Hi, John Steel here.
Oh hi John, it is Julie from Amnplify. Thank you for agreeing to speak with me.
You are welcome. Is that Amnplify the news or radio?
It’s an on-line, Australian Musican Network that does interviews and reviews for bands, nationally and internationally. The first question I have is, where did you grow up and what kind of music were you exposed to at an early age?
I grew up in a town called, Gateshead, opposite Newcastle. Musically, there was always music in the house. I was the youngest of four. It all goes back to when I was born in 1941, so in the 40’s and 50’s, I was exposed to Fats Waller, Bill Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day.
Great, including Doris Day?
Yes, she was great. I still have a soft spot for Doris Day.
Then, of course, by the time I was in my early teens, rock and roll came on the scene. But I was into a lot of jazz before that as well. So I had a combination of jazz and rock-‘n-roll in my blood.
A big mix of music really.
What a fantastic childhood experience! What was the first rock show that you ever attended in the UK? Did that plant a seed in your young mind to pursue the life of a musician? Or any music show you first attended when you were a youngster or teenager?
There’s a venue called The Newcastle City Hall which is about a 2000 seat venue where I saw a lot of great Jazz men in my early teens. The first concert I ever saw, was Mick Mulligan Magnolia Jazz Band, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them.
No but I will look them up.
The second concert I went to see was Louis Armstrong. It was his first visit to the UK since the 30’s. That was a fantastic experience. To see such an icon is a wonderful memory
That would have been fantastic. Did your parents take you to that show or did you go with your mates?
It was with a couple of mates in school. They were older guys. They were a couple of years older than me.
How old were you at the time John?
I was 14 and they were a couple of years older. They were my Jazz mentors. They taught me what to listen to and what to see.
What a great education. When did you start playing music John?
I was a school dropout when I left school. I was 16 and went to the Newcastle College of Art, to Art School. That’s where I met Eric Burden. We were both drop outs. It was a wonderful situation, it was quite a new thing where if you weren’t particularly academic or you didn’t want to work in a factory or if you had any artistic talent at all, you could apply to go to an art school. That was a brilliant thing.
I think it would have been a fantastic, learning opportunity, to be in an art school, studying art and music which was exactly what you wanted to do.
That was 1956 that Eric and I were both 15 and we’d go to school. We both discovered we had the same taste in music and movies and books and things. We formed a band, a couple of guys that we just messed around with. I joined them and we formed our first band. Within no time at all, we were playing rock and roll and the blues. I was the singer but Eric decided he wanted to be the singer so he took over as the singer which I was fine with.
How did you end up being the drummer John?
It is weird. I was a trumpet player. There was a guy called Allen Sanderson who had drums and a guy called Jimmy Crawford that had a Banjo. We had this big get together thing where I said, I don’t just want to sing, I can’t play trumpet anyways. It is just one of those things when you are 15, you think okay. I said, I want to play base. Everybody was fascinated by the new electric base.
Jimmy on Banjo said okay, I will play electric guitar. And I thought, well I will play drums then.
You sat behind the drums.
That’s right, yeah.
You took to it obviously.
I took to it naturally.
Back then, who were your primary musical influences? Were they Blues, Jazz or were you open to all kinds of genres of music?
We were into jazz and rock and roll and blues.
Definitely Elvis and Chuck Berry and Little Richard; people thought Elvis was from Mars!! The way he danced and moved. Thrilling!! There was also there’s a guy called Lonnie Donegan in the UK.
I’ve heard of him.
He played Banjo in a trad jazz band, a Dixieland band which became a skiffle band with Chris Barber. They would play some Jazz and Dixieland music. Chris Barber was the leader of the band, he played Trombone. He switched to double base. They played this kind of jug music, that is why they called it skiffle.
I’ve read about it John but I never really understood what skiffle music actually was or is.
It is a very simple music. It is basically three cords. It became a big hit. Everybody of our age thought this is great. You can get to learn three cords, get a cheap guitar and you are in a band. I’ve always reckoned that that was the beginning of what began the British Beat boom, also known as Merseybeat.
When and where were the first few the Animals gigs?
With different line ups and things, we just played where we could, even at art school. Then when things started to get a bit more serious, we started getting gigs. There was a fellow called Mike Jefferey who had been a mature student at Newcastle University. He opened his first band, it was the Newcastle University Jazz Club. We very quickly got on to the blues and rock side of things.
