The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 5: The Hollies Get Their Due (and Satan Pays a Call)

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. 

44168615._SX318_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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

After discovering the Beatles as a child (see Vol. 3.3), I lived on a pretty steady diet of them for several years, until I was about fourteen or so, and then decided to expand my musical horizons. I went down the Dylan/folk-rock path first (see Vol. 4), then naturally gravitated towards the British Invasion. The grittier side of the British Invasion, mind you. You can keep that oversized muppet Herman and his brain-dead Hermits, I wanted the Rolling Stones and the Animals. If only Freddie & The Dreamers had the flexibility to kick themselves into a coma while “doing the Freddie.” (I do remember picking up and looking at the Hollies’ greatest hits CD a few times — I knew “Bus Stop” from the oldies station, see below — but I always ended up putting it back.)

And the Kinks. To my mind, one of the epochal moments of rock music came when Kinks guitarist Dave Davies took a razor and slashed the cone of his amplifier. The resulting buzzy distortion powered the riffs of “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night” in the days before effects pedals were a thing. Some music historians trace both metal and punk to that one deliberately busted amplifier. 

And punks they were, long before that term had any real cachet. They showed up to gigs late or not at all. They brawled onstage. Their early songs thrummed with aggression. They were banned from touring the U.S. for four years due to their unprofessional behavior. 

I’ll quote myself from an earlier piece I wrote (because that’s the kind of slapdash leaky vessels these Spotify Chronicles are): Due to [Ray] Davies’ disappointment and suspicion towards all things American, the Kinks gradually turned away from American-influenced R&B. He soon came up with his first satirical character sketch, and harbinger of the “new” Kinks sound, “A Well-Respected Man.” Poking vicious fun the conservative upper middle-class, the acoustic-textured song was a throwback to old British music hall and traditional pub sing-alongs. These older, very English pre-rock institutions began dominating the Kinks’ sonic palette, giving the band a delicate, whimsical style totally unique in the British music scene. 

The punks became dandies.

I didn’t know all this when I got The Kinks’ Greatest Hits. I just knew I liked the power of those early singles. Re-issue specialists Rhino Records put out a compilation CD that just covered 1964-1966. That was enough for me for a long while. On one disc, I had not only “You Really Got Me” and “All Day…,” but also rave-ups like “Come On Now,” “Ev’rybody’s Gonna Be Happy,” and “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?,” which were offset by rough-edged ballads like “Tired of Waiting for You” and “Set Me Free.” I did notice the tonal shift about two-thirds of the way through…sonic snarls like “Till the End of the Day” gave way to wickedly foppish things like “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” and the fey, cynical song that closed the collection, “Sunny Afternoon.” 

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I soon learned that Rhino’s Greatest Hits stopped just before what is arguably the Kinks’ artistic peak. Something Else…The Village Green Preservation Society…Arthur…Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround…Muswell Hillbillies…all lay in store for the band (and for me) in the period after the one covered by Greatest Hits. Figuring this out was one of the best “you mean there’s more?” moments of my adolescent musical journey.

cool101Discovering things like that was much more of a challenge in the days before the internet. Some things I picked up almost unconsciously. The Sacramento-based oldies station (COOL 101) was on pretty constantly in my mom’s car when I was a kid. A little later, when I was working for my dad in his shop, COOL 101 was always on in the background. The DJs didn’t always give an artist name when they spun a track, which drove me nuts, but I learned to mentally file it away whenever they did. (Thanks to them, I knew “Long, Cool Woman…” was not CCR.) Luckily, COOL 101’s playlist did not have a lot of depth. It seemed to cycle through about the same 300 songs, covering about fifteen years (roughly 1957 to 1972), and very Motown-heavy. Basically, it was the wet-dream radio station of the cast of The Big Chill. I built a pretty decent foundation of knowledge just from years of exposure to that. (When trapped in my mom’s car, I seriously considered opening the door and hurling myself into traffic whenever Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “Spinning Wheel” came on.)

Those thirty-minute infomercials on cable hawking ’60s compilations were handy, too. They often featured lengthy performance clips. These were my fist visual exposure to the Animals, and Them, and [shudder]…the “Freddie.”

