Eric Burdon, part of the British Invasion, pioneer of the San Francisco psychedelic rock scene, member of The Animals and founder of the 1970s funk band WAR, releases new solo disc this year.
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Eric Burdon’s past and present are colliding this year — and that’s a fairly accurate term for the experience.
Now 71, the British-born singer has released his first solo album in six years, “’Til Your River Runs Dry,” at the same moment that his old band, the “British Invasion” group the Animals, turns 50. There’s a certain symmetry between these occurrences, but for Burdon one of them takes precedence, by a long shot.
“From my personal point of view, the Animals are dead,” Burdon says, speaking by telephone from his home in California. “They killed themselves.”
The Animals, known for such hits as “The House of the Rising Sun” (1964), “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (1965), “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (1965), and “It’s My Life” (1965), broke up in 1968, but Burdon — the group’s original lead singer — presided over several subsequent reunions, including new Animals albums in 1977 and 1983. In 1994 the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 1998, however, Burdon began using the band name again, and original drummer John Steel, who owns the rights to the Animals moniker in the United Kingdom, sued to prevent him from doing so. The court found in Steel’s favor and, so far as Burdon is concerned, that put the Animals in permanent hibernation.
“They were always the band that could not live up to their name,” the singer says, “and I kept using the name for strictly promotional purposes, so that young kids would associate the name ‘the Animals’ with the Beatles, the Stones, and that period. But I got sued for it, so it’s a very negative thing for me. Not negative, but it’s the past.
“I just couldn’t get the name to work, really, for me and for my music,” Burdon says. “So it’s OK if everybody else looks at the Animals’ history and gets some excitement and some message out of it. That’s fine, but for me it’s over. I’m on my own now.”
Burdon, whom Rolling Stone ranked No. 57 on its list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, has been on his own since 1968. Shortly after the Animals’ first split, he moved to San Francisco, where he teamed with the band War for a pair of albums and an enduring hit, “Spill the Wine” (1970). In 1971 he formed the Eric Burdon Band, continuing the funk he had explored with War but with a harder, rocking edge. His solo debut, “Guilty!” (1971), featured appearances by blues great Jimmy Witherspoon and the San Quentin Prison Band’s Ike White.
Since then he has released 13 more solo albums and led various permutations of his own band, while also teaming with keyboardist Brian Auger in a short-lived group. Burdon joined Billy Preston and Ringo Starr for a cover of John Lennon’s “Power to the People” for the soundtrack to Steal This Movie (2000), and has published two autobiographies: I Used to Be an Animal, but I’m All Right Now (1996) and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood: A Memoir (2001).
Health issues were the primary reason for the gap between “’Til Your River Runs Dry” and Burdon’s last album, “Soul of a Man” (2006). He injured his back in a fall on ice and, though the singer says that initially he didn’t feel any pain while performing, the injury didn’t heal and his pain medicine made him “angry and kind of nasty.” He underwent surgery and a lengthy recovery.
“I’m not all better,” he says, “but I’m way better than I was. It affected me mentally, and the greatest part of recovery is that I’m seeing things much clearer now and feeling much better in terms of my attitude.”
During that time Burdon appeared on a German television show and, afterward, attended a special dinner at which he met Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union. It was Gorbachev who unwittingly inspired “’Til Your River Runs Dry.”
“We were talking,” Burdon recalls, “and I was wondering, ‘What can I ask this guy that he would know more than I ever know?’ So I said, ‘What can you tell me about? What’s the world in for?’ And he said to me, ‘Water.’ And I went, ‘Wow ...’
“The interpreter he was with told me that (Gorbachev’s) whole political being is now to promote water awareness and how important it is,” the singer continues, “and I would’ve told him right there and then, ‘Well, look, can I join you? Can I help you? Is there anything we can do?’ And then the lyrics to (the song) ‘Water’ came to my head. I thought, ‘This is the best way ... to join the program of making people aware of how important water is in today’s world.’
“So that was a long time ago, but the song was just recorded in the last few months.”
He recorded the rest of the album in Los Angeles with co-producer Tony Braunagel, touching on topics both personal and political. The former is evident in “27 Forever,” which was inspired by rock and roll’s mythic “27 club” — the age at which Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison all died — but runs far deeper for Burdon as a septuagenarian.
“At 27 you’re no longer a teenager,” he explains. “You’re considered a fully responsible adult, and yet you still have blood running through your veins from your 15th, 16th, 17th year. We all had the concept that we’d never live to see 30, and that’s a mindset that stays with me even though I’ve turned 70, and (the song) is about hearing them say to me, ‘You should’ve joined us. You should’ve stayed 27 forever and went down with us.’
“A lot of musicians tell me that they want to go down in a blaze of glory,” Burdon says. “Well, believe me, it’s more glorious to stay alive than it is to go down in a blaze of glory.”
He finishes the album on a personal note, covering Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me” (1958) as an homage to a musical hero, albeit one whom he never actually met.
“I met just about everybody I wanted to meet,” the singer says, “but I never met Bo Diddley. The strange thing is that I didn’t come face to face with him until he died (in 2008), and I sang at his funeral.
“He said to one of my crew once, ‘When am I going to meet this little white guy, man? He’s always running away from me,’” Burdon recalls. “My road manager at the time said, ‘No, he’s not running from you. You were just leaving the stage and he’s going on the stage, and you’re missing each other.’ Then (Diddley) said, ‘Well, you just tell that little white guy to sing more Bo Diddley songs!’
“So I thought, ‘Well, OK, let’s wrap up the album with a Bo Diddley song.’”
Burdon is back on the road to promote “’Til Your River Runs Dry,” and is also working on a third book.
“(I wanted to) stay away from music and musicians,” he says, “because that’s what I’ve written about before. This time I’ll find people in between the gaps and the people standing in the shadows and, you know, the fellow travelers — the fans, the promoters, the managers, the crooked cracks beneath the pavement in London and New York and Los Angeles. And the creative accountants!”
It will also, the singer promises, report on what it’s like to still be a rock and roll animal in his eighth decade.
“It’s funny,” Burdon says with a laugh. “It’s hilarious! It’s a powerful thing and a terrifying thing. As long as I can look down from the stage and see smiling faces, especially young kids with their parents, that’s my Golden Globe. That’s my Oscar.
“That’s my reason to keep doing it.”