We opened at a club called the Down Beat in Newcastle which was just a big empty warehouse. That’s where we found our right direction. After we had the success with the Down Beat club, we opened a two room club called The Club a Go Go in Newcastle. That became the place of music; the place to be and the place to play, in Newcastle.
We became the house band and that was 1963. We backed The Gas Board, The Answers, The Misunderstood, all kinds of rock and roll bands and blues bands. Jerry Lee Lewis, The Stones, Captain Beefheart, The Who, John Mayall all played there.
That would have been a fantastic time for musos of that era.
It was; it was great.
What else can you tell me about that time with regard to the evolution of The Animals?
We played as many gigs as we could, wherever we could, and continued to improve. Also, by that time, in 1963, the Beatles were already showing everybody the way. Some guy came up from London, we didn’t know him. He was looking for new talent and everybody was trying to find the next Beatles. Mike Jefferey realised he had some talent on his hands, which was terrific, so he immediately signed us up to a management contract.
He went down to London and he was introduced to a guy called Roland O’Riley who had a club. He became the first pilot radio station other than Radio Carolina in the UK. He had this club at the right west end of London. There was also a guy called Giorgio Gomelsky who had managed a band called The Yardbirds. Are you familiar?
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The Yardbirds eventually morphed into Led Zeppelin. What we did was, we swopped gigs with the Yardbirds and they came to Newcastle and did our gigs at the Club a Go Go and the Down Beat. We went to the South East and did The Yardbirds gigs, playing basically all the rock and blues songs that the Rolling Stones got their teeth into. That was the December of ’63 and we immediately realised that this is where we had to be. We created a stir.
With The Animals, you have recorded legendary hits, including The House of the Rising Sun, We Gotta Get Out of This Place, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, which I have listened to all day today, and danced around my lounge room. I’m so excited getting the opportunity to talk to a musical legend! Anyway, what songs have you recorded and performed that you really love to still play? Is it all of them?
That’s the beauty and the variety of it. Nothing we ever did have I ever felt ashamed of.
No absolutely not!
Nothing we’ve done I felt, oh we shouldn’t have done that.
The songs still stand up today as really strong songs that our audiences continue to respond very positively to.
I love them.
I’ve been listening to you all day on Youtube. I was just going to ask you too, unfortunately I haven’t seen your band play, I read that The Animals, you tend to put on very dynamic sort of stage performances. Did that sort of come naturally or is that because you guys really liked to cut your teeth in all the clubs you played and you just gigged one performance after another after another and practiced until perfect. Was it simply hard yakka, as we say down here, or were you simply just natural performers?
That’s exactly right. That is exactly what it was. We just naturally evolved. We all had a natural enthusiasm for the music and performing felt natural too.
Which is imperative, isn’t it?
It sounds like there was a good rapport between you guys. For example, if one of you considered recording a song, did you all tend to agree with which songs you wanted to do?
Oh absolutely yes, we all had to agree on the songs chosen. We did have a terrific rapport. There was a lot of a freedom in playing as well. When we were playing at clubs like The Go Go, we didn’t play exactly the same thing every night the same way.
You would keep jamming, is that what you mean?
Exactly, we would jam on some songs going on for 15 to 20 minutes.
I would have loved to see that John. I am so sad I never got to see it.
The Animals are one of the bands internationally that helped bring about the British Invasion. What do you think about that amazing accomplishment, John?
It was fantastic. When we were teenagers in the 50’s and it seemed all our influences came from America. We were listening to Elvis, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry, T-Bone Walker, and so on. All these guys were our influences back then. And for us to sort of turn it around and take it back to America was amazing. We were just ordinary working class guys from England.
In those days only rich, high class people could fly over to America. We were suddenly flying over there and given a whole series of shows to play, in the middle of Manhattan and it was like a dream come true.
You all were like 18 at the time?
We were all already, 19, 20, very young.
Can you tell me John, some other sort of muso’s or maybe some more famous musician’s that I won’t know that you have had the pleasure of playing with, jamming with, recording with? Any influences, any people you’ve worked with that have been particularly helpful or inspiring?
The guy who gave us our name was a brilliant jazz musician but he was also a blues player. He was called Graham Bond, his band was called the Graham Bond Organisation. It was Graham who actually came up with the name, ‘The Animals’.
