“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” — Nina Simone / The Animals

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Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

As the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good/Please don’t let me be misunderstood” is the sort of PR-scripted, law firm vetted, apology you hear from politicians and business leaders caught with their hands in the till or, indeed, in a variety of other places their hands shouldn’t have been.

“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” was written for Nina Simone by Bennie Benjamin, Horace Ott and Sol Marcus. The idea came to Horace Ott after a falling out with his wife, although you’ll be glad to know they stayed together in the end.

The original Nina Simone recording has a very different feel to The Animals’ cover. Of course, nobody can sing a song like Nina Simone…definitely one of those people who broke the mould.

Given Nina Simon’s activism at the time, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” was thought to reference the civil rights movement in some way, although there is no direct reference to that in the lyrics and it was not the original inspiration behind Horace Ott’s unfortunate misunderstanding with his wife.

The Animals had by far the bigger hit with the song, though...a 1965 UK Number Three and US Number 15.

In the hands of The Animals, I’ve always been slightly more unsettled by the tone of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”. Of course, that’s all just my personal opinion as the words are exactly the same in both recordings, but the Nina Simone’s plaintive, somewhat apologetic tone is replaced by a harder and less compromising edge in The Animals’ version.

There’s no question this is a tremendous arrangement of the song, and of course Eric Burden’s deep, growling lead vocal is hardly pitched for tenderness and understanding.

But even so, in the hands of The Animals, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” always feels like a challenge to the rest of the world that they are expected to conform to Eric Burden’s standards, rather than someone sitting down with humility, and an open mind, in order to understand another person’s point of view…

Baby, can you understand me now?
Sometimes I get a little mad
Don’t you know, no-one alive can always be an angel
When things go wrong, I seem to go bad
I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh, Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood

“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” was The Animal’s biggest hit since their previous year’s UK and US Number One hit “House Of The Rising Sun”, and it keeps a very similar vibe to that chart topper with a fairly stark accompaniment and harsh, uncompromising vocals.

The Animals were from Newcastle in the north-east of England. In the early 1960s it was a heavily industrialised town, where life itself was harsh and uncompromising. For the bulk of the population, a life of unremitting manual labour for low wages was all they had to look forward to, so The Animals’ approach to delivering songs was very much in keeping with the hard-driving spirit of their home town.

“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” came right at the end of The Animals’ classic line up. Soon most of the original members of the band — organist and keyboard player, Alan Price, bass player Chas Chandler (who would later manage Jimi Hendrix), drummer Jon Steel and guitarist Hilton Valentine — would be on their way, leaving Eric Burdon as the only original member of the band.

After that, there were frequent line-up changes and multiple incarnations of a band which had most definitely been at the forefront of the British Invasion of American music industry in the early 1960s. Ironically, for some time, it seemed neither their record company nor their management understood them…

Oh, now don’t you know I’m human
I got my faults just like anyone
And sometimes I lie awake, alone, regretting
Some foolish thing, some sinful thing I’ve done
I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh, Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood

It would be fair to say Nina Simone knew a thing or two about being harsh and uncompromising herself. She famously took a gun to a record company meeting, firing it at an executive there who she thought was cheating her out of royalties. She said afterwards her only regret was missing him.

She’d have fitted in perfectly with The Animals on a rowdy night out in Newcastle after a hard week in the factories and shipyards came to a close and the workers went out to drink and fight in the local pubs.

Nina Simone’s uncompromising nature won her fans, for sure, and her work for civil rights was beyond reproach, but she divided both the recording industry and the record-buying public with her approach.

History shows Nina Simone was right to be uncompromising on civil rights and in record company meetings, but at the time she fell out of favour and largely disappeared from sight, moving to France for her final years.

She remained a legend, but one of those legends who becomes more of a myth because of the amount of time she spent away from the public eye…one of those people who, 20 or 30 years after they were riding high in the charts, you’re slightly surprised to discover are still alive as it’s so long since you last saw them.

Despite that backdrop, Nina Simone’s original recording of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is a delightfully tender performance. She sings softly. The strings shimmer away in the background. It’s a “more in sorrow than in anger” treatment whereas, if anything, it was the other way around with The Animals.

Whether you prefer the uncompromising “take me as I am or take a hike” treatment, which I always feel The Animals’ version comes across as, or the “I’m sorry, I don’t know what made me behave in such an out-of-character way”, which is more the vibe I get from Nina Simone, I think we can all agree that with “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, Bennie Benjamin, Horace Ott and Sol Marcus created a song which has stood the test of time for nearly 60 years as a song of unparalleled quality.

The Animals’ version was one of Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list in 2004, and that feels like a fair outcome for one of the most instantly recognisable records of the early 1960s.

Here’s The Animals…and Nina Simone…with their very different versions of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”…

If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here…

The Animals’ version: https://open.spotify.com/track/0KpTFH1SzexN8SGc0GPILC

Nina Simone’s version: https://open.spotify.com/track/7M9pPyt8Gr41THLhbz4NSB

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Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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