interview and introduction by Daniel Coston
For over forty years, people have heard the introduction to the Animals' "House Of The Rising Sun," and not known anything about the man playing that legendary riff. Hilton Valentine's stinging guitar was a key element of the band's pioneering blues-rock sound, and his contributions have too often been over-looked. Whether it was a key guitar part, or flailing around the stage during the band's raucous live show, Valentine helped to create something that musicians are still trying to re-create today.
Recently, Valentine has re-emerged with a new album, under the name of Skiffledog. It's Folk N' Skiffle, Mate! features Valentine playing a fine collection of new songs, and the songs that influenced his own musical tastes. Speaking via email from his home in Connecticut, Valentine talks about his new record, and the band that, by his admission, seem to come and go all too quickly.
BT: Skiffledog! Tell me about your new album, and how this new project came about?
Valentine: The new album, It's Folk 'N' Skiffle, Mate! which I recorded under the moniker Skiffledog, came about as a result of my wife Germaine's constant prodding after hearing me play these songs around the house for several years. The album is a collection of songs that I wrote over a 30 year period with some old skiffle numbers thrown in that I used to perform with my first skiffle band when I was 13 years old.
I also do a cover of John Lennon's "Working Class Hero" and Donovan's "Ballad of a Crystal Man." The songs were recorded live in the studio, many being just me and my acoustic, while others I added additional guitar tracks. I had help with the bass and drums that appear on a few of the tracks.
BT: How does the music on the Skiffledog album relate to the music that you heard as a young music fan and musician?
Valentine: Well, when I first started playing, skiffle music was the craze in England. That, (along with early rock and roll), is what inspired me to pick up guitar in the first place. Skiffle music sounded like it was easy to play. Just what a 13 year old needed to get started. I wish I had the opportunity to record more of this kind of music for the CD; perhaps the next one. Folk songs (acoustic songs, whatever you want to call them) make up the majority of my CD. By the time I was 20 Bob Dylan was gaining popularity and not long after that Donovan was on the scene. They sort of inspired me to start writing songs on my acoustic guitar. I really like that personal approach to music. Everything is just stripped down to the bare bones.
BT: How has the response to Skiffledog been so far? Have Animals fans been keen on this new record from you?
Valentine: The response has been very good from all those that have taken the time to listen to it. Animals fans have been very receptive and like the fact that I've gone back to my roots. I haven't heard anything negative from any of them. I'm sure there are some out there wondering "what the hell is he doing and where's his electric guitar?". Now that I'm playing out a bit more and have done a television show for PBS, some people have purchased it strictly on its own merits without having any knowledge of The Animals. I'm just concentrating on playing what makes me happy today. If people like it, then that's great.
BT: Tell me how you got interested in American blues music, and what the blues scene in England was like in the early '60s.
Valentine: Ummm, joining [keyboardist] The Alan Price Combo (we later became The Animals) is what got me interested in the blues. Up until that point I was an out and out rock and roller with my band The Wildcats. [Vocalist] Eric [Burdon] had a great record collection of all these blues guys that he got from a friend or relation who worked in the merchant navy, and brought them back from America. He'd let me borrow some so I could get acclimated to playing that style, but in my own way.
Blues records just started becoming really popular among the kids and we were all forming these bands and covering these songs. It was happening all over the country. Venues started popping up to satisfy the demand for live music and this helped fuel the spread of blues music. People started investigating the origins of the blues and found that some of the original artists were still around. Agents brought them over for tours and they'd have the up and coming English bands as the backing groups for these artists. The Animals were lucky enough to back Sonny Boy Williamson. I thought that was just f*cking great!
BT: How did you meet the other members of the Animals?
Valentine: I was playing with my band The Wildcats and [bassist] Chas Chandler came to one of our shows. The Alan Price Combo didn't have a guitarist at the time and they were looking for one. Chas apparently liked what he heard because he asked me if I would be interested in joining their band and going to London. He invited me to one of their gigs and introduced me to Eric and Alan. [Drummer] John Steel wasn't in the band at the time. I can't remember now if I played any gigs with them before John joined, but I first met him the night of a gig still under the name of The Alan Price Combo.
BT: Tell me about the first Animals gig (with Sonny Boy Williamson II), and the early Animals gigs that followed.
Valentine: We only played once with Sonny Boy and that was at the Club A GoGo in Newcastle, our hometown. That was a blast! It was the first time that any of us had performed with anyone of that stature. In the early days everything was just happening so fast. It seemed as if everything was just rushing by. We were having so much fun, we had so much energy, we were focused and we just knew we were going to make it. Those were really great times because all the friction between the band members had not yet started and people were not ripping us off left and right. Not long after we signed our first contract, it all changed.
BT: The rise of the Animals to national (and international) prominence seemed to happen very quickly, in retrospect. How did that happen, and how fast did that seem to happen?
Valentine: It did happen very quickly. Within a few months after changing our name to The Animals, we had a hit single with "Baby Let Me Take You Home" and a few months after that we had a world wide hit with "House of the Rising Sun."
BT: The Animals also seemed to quickly become known for their exciting live shows. For you, what was it that made the Animals such a good live band?
