By Hank Hoffman
Hilton Valentine, former guitarist for British Invasion hitmakers The Animals, has been to the pop summit. His fretwork keyed such mid-1960s Top 40 classics as “House of the Rising Sun,” “It’s My Life,” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” Across Vietnam War-era suburbia, teen combos in garages grappled with trying to replicate Valentine’s taut arpeggios, catchy electric 12-string figures, and — in a song like “Don’t Bring Me Down” — chords sizzling with fuzztone distortion.
From 1964, when The Animals moved to London and began their string of chart successes, to the original band’s breakup in 1966, it was, says Valentine, “like a crazy, traveling party.” As a member of The Animals, Valentine was inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
But these days, Valentine, who relocated to Connecticut from England after marrying his wife, Germaine, in 1997, is playing mostly acoustic guitar and readying his second CD of skiffle music with his band, Skiffledog. An outgrowth of British “trad jazz,” or Dixieland, skiffle became an English pop phenomenon in the mid-1950s on the strength of hits by singer Lonnie Donegan like “Rock Island Line.” Valentine was one of thousands of English youngsters — John Lennon and Paul McCartney were a couple of others — to get caught up in the skiffle craze.
“It was our music,” recalls Valentine. “Parents didn’t like it so we loved it. There was a revolution going on.”
At the age of 13 in 1956, Valentine formed The Heppers with a group of school friends in North Shields, a fishing town on the northeast coast of England. Like many of the teen bands of the time, The Heppers’ set list mixed adrenaline-fueled Lonnie Donegan covers of American folk blues tunes like “Wreck of the Old ’97” with early rock ‘n’ roll songs: Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” and, more obscurely, Charlie Gracie’s “Fabulous.” Regarding Gracie, Valentine tells me in his distinctive Geordie accent, “I just met him last year. It was a thrill for me. I had tears welling up in me eyes.”
American rock ‘n’ roll groups had already adopted the well-known guitar/bass/drums format with an occasional Jerry Lee Lewis wannabe hammering the ivories. But skiffle groups — apropos of their stronger folk music influences — took a decidedly more down home approach.
Valentine played acoustic guitar. Other band members plucked away at a tea-chest bass, scrubbed a washboard, or played a comb and paper to get a kazoo sound.
“One of the guys had a little plastic toy saxophone (which played) one note. We played ‘See You Later, Alligator,’” says Valentine, and the saxophonist would follow the refrain with a “toot, toot, toot, toot” solo of the one note. Their first drum was a biscuit tin.
The Heppers debuted before an audience of “old-age pensioners” in a church hall. The enthusiastic young teenagers went over great with the seniors. Somebody passed the hat.
“We made a few bob and I thought, ‘Oh, this is good. I’ll keep doing this,’” remembers Valentine.
“We were a novelty. They had never seen anything like this before. Nobody had seen anything like this. It was all new,” says Valentine.
Valentine particularly recalls the reaction to their performance of “Wreck of the Old ’97.” When the band sang the lines, “He was coming down the line going 90 miles an hour/ when the whistle broke into a scream/ they found him in the wreck with his hand upon the throttle/ he’d been scalded to death by steam,” Valentine says, “There was a big ‘Oh!’ in the audience. Oh my goodness! They’d never heard lyrics like that before.
“To us, ‘skiffle’ and ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ were just names. It was all the same thing,” says Valentine. “The photographs we saw of Elvis were with an acoustic guitar. We didn’t differentiate.”
Still, as the skiffle fad faded, groups adapted by taking up rock instrumentation: electric guitars and bass, drums. With some personnel changes The Heppers evolved into The Wildcats.
“My first amplifier was a radio, which had inputs in the back. They were supposedly for a gramophone to be plugged into it but a guitar could plug into it quite easily. But that was good because in the dressing room we could listen to the radio,” jokes Valentine, adding, “Dressing room, quote unquote.”
Valentine played with The Wildcats into the early-1960s, acquiring a reputation as a dynamic performer. In 1963, bass player Chas Chandler recruited Valentine to join the Alan Price Rhythm & Blues Combo. Fronted by the bluesy, howling vocalist Eric Burdon, the group was rechristened The Animals in recognition of their gritty, wild stage act.
“House of the Rising Sun,” their second single, featured riveting electric guitar arpeggios by Valentine, a feral Burdon vocal, and swirling organ playing by Alan Price. It hit the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic in the summer of 1964, launching the group on a hectic two-year nonstop treadmill of live shows, television appearances, and recordings.
“I remember one tour we did of the States. We finished off doing The Ed Sullivan Show in New York, came straight out of the studio into a limo to JFK, flew to England, got into a van, drove up north, and started a four-week tour of England,” says Valentine.
Besides coming to America to tour, Valentine counts meeting rock ‘n’ roll legend Chuck Berry and The Beatles — “especially John Lennon” — among the high points of his Animals career. The Animals’ first tour of Britain was as a support act to Berry. The Animals shared the occasional billing with The Beatles on TV shows like Top of the Pops.
“We did some socializing in London clubs. Groups used to just descend on these clubs after hours and whoever was there was there,” says Valentine. “You’d see The Beatles there, the Stones, Pretty Things, the Hollies. Most of the bands around in the ’60s were living in London at that time.”
Did he experience culture shock transitioning from the working class northeast of England to the roaring vortex of a pop culture revolution? Absolutely, says Valentine.
“I think that’s why a lot of people freaked out. I certainly did my share of freaking out,” he says.
After the demise of the original lineup of The Animals, Valentine stopped playing music for several years. He picked it up again in 1970 after relocating to southern California, recording the solo album All In Your Head. Valentine has since disowned the LP, feeling its Donovan-esque psychedelic folk music was smothered in inappropriate production flourishes. (Personally, I think it is quite a beautiful period-piece record.) The original lineup of the group reunited in 1976 and 1983 to record albums of new material. Valentine has also toured intermittently with other former members of The Animals, including a 2007-2008 stint with Eric Burdon.
The impetus to record and perform skiffle again, Valentine says, came from his wife, Germaine. She pushed him to record the first Skiffledog CD, It’s Folk n’ Skiffle, Mate! in 2004.
“I was sitting around the house playing these songs. She said, ‘Have you ever recorded these songs? Well, you should,’” says Valentine.
More than half of the first CD was made up of original tunes, augmented with a couple of old skiffle numbers — including “Wreck of the Old ’97” — and covers of songs by John Lennon (“Working Class Hero”) and Donovan (“Ballad of a Crystal Man”). Much of it featured just Valentine singing over his acoustic guitar.
The upcoming CD, Skiffledog on Coburg Street, was recorded late last year at a studio in Athens, Georgia. It features Valentine’s full skiffle band, including a washboard player, electric bass player, and a drummer who plays just a snare drum with brushes. With the exception of some backing vocals and guitar solos, it was recorded live in the studio, according to Valentine. The new record consists predominantly of rock ‘n’ roll and skiffle covers, reflecting what the band has been playing at gigs.
“There was quite a similarity of intensity between skiffle and rock ‘n’ roll, a lot of energy,” says Valentine.
I suggest to him that, judging from the mp3 clips of rough mixes of the new recordings on his website, many of the songs filter an almost punk rock level of energy through the acoustic instrumentation.
He agrees, saying, “Yes, attitude! Yes, indeed.”
Skiffledog on Coburg Street will be available for purchase in late March at hiltonvalentine.com as well as cdbaby.com and iTunes. Skiffledog will be performing on April 30 at Keeney Memorial Cultural Center in Wethersfield. Tickets are $20 and available through hiltonvalentine.com.