Snapshots: Capturing Eric Burdon’s attempt at abstinence

By  Ian & Lauren Wright

Eric Burdon, born May 11, 1941 in Walker Newcastle upon Tyne. In 1967 Eric said he was burnt out. Ian Wright went to his home in Wallsend Sept. 25 to take a photograph signifying Eric was repenting Lucifer’s drug, sex and rock-and-roll lifestyle; hence Wright had him holding a bible. Unfortunately, Eric struggled with abstinence. This portrait is in The National Portrait Gallery collection in London. (Ian Wright and Lauren Wright)

Eric Burdon, born May 11, 1941 in Walker Newcastle upon Tyne. In 1967 Eric said he was burnt out. Ian Wright went to his home in Wallsend Sept. 25 to take a photograph signifying Eric was repenting Lucifer’s drug, sex and rock-and-roll lifestyle; hence Wright had him holding a bible. Unfortunately, Eric struggled with abstinence. This portrait is in The National Portrait Gallery collection in London. (Ian Wright and Lauren Wright)
The sobering fact that Eric Burdon turned 68 May 11 jogs memories of our first meeting in the early 1960s at the Downbeat Club in Eric’s hometown of Newcastle upon Tyne in the Northeast of England.

Back then Eric was like a little kid in a candy store, a happy, mischievous, spotty-faced imp, hiding under the tables between sets to avoid paying the cover charge.

In those early days, Eric confided his fondest wish was to become a singer in a group. This desire took precedence over everything else, including the Geordie “Dolly Bird’s,” who were way down on his list of priorities — among them art school, fish and chips washed down with a couple of pints of Newcastle Brown Ale and watching his beloved Newcastle United play soccer.

But little Eric’s life was in for a huge upheaval when his relatively unknown group called The Animals recorded “The House Of The Rising Sun.” Singing lead, Burdon’s vocal cords stretched to within a millimeter of snapping in his throat and the song catapulted to the #1 spot in the charts, toppling The Beatles from their throne to become one of the greatest hits of the 1960s.

Now the kid in the candy store had a new bag of toffees; each time he dipped into the bag it seemed a better flavor emerged, whether it was drugs, sex or rock and roll. The imp had become a true rock ’n’ roll legend, on the inevitable road to destruction and all that goes with it.

In September 1967, after a mad flower-power wedding in London attended by the world’s press and rock and roll’s glitterati, Eric and his bride, Angie King, returned to his mum’s house in Wallsend, where Eric asked me to take a picture conveying his new life of abstinence with daily readings of the Bible.

While setting up that shot, Eric told me a great story: Once after a good night out at The Club A Go Go in Newcastle, a little worse for wear from the eponymous Brown Ale and feeling a little melancholy, Eric decided to play an Animals million-selling gold record, which hung in his  Mum’s front room. He took the prize out of its frame, put it on his Dansett record player, sat in his favorite chair and closed his eyes, only to hear it was a recording by Connie Francis, spray-painted gold.

This is not unheard of. For a bet, Bill Wyman played some of his gold records. As the needle ploughed through the grooves, gouging up golden piggly-wiggly strands, strains of Buddy Holly, Ferlin Husky and Mantovani’s orchestra were to be heard, and the gold disc presented for Aftermath was the soundtrack from Walt Disney’s “Bambi.”

Back at the office, we placed wagers as to how long Eric’s abstinence would last. Within a week the Burdons set off on tour, and shortly thereafter, the new bride was left behind while the revitalized Eric rented a house in Beverly Hills from fellow Brit George Henry Pratt, a.k.a. Boris Karloff.

By the late ’60s, Eric grew bored of life in Los Angeles and moved to his utopia in the California desert, near Palm Springs, where he and neighbor Steve McQueen terrorized the landscape on their Harleys and Triumphs, racing each other to Peggy Sue’s Diner on Interstate 15 for a Buddy Holly cheeseburger. A far cry from a pie and a pint and a snog in a bus shelter on a freezing cold night in Whitley Bay.

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