By ANDREW MCKAYSMITH
When you are presented with an opportunity to talk to one of modern day rock’n’roll’s founding fathers, you grasp the opportunity. One of the architects of The Animals all-time classics “The House of the Rising Sun”, “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “It’s My Life” joins me one balmy summer evening for a chat about special moments in the bands history, The Rolling Stones Charlie Watt and… vitamins!
“It’s a small space. (The Animals) came up at the same time as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Spencer Davis and the Who. A lot of great bands… We held our own with the best of the time. What we recorded back then still stands up very well today. I think we had some great songs that have got legs and really lasted well. They’re about life, they’re not kind of middle of the road pop songs that come and go. So we are very fortunate to be in that position to have that kind of catalogue of songs behind us. It makes light work to be able to enjoy playing all that stuff. I never get tired of that.”
I’m speaking to Drummer and percussionist for The Animals, Mr. John Steel. That’s his perspective on the bands place in the annals of rock and roll history.
The Animals have been recognised by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They were inducted by Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum in 1994, in a famous speech Pirner paid tribute to the band and their ongoing influence. I ask if Steel has special memories of the evening. “Oh, it was fabulous, yes. We had a great time. I mean, back then it was held at the Waldorf Towers, the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan in this big ballroom area. People pay big money to go to those kind of events, have a dinner in the same place as Eric Clapton and Chuck Berry. We had a table with Etta James. Johnny Otis was nearby. Chuck Berry, he was walking past and he stopped and starts talking to Eric Clapton. Paul McCartney and The Band were inducted on the same night, which is one of my favourite outfits, The Band, they were great. There’s a whole live performance from the studio band from the Letterman Show. People are invited to get up and have a jam so Chuck Berry was up there, Eric Clapton was up there. It was just a magic night. Everybody enjoyed themselves. It’s such a great honour to be given, to be inducted in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, to get the statuette, take it home and put it on the mantelpiece.”
The Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame is almost as famous for excluding some obvious artists and there has been some truly surprising inclusions. N.W.A (inducted 2016), Public Enemy (2013) and Beastie Boys (2012) have rather bizarrely been given the nod over bands ploughing a more, uh… ‘rock’n’roll’ path. What are Steel’s thoughts on the matter? “Well, the people who are inducted, we’re all then given a choice, everybody who’s inducted becomes a member. So every member gets a choice to vote for each year. So, out of maybe a dozen people you’ve got to choose maybe half a dozen, you know. If Judas Priest haven’t been inducted yet, well, don’t lose hope, because they’ll get there eventually, you know. Just be patient.”
Patience. The old ‘hurry up and wait’ scenario. Any touring band member can tell you it is all about travel and airports. The job of a rock’n’roller could easily be confused with a professional traveller. Steel yields some interesting insights. “Nobody asks ‘what do you do when you’re travelling?’ All the time you’re travelling! Because, you know, like Charlie Watts said about the Stones, I think it was the 25th anniversary or something, he said, “Yes. Five years playing, the other 20 years hanging around”. As someone who has spent time traversing regional QLD, becoming adept at finding power points inside of hotel rooms and knowing which airport lounge serves the coldest beer… I can certainly empathise!
All that travel and live performance to help keep the flame of The Animals alive must take a toll. “The biggest challenge as an artist is just to have the stamina to keep doing it. Playing drums is a physical thing, you’re using all your limbs and I started to get pains in the knees from wear and tear. That was a worrying time. I thought, ‘Oh, my God. I’m never going to be able to play again’, which would have been horrible. But my wife found a vitamin. I started taking them because I had already started wearing athletic knee supports to help me. After about a year of taking these pill things I threw them away. That was years ago, and I’ve just finished 41 gigs this year already. I feel as fit as a flea. So, I’m really fortunate.
We quickly discuss the bands famed former front-man, Eric Burdon, whose lawyer quipped that ‘no one remembers the drummer’. That comment occurred during a legal entanglement over the rights to use of the band’s name in 2005. Steel offers no criticism and actually appears to praise his former front-man. “Eric’s part of my life, as are the other guys in the original band. I wouldn’t want to change that, you know.” Steel comes across as someone that you would love to catch up and share a coffee or tea, just to listen to him tell tale after tale of his journey as one of rock music’s finest drummers.
Something that I ask all my interview subjects is for their thoughts on their career if it all ended tomorrow. Steel’s response won’t disappoint fans of the band. “Oh, don’t say that. I don’t want it to end! I’m looking forward to getting in front of the Australian audience. I get so much fun out it, you know, so much enjoyment. I think the band at the moment is probably the best line-up since the original outfit. And we get along so well together because it’s a lot of fun. There’s a lot of good banter, and a lot of laughs. That’s really important. There’s no sort of ego trips, no friction. So, when we go on stage, we’re primed and ready to enjoy ourselves. I think that kind of comes across to the audience, as well, because we always seem to get a good response.”
With an offer to catch up with Steel when the band play the Sunshine Coast date, I certainly intend on meeting the man behind so many classic songs.
Catch The Animals on their Australian tour through May. Tickets can be purchased here http://www.metropolistouring.com/theanimals