Yes. We jammed with him in The Go Go because he was such an accomplished, respected artist there. He got up and played with us on our set. He told Mike Jefferey, he said, you want to get rid of that big clumpy name, Eric Burdon and the Animals, so we became The Animals.
It is a great name for a band.
You need something snappy, something that’ll make people go, what?
I always thought the Australian band The Baby Animals were inspired by your name, just quietly. Possibly! Now with Youtube, Spotify, those kinds of sites, what is your view, John, on how technology has grown with music production and also how technology has influenced music consumption, like me today, dancing all around my house listening to your songs from Youtube?
It is just phenomenal for where we came from originally.
It is just unbelievable how things have developed. People are getting music out of the air now, it seems. We used to go out to a shop and buy it, physically buy a record.
I bought them too, John. I grew up with a record player and 78’s. I remembered them with great fondness and I still have them all, and in perfect condition by the way.
Now you recently turned 76, I believe? With your extensive life experience, what would you say is the key to your, and I mean this in the best possible way, your youth like good health and stamina as a performer? Do you eat well, do you exercise or are you just a tough Northern England man with great genes and DNA?
It might be my DNA. I really enjoy what I do.
That’s paramount, isn’t it?
Yes, I get a lot of pleasure out of doing what I do. People say how long are you going to be able to do this? I always say, my body will tell me when I’ve had enough.
Absolutely! Who says you’ve got to stop? I remember reading an article many years ago where Mick Jagger said back in the 60’s, that he won’t be playing when he is 30, suggesting that 30 is too old to be a rock star. I couldn’t disagree with him more! I remember reading that and thinking, he was in his 40’s at the time, and I was watching him on tv on stage. He was full of life and energy and having a ball! And he is just as great a performer now, in his 70s, as he was when he was 18. Why do you have to stop just because you are getting a little older? Your more seasoned and you can teach the young ones more than a thing or two. I think it’s fantastic.
I do too. I love performing every bit as much as I did when I was 18.
With the jazz players of yesteryear, people played live in their 80’s and no one blinked an eye. That is really cool because that is what jazz players do. That is their life.
Are you looking forward to touring Australia and what can your fans and new people that haven’t seen you, what can they expect from the shows?
I am very much looking forward to it. The show, we’re all enthusiastic, we’re all still love doing what we do. We play the big hits that we’ve just talked about. Those singles, but we play quite a lot of tracks that are not on albums. Our shows tend to go over well.
Yes, we mix it up. We don’t always play the same numbers and we change up the set to help keep it fresh.
And it keeps it fresh, not only for the fans, but for you guys too, right?
One last question, John, what do you like to do when you are not playing music?
I’ve become a gardener.
Oh how lovely.
My wife is a keen gardener and I kind of slipped into it. Whenever I am home, I get the digging and the hard work to do. I enjoy it and I love reading. I do that a lot. Gardening is free and relaxing and it takes your mind off every day struggles; you don’t think about anything else but taking those weeds out of the ground. It really sounds stupid.
No it doesn’t at all. My mum is a gardener. I didn’t get the green thumb but my mum is a gardener and I see her outside. She’s just in another world. She’s just absolutely blissfully in peace. Not having to do anything with the family stress or anything going on in the house. She’s right away from it, having a wonderful time.
That’s exactly what I get out of it.
John, I better go because I know you have other interviews after this one. I am so excited that I had the opportunity to talk to you. Thank you very, very much for you time. I hope I get to see you when you come to Australia. I hope you have a wonderful time here. I wish you all the very best with your upcoming tour.
Thanks a lot Julie.
Take care John, bye.
The Animals Australian Tour Dates
The ANIMALS Spotify Playlist: HERE
Saturday 6th May – GOLD COAST Southport RSL
Sunday 7th May – SUNSHINE COAST Aussie World
Wednesday 10th May – SYDNEY The Basement
Thursday 11th May – KATOOMBA Katoomba RSL
Friday 12th May – MELBOURNE The Palms at Crown
Saturday 13th May – ADELAIDE The Gov
Monday 15th May – NEWCASTLE Lizotte’s
Wednesday 17th May – CANBERRA Southern Cross Club
Thursday 18th May – WOLLONGONG Centro CBD
Friday 19th May – CENTRAL COAST Doyalson RSL
Saturday 20th May – ROOTY HILL Rooty Hill RSL
Sunday 21st May – ROZELLE The Bridge Hotel
Tickets Via – http://www.metropolistouring.