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Then there were books. I already had a sizable collection of Beatles books, and those alone had plenty of hints and nuggets about other artists of the era. Mom was a dedicated garage sale and flea market shopper, and was under strict instructions to grab any “rock history” type books she ran across. I soon had a copy of the indispensable Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, one of the dozens of variations of New Musical Express’s The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, the perpetually cranky Dave Marsh’s Book of Rock Lists (the binding held together with packing tape), and many others. Standing out from the crowd was a brand-new copy of the third edition (1992) of The Rolling Stone Album Guide, bought at an actual book store. I was also a library geek (still am), so that helped as well. My local library had several books by The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau, the so-called “dean of rock critics.” But I never warmed to his terse style. Plus he was wrong a lot. (“Dean,” my ass.)

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Peer groups are often a source of musical recommendations, but around this time most kids exactly my age weren’t terribly interested in older music. That changed a little once I started high school, and was surrounded by people a few years more advanced. In the very early ‘90s, the Teenage Classic Rock Fan was still a species that existed in the wild, although they were endangered by then. I remember as a wide-eyed freshman (‘89-’90) always staring at one particular senior’s metallic blue ‘68 Mustang in the parking lot — with the cut-out CD long-box cover of the Who’s Greatest Hits (the one with the Union Jack shirt) proudly taped inside the rear window. I never met him, but to me he was the Epitome of Cool. Every Friday, music was played in the quad at lunchtime (as selected by the seniors and juniors on the Student Activities Committee), and every Friday the set inevitably closed with “Stairway to Heaven,” as we gathered up our things and proceeded to wind on down the road to fifth period, our shadows taller than our souls.

I didn’t share a lot of core classes with upper-classmen, but most electives were open to any grade, and in Computer Literacy, I overheard two seniors debating the lyrics of the Kinks’ “Lola.”

Over the next two years or so, that particular breed of high-schooler matriculated and moved on (often putting “what a long strange trip it’s been” as their yearbook quote), and high school, as I transitioned into the upper grades, became all about grunge, industrial, and the Beastie Boys. 

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3rd Edition, 1992

And in the early ‘70s, the Kinks came down from their lofty perch, put out a lot of dismal concept albums, and finally settled for being mid-range arena rockers. I read all this in my rock encyclopedias before I actually heard any of it.

There was another dying breed of slightly-older kid that I got a glimpse of my first two years in high school, and then no more forever — the Metal Chick. They were always named “Heather” or “Dawn.” They had denim jackets and fringed purses. Some of them still feathered their hair, some went with the teased & tousled look. All of them wore heavy mascara (not as heavy as the goths, though.) They smelled like AquaNet and cigarette smoke. They wore Razors’s Edge and Ride the Lightning t-shirts. They seemed older than their years, and had after-school jobs at places like Sizzlers and Long’s Drugs and drove second-generation Camaros.

I was terrified of them.

Maybe somewhere out there, in the wilds of the Midwest or the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, small numbers of them still roam free. But, as boy and man, student and educator, I haven’t seen them in California since 1992.

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And somewhere among their effects, either as a patch on their jackets, a button on their backpacks, or a sticker on their car, there was some salute to Led Zeppelin, usually in the form of their “four symbols,” or the Icarus logo of their Swan Song record label, belying the absurd notion that Led Zeppelin was strictly a “guys’ band.” 

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As a musician, songwriter, and arranger, very few would argue the exalted status of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. So, what’s Jimmy Page been up to since the end of Led Zeppelin in 1980? Next to nothing, or at least nothing new. Page seems to have no sustained interest in any kind of real solo career, and all evidence suggests he’s dedicated his remaining existence to being the fierce, Cerberus-like guardian of Led Zeppelin’s recorded legacy.

And I’d do the exact same thing. If I had laurels as fat and cushy as Page’s, you can bet your ass I’d be resting my ass on them. Page actually bristles at the notion of being Zeppelin’s “curator,” but if the velvet flares with the embroidered dragon fit…wear ‘em.

Plus, he lives in what may be the coolest house in London.

