Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020.
Exploring just a few of my Spotify playlists in roughly alphabetical order.
(Despite these Chronicles being based around the concept of online streaming of music, I’m starting to notice them developing into a love letter to the CD era.)
File under Still Making New Discoveries of Old Stuff…the Hollies.
If there’s one website that is more rambling, disjointed, and long-winded than this one, it’s Alan’s Album Archives. (“If A Review Doesn’t Reach 7,000 Words, We’re Disappointed.”) He has even spun it into a little cottage industry, self-publishing $7 e-books that collect all his reviews and essays on a particular artist. For the most part, his tastes run parallel to mine (and when we diverge, we widely diverge), so I happily bought a few to support a fellow enthusiast. I don’t think even Alan himself would deny he needs an editor for simple fact-checking. He mishears lyrics (sometimes to hilarious effect), struggles with understanding American vernacular (not his fault, he’s a Brit), mixes up names and timelines with annoying frequency, and I know he knows better. His stuff is just so long even he doesn’t want to go back and read it a second time. His Beatles book is a non-stop litany of glaring factual errors. In fact, Kindle tells me I’ve only made it 42% through it. I keep trying, I make it through a couple of pages, then come across another howler and have to slam it shut again. And he doesn’t seem sure what a pedal steel guitar actually is. (No, that’s not a “pedal steel” on “I Need You,” it’s Harrison playing his 12-string Rickenbacker with a volume-swell pedal*. I mean, come on, Alan…)
In both Alan’s Beatles and Stones books, he mentions the Hollies on every few pages in the same breath as the two great titans of British rock…as if they were somehow equal or something. (“If not the greatest band of the 1960s then arguably the most consistently great band of the 1960s” made me blurt-laugh out loud, not only for its hyperbole, but for its weird semi-redundancy.) Were they actually comparable?
Short answer: Not even close. Long answer…read on.
The Hollies consisted of Graham Nash (rhythm guitar, vocals), Allan Clarke (vocals, harmonica), Tony Hicks (lead guitar, vocals), Eric Haydock (bass), and Bobby Elliott (drums). Bernie Calvert replaced Haydock on bass in mid-1966. All were very good instrumentalists — Hicks was a particularly nimble lead guitarist for the early 60s beat-group era (I love almost all of his solos, even if the song itself is a dog), Haydock pioneered the use of the six-string bass, and Elliott’s tumbling fills kicked pretty damn hard. The three vocalists were each capable of taking the lead (Clarke’s soulful, mid-range voice most often), but harmonies were their trademark.
The Hollies shared a label (Parlophone) and a studio (Abbey Road) with the Beatles. Beatles producer George Martin’s assistant, Ron Richards, was the Hollies’ long-time producer. Richards had a good ear, a solid technical background, and worked hard to present the Hollies as best he knew how. But he was not a musician as Martin was, and he was not a boundary-pusher.
Maybe due to this too-close-for-comfort proximity, the Beatles themselves never cared much for the Hollies — Lennon in particular thought they were saccharine and twee (the Beatles would never stoop to doing a song as stupefyingly cringe-worthy as “Fifi the Flea”), and copied the Beatles’ three-part harmonies a little too slavishly. Harrison said they were “all right musically” (meaning they were skilled players, which they were, see above), but “did their recordings like session men who’ve just got together in a studio without ever seeing each other before.” A little harsh, but yes, there was sometimes a lack of cohesion. And he called their cover of his “If I Needed Someone” “soul-less.” Which it sort of was, but give them credit for the audacity of recording a Beatles song before the original was released (presumably Ron Richards got them an advance copy of the song to work from, and at least two Hollies were under the very mistaken impression that Harrison had written it specifically for them).
Instead of blazing their own trail, the Hollies seem preoccupied with giving listeners what they think they would want, which is admirable in a way, but not a Path to Greatness. It’s ironic that their second album was called In the Hollies Style, because the Hollies had no discernible style for most of the Sixties, and spent the decade casting around — at times desperately — for a unique voice.
Like most early British Invasion bands, the first couple of Hollies albums were filled with watered-down, very Anglicized R&B covers, but they certainly didn’t lack for energy. By the time of their third album, original compositions began sneaking in, which was good news. The bad news was that a lot of their early originals weren’t all that good, making their albums very patchy indeed.
The Hollies were irrevocably a singles band. And they were great singles. From their third single (a raucous cover of Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs’ “Stay”) in late ‘63 through to “Listen To Me” at the end of ‘68, the Hollies ripped through nuggets of 45 rpm ear candy at a rate of about three per year, including two of the Holy Bee’s all-time favorites — “Bus Stop” and “Carrie Anne.” And most of the B-sides were just as good as the As. To be fair, until Tommy, the mighty Who were “just” a singles band too.
They never really took off in the U.S. at that time, except for the Top 5 “Bus Stop” in the summer of ‘66. Just when things were starting to get interesting (their two 1967 albums, Evolution and Butterfly, are quite good forays into psychedelia), just when their original songwriting was coming into focus — co-founder and band visionary Graham Nash quit, bored by the band’s old-fashioned traditionalist attitude, and turned off by their showbizzy audience pandering. (The first album after he left was The Hollies Sing Dylan.) He became part of the three-headed ego monster known as Crosby, Stills & Nash, who would stop squabbling every seven or eight years to bore us with another Laurel Canyon soft-rock yawnfest.
The Hollies soldiered on (with former Swinging Blue Jean Terry Sylvester in Nash’s place), and finally found American success with syrupy, mawkish ballads like “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” and “The Air That I Breathe.” Their highest-charting U.S. single was “Long, Cool Woman in a Black Dress,” such a blatant rip-off of Creedence Clearwater Revival that many people to this day don’t know that it’s not actually CCR yammering about “working for the FBI” with “whiskey bottles piling high” over swamp-rock guitar licks. (Credit to Clarke and Hicks for combining to form a single John Fogerty with a fair degree of accuracy.)
So…no, the Hollies could not match the flat-out genius of the Beatles, nor the dark, menacing magnetism of the Stones, nor even the fractured, intermittent brilliance of the Kinks. But in exploring these questions, I grew to like the Hollies much more than I thought I would, and ended up giving them a playlist — but only through the Nash years. If I never hear “The Air That I Breathe” again, it will be too soon.
When I was doing my old iPod playlists a decade ago, I learned a valuable lesson about two important artists: I don’t need any more Billy Joel or Elton John than what is available on a good, solid, well-compiled two-disc best-of. The gold standard of that format were the “Essential” sets. Remember those? Sony used to do ‘em back in the CD era, and any major artist who is or has been on a Sony-owned label — which is about a third of them (Columbia, RCA, Epic, Legend, several more) — have one. Almost all of them were double discs, and I always thought they were very thoughtfully put together.
Many will argue, but I did not find a lot of unheralded gems buried in John’s or Joel’s albums. Their hits were undeniable monsters, but their obscurities are probably obscure for a reason.
Someone once told a story on a podcast — it may have been NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour — about meeting & interviewing Elton John in his luxurious hotel suite several years back. Elton’s management hinted that Elton would be happy to play him a song after the interview. The intrepid young podcaster, wishing to impress Elton, picked something from side two of Madman Across the Water. When the song was requested, Elton roared “Are you fucking kidding me? I haven’t played that song since I recorded it forty-five fucking years ago! I have no idea how it goes!” He then proceeded to play “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” for presumably the 14,000th time.