Q. What’s so great about “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” by the Animals?
I mean, as a band the Animals are best known for two songs and this one is probably, and appropriately, number two after “House Of The Rising Sun”. And there’s clearly no denying how great “House Of The Rising Sun” is, because that would be insane. It’s a melodramatic classic, full of brooding Southern Gothic, pain and loss. It’s an amazing song, and almost anything would be eclipsed by a song of that magnitude. And yet here’s “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” popping up to prove that almost comprehensively wrong.
The opening bass riff here – ominous, beckoning, alluring even – draws you in just as much as the arpeggiated opening to “House Of The Rising Sun” but lyrically we have universality rather than the specificity of, “there is a house in New Orleans”. “In this dirty old part of the city” could refer to almost anywhere because what city doesn’t have a “dirty old part”? The band themselves didn’t write the song and hail from Newcastle, but the song – written as part of the whole Brill Building songwriting system – comes from New York. The line applies equally though, and it could just as easily be London, Paris, Moscow, Hong Kong. Or, perhaps relevantly, Saigon, since “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” became a huge hit on Forces Radio and a major touchstone for American forces serving in Vietnam.
Point being – anyone and everyone can get it. Eric Burdon’s voice on that opening line is hushed, almost reverential and that reserve is well placed because when he gets to “see my daddy in bed a’dyin” he can go full throttle, belting the line out like his life depends on it. Which, in the spiritual sense of the song, it pretty much does – this is a song clearly drawing from and rooted in the blues and the delivery completely supports this. Burdon doesn’t have a traditional Geordie accent – in fact his voice is positively accent-free again leaning into a feel of universality – so when he goes full throttle what we hear is a scream of pure desperation and near-hopelessness as he pelts towards the chorus. Oh, it’s melodramatic to be sure, but the melodrama never descends into camp and adds to the song rather than subtracts from it. It adds genuine power. And when we finally get there the gasp of relief that lies at the heart of the song’s title feels like a cathartic release, a way to move on from the desperation of the first verse.
That’s a single verse and a chorus. It’s indelible – it takes one minute and ten seconds before we hit the chorus and the song is already a vast emotional rollercoaster. What’s so impressive is that “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” never loses that momentum and the quiet introduction to the second verse follows the same pattern before we get the same explosion preceding the chorus. The story of pain and loss – again rooting this so firmly in the blues tradition that the Animals hail from – is re-emphasised. People are “dead before their time is due”. They can be “young and so pretty” but that youth and vitality can be stolen before they even know it. Another wasted generation. That could be referring to coal miners, or generations of slaves, or cotton pickers, or shipbuilders.
Or soldiers. Universality is a tricky concept to get right. Make something too universal and you smear out anything interesting – you produce something acceptable but bland. Swing too far in the other direction and you claim universality but still end up exclusionary. “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” lands its universality perfectly. Everyone’s had the desire to run, to escape, to flee circumstance. By having the song and performance rooted in the blues it gains an authenticity without subtracting from the universal appeal. That’s a pretty neat trick – the Rolling Stones would base a half-century long career on doing just that. The fact that the song is being sung by a bunch of white northern lads rather than some old black man from the Delta doesn’t damage the song either – northern England was struck by punishing hardships at the time and the sense of suffering and the desire to escape it eclipses any concerns about proprietary or “white men singing black men’s music”.
So it’s worth pointing out that the song was written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, a Jewish husband and wife team from Brooklyn. They were phenomenally successful, but blues travellers they were not. They wrote over-produced saccharine housewife’s favourite “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” for the Righteous Brothers. Dolly Parton was gifted “Here You Come Again”. A few Grammy’s are attached to their name. There’s the novelty hit “Who Put The Bomp (In The Bomp Bomp Bomp)”. But nothing they wrote quite had the lightning-in-a-bottle moment of “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”.
The Animals are not, in fact, an obvious fit for Mann/Weil as a writing team and indeed this song was originally intended for the Righteous Brothers. It is their loss and music’s gain that it ended up with the Animals instead because it’s impossible to imagine them bringing the same raw power and pain that Burdon is able to deliver on the vocal. Similarly, a Righteous Brothers production – smooth, accomplished rather than primitive and energetic – would perhaps turn out a more technically competent performance but it would never come close to capturing the vitality and urgency of the Animals version. How could it? No band that has ever recorded the song – of which there are hundreds, up to and including Bruce Springsteen who’s on record as saying everything he’s ever written is that song – has quite managed to capture the heart of it as well as the original version. The Animals themselves wouldn’t hit this high again – the original line-up would last only another year and a second iteration of the band wouldn’t manage to see out the decade – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” represents their last hurrah and nobody could match that. Plenty over cover version improve on the original in some version. But “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” will never be on that list. It already exists in its perfect, ideal form. It is unimprovable. And it is unimpeachable.
What Else Happened in 1965?
Previous entry Petula Clark scored a number one with “Downtown” the U.S., so good for her. The Supremes give us the classic “Stop! In The Name Of Love” and the Temptations “My Girl” so Motown is doing pretty well. Maria Callas gives her final performance, bringing to an end arguably the finest career in all of opera. The Beatles – we had to get there at some point – break the record for the biggest gig ever when they play Shea Stadium, named after the famous Cuban gruella leader Shea Stadium. They also meet Elvis, which is A Thing, and receive the MBE from the Queen. A couple of defining songs get released, “My Generation” by the Who and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones (the biggest song of the year), and Bob Dylan gives us another classic with Bringing It All Back Home. Speaking of folk-rock, The Byrds secure their early legacy by covering Dylan, giving us the definitive version of “Mr Tambourine Man” (noting in passing that “definitive” is not a synonym for “best”). The Grateful Dead, Captain Beefheart and Pink Floyd are all founded. Paul Simon releases his first solo album (the inventively-titled The Paul Simon Songbook), and if the album title is anything to go by, apparently Everything’s Coming Up Dusty. Help yourselves.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
You cannot imagine how much self-restraint it took not to do “Woolly Bully” by Sam The Sham. Not that it’s a deathless work of art or anything, but still. “Woolly Bully”! The Righteous Brothers spent a few weeks at Number 2 with “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” before scraping to the top of the charts, but it’s a terrible song even as it represents a genre that’s rather passed into history. “Stop! In The Name Of Love” spent a lot more time at Number 2 than it did at the top spot and was a close-run thing. Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” spent a few weeks at Number 2 but I’m not really sure there’s much more to be said about one of the most over-analysed songs in history. See also “My Generation”.
1. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
2. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
3. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
4. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
5. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
6. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”