Sullivan

Why Did The 60s Group The Animals Break Up At The Height Of Its Popularity?

You may not know the name Hilton Valentine, but you surely know of his work. Remember the iconic 1960s hit, House Of The Rising Sun? Valentine is the one strumming the haunting introductory guitar chords. As The Animals lead guitarist, he played on other hits including We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, It’s My Life and Don’t Bring Me Down.

We thought it would be interesting to catch up with Valentine, now 77, about things past and present. The Rock And Roll Hall Of Famer was just interviewed for a new documentary about Jimi Hendrix. Both his own and The Animals CDs, autographed, are available for purchase on the website, www.hiltonvalentine.com. Following are edited excerpts from a longer e-mail exchange with Valentine.

Jim Clash: Go back a few years. Can you give me a sense of what it was like to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show?

Hilton Valentine: It didn’t feel like we were at a rock & roll show. It was a bit weird because it was a variety show. Back in England, our first television appearances, such as the ones we did at Tyne Tees studios and The Six-Five Special, were just all music. Top Of The Pops is also all music. When we were on Ed Sullivan, though, we’d follow a puppet one time, an elephant the next. It was very strange. 

As far as the performances go, we were live and we could hear ourselves, but we could also hear the screaming girls. We wanted them to listen, but they didn’t. The thing is, on some level it was gratifying that we were getting that reaction because we knew The Beatles were, too, and they were the best band out there. But, of course, you want people to listen.

Ed was alright. He was very old-school. The English hosts seemed much hipper. But Ed, though his physical appearance told one story, was actually very astute with what was going on in music. He used to be an agent, so when he got his own show he was involved with booking the talent. In England, the hosts were just hired faces to present the artists.

Clash: What were your preconceived notions about America before you came over? What was it really like when you got there.

Valentine: I didn’t know what it was going to be like. Of course, I saw American television shows and movies, but I knew that wasn’t real so I just went with the mindset of, “Let’s see what it’s like.” I suppose visually I had an idea because English television showed either row houses or country villages, and American scenes looked vastly different. 

When we arrived, it seemed more “showbizzy.” In England, we just showed up at the television studio or gig, and got on with it. When we arrived in America, we were greeted with convertibles for each of us, where we had to sit on the car with stuffed animals and our feet on the seats going through the streets of New York. All a bit over the top, really. 

Then, of course, there were the press conferences. The fans were also a lot different in America than in Europe. They were pretty over the top. In England and Europe, we had as many male fans as female fans. Some would say that back then we were a man’s band. It was more about the music. But in America, it was more about being hysterical over another English band. 

What really struck me was the experience of racism when we went down south. It was quite frightening. We went to check into a hotel, and one of our roadies, Sonny, was black. The man at the front desk said, pointing over to him, “He can’t check in here.” He didn’t give a reason, but we all knew why. Sonny was okay with going to a different hotel, but another roadie, Bob Levine, who was with us, got them to agree to let him stay. But I don’t know how he accomplished that. 

The next day, when we were all at the pool just joking around, one of us pushed Sonny in, and all of the white people scurried away. People around the hotel would give us funny looks, too. We just couldn’t believe it. Back home in England, it wasn’t a big deal. Eric Burdon’s girlfriend was black.

Clash: With House Of The Rising Sun, do you remember coming up with the iconic guitar introduction? Is it true keyboardist Alan Price said it wasn’t provocative enough? Do you remember where and when you actually recorded the song used on the record? Any idea it would become the hit that it was? And in the song’s music video on YouTube, you are laughing at the end. Why?

Valentine: Yes, of course I remember. We were all familiar with Bob Dylan’s version – and Josh White’s. We were on the Chuck Berry tour, and we figured that no one could out-rock Chuck, so we wanted to do something different. We were all in agreement that House would be very different, so we figured we’d try it. 

I also wanted to make the song our own, so I just came up with the arpeggio using the same chord sequence as Dylan. When I played that for the band, Alan spoke up saying, “That’s so corny. Can you not play something different?” I told him to stick to his keyboard, and I’d stick to my guitar. If he didn’t like it, he could f*#k off. 

Anyway, on the Chuck Berry tour, the song was going down a storm, so we figured we’d better hurry up and record it. We drove down to De Lane Lea Studios, ran through it a couple of times and then recorded it in one take. De Lane Lea was an independent studio, not affiliated with a record company like The Beatles recording at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios. 

I knew straight-away that it was going to be a number-one hit. I knew that from the reaction it was getting on tour. We all fought to make it the single because Micky Most wanted Talkin’ Bout You to be the next single as it was getting airplay on Ready Steady Go! He finally agreed, saying, “OK, we’ll make it a double A-sided single.” But obviously, House became the big hit. 

The video you are talking about was made for the Jimmy Savile “movie” Go Go Mania. Or maybe it was recorded for Top Of The Pops, which Jimmy hosted sometimes. But either way, it was put in Go Go Mania. I was laughing because it felt strange that we kept having to walk around in circles miming to it. I caught a glimpse of us in the monitor, and that was it for me. I had to laugh!

