Nik Cohn’s AwopBopaLooBopaLopBamBoom is the best book on Sixties pop, it makes everything else seem like marginalia. He’s almost always right, so I only ever open it when I’m stumped by a record. And “House Of The Rising Sun” stumped me. What does Nik have to say about it? He nails the British ‘blues boom’ as an Art School fad – seems fair to me. He has a healthy suspicion of suburban boys singing – no, performing – the blues. His take on Eric Burdon makes a lot of sense – “he’s always been trendy and painfully sincere, a tough combination to handle”. He also says that this one is a great record, and I may grudgingly have to concede.
When I used to occasionally bump into “House Of The Rising Sun” on the radio it seemed like a seriously boring track. Even the secret knowledge that it was about a (whisper it) whorehouse couldn’t rescue it. Slow pace, phoney Transatlantic accent, effort as a shorthand for emotion – yes, it checks my bad boxes. But when I pay more attention I can hear what’s special in the record. For one thing Eric Burdon doesn’t really sing the song, he surfs on it. Once you’re past the first verse it’s like he’s not even sure what the words are, he’s just swaying and howling, rising and falling over the roil of the band, letting the music drag and carry him.
And the band have a good day to say the least. As soon as Alan Price comes in on organ the song steps it up and the last couple of minutes are irresistible, total confidence and aggression, with Price dancing and jabbing through any gaps he can find. I can only think I never got to the end before. Close listening can’t make me love the song but I can manage a wary admiration.