John Steel has been the Drummer for The Animals since their inception in 1963. At 78 years old, this man is still touring the world and doing what he loves at a pace that would make anybody else his age fall apart. I got the chance to chat with John about the tour, the past, the present, bloody everything. He’s a great bloke and he’s totally up for a laugh.
As long as I can do it, I’ll do it cause I’m not going to give up this life. It’s too much fun.John Steel, The Animals
What John and The Animals have been up to lately:
“Oh, just a busy digging, you know, and that’s what we do. Been on a little mini tour literally just a few weeks ago. This weekend we played a private function in Cairo, which, uh, which was quite interesting. It was some billionaire business man or something, but he was a genuine music buff, you know, he really knew his stuff. So it was good to play for his friends and to the beautiful grounds into a mansion. We drew them all forward, there was about maybe 2 or 300 people there and all the guests reminded me of, um, a kind of Hollywood movie set, you know, uh, or somewhere that Colombo goes through to investigate a murder. It was all like Open Air and Palm trees and whatever, you know, but it was fun.”
John on comparing today’s landscape for touring and music to when The Animals first started out:
“In some ways things were, were pretty primitive. You know, nobody had mobile phones and iPads and whatever. But it was exciting times back then. It was the first time that, people like, Oh, you know, we were just ordinary working class guys from a provincial city, and in those days, only the very wealthy or film stars or whatever went across the Atlantic to and fro to America and back again. So it was very unusual for us to do that. And I think the thing was we were sort of teenagers in the in the middle of the fifties when real rock and roll first came out. And with everything that we saw, we got all these influences who all seemed to be coming from America, you know. So for us to go flying over there from London, doing gigs in America was a lot of fun. Things have obviously changed a lot over the years but it’s still as fun as it was back then”
Does John still get the same feeling when The Animals play ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ like he felt when they first released the song and it was a hit?
“Yeah, if not more so because it resonates with so many people you know, the audiences where you’ve got can be anywhere from teenagers to senior citizens. Everybody knows that song. Many times we’ll do a meet and greet and sign merchandise and stuff. A number of times, I’ve been told ‘That was the first song I ever learned on the first guitar I ever bought.’ That’s just wonderful to me.”
John on what Aussies can expect from the upcoming tour:
“We play the big hits, ‘We Got To Get Out Of This Place’, ‘It’s My Life’, ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ and ‘I’m Crying.’ We’ve got, I think we’ve got about nine top 10 hits on record in Australia. So they’re going to hear all of them. And then we sort of pick and mix with The Animals catalog, you know, album tracks and B sides and things like that just to keep it fresh. We don’t do exactly the same thing every night cause we like to keep it fresh for us. I think the thing about the bond is we get along fine. Lots of banter when we’re traveling, and onstage, it’s really tight and really is good. Everybody’s listening intently to each other and, you know, so nothing’s quite ever the same every night. And I think it’s the complete trust in the audience to get the buzz from us. You know, cause we had enjoyed it so much that we always drove them forward. You know, we’d sometimes get on a stage and there would be it seems, like a football pitch in front of you with empty. Within two or three numbers, they’re all crammed down the front of the stage enjoying themselves.
John talks about the band he’s got with him now:
“It’s not the original Animals, you know, I mean I’m the only one from the original band, but I’ve got Mick Gallagher on the keyboards who played with us in ’65. You know Ian Dury and the Blockheads? He’s spent most of his life playing with that band. He’s also recorded and toured with The Clash for London Calling. He’s been around the block, so it’s good. Good man to have on board. Danny Handley on lead Vocals and lead guitar. Excellent guy. He came in as a guitarist at first, and then the singer decided to retire. Danny took over lead vocal and he really, really took over. He’s got a good friend from New York, Roberto Ruiz and Danny introduced him to us to play bass when our bass player left. I think it’s the best band since the original one, to be honest. A lot of fun.”
Speaking of the old band, is John still friends with them and does he keep in touch?
