Note: With regard to the exchange Price and I had over "Simon Smith," my last name really is Goldstein.
In the wake of Warner Brothers' recent reissue of Alan Price's soundtrack to O Lucky Man!, a long-awaited item on many Goldmine readers' CD want lists, the time is right to re-examine the career of the former Animals organist.
While Price (born April 19, 1942) is best-known to Americans as the composer and on-screen singer of the soundtrack to that 1973 Lindsay Anderson classic, in his English homeland he is an all-around entertainer/cultural icon. In many of his songs, particularly those on his autobiographical concept album Between Today And Yesterday, he praises the tenacity and courage of the working class "Geordies" that still make up a large portion of his Newcastle hometown.
Strangely, the same Alan Price who presents himself as a champion of the oppressed faces a PR war from his former Animals, who accuse him of oppression of the highest order. In the words of Eric Burdon, they claim that Price "nicked" the writing credit on the Animals' biggest hit, "House Of The Rising Sun". (Since the folk tune "House Of The Rising Sun" is in the public domain, artists who record it may take writer's credit for their arrangement.) While Price's agent claims that the artist does have an explanation for why he alone among the Animals got the writing credit for the tune, Goldmine found him extraordinarily tight-lipped on the subject. (In fact, very few of his facial muscles got any kind of a workout; the unsmiling Price has a stone face that puts Buster Keaton to shame.) Fortunately, he was more than willing to discuss every other aspect of his career, from time spent with Bob Dylan (immortalized in the film "Don't Look Back") to his celebrated partnership with "O Lucky Man!" director Lindsay Anderson. Goldmine caught up with him in a hotel outside of Newcastle, the morning after a tour date with his Electric Blues Company, which includes UK cult favorite Zoot Money on additional keyboards and ex-Jeff Beck singer Bobby Tench on bass.
Goldmine: Back in your pre-Animals days, when did you make the transition from skiffle music to rock and roll?
Alan Price: First of all, there was a skiffle group when I was twelve years old, called the Black Diamonds. That transmogrified into the Frankie Headley Five. We were all students at Jarrow Grammar School. When I was playing with them, in about 1958 or Œ59, I met a group called the Pagans. They played in between our sets at the Byker Parish Rock Club, which was in a church in Newcastle. There was a vicar there who put on Monday evening dances. That's where I heard Eric Burdon for the first time, when he was playing with the Pagans. I sat in with them and eventually joined them.
The group was playing little gigs here and there, spasmodically. After a while, I got bored, because the other members were in it just to have parties, and the group was a sideline, while I wanted to be more professional. So I dissolved that group and then joined Chas Chandler in a group called the Konturs, which played covers.
While I was with them, we played a little place in Sunderland whose owners had a place called the Cellar Club in Southshields. I wanted to learn to play a bit of jazz, so I asked them if I could put on a trio there. That was called the Alan Price Combo. It was there that Eric Burdon came back to Newcastle after going down to London, where he'd gone to look at the scene, and he told me that the rhythm and blues scene was going rather well. So he asked whether he could sit in with my band. Which he did. So that was the basis of the Alan Price Combo, which eventually turned into the Animals.
Goldmine: Was it around the time that Burdon joined that the locals started referring to you as "the animals"?
Alan Price: In early Œ63, Ronan O'Rahilly, who started the pirate radio station Radio Caroline, came up to see us in Newcastle, because of the gold rush after the success of the Beatles and the Stones, where people were chasing after groups....The Alan Price Combo's name was changed essentially because Ronan O'Rahilly said to me that he'd gone down to London and said that the Alan Price Combo was coming, and the name was considered very passé.
I think that 'the Animals' came about because Eric had gone to art college and he was concerned with image above content. He said that there was a chap who was from a group called the Squatters, who were hitchhikers who had been thrown out of youth hostels, and their leader was a guy called Animal Hog who used to wander around with an Alsatian. Part of the conversation I think was picked up on, and they decided that the name should be called the Animals.
Goldmine: How did your artistic vision differ from that of the others at that time?
Alan Price: I don't think there particularly was one.
Goldmine: They were still ravers, just out to have fun?
Alan Price: Yes. It's a very good philosophy, but it doesn't sit happily with a career.
Goldmine: The Animals' first single, "Baby Let Me Take You Home," came from Bob Dylan's reworking of "Baby Let Me Follow You Down."