Valentine: The energy and drive. Most studios/producers cannot capture the raw energy of a band. For me, it was especially fun to play live because my guitar work played more of a role in the band.
BT: Do you regret that there are not more live recordings of the Animals from the '60s?
Valentine: Certainly do. Apart from the bootleg from the Club A GoGo I don't think there are any. Well, hold on a minute, there is some film footage (also bootleg) of us at the NME Poll Winners Concert and I think the Richmond Jazz Festival. The thing is, no one can get legitimate, clean copies of this stuff.
BT: What were some of your favorite songs to play with the Animals?
Valentine: "Talkin' 'Bout You" was always fun to play. "I'm Crying," "Let it Rock," "Inside Looking Out," "I'm Mad Again", "Around and Around," and I guess "We Gotta Get Out of This Place."
BT: I have seen a million guitarists try to play (and fail) your guitar part on House Of The Rising Sun. What are your re-collections of that song, and it's recording.
Valentine: I first heard HOTRS by Bob Dylan. I was totally knocked out by it. I think Eric suggested that we record it, though he had a different version of it. I think the one by Josh White. Anyway, it was recorded in one take. When we finished I just knew that it was going to number one.
BT: Did the crediting of the House arrangement to Alan Price eventually lead to Price's leaving in May of 1965, as it has been suggested elsewhere? Or was the build-up to Price's leaving come for a number of factors?
Valentine: Ummmm, yeah, that's how we saw it. We believe he left the band after receiving the first royalty cheque for that song. It's a long story, but we were all supposed to get equal shares of that as we all arranged it.
BT: How did the band change once Dave Rowberry joined the band?
Valentine: It didn't really change much at all. Dave was a perfect replacement. People tend to forget that he played on as many hits as Alan did.
BT: In 1966, the Animals broke away from producer Mickie Most, who seemed to push the band toward an importance on the pop-singles market. What led to that break?
Valentine: We went to another producer because we thought we'd be better off financially and artistically. We had a horrible deal with Mickie.
BT: Was it frustrating for you and the band that your singles, while important, weren't always in line with what the Animals were playing live?
Valentine: Well, not for me. I liked the hits just as well as the other stuff. I can't speak for the others but I can't remember them saying anything negative about that and it seems to me that if we didn't like a song then we just wouldn't play it.
BT: By 1966, the rest of the original Animals began to leave. You left at the end of '66. Describe that period, and what led to your leaving?
Valentine: It was only John Steel that left (after Alan's leaving in May '65). Dave, Chas, Eric and I continued on with Barry Jenkins for a few months until Eric just jacked it in and called it quits. He wanted to start another band in California.
BT: After you left the Animals, you did some writing and managing for a couple of artists. Tell me about that.
Valentine: Yeah, I did try a bit of that. One of the songs I penned is actually a bit of a psychedelic cult hit found on some compilation CD now. "Deep Inside Your Mind" was the track and it was recorded by Keith Shields. I produced a few records for him on the Decca label. Obviously none of those efforts panned out that well.
BT: The original Animals (sometimes with and without Price) re-formed for fine albums and tours in 1975, and 1983. How did those records come about, and were they fun experiences?
Valentine: Alan Price was with us for all original Animals reunions - 1968, 1975, and 1983. I don't really know how the Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted LP came about. I was living in LA and got a call from Chas one day asking me if I would be interested in recording with The Animals again. As far as the other one (ARK) that came about because we wanted to put out an LP because we were going on a world tour. England had re-released House OTRS and did really well in the charts. I guess that could be what started the ball rolling for the '83 reunion.
BT: What were you doing during this time, apart from the Animals?
Valentine: In '75 I was living in LA taking it easy. In '83 I was living back in my hometown in the UK playing with a local band.
BT: You played in Animals II, with John Steel and Dave Rowberry, from 1994 to 2001. How did that come about, and did your moving to America lead you to leave the band?
Valentine: I was playing in a local band in Newcastle and we started putting some Animals songs in the set. It went down really well. I got asked to perform at some venues doing just Animals songs as Hilton Valentine's Animals so I agreed to do that. As more and more gigs started coming in, I asked John to join up with me and soon after I changed it to AnimalsII. That band split up in July of '99. Dave started in August of '99. Chas wasn't alive anymore but the 3 of us were playing together so we felt right in using our name The Animals. Eric wasn't using it at the time so there wasn't a conflict. I quit, therefore disolving that band. John and Dave carried on as something else until Dave died a couple of years ago. Moving to the States had nothing to do with it. I left because of internal politics.
BT: What is your relationship like with the rest of the Animals these days?
Valentine: Well, the only one I still see is Eric but I do speak with Barry Jenkins on occassion.
BT: What were some of your favorite bands-to listen to, or jam with- over your career?
Valentine: The Yardbirds, Spencer Davis Group, The Pretty Things.........oh yes! and it was good fun playing with Robbie Krieger when he came to town [in 2001].
BT: You influenced a lot of other musicians in your time. How would you describe your career?
Valentine: Well I think my career with The Animals was too short.
BT: Anything you'd like to talk about- incidents, experiences, personal observations- that you'd like to discuss?
Valentine: Well, the only thing else I'd like to say is that people can listen to what I'm doing now by visiting my website at