You can understand Bob Dylan’s bitterness towards the Animals. In the months leading up to the group releasing their cover of the oft-recorded folk song ‘The House of the Rising Sun’, Dylan had recorded a version of his own for his self-titled debut album. It was supposed to be the definitive version of the song. Committed to record by such music luminaries as Nina Simone, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and more, Dylan’s version, about a notorious brothel in New Orleans was edgier and sounded darker. However, not even two years after Dylan went into the studio, the Newcastle, England based band The Animals would one up Dylan and would begin a three week stay on top of the music charts on this month in music history – September 5, 1964.
No matter what type of music you play, the name of the game is to sell records, whether you’re Joan Baez or Einstürzende Neubauten. Artistic merit is wonderful but, to make records, you have to sell records. And that’s what the Animals did with their cover of the song, much to the annoyance of Bob Dylan. The irony of all ironies was that Dylan had lifted his version from an arrangement by fellow folkie Dave Von Ronk, without informing or asking Von Ronk.
Animals’ lead singer Eric Burdon:
“Bob Dylan included this on his first album in 1962, using a folk arrangement he picked up from hearing Dave Van Ronk perform it and singing it as “it’s been the ruin of many a poor girl.” When The Animals recorded it two years later, it was transformative listening for Dylan, who learned he could put apply a rock rhythm to a folk song. He bought an electric guitar and started to use it, famously at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival where he did an electric set for the first time.
“Bob Dylan, who was angry at first, turned into a rocker,” Eric Burdon told Songfacts. “Dylan went electric in the shadow of The Animals classic ‘House of the Rising Sun.'”
The song’s success would provide the spark for the band’s break through into the United States and would become their signature song. Eric Burdon would note about ‘Rising Sun:
“‘House of the Rising Sun’ is a song that I was just fated to. It was made for me and I was made for it. It was a great song for the Chuck Berry tour because it was a way of reaching the audience without copying Chuck Berry. It was a great trick and it worked. It actually wasn’t only a great trick, it was a great recording.”
The song would prove to be the band’s undoing as well. It would struggle to replicate its success with follow up material and would ultimately break up its original lineup four years later.