Alan Price: No, it didn't. [Producer] Mickie Most, who was very smart, used to follow what were then called "race records". He would make periodic visits to the States and buy a whole bunch of records that were in the black charts, and one of them was the version of that song that we covered. The B-side, "Gonna Send You Back To Walker," is a bastardization of the blues song "Gonna Send You Back To Georgia". [Walker is on the outskirts of Newcastle.]
Goldmine: I understand that it was Mickie Most's feeling that "House Of The Rising Sun" should be a single.
Alan Price: I think we're going to have to avoid "The House Of The Rising Sun"altogether; it's become a whole mess.
Goldmine [hoping to negotiate]: Can I stop the tape for a minute?
Alan Price: No. The one phrase you can use is that success has a thousand fathers, and failure is an orphan. [He pauses for effect, as a dumbfounded Goldmine attempts to comprehend.] Okay, we'll move on from there.
Goldmine: Yes. Now, um, "House Of The Rising Sun"--one take? [Dead silence.] I was asking about the recording, not the song.
Alan Price: It's been well documented, "House Of The Rising Sun." We're actually in 1995.
Goldmine: Most certainly. When did you start writing originals?
Alan Price: I was writing them when I was an amateur, but it wasn't until I discovered Randy Newman that I felt confident enough to write personal songs.
Goldmine: It's funny that you should say that, because Randy Newman says that his songs aren't personal. He claims that they're written in the third person.
Alan Price [curling his lip]: I didn't say that they were his personal songs. I said that it wasn't until I discovered Randy Newman and the area that he covered in his songwriting that I felt able to do it.
Goldmine: One of the greatest originals that you wrote while in the Animals is "I'm Crying". Does that song come closest to reflecting the musical direction that you wanted to pursue at that time?
Alan Price: No, no. We were being harassed into producing material, as everybody was in those days. At that time, we'd just toured Britain with Carl Perkins. We all became extremely friendly with him on the tour bus, and he showed me that chord sequence. He was very fond of the Everly Brothers and he played me that lick which they used. I learned how to play it on the piano. After that, we were obliged to do a series of Sunday night concerts in the resort town of Blackpool, in Lancashire, and we shared the bill with Manfred Mann. The people who booked us were very fortunate that both we and Manfred Mann had Number One records during that 12-week season. So, we had traveled from wherever we were touring with Carl Perkins to Blackpool for this Sunday concert, and, during sound check I played that riff for Eric and he made up all the words. And that was "I'm Crying,"really. It was just a throwaway attempt at a song, without any conviction whatsoever.
Goldmine: What are the Animals songs of which you're proudest?
Alan Price: None whatsoever.
Goldmine: Not well-written, not well-recorded...?
Alan Price: No, because, essentially, all of the product was the result of a conflict of interest. We had a missionary zeal about blues music, and I felt, particularly, that Mickie Most was attempting to homogenize, sweeten, and make it accessible for the mass market. Which is understandable if you're the producer, but aggravating if you're the artist.
Goldmine: So he wanted to do with you what he was doing with Herman's Hermits, basically?
Alan Price: You're saying that. I didn't say that.
Goldmine: That's why I'm asking you. I wouldn't say it if--
Alan Price: I thought I was being very clear.
Goldmine: I'm very sorry.
Alan Price: As I say, the Animals had a particular concept of themselves as a band. There was an anarchic spirit in it, which was being flattened by commercial designs, attitudes, and needs.
Goldmine [terrified of mentioning That Song again]: How did it feel to learn that your recording, which shall not be named, influenced Dylan's desire to go electric?
Alan Price: I really don't know whether that's true. I've found, to my despair, that a lot of things get in the public domain and become accepted fact, when actually they're just the surmisation, mishearing, or pure bloodymindedness of journalists, who have their own egos and actually feel as though they have an 'in,' and construct events as they would like them to be seen. And then that passes into the public domain. Then, of course, then become accepted fact, when in fact they're not truth at all....I don't know if Dylan actually said that. I read it in an article that he stopped the car, with Joan Baez in it, and beat the bumper in a kind of frustration, thinking that that's what he wanted to do. Now, the few times I was with Dylan, I never saw him exhibit any sort of temper like that, so I feel that that was probably untrue.