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Jimmy Page in his Tower House, Kensington, London

In the 1980s, after half-assing his way through two albums with his post-Zeppelin band the Firm, and quarter-assing his way through his first (and so far only) solo album Outrider, Page returned to his first (and probably only) love. He decided he was dissatisfied with the audio quality on the first-generation CD releases of the Led Zeppelin catalog. He dedicated the better part of a year to painstakingly remastering every song with the most state-of-the-art equipment possible. How to then sell these much-improved versions to the public? The answer was obvious — a 4-CD box set.

Record companies first realized the public (as opposed to obsessive collectors buying through mail order) would buy relatively pricey, multi-disc box sets in quite large numbers in 1985 — still the vinyl age — with the release of Bob Dylan’s 5-LP monster Biograph, which set the “hits-plus-cool rarities” template most box sets followed forever after. The following year, Springsteen’s Live/1975-1985 debuted already at the top of the charts thanks to an unprecedented number of advance sales. The first major box set of the CD era, Eric Clapton’s Crossroads, went double platinum and won several Grammys.

tumblr_37fbde59c4242b60f52d9c3f49471767_1c0fd138_500The box set craze seemed a natural fit for Led Zeppelin, who were always leery of short-form “greatest hits” packages. With their usual understatement regarding titles, the band agreed to name the collection…Led Zeppelin. (Much as the The Beatles was only ever known as “The White Album,” Led Zeppelin was always called “The Led Zeppelin Boxed Set,” to distinguish it from their debut album from 1969, called…Led Zeppelin.)

It came out in the fall of 1990.

Anyone who’s ever made a mixtape with any degree of seriousness knows sequencing is the key. How one song flows into the other takes a lot of thought. Sometimes you want a jarring juxtaposition, sometimes a comforting slide. Obviously, Zeppelin’s original albums were sequenced with care, but the box set did not simply replicate the original albums’ running orders. Page had the opportunity to re-sequence from square one. He picked 50 or so of what he considered Led Zeppelin’s most important songs, sprinkled in a few rarities (such as the long-forgotten B-side “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do”), and made the Ultimate Mixtape for his own band.

For me and the small cadre of like-minded kids, the Led Zeppelin box set was the jewel under the tree for Christmas 1990. It was how I absorbed Zeppelin for the better part of a decade, and its running order became my headcanon. When I finally started listening to the albums in their original running order, it was weird to me that “Black Dog” wasn’t followed by “Over the Hills and Far Away,” and a little jarring that “The Rain Song” no longer melted gloriously into “Stairway.” (The 32 songs left off the first box set came out three years later on the aptly-titled Boxed Set 2).

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Time and technology marched on. In 2014, Page decided it was time to remaster the remasters. Instead of going the box set route, this time the Zeppelin catalog was re-issued album-by-album, in “deluxe” format, with bonus tracks consisting mostly of alternate mixes. This is how they now appear on Spotify.

Led Zeppelin was also one of the earliest of the many bands accused of practicing Satanism. 

My middle school years coincided with the winding down of the “Satanic Panic.” There was a time in the mid-1980s when a certain breed of pearl-clutcher deeply believed that dark Satanic rituals were permeating everything from heavy metal concerts (well, naturally) to role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons (ok) to daycare centers (say what?). The “panic,” mostly whipped up by local TV stations needing something to fill the last few minutes of “News at 5,” spread to educators and law enforcement and all manner of supposedly educated adults who really should have known better. You’re always going to find a pentagram scrawled by a couple of 15-year-old paint huffers defacing the pedestrian tunnel in the park. It doesn’t mean the local Jack & Jill nursery school is staffed by a bloodthirsty coven.  

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We were discussing all this one day when I was in 8th grade. Middle school is a very odd age, and the term “middle” is a well-chosen descriptor. We were still pretty child-like, but definitely becoming aware of the wider world. Although most of us could grasp fairly sophisticated concepts if they were clearly laid out, we were what they now call “low-information.” No one bothered to explain things like the sudden paroxysm of fear over ritual Satanism to us — except older siblings trying to scare the shit out of us with a load of malarkey that even they maybe half-believed. That was our #1 source of “facts” and anecdotes — lying older siblings, and sometimes lying cousins if we didn’t have an older sibling.

