The Story Behind ‘The House Of The Rising Sun’ By The Animals
The Animals for "The House of The Rising Sun" - The Animals Tribute Channel / Youtube
“The House of the Rising Sun” was a traditional folk ballad about a person’s life going wrong in New Orleans, with different versions using various narratives with the same themes.
Many believe that this points out to a brother in New Orleans, where the song was supposedly named after the occupant Madame Marianne LeSoleil Levant, which meant Rising Sun in French. Another popular theory goes that it was about a women’s prison in the city which had a gate that bore a rising sun motif (allegedly a reference to the “ball and chain” lyric in the song).
The song followed a traditional English ballad arrangement but became a phenomenon as an African-American folk song. It was first recorded by Texas Alexander in the 1920s and was followed by several artists including Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and Nina Simone, whose version was the first heard by the Animals.
The band first performed the song while on tour in England with Chuck Berry. Seeing the response of the audience to the song, the band decided to record it between stops on the tour. In a 2010 Songfacts interview, frontman Eric Burdon said: ‘House of the Rising Sun’ is a song that I was just fated to. It was made for me and I was made for it. It was a great song for the Chuck Berry tour because it was a way of reaching the audience without copying Chuck Berry. It was a great trick and it worked. It actually wasn’t only a great trick, it was a great recording.”
It was also The Animals who were responsible for turning Bob Dylan into an “electric” artist, who heard their version of the song and realized it was possible to put a rock rhythm on a folk song, It was in the 1965 Newport Folk Festival where Dylan did a set in electric for the first time, surprising fans and critics alike. Burdon told Songfacts: “Bob Dylan, who was angry at first, turned into a rocker. Dylan went electric in the shadow of The Animals classic ‘House of the Rising Sun.'”
The song was also recorded in one take as The Animals were already adept in playing it from numerous instances in touring. Drummer John Steel shared how it came to be on 1000 UK #1 Hits by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh: “We Played Liverpool on May 17, 1964 and then drove to London where Mickie (Most) had booked a studio for ITV’s Ready Steady Go! Because of the reaction we were getting to ‘Rising Sun,’ we asked to record it and he said, ‘Okay we’ll do it at the same session.’ We set up for balance, played a few bars for the engineer – it was mono with no overdubs – and we only did one take. We listened to it and Mickie said, ‘That’s it, it’s a single.’ The engineer said it was too long, but instead of chopping out a bit, Mickie had the courage to say, ‘We’re in a microgroove world now, we will release it.’ A few weeks later it was #1 all over the world. When we knocked The Beatles off the top in America, they sent us a telegram which read, ‘Congratulations from The Beatles (a group)’.”
Producer Mickie Most added: “Everything was in the right place, the planets were in the right place, the stars were in the right place and the wind was blowing in the right direction. It only took 15 minutes to make so I can’t take much credit for the production. It was just a case of capturing the atmosphere in the studio.”
While The Animals were successful with their chart rankers in the US, they split in 1968 due to creative differences and business decisions. Burdon says that the band wasn’t given enough time to mature, sharing in an interview with Songfacts that: “I don’t think that The Animals got a chance to evolve. We were the first to admit that we took blues songs from American artists, but if the Animals had stuck together and worked together instead of worrying about who was getting all the money, we could have evolved more and come out with more music to be proud of.”
Only the band’s organist, Alan Price, was given credit for arranging the track as the record company said that there wasn’t enough room to include all the members as arrangers. As a result, Price gets the majority of the song’s royalties. Price performed the organ solo that was shaped after jazzman Jimmy Smith’s hit, “Walk On The Wild Side”, on a Vox Continental.
It is interesting how Burdon didn’t perform the song for a long time after the Animals split, calling it an “embarrassment”. He has since made peace with it, however, and has revisited it on various occasions in different styles.