Goldmine: Excuse me for just a sec. I'll be right back. [Goes out into the hallway. Screams. Comes back in.] Would you agree that your hanging out with Dylan symbolized your gradual breaking-away from the Animals?
Alan Price: No, no. The day before I left the Animals, I went to a CBS reception, where Tony Bennett was singing, where I met up with Joan Baez and her assistant. I took them on a train to an Animals gig, and was late for the gig. The Animals had gone home. When I went back to the Savoy Hotel with Joan Baez, I proposed to her, just to get out of having to fly to Sweden the next day. [Price's fear of flying has dogged him throughout his career.] The next day, I told the Animals that I was leaving.
Goldmine: Not that Dylan actually influenced your leaving, but perhaps your closeness with him highlighted the artistic differences between yourself and the other Animals.
Alan Price: The Animals were a very separate and dissonant group at the time. We came from different backgrounds, different areas - we didn't even come from the same town, basically. So we weren't what you would call "mates²....If there was any sort of fellowship, it was between the fact that Eric was the singer and I was - I think the work is 'amanuensis,' the translator. I used to follow his singing closely, and put fills in between. In other words, if you've heard Ray Charles singing and playing piano, I did the Ray Charles piano bits and he did the Ray Charles singing.
Goldmine: Your first solo (UK) hit was the Screamin' Jay Hawkins song "I Put A Spell On You," which you learned from Nina Simone's version.
Alan Price: I made the record the night after my mother died. My mother died on New Year's Eve, in Newcastle, and I had go onstage afterwards. We traveled down to London immediately after the funeral. So I think some of the emotions sort of transmuted themselves onto the record, and I feel that's why it was a success.
Goldmine: In 1967, instead of getting heavier like so many of your compatriots, you hit the British charts with playful songs like "The House That Jack Built"[not the Aretha Franklin song].
Alan Price: I quite like childlike songs, which sometimes cross over. Think of "Simon Smith And His Amazing Dancing Bear" [a Randy Newman tune that Price took into the UK Top 10 ]. A lot of children like it, but a lot of messed-up liberals like it, too, because they read all sorts of social whatchamacallit into it. I never even thought of it.
Goldmine: Social inequity?
Alan Price: Yes, well, yeah, it could be about poverty. A lot of people think it's about anti-Semitism.
Goldstein: How on earth is "Simon Smith And His Amazing Dancing Bear" about anti-Semitism?
Alan Price [straining to be patient, clearly wishing he were somewhere else]: One never knows....As I say, I never understood it. I think it's like everything else; one shouldn't dig too deeply. It's silly to say that with a journalist, but sometimes there is not a truth to be found. Oh, there's always fool's gold, but, if the song is good, that's it. Q.E.D.
Goldmine: One can't expect people to be like their songs.
Alan Price: Yeah, it's quite true. In fact, it's probably quite the opposite; their songs express a side of their nature which is subordinated most of the time.
Goldmine: You first worked with Lindsay Anderson when you scored his West End production of the play "Home". How did you meet him?
Alan Price: It was a case of mistaken identity. He thought I had written "Simon Smith". We arranged a meeting, which was not very fruitful. He asked me what I liked, and I said Ray Charles. He said, didn't I think that the Concert Iron Works Male Voice Choir was just as legitimate and exciting? I said no and walked out. But he persisted in the relationship.
Goldmine: A major reason why your soundtrack for "O Lucky Man!" earned so many accolades and awards was because your songs were so perfectly integrated with the film. What was the chemistry like between yourself and Anderson that enabled you to match the songs and the action so closely that one seemed to inspire the other?
Alan Price: It took nearly two years of preparation, discussion, and argument, exchanging experiences relevant to the subjects we were trying to tackle. So it was a basically intellectual exercise....When the script was written, it was sent to me with asterisks marking where he felt a song would be appropriate. Before the film was shot, the score was written. I made a demo of it, so they lived with the music as they were making the film. There were only two songs--"Look Over Your Shoulder" and "My Hometown"--which were written afterwards.
Goldmine: Your later soundtracks, like the one you did for "The Whales Of August," have a strong classical influence.
Alan Price: Classical music's ability to translate emotional themes is fantastic. And I think, possibly because of that, you feel it's a very personal thing. Which leads you into conflict with commercial considerations. That's always been a bugbear of mine over the years, the clash of self-expression versus the needs of the business.
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