playing drums very shortly after I met Eric in 1956 and it took no time at all. I took to it like a duck to water. At that age, you think, ‘I can do that’, and you just do it. It wasn’t hard work.
SR: What do you most like about touring now and where are some of your favourite places to play?
JS: Well, we’ve already done 41 gigs this year… Scandanavia and Germany – they’re always good. Australia is definitely a favourite place. We get to play in some strange places as well. The year before last we were in Kazakhstan, eating horse meat. That was good. Poland.. Russia… wherever. That’s one of the wonderful things about this business – you get to go to places you’d never have visited in an ordinary lifestyle. Most people holiday and get to see this, that, and the other, but we get to see some weird places. Even when we go to countries that people are familiar with, we still go to places in that country that nobody’s even heard of.
SR: What are you doing in preparation for the Australian tour?
JS: Oh, more gigs (laughs). It’s a continuous experience. I mean, this year we’ve already done 41 gigs, as I said, in northern Europe. It’s like that: a tour, an odd gig here and there, something on a weekend, another tour… It just goes on and on and on, you know? It’s just a kind of lifestlye that you get into and I’m just fortunate to be able to still do it. It feels like a privilege to me.
SR: Do you have a message you’d like to send out to your Australian fans ahead of the tour?
JS: Oh, we’re looking forward to it! What can I say — it’s always a pleasure to play in Australia. I love the hospitality, I love the vibe of the place, and the weather and the food. The food’s wonderful. That’s very important on the road (laughs).
The Animals Australian Tour Dates
Saturday 6th May – GOLD COAST Southport RSL
Sunday 7th May – SUNSHINE COAST Aussie World
Wednesday 10th May – SYDNEY The Basement
Thursday 11th May – KATOOMBA Katoomba RSL
Friday 12th May – MELBOURNE The Palms at Crown
Saturday 13th May – ADELAIDE The Gov
Monday 15th May – NEWCASTLE Lizotte’s
Wednesday 17th May – CANBERRA Southern Cross Club
Thursday 18th May – WOLLONGONG Centro CBD
Friday 19th May – CENTRAL COAST Doyalson RSL
Saturday 20th May – ROOTY HILL Rooty Hill RSL
Sunday 21st May – ROZELLE The Bridge Hotel
Tickets Via – http://www.metropolistouring.com/theanimals
Presented by Metropolis Touring. www.metropolistouring.com