Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
While “House of the Rising Sun” may conjure up the sound of Eric Burdon’s deep powerful howls over a haunting interplay of guitar and organ, The Animals did not write the hit that made them major players during the British Invasion of the ‘60s – and arguably the first band to score a “folk-rock hit,” according to music critic Dave Marsh.
The origins of “House of the Rising Sun” are a mystery and even the subject of a book called Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song by Ted Anthony. The earliest known publication of the song’s lyrics are from a 1925 column called, “Old Songs That Men Have Sung,” in Adventure magazine. The earliest recorded version – titled “Rising Sun Blues” – is from 1933 by Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster – Ashley had said he learned the song from his grandfather, Enoch Ashley.
Another often contested mystery is the house at the center of the song. Some believe it’s an old women’s prison on the outskirts of New Orleans (where the words “rising sun” were etched in stone above the entrance), others believe it’s an all men’s hotel in the French Quarter that burned down in 1822 at 535-537 Conti St. (there is some evidence of a hotel called Rising Sun existing at this address), and some believe it’s an old brothel. Then there are theories of it actually originating in England or France. Of course it’s possible this house never actually existed at all.
Every recorded version of the song is a cover. But to include The Animals version in a list of covers seems a little too obvious. Their version inspired Bob Dylan to go electric, ranked number 122 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” was included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll,” and received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999. The Animals have gotten their due.
Now on to five (other) good covers of “House of the Rising Sun.”
Nina Simone – House of the Rising Sun (Traditional cover)
Nina Simone recorded “House of the Rising Sun” twice – once for her 1962 live album, Nina at the Village Gate, and again for 1967’s Nina Simone Sings The Blues. Here it is fleshed out to seven minutes for Simone’s jazzed-up bluesy honky tonk, with handclaps, stomps, and a spooky piano line that’s enough to evoke the ghost of anyone who’s ever entered the “house” into the room. Simone’s voice is a monster of its own, gliding across the song with conviction, regret, and feeling. She conducts her band through several breakdowns that take the music to hardly more than handclaps or fingersnaps over a muted tap on the drums, while her voice takes over the melody. Simone may not have written the song, but she definitely owns it.
Jello Biafra and The Raunch and Soul All-Stars – House of the Rising Sun (Traditional cover)
In 2011, ex-Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra teamed up with an all-star band of southern musicians for a performance of classic covers at the 12-Bar in New Orleans. On the set for the evening was “House of the Rising Sun” (the Animals’ adaptation of the song – as noted on the live album that came out in 2015). Electric guitar surrounded by a swirl of organs (which were actually a digital keyboard referred to as a “Pumpin’ Piano” played by Pete “Wet Dog” Gordon on the album credits) drive through the song for an electrifying performance with Biafra’s vocals taking Eric Burdon’s version for quite a spin. Biafra’s distinctive voice takes the vocals way up high in the register and vibrates all over the place, giving the song more of a punk feel than anything else. It sounds as if it would flow into “Too Drunk To Fuck” very nicely.
Takeshi Terauchi & His Blue Jeans – House of the Rising Sun (Traditional cover)
Japan’s king of the electric guitar, Takeshi Terauchi (better known as Terry), took “House of the Rising Sun” for a Ventures-esque instrumental ride combining traditional Japanese instruments with modern rock n’ roll and surf. The quick choppy guitar build (sounding like it’s being blasted through a Fender Twin amp) and crashes on the drums in the intro leading to the larger-than-life organ, unexpectedly fade to the background for the pipes to come in and blow through the vocal melody. When the guitar and organ finally return, it’s like Link Wray comes to bat and knocks it out of the park. The tougher-than-nails guitar solo runs for at least a minute, proving that Terry can go head to head with anyone from the aforementioned Link Wray to Duane Eddy to Dave Davies.
Lead Belly – House of the Rising Sun (Traditional cover)
When Lead Belly took on “House of the Rising Sun,” he stripped it down even more than the original Clarence “Tom” Ashley/Gwen Foster recording, but made it sound even bigger. The self proclaimed “king of the 12-string” (and no one would argue with that claim) does a live performance where neither chatter in the background, or his hands hitting the body of the guitar, can steal away from his performance – it actually adds to the rawness and power of the song. His masterful control of his guitar, incorporating the bluesiest of notes and chords, and invoking the prison songs of his past, take us on yet another haunting tour of this mysterious house. His vocals – loud, in charge, and unmistakably Lead Belly – power through the song and are the only thing loud enough to compete with the sound of his guitar.
Omnigrad – House of the Rising Sun (Traditional cover)
Omnigrad takes classic songs and gives them the 8-bit treatment. Talk about doubling down on nostalgia; Omnigrad reworks “House of the Rising Sun” into an old school instrumental Nintendo cartridge-style soundtrack, that has you reaching for the NES Zapper for a Duck Hunt, or working your way through Dr. Wily’s evil robots. No Konami Code, or subscription to Nintendo Power, necessary to enjoy this fun rework of a timeless classic. Stripping the song to its most basic elements, Omnigrad uses no more than the four essential sounds every NES game pulled from (you can read more about that in Andrew Schartmann’s 33 and 1/3rd book, Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack). Each element of the song is incorporated into the limited palette of the NES, but even at this very primitive level it sounds great.