“We Plan To Rock The Flower Power Cruise…” - Eric Burdon
Let’s start by saying that catching up with Eric Burdon isn’t easy. For a guy of seventy-five, he maintains a punishing schedule, and between shows he’s working on a new album. His vocal chops are undiminished because, as he says, he sounded like an older guy when he was young, so he’s aged into his voice. Like many of his compatriots from the British Invasion …Peter Asher, Spencer Davis, Peter Noone, to name just three we’ll be seeing… Eric calls California home. He says the Flower Power Cruise will be his last cruise for a while, so his appearance will be one to treasure.
What drew you to Southern California?
The relatively dry climate. I spent many years in the desert, from Palm Springs and La Quinta to Joshua Tree. I’ve suffered with asthma my whole life and I found a climate where I could breathe.
When you were a kid, was there one record more than any other that you played repeatedly … a record that made you think, “I’m going to do this”?
As a teenager, I heard Smiley Lewis doing "Shame, Shame, Shame" in the Carroll Baker film "Baby Doll" and discovered Rhythm ‘n’ Blues. My parents bought me a turntable and a neighbor, who was a merchant seaman, would bring me blues records from America. I listened to all the greats, from Ray Charles and Nina Simone to Little Richard and James Brown, and I still do. [Deep trivia fans might know that Smiley Lewis also made the first recording of Dave Edmunds’ hit “I Hear You Knockin.’”]
So many guys in British Invasion bands went to art schools. John Lennon, Charlie Watts, Ray Davies, Eric Clapton, and of course you. What did art schools nurture musicians?
Art school was where you went if you didn't show any particular proclivity towards becoming a business person. I’ve often wondered how my life would have been if I’d gone to the London School of Economics instead!
Do you still draw or paint?
I still like to paint, although I haven't been doing as much of it lately. Life is racing by quickly, but I still draw and sketch regularly in my journal.
R&B was underground music in the UK when you were growing up. It was hard to find on the radio and in stores. Did it feel to you and the other guys in the Animals as if you spoke a secret language?
The minute I would get something hot, like a new Chuck Berry album, I would go from house to house and sit with friends and we would spin it and spin it and spin it. It was always a game who was going to understand the lyrics first and we’d try to figure it out together, guessing the words. So that was the way we learned that secret language.
When the Rolling Stones first came to the States, they made a point of going to the Chess Records studio in Chicago where Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and others recorded. Was there a totemic place here that you visited?
The Apollo Theatre was one of the first stops we made when we arrived in New York, and I hung out at the Apollo quite a lot. Took photographs and made friends with the manager, whose name was Honi Coles. I didn't find out until later that he had been one of America's greatest dancers. But for me, by myself or with other musicians, every opportunity I got, I would head back across the tracks and get my head into the R&B clubs. As soon as I found myself in the spotlight with the Animals, I was threatened with losing the freedom I'd had as an art student, so the best place to make my getaway was to the black clubs to absorb the music that I loved so much.
You first toured the States just before the Summer of Love. Did you visit San Francisco on that first trip? Could you see the scene developing?
It wasn't quite happening yet when we first went there, although the Beats [Beatniks] had taken over North Beach. It was a year or two later when long hair, LSD, and Flower Power really kicked in. I moved there to be a part of my tribe but before long I found L.A. to be more to my liking.
What was it about that era that still resonates with kids today? Many of them buy vinyl and dress like hippies, but it’s almost their grandparents’ music!
Any young rebel soul needs to protest the inequality of the day. In that era, there was a profound sense of freedom and the feeling that young people could achieve anything: break down racial and sexual barriers, stop a war, dance to the music that was being created. It was a youth movement at a time when there were more young people with mobility than ever before. It is not surprising that young people today can identify with it. Plus, the music was so ground-breaking and evidently, timeless. As far as vinyl goes, I’m glad kids rediscovered the sound of it, and I did as well. It’s pretty much all I listen to now. I have an amazing turntable and I’m glad I can find records. I rebuilt my collection. Young kids are rebelling against crap sound.
How does touring today compare with touring in the Sixties?
We sold out the Cow Palace in San Francisco [in 1967] and we played in front of thousands of kids with pretty much no sound system. I turned the band’s monitors towards the audience. In those days, most people came just to see us, not to hear us. We really felt like animals...on display. Back then, the fans made a lot of noise, screaming at the tops of their lungs, and they wouldn’t stop. It wasn’t until later that the crowd became mellower and really listened to the music. Nowadays, we have better sound on stage where we can hear ourselves and still project the music over the audience. Definitely, we have better travel conditions: we stay in nicer hotel rooms and travel in luxury. But the airports are more uptight and there is just the stress of travel. A body that has been traveling the world for fifty-plus years does not take it as well as it used to. Flying first class just means an extra bag of peanuts. You used to get a martini on a short flight, like from L.A. to Palm Springs. Airport security and crowded airports have taken away the pleasure of air travel.
Tour buses are also a thing of the past for me. I prefer to travel separately with my wife, who’s also my manager, behind the wheel of the latest Mercedes, BMW, or Audi. Occasionally, when we are in Germany, where there’s no speed limit on the autobahns, she’ll hit 240 kilometers-an-hour.
What effect do you think that technologies like auto-tune and endless overdubs have had on the making of music in the studio?
The rawness and spontaneity was part of the magic in ‘60s music. We recorded the band “live,” often in one take. The longer one spends fine-tuning or auto-tuning, the more stripped of soul it becomes. This refers back to why today’s youth are dressing like hippies. There is a longing for something more natural. Technology these days is wonderful when it comes to mixing, but I still prefer to record like the old days with the whole band in one room, shooting to get it right the first time. Old habits die hard.
We wouldn’t mention your seventy-fifth birthday, except you made it a tab on your website. What’s one thing 75 year-old you would tell 25 year-old you?
At 25, would I have listened to a 75 year old man? Maybe, if it was one of the great blues singers! I guess the one piece of advice would be: don't sign any contracts without a good lawyer standing by.
Everyone’s looking forward to seeing you in Jamaica on the Flower Power Cruise.
Jah Mon! We plan to rock the Flower Power Cruise like a cool ocean breeze.