(Since its inception in 1973, the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame has enshrined nearly 1,000 recordings across all genres. The Making Of … series presents firsthand accounts of the creative process behind some of the essential recordings of the 20th century. You can read more Making Of … accounts, and in-depth insight into the recordings and artists represented in the Hall, in the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame 40th Anniversary Collector's Edition book.)
"The House Of The Rising Sun"
(As told to Tammy La Gorce)
We started playing "[The] House Of The Rising Sun" [in 1964]. We were touring with Chuck Berry, and all of the other bands on the bill — I don't know why they're so strangely brainless in such a situation — all they did was try to outdo Chuck by doing the same kinds of songs he did, and we thought that was insanity. I went searching for something that would not be in Chuck Berry's field of vision.
I can't say exactly when the first time I heard "…Rising Sun" was because before we recorded it every folk artist I knew would play the opening chord sequence. They all loved that opening chord sequence, as does every guitar player in the world.
But I started thinking, "Wow, there's got to be more than this, than what I'm hearing from these opening chords." I got Bob Dylan's [1962 self-titled debut] album and I found out there was a lot more to it, that ["The House Of The Rising Sun"] had probably been rewritten. I thought, "Yeah, wow, yippee — there's more to the story than I think there is." Josh White had recorded it early on, and so had other blues luminaries.
Anyway, we were on a tour with Chuck Berry, and we were performing "…Rising Sun" live and we were finding out how much of an effect it was having on the audience. It was actually drawing people away from the magic of Chuck Berry, who we considered the master. If we were able to do that with the song, we knew it needed to be recorded right away.
So we had a day off on a Sunday, and we got on a train from Manchester with our equipment and arrived at [King's] Cross [Railway] Station, and we liberated a British Airways push wagon and loaded everything onto it and made our way through the early morning streets of London, which were devoid of people. The studio, De Lane Lea Studios, was two flights downstairs. We took all our stuff down there and while we were setting it up I met the engineer.
We were talking to him, and I thought, "This is going to be a monumental test of skills and wills," because to my surprise he had never recorded anything electric before.
So we offloaded and we set up and we did a soundcheck and one take, and that was it. The recording took about 15 minutes.
Years later I was at [bassist] Chas Chandler's house going through some drawers looking for some cigarette papers, and I came across some contracts. There was a contract there that said that the studio recording session for "[The] House Of The Rising Sun" cost 34 pounds. That would be about $70.
When we recorded it, [producer] Mickie Most was not in attendance. I'm pointing this out because everybody told us that recording "…Rising Sun" was wrong — it was too long, the wrong subject matter — and it wouldn't do well in the pop market. Well, a few weeks later it knocked the Beatles off the top of the chart, and the Beatles had been commandeering the charts for two years. We did it with that recording.
Back then, the folk world was the only world we knew because rock and roll was in the process of being discovered. Folk music ruled. "[The] House Of The Rising Sun" was known as a folk song and many folk artists recorded it. Bob Dylan was one of them. The thing that made this situation unique was [Dylan] was about to go into the studio and record it, and he heard that one of his compatriots in New York was about to record it as well. Bob Dylan got in touch with this guy and he said, "Oh, please don't record it."
Then we did it. We dropped the bomb on everybody. As far as I know it may be what inspired Bob to go electric. There's been a quote about that from Bob himself.
(Tammy La Gorce is a freelance writer whose work appears regularly in The New York Times.)