“Not really. Eric’s (Burdon) settled down in California many, many years ago. Hilton (Valentine) about 15 years ago in Devon met a woman, an American lady who refused to live in Europe. One of those Americans who if things aren’t exactly like they are in America, she can’t live with it, you know? So Hilton sort of was kidnapped and taken to Connecticut where he’s festered in a way that now, I don’t know what he’s doing at the moment. He’s not really very active. Alan Price the original keyboard player. He lives in London. He’s been his own man for a long time, but now he does very little. He just plays at a local jazz blues bar. It’s called the Bull’s Head Barnes in London. It’s very old, very well respected place, and it’s his neighborhood pub. You know, he plays there on the things the last Thursday of every month. So we kind of drifted apart.”
I spoke to John after this about the bond those guys still all share despite the distance, they created and recorded songs that will be played forever more, long after their journey in life is over. I wanted to know how good that made John feel.
“It does indeed. Yeah. That’s the strength of the bond. You know those songs, that’s why I kind of, I call them grown up songs. Songs like ‘We Got To Get Out Of This Place’ and ‘It’s My Life’ and things like that. They’re not just middle of the road pop songs. We’ve got some songs with an edge to them. And I think that’s why they’re still stand up so well, you know, like you said, it’ll be around forever. It’s great to have that response when, when we play these shows, like I say, cause if we get teenagers in the audience and they know all the words, we know they’re singing along….. I don’t even know all the words (laughs)”
We spent the next 4-5 minutes laughing our arses off about a bunch of different topics, particularly what it’s like being in a band myself in this day and age. I’m 32 years old in this conversation, he is 78, and we’re getting along like a house on fire.
Next up was the future. I had to know what Johns plans were going forward with the band and his career.
“This is pretty much what we do. You know, we just go from one show to another. We’re not a big stadium band, not these days, we got a lot of work and it takes us all over the world and we’ll be in some strange places. That’s all we do. We’ve got a live CD that was for merchandise, that they sell at the gigs. Man, we’ve tried recording some original stuff and putting that out there as well, but people just pick up the one that’s got, ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ on and they say, ‘I’ll take that’ (We both laugh). So, yeah, so basically we just stick to the animals catalog, but as I said, we mix it up and we arrange them a bit and pick out ones that we haven’t played for a long time. Just throw them into the set in the last minute and keep everybody on their toes.”
Again at this point we started talking about some of the venues they’ll be playing in and then we went off on a rant talking about how some venues can be so gross which lead to more laughter as I did an impression of myself walking on a sticky floor in a room that smells like vomit.
I had one more question for John, and it was about him being 78 years old and what meant the most to him at this stage of his career. We had a little back and forth which I think capped this conversation off beautifully.
John: “Just to be able to do what I’m doing, you know? I mean, there’s plenty of people my age who would fall apart just doing half of it. I’m just amazed and thankful that I can… I’m still fit enough and still enthusiastic enough to do what I do and, and get the enjoyment out of it that I do. I just feel lucky, you know, really privileged.”
Me: “Well, that’s brilliant. You know, and I was really thinking about it the other day and I was thinking, it’s amazing. He’s 78 and he’s still going and he’s still going strong. And it dawned on me. He’s still going, probably because if he stopped, that’s when he starts aging quicker. You know what I mean? If you keep going, you’re still feeling young.”
John: “That’s what I think! You know, it, it does keep me young. If I stopped, I’ll just fall over. I think it’s just not something I want. If people ask me when I’m going to stop, you know, and I’ll just say, look, I’ll stop when the body can’t do it anymore. As long as I can do it, I’ll do it cause I’m not going to give up this life. It’s too much fun. And yeah, you’re right. I think when it comes to the time I stop… I’ll finally turn into an old man.”
The Animals tour hits our shores on November 27 in Fremantle, and ends December 14 on the Gold Coast. You can get tickets to any of the upcoming shows here at Metropolis Touring.