"The House of The Rising Sun"
1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die
One of the annoying aspects about the Tom Moon book is that he sometimes uses the term “recordings” in the book’s title to allow him to pinpoint certain songs when he doesn’t feel a whole album is worth noting, as is the case with The Animals self-titled album. He may have a point in this case however.
It was not a rarity it the ‘50s and ‘60s for bands to forgo the songwriting process. Many record labels believed that standards were standards for a reason, and there was no reason to have young musicians trying to replace them. Therefore every one of the 12 tracks on the US version of “The Animals” from the British Invasion band is a cover. One stands out in particular, its classic take on “The House of The Rising Sun.”
The original songwriter of “House” is a mystery, but the first recorded version was by folk duo Clarence Ashley and Gwen Foster, who had learned it from their relatives, in 1933. Dozens of other variants exist, including one from The Almanac Singers’ “Their Complete General Recordings,” as seen earlier in this blog. The Animals version has gone on to be the most successful, and I would concur that it is the best.
The key is the tone that the band takes with the track. While the Almanac Singers’ version is sugar coated and watered down, The Animals take a bleak approach to the narrative of the song’s protagonist. The original version was told from the perspective of a female who was duped into the sex trade at New Orleans’ notorious House of the Rising Sun, but The Animals made it more radio-friendly by telling it from a male perspective. Eric Burdon’s pained voice conveys the same depression and despair that should’ve been present in the original.
Another positive for The Animals’ version is that it goes a full 4:32, which at the time was considered far too long to be released as a single. They went ahead and released the entire track, which is appreciated even more now as a result. The extension allowed for Alan Price’s delightfully bleak Vox organ solo during the bridge, and an extra run at the chorus by Burdon, which is a positive because it’s the song’s best feature. Add a unique arpeggiated riff from guitarist Hilton Valentine, and this song will ensnare you just like the legendary house.
Rolling Stone ranked this as 122 on its all time greatest songs list, and with all these fine pieces working together, it’s well-deserved.
INTERESTING FACT: The house that the house is based on, which is believed to be the one owned by Madame Marianne LeSoleil Levant, is now the location of the Nola Art House, a New Orleans art collective.