Listen to this track by serious-minded R&B figureheads from Newcastle The Animals. It’s their 1965 hit song “We’ve Got To Get Out Of This Place”, a single released in July of that year, and used subsequently in seemingly every single movie about Vietnam ever (I think it must be a rule).
Up until this point, the Animals hadn’t quite reached the screaming heights of the Beatles or the Stones. But, they were established on the scene with those bands from the early to mid 1960s, and were known as being as close to the “real thing” as any band working in the London rhythm & blues scenes. They were respected.
They also had a hit or two under their belts, pretty much owning “The House of the Rising Sun”, even if it was something of a well-travelled folk tune before they recorded it. But, “We’ve Got To Get Out Of This Place” was perfectly matched to Eric Burdon’s old-man-living-in-a-young man’s-body vocal delivery. This is a tale of worldly wisdom before one’s time, aware of the cruelties of life, the pointlessness of toil, and the fleeting nature of beauty and innocence; heavy stuff.
The irony that this tune, a stalwart anthem of so many war movies about Americans in far away countries, is more closely associated with sentiments much closer to home.
Of course, the fact that the song’s writers are Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”, “On Broadway”, and a bunch of others you’ve heard of) doesn’t hurt its impact either. As a writing team, they had always demonstrated a skill for storytelling inside the confines of a three-minute pop song, even if in this case it’s a pretty dark tale being told.
This song was a Trans-Atlantic effort, written by Mann & Weill in New York (originally intended for the Righteous Brothers in mind, which I’m sure you can hear), and passed along by Allen Klein (yes, that Allen Klein, Beatles fans) to British producer Mickey Most. Most had worked with a number of British acts, and the Animals were one of them.
The song is perfectly suited to the band’s sound, and frankly to their background as a group of musicians from a tough, working-class industrial town of Newcastle. If anyone could pull this off, it was the Animals, who understood long hours, few options, and little social mobility in a dirty part of the city.
They also seemed to have a direct connection to the heart of soul music and the blues even more so than many of their peers, those forms also originating from industrial towns in the States that were not a million miles away from the kinds of physical as well as social landscapes found in Northern industrial Britain.
But, this song isn’t really about Newcastle, in the end. And it’s certainly not about Vietnam, or any other wartime situation to get out of. It’s about anywhere where you can feel your life slipping away from you, feeling yourself get older and less connected to your passions.
Eric Burdon’s vocal is primal, singing a song that is a clarion call to listeners everywhere looking for more than the lifeless march of time that simple existence can be. In some ways, it’s the rock ‘n’ roll story boiled down to its basics; getting out of that dead-end town, and transforming oneself into an avatar, rather than settling for an existance as a cog in the wheel. It was one of the decade’s most powerful statements in an age when a whole culture was feeling the need for change across the board.
In his recent keynote speech at SXSW, Bruce Springsteen admits to having been a major Animals fan as a young musician with a modest background, listening to the radio, and wondering how to apply his gift. This song provided a template for a major strain of his own work; kicking the dust off of your feet, picking up the one you love in a beat-up car, and then getting the hell out of this place, in search for a better life for me and you.
In some ways, that story is the shape of the human condition itself .
Eric Burdon is an active musician today. Check out Eric Burdon’s website.