Clash: Let’s talk about Eric Burdon. How did you meet, do you still keep in touch, what’s he like as a person and where do you rank him as a blues singer? 

Valentine: [Bassist] Chas Chandler had come down to a Wildcats gig. That was my band. He introduced himself, and asked me if I’d be interested in going to London to play. The band he was in, The Alan Price Rhythm & Blues Combo, was looking for a guitar player because their guitarist didn’t want to give up his job in Newcastle. He asked me to come to The Vic in Whitley Bay to see them play. 

That’s when I was introduced to Eric and Alan. [Drummer] John Steel wasn’t in the band then. I had actually seen Eric before. Both of our bands were in a talent show run by The Carroll Levis Discovery Show (the winner would get to go on his television show) at least a couple years prior. My skiffle band, The Heppers, was in that show, too. Anyway, I didn’t know Eric, but he wore a red-and-black tartan jacket like Bo Diddley, so that stood out to me. He was wearing the same jacket the night at The Vic. When we were introduced, he said he remembered me from the talent show. 

We do still keep in touch. He called last month to tell me he was moving to Greece. Of all the guys in the band, Eric and I got on best. He has a very easy-going attitude, as do I, so I guess that’s why we hit it off. We were roommates back in London when we first started out. We lived together for a bit in California, too, in the late 60s, and we’ve been involved off-and-on throughout the years. I was road manager for his band War, when he was with them. We had three Animals reunions. I also played with him for two years back in 2006-2007, and there were a couple of other times in the 70s. 

Back in his prime, Eric was certainly the best white blues singer. I can’t think of anyone who could top him from 1963-1966. 

Clash: In your view, why did The Animals break up in 1966? Do you ever miss being in that band?

Valentine: Oh God! Arguments. We couldn’t get on with each other. We were working too much, always on the road, always in each other’s pockets, and we weren’t seeing any money. Eric and I were smoking dope and taking LSD, and the rest were getting drunk. They didn’t think getting drunk was bad, but that what we were doing was horrible. At least we weren’t slurring our words and falling over! 

It’s been too long to miss being in the band now, but certainly when we first broke up I missed it straight-away. I felt lost. I had no idea what I was going to do. It was all I ever wanted since I was 13, and suddenly it was just gone. I was only 23. 

Clash: What is your favorite Animals song and why?

Valentine: Inside-Looking Out. It’s a great song. It’s hard to say why, as it’s only in one chord. It seems like it’d be boring, but it isn’t. I can’t remember now which song it was, but a long way back there was a number-one all in one chord, too. Anyway, I just like the excitement of that song. It’s fun to play. 

Clash: Did you make much money from House Of The Rising Sun, or from any of the other Animals hits?

Valentine: House does bring in the most money of all the hits, but the royalties just aren’t enough. Music is all about streaming these days, and we get $0.003 cents for a stream that has to be divided among five people!

Clash: Give me a funny story from touring with The Animals. 

Valentine: In the beginning, coming back from Manchester around two or three in the morning in dense fog in Chas’ dad’s ex-army truck, we were sitting on beer crates filled with empty bottles that we’d been drinking along the way. We were all pretty drunk. I can’t remember now who was driving, but we’d gone around the roundabout three or four times. We kept missing the turnoff! When we finally exited, a police car was flashing behind us, and pulled us over. He came up to the truck, and we rolled our windows down. He said to us, “I just followed you around that roundabout three times,” and we yell out, “Why, are you lost, as well?” We fell off of our crates laughing. I guess we didn’t get in trouble [laughs].

Clash: Can you give me some one-sentence impressions of these musicians?

– Chas Chandler: “A looming presence with a great business sense.”

– John Steel: “Good jazz drummer.”

– Alan Price: “Good keyboard player, but didn’t do right by the band.”

– Chuck Berry: “A great musician with a great personality.”

– Eric Clapton: “Once he was with John Mayall, he made me wonder why I was even playing guitar.”

– Elvis Presley: “The greatest rock & roller.” 

– The Beatles: “The greatest band, and a great group of guys.”

-Yourself: “That’s a hard one. Um, I guess I was someone with a lot of confidence, drive and focus on what I wanted to achieve, and did just that.”

Clash: What are you up to now musically, and are you and your family coping okay with COVID-19?

Valentine: I’ve not really been up to anything for the past three years, but I did recently lay down a fuzz lead guitar for a friend’s band covering the song Apache. This year was the 60th anniversary. I also made a guest appearance in another friend’s video. Oh, speaking of videos, I released one last year, River Tyne. I’m really proud of that. I was planning to play out starting this past spring, but we never got to the rehearsal stage because of COVID. I’m 77, so the chances of me doing any live performances in the future are slim to none. COVID has stopped me from seeing my family and friends in England, as the U.S. is still banned, so that’s been a bit difficult. But I don’t enjoy the traveling part of it anyway, so it’s not been too bad, really. I’m a homebody.

Clash: Thanks Hilton!

Valentine: You’re welcome, Jim.