In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Nobody is quite sure how old “The House Of The Rising Sun” is. The song might refer to an old women’s prison in Louisiana or to a brothel that was open in New Orleans in the 1860s and ’70s, though nobody knows. And it might be even older than that; there’s speculation that it’s a mutation of an English folk song from the 17th century. The song’s lyrics appeared in a 1925 magazine column under the title “Old Songs That Men Have Sung.”
Recordings of “The House Of The Rising Sun” date back to at least 1933. In 1937, the folklorist Alan Lomax recorded a version sung by Georgia Turner, a 16-year-old girl in Kentucky. Roy Acuff, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, Miriam Makeba, and Joan Baez all recorded versions of it. Bob Dylan sang the song on his debut album, though his fellow Greenwich Village folkie Dave Van Ronk accused Dylan of ripping off his own version of it.
Plenty of folk songs hit #1 before the Animals’ version of “The House Of The Rising Sun.” Some of them were dark and fucked-up, at least lyrically. Some of them had been transformed into pop, or into rock ‘n’ roll. But none of them stared into the void the way the Animals’ “The House Of The Rising Sun” did. The Animals took this song about contemplating your own moral degradation and sang it like they believed it, or at least like they’d thought about what the lyrics meant. They gave it a doomy, cinematic arrangement. They took a youth-culture moment bursting with giddy, screaming, hormones-popping excitement, and they transformed it into miasmic darkness. They really did something with it.
The Animals looked and dressed a bit like the Beatles. They had the same haircuts. They got themselves a record deal in the immediate wake of the Beatles. But most of the Animals’ self-titled debut album is the sort of blues-rock that you only make when you’re way too into the idea of authenticity. Even before the Rolling Stones broke through, the Animals cast themselves in a similar role: the serious-hedonist alternative, the band who sought to honor American black music by recreating it as closely as possible. Their early music can be impressive. It can even be fun. But in it, you can hear the beginning of what would become the Blueshammer approach to bar rock.
That goes out the window with “The House Of The Rising Sun.” The song is a gothic swirl. The riff — an arpeggiated version of the one that Dylan had used — chimes and glimmers with a heavy sort of swagger. It doesn’t sound like blues, or like rock ‘n’ roll. The critic Dave Marsh has called “The House Of The Rising Sun” the first folk-rock hit, but that riff doesn’t sound like folk-rock, either. It sounds like the void opening up and swallowing you.
The rest of the arrangement follows that lead. The organ is a world-weary drone; it sounds like the moaning of lost souls. The drums are all cymbal — high, eerie, nerve-rattling. And singer Eric Burdon sounds like motherfucking Danzig. He just opens his throat and wails: “Oh mothers, tell your children not to do what I have done / Spend your lives in sin and misery in the House Of The Rising Sun.” The Animals changed the song’s lyrics. In their hands, it’s about a gambler’s son who becomes a gambler, not about a woman who turns to prostitution as her only way to survive. But that doesn’t mean they lighten the song. Instead, Burdon sings it like someone who’s a prisoner to his own worst urges, who has fought himself and fought himself and then finally given up.
The song is phony, of course. The Animals were comfortable UK art-school kids singing, in fake accents, about lives that they could only imagine. But pretty much all pop music is phony. Phony is fine. What matters isn’t whether you’ve lived this life. What matters is whether you create the impression that you have. What matters is whether you sell it. And the Animals sold the shit out of it.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Sinéad O’Connor’s heart-stopping 1994 cover of “The House Of The Rising Sun”:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Wyclef Jean rapping in Haitian Creole over a sample of “The House Of The Rising Sun,” while guest Lauryn Hill interpolates the song’s melody, on Wyclef’s 1997 track “Sang Fezi”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a great Cat Power cover of “The House Of The Rising Sun,” from a 2006 iTunes live session: