Another slice of Salut! Sunderland nostalgia with apologies to those to whom it is all a bit familiar. Many years ago, when I was writing about Sunderland celebrity supporters for Wear Down South, the branch magazine of the London & Southern England SAFSA, the chance arose to interview Alan Price. I had discovered that despite his later association with Fulham, and what I assumed were the Mag allegiances of the Animals, Alan had grown up a devoted SAFC fan. His reminiscences were repeated here a few years ago but are worth repeating because the Salut! Sunderland audience these days far exceeds the combined readerships of Wear Down South and this site in earlier days …
First published during the bad though not quite disastrous 2001-2002 campaign (the 19-point disaster was a season later)
Good though the Animals were as a Sixties band, I had always assumed they were a bunch of Mags.
“Oh Lord,” comes the thundering response from Alan Price at the very thought. “Please don’t let me be misunderstood.
And so Wear Down South found itself listening to the story of a Sunderland supporter, if no longer through and through (more of that later) then at least of impeccable origins.
It was an interview that took me to the suburban London house of the man responsible for one of the two most familiar organ solos – I’d put it alongside Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale, but please feel free to tell me I’ve got it wrong – in British pop.
Meet Alan Price.
Let’s start with a warning. Readers of a sensitive disposition, if they wish to avoid the offensive material that follows, are advised to avert their eyes.
Those made of sterner stuff should put themselves in the place of one Michael Ackerman, from the German town of Wuppertal.
Back in the early 1990s, Michael, a devoted Alan Price fan, was racking his brains for something to mark his hero’s 50th birthday. Aware of the North East’s passion for football, he hit on the brilliant idea of buying him shares in his favourite club.
So Alan, Jarrow lad and lifelong Sunderland supporter, became the bemused owner of a small stake in .. Newcastle United.
“I was too embarrassed to tell him,” said Alan when he invited Wear Down South to his home in a quiet corner of south west London.
To this day, the Price household receives a steady supply of corporate junk, all the umwanted bumph from St James’ Park that would make most of us reach for those nosepegs worn by the French before they could bring themselves to vote for Chirac and keep the fascist Le Pen out of the Elysée in 2002.
In fact, despite the Animals’ Tyneside origins, only the late Chas Chandler was a true Mag. The other three had little or no interest in football.
Quick-witted and chatty, Alan looked a lot younger than your average rock dinosaur (he was pushing 60 when we met and will be 69 in April). He is probably better read than most of them, too, even though he also has an appealing hint of the sort of ordinariness many of his contemporaries shared but tried very hard to shed.
When I found his home, he was chewing on a modest TV dinner before the kick-off of a televised Newcastle vs Fulham game. So was Alan, like me, grudgingly hoping for a home win to keep Fulham in the relegation battle?
Not a bit of it. I was in the company of someone who not only developed a fondness for Fulham after moving south, but even joined its pre-Fayed board for a time.
Sunderland were his first love, lodged at the centre of his affections since he was taken to Roker Park as a lad of five. So as we sat in front of his television, he shared my concerns about the prospect of our demotion that season. But he also wanted Fulham to stay up, and was rooting for them as they defied Newcastle to grab a draw.
Born in Fatfield in April 1942, Alan Price has done a lot more than enjoy one outstanding showbiz career. In truth, he has moved seamlessly from one to another and then another.
By 16, he was playing skiffle and blues around the North East’s clubs. The groups had names like the Pagans, the Kontours and the Black Diamonds and it was in such bands that Alan played at different times with all four of his future fellow Animals.
In 1961, he formed the Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo which, within a year, had brought together the Animals’ original line-up: Alan and Chas, plus Eric Burdon, Hilton Valentine and John Steel. They decided on the name change (against Alan’s will) after moving to the Smoke in 1964.
With Burdon’s earthy vocals and Alan’s great organ work, the Animals swept to No 1 on both sides of the Atlantic with one of the era’s most memorable singles.
House of the Rising Sun helped establish them as the North East band to rival, if not the Beatles or the Stones, certainly the Who or Moody Blues. And more hits followed, among them Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood and I’m Crying.
But Alan became disillusioned. Exhaustion and a fear of flying were the official reasons for his departure in 1965. Beyond that, he was also suffering from wounded pride.
He felt his massive musical contribution had been taken for granted and, having accepted the band’s vote to change its name, was bitterly upset when the others declined to extend the democratic process to a whipround to replace his prized Wurlitzer electric piano, stolen 10 days after he bought it.
For all Eric Burdon’s charisma, and the sizeable cult following he went on to win, it was Alan who was to become easily the more successful solo artist after the break-up. I Put A Spell On You, Simon Smith And His Amazing Dancing Bear, Jarrow Song, The Trimdon Grange Explosion … the full discography might need a Wear Down South series all of its own.
Along the way, there was a partnership with Georgie Fame, the source of some of Alan’s happiest professional memories. Then came film soundtracks, musicals, a spot of acting – “they sent me to Stratford-on-Avon to try to get rid of my accent” – and, long ago, an Animals reunion.
“That was 1983,” Alan told me. “I haven’t seen Eric since.”
It begs the obvious question. Do they really hate each other?
Alan is vague, but the answer is hardly a conclusive No. “Eric got publicity for a certain amount of time by slagging me off. But that’s just how it was. No one wants to hear you are best buddies.”
Alan’s point is that the five Animals were “really just ships in the night”, musicians who came together because they were the best around, not because they were mates. Now, they – the survivors, that is – are just “different people living different lives”.
And where has SAFC slotted into this busy life? These days, he relies on TV and newspapers, or the radio when he’s heading for a matchday gig.
“I have no particular desire to go to the Stadium of Light,” he admitted. “I’m a Roker Park man.”
He couldn’t have asked for a finer introduction to the old place. It was 64 years ago when, taken by his father with his older brother, John, he made his Roker debut at a game that saw our bright new £10,000 signing, Ronnie Turnbull, score all four goals in a tonking of Portsmouth.
Tragedy struck the Price household a few months later. Alan’s father, a chargehand at British Oxygen, was killed in a works accident when a cylinder blew up as he carried it to safety during an emergency.
“My dad died a hero,” Alan said simply.
The family moved to Jarrow, where Alan went to grammar school. He attended games throughout his boyhood and teens, and remembers Len Shackleton’s tricks, the Bank of England team and, among individual matches, a four-goal comeback against Chelsea in 1955. This was some feat; Fulham’s other small club had won the championship only the previous season.
“I used to go by train, get off at Seaburn and buy liquorice root at the chemist on my way to the ground,” he said.
He loved the Roker Roar and the huge crowds. He remembers with less pleasure the historic relegation, our first from the top flight, in 1958.
The rot had set in, he thinks, with the illegal payments scandal that led in 1957 to a damning Football League
Commission report and sanctions (later overturned, but the damage was done). “I’m sure it was happening everywhere,” Alan said. “But it was Sunderland who paid the price.
“I screamed when we went down. We hadn’t won the league since 1936, the cup since 1937, but we had never played out of the top division and it was the one thing you’d been able to hang on to.”
Since leaving the North East, Alan has seen only occasional Sunderland games. He flew back from working in Los Angeles for the 1973 FA Cup Final. To most people, it was a fairytale, but Alan had predicted the outcome. On TV with Jack Charlton, he’d said we would win 1-0 while Jackie insisted that we had no chance.
That night, at the West End victory banquet, Shack and Jackie Milburn danced (with their wives, not each other; Shack would surely not have invited a Mag on to the floor) as Alan sang his heart out for the Lads.
Later, he rang his brother. John, sadly no longer with us, who had watched the game nervously at home. “You know,” he told Alan, “my behind was nipping the buttons off the sofa.” Hands up those WDS readers who practised their own button-nipping technique as they read that.
After Alan’s biggest solo hit, Jarrow Song, the telly people took him back to make a documentary about his roots. At Shack’s home, then on the seafront at Roker, he was taken up to the loft.
“He opened a chest and tossed an England shirt at me, saying ‘do you want one of these? They never did me any good’.”
Shack later recommended Alan to Ernie Clay, then Fulham’s chairman. “He came up at a match and said ‘Len tells me you like football. Would you like to be a director?’.
“I had asked about the possibility of joining the Sunderland board, and was told that it would cost £100,000 as they owned the freehold of Roker Park. I joined the Fulham board for a third of that. I wasn’t rich enough for Sunderland, but was poor enough for Fulham.”
That spell in the boardroom changed Alan’s outlook. He had never been one for tribal rivalries. He recalls schooldays when the boys were equally split between red and whites and black and whites “with the odd Berwick Rangers fan in between”, and is happy when NUFC and Boro are there as well as us in the top flight.
“I still get excited about football, and think of Sunderland as the team of my family. But I’m not as obsessive as I used to be. Once you get inside a club as I did, you become not blasé or cynical but more intelligent about your emotions.”
It is hard to do justice to the Alan Price story, even in a couple of thousand words. At the time of our interview, he was still performs regularly, 50-plus concerts a year. The hits are included but his band is no jaded nostalgia act.
Back in 2002, soon after our meeting, I missed the London supporters’ branch social evening after West Ham away (ruining my hopes of letting the Lads, popping in on their way home from Upton Park, know how much I’d enjoyed watching them being walloped 3-0) and went instead to the South Bank for Alan’s superb 60th birthday concert. So good I almost forgot the afternoon horror show.
Herr Ackerman was at the show, too. Needless to say, he hadn’t come empty-handed from Germany.
“True to form,” said Alan, “now that I’m teetotal, he brought me a bottle of Scotch.”
* I have tried to amend any time-sensitive references but bear in mind this was originally written in 2002. When I updated the piece in 2007, there was no fairytale reconversion to report. He still hadn’t been lured to the Stadium of Light. Although I suggested to SAFC that Alan should be invited to the Sol and made a fuss of, Niall Quinn pointed out that he had said in the interview he had no particular wish to visit. I still think his arm could be twisted but maybe but we shall never know.
** Alan Price plays on. Visit this site for info about 2011 tour dates from Altrincham to Whitley Bay.
*** All Alan Price music can be bought at knockdown prices via the Salut! Sunderland Amazon link
Interview: Colin Randall