Listen to this track, an ambitious single from former R&B powerhouse Eric Burdon, with a reconfigured Animals from 1968. It’s the orchestrally augmented psych-pop single “Sky Pilot” as taken from the album The Twain Shall Meet, a record that allies itself more with West Coast American psychedelia than with the London R&B boom of years previous. This makes sense, since Burdon had moved the band Stateside by this time, after re-starting the group after their initial 1966 break-up.
After the R&B boom during which the Animals built their reputation in London had ceased, and music had moved from singles-driven efforts, to more album-oriented, and musically ambitious offerings, they had already split. When they re-emerged, it was in sunny, acid-soaked California. The new version of the band was ready to take on weightier, more contemporary themes, with more ambitious arrangements. And “Sky Pilot” is one of the best examples of this shift.
There is something of a parable suggested in this song of an army Chaplain and his attempts to ease the burden of soldiers about to go into battle. But, I wonder if the obvious interpretation of anti-Vietnam sentiment isn’t the only thing that lies beneath the story told here.
Referencing the Vietnam conflict isn’t exactly a hard leap to make. By 1968, Nixon had become President for the first time. And the conflict in Vietnam was escalating, seemingly by the day. It’s not a huge stretch to think that taking on the role of ‘Sky Pilot’ is, perhaps, the way that members of the rock counterculture thought of themselves- as the conscience of a nation, of an international community, and source of comfort to soldiers in the field too. And they certainly were that, with AM radios blaring while soldiers awaited their orders to be dispatched ‘in the shit’. By the time Burdon and this new version of the Animals were ensconced on the West Coast of America, the conflict being felt stateside over the war would have been impossible to ignore.
Even if the band’s, and particularly Burdon’s, interest in American music and way of life was on another level from most bands in Britain at the time, members of the band were still culturally English. They were among the first of a generation born during and immediately after the Second World War. That earlier conflict moulded the consciousness of their generation, with early memories of British industrial towns turned into munitions factories, loss of family, bombing blitzes of the nation’s Capitol, destruction of architecture, rationing, and repressed emotions in the face of what was thought of as more important than personal feelings – victory.
‘Sky Pilot’ may well be about a generation of rock musicians seeing themselves as the spiritual guides to their generation, many members of whom were in the jungles of Vietnam at the time this song was recorded and released. But, it could be that it’s also about working through the impact of a war that came before, when they were children raised in a region of the world literally on the brink of domination from one of history’s most evil military machines from only a few miles away, as opposed to many thousands.
Eric Burdon went onto solo recordings, as well as working with soul-funksters War by the 70s. The Animals would reform many times through out the 70s and early 80s, complete with keyboardist Alan Price. He continues to be an active musician today.
For more information about The Animals, and more music, check out this Eric Burdon & The Animals site.