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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. When Bruce Springsteen gave the keynote speech at the South By Southwest Music Festival two years ago, he surprised a lot of listeners by declaring that - although he grew up admiring The Beatles and the Rolling Stones - the group that really made him want to form a band was The Animals, a rough-and-tumble quintet from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne that caught on in the U.S. during the British Invasion.

A box of four of their four classic albums has just been released. Rock historian Ed Ward tells us their story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOOM BOOM")

THE ANIMALS: (Singing) Boom, boom, boom, boom. Gonna shoot you right down. Get you into my house, make love to you. Love that is true. Boom, boom, boom, boom. Boom, boom, boom, boom, baby...

ED WARD, BYLINE: The Animals came into being when Eric Burdon, born during an air raid in 1941, joined the Alan Price Combo - a group which, like so many others in Britain in 1962, was playing American rock 'n' roll and blues. The band quickly got a regular slot at the Downbeat club in Newcastle, where the local teenagers loved their wild stage show and began calling them the animals.

The name stuck, their reputation grew, and by May 1963, they were following in The Beatles' footsteps by playing the Star Club in Hamburg. By the end of the year, they'd recorded a four-song EP for their fans and pressed up 500 copies, a few of which found their way to London. By Christmas, the band had been invited to move there so record companies could bid for them.

Mickie Most, a British singer who'd been a star in South Africa and had just moved back to Britain, had caught the band at a hometown show and, once they'd relocated, got them a record deal. Their first single almost made the British Top 20.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY LET ME TAKE YOU HOME")

ANIMALS: (Singing) Baby, can I take you home? Baby, let me take you home. I'll love you all my life, you can bet I'll treat you right, if you'll just let me take you home. Baby, can you...

WARD: The vocalist, Eric Burdon, had plenty of charisma, but it was their keyboard player Alan Price was the musical center of the band and he proved it with the next single where he took a song everyone had heard a million times and changed it utterly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN")

ANIMALS: (Singing) there is a house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun. And it's been a ruin of many of poor boy and god, I know I'm one. My mother was a tailor. She sewed my new blue jeans. My father was a gambling man down in New Orleans.

WARD: Hilton Valentine created the guitar part, but Price got writer and arranger credit for the international smash-hit record which led to The Animals' first U.S. tour, starting in York, Penn., in September 1964. An album was rushed out, and they were signed to MGM Records in America.

They continued to tour and, when they had a minute, to drop into a studio to lay down tracks for Mickie Most, who assembled another album from them, "The Animals on Tour." It wasn't a live album, but the fans didn't care. Unlike a lot of the other British Invasion groups, The Animals didn't write any of the material on their first couple of albums, and Mickie Most got some of the young Brill Building songwriters to send them material.

Their next hit was a cover of a song Nina Simone had recorded.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T LET ME BE MISUNDERSTOOD")

ANIMALS: (Singing) Baby, do you understand me now? Sometimes I feel a little mad. But don't you know that no one alive could always be an angel? When things go wrong I seem to be bad. But I'm just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh, lord, please don't let me be misunderstood. Baby...

WARD: "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" almost cracked the Top 10 in the States, and did better in Britain and Burdon started to write material with Price, but tensions were high. With an album almost completed, Price split to form his own band, the Alan Price Set. But, much to Mickie Most's relief, the mail brought a demo the band could cut with its new keyboardist, Dave Rowberry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE GOTTA GET OUT OF THIS PLACE")

ANIMALS: (Singing) Working, yeah. Every day. Slaving his life away. He's been working, baby. He's been working, working, working, work. We gotta get out of this place if it's the last thing we ever do. We gotta get out of this place. Girl, there's a better life for me and you. Mm, yeah. My little girl, you're...

WARD: Although co-writer Cynthia Weil later said "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" was the worst version of one of her songs ever recorded, it's unlikely she refused to cash the checks it generated. It also became an anthem for American soldiers in Vietnam - and, just maybe, young Bruce Springsteen, who certainly echoed its theme in his own songs.

Things were changing. Mickie Most had other production commitments, and MGM handed The Animals a new producer, the enigmatic Tom Wilson, who'd produced everyone from The Mothers of Invention to Bob Dylan to Cecil Taylor. The band had a new demo from New York, a Carole King -Gerry Goffin song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T BRING ME DOWN")

ANIMALS: (Singing) When you complain and criticize I feel I'm nothing in your eyes. It makes me feel like giving up because my best just ain't good enough. Girl, I want to provide for you and do all the things that you want me too but oh, oh, no, don't bring me down. I'm begging you, darling. Oh, oh, no. Don't bring me down.

WARD: But shortly after this came out, drummer John Steel announced he was worn out and left the band. Just as his replacement, Barrie Jenkins, was settling in, bassist Chas Chandler was walking down MacDougal Street in New York and he heard some wild sounds coming out of a club, went in, and introduced himself to the man making them, Jimi Hendrix.

He quit The Animals, took Hendrix back to England, and Hilton Valentine came up with the name The Jimi Hendrix Experience for the band Chandler put together around him. Then Valentine, too, quit The Animals. There was another single, the old blues tune "See See Rider," and it did well. But The Animals at this point were basically Eric Burdon. The next chapter in their story belongs to him.

GROSS: All the music rock historian Ed Ward played is included on the new collection "The Animals: The Mickie Most Years and More."

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