“My cousin told me they sacrifice puppies at Ozzy Osbourne concerts,” someone said out of the blue as we lounged on the grass after lunch. (I don’t remember anything about my actual middle school classes — middle school in my memory is an endless series of lunches, recesses, softball practices, and unstructured “library time.”)  

We all contemplated that thought, horrified. Even Nick, the undisputed alpha and school leader, looked unsettled. Then I shook my head and spoke up. I was a pedantic nerd, but it made me a great de-bunker of older-relative tall tales.

“Nah. Think about it. The ASPCA would be on his ass like white on rice, and see to it the whole tour would get shut down, which would cost Ozzy millions of dollars. There are such things as animal cruelty laws. No concert venue would risk the lawsuit. Your cousin is either pretty stupid or pulling your leg.” That was the gist of my response. I don’t think I used the word “venue” as an 8th-grader, but I distinctly remember saying “on his ass like white on rice.”

Nick plucked at some grass and considered. (If he was the mafia boss of the school, I was his consigliere.)

“[Holy Bee]’s right. Sounds like bullshit.” The matter was dropped.

Despite the length some of their in-concert songs, and their overall aura of unwashed hairiness, Lynyrd Skynyrd was assuredly not a “jam band.” Iron-fisted band ruler Ronnie Van Zandt did not allow improvisation. They rehearsed, rehearsed, and rehearsed some more. Perhaps only James Brown was more obsessed with putting his band through their paces (and punishing them if he felt they weren’t pulling their weight.) A Gary Rossington guitar solo in “Tuesday’s Gone” as played in Denver would be repeated note-for-note the next night in Dallas. Van Zant insisted the punters in the crowd wanted to hear songs “exactly like they heard them on the record.”

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The modern-day, post-Ronnie “revival” version of Lynyrd Skynyrd (currently with one original member) may have bumped the band’s legacy over to the wrong side of history. To their credit, they’ve eschewed waving around the Confederate flag for many years now, and seem like nice guys — but they tour with the likes of Kid Rock (is there anything lower?) and definitely cater to the “all lives matter” crowd. (To re-purpose a Simpsons joke: “New Lynyrd Skynyrd: NOT racist — but #1 with racists.”)

I hope this doesn’t taint the reputation of the original version of the band. Ronnie Van Zant’s material championed underdogs and the downtrodden, and artistically grappled with being a sensitive, intelligent Southerner trying to balance regional pride with progressive ideals that would finally achieve a “New South.” The radio hits may have been loud Southern rock, but if you dig into the albums you’ll find a lot more stylistic variety — jazz, blues, pure country, even echoes of zydeco and ragtime — and subtle takedowns of prejudice and racism. There was even a pro-gun control song (“Saturday Night Special”).

Recent events have sadly demonstrated scratching the surface of the “New South” reveals that there’s still plenty of the Old South left to eradicate.   

Lynyrd Skynyrd is the only playlist (so far) where I did not put the songs in chronological order. The original band’s recording career was so short (about four-and-a-half years) that there wasn’t much of a development arc, and it would just seem odd that the closer of all closers, “Freebird,” would pop up around track four of thirty-five. (Underlining the fundamental pointlessness of my running orders, I tend to play my Spotify playlists on shuffle anyway.) 

*Since I am being so nit-picky on poor Alan, I’ll preempt any attempts to nit-pick me on George Harrison’s use of the volume-swell pedal. Many sources say “I Need You”‘s distinctive volume swells are not from a foot pedal at all, but Lennon kneeling in front of Harrison, manipulating the volume knob on the guitar itself because Harrison “couldn’t coordinate” his playing with the pedal.  The source for this anecdote is Harrison himself, but Andy Babiuk’s authoritative guide Beatles Gear states that these early experiments with volume-swelling happened during the recording of “Baby’s In Black” in August ’64. By the time of “I Need You” in February ’65, Harrison had more practice, and was definitely using the pedal. Reinforcing this is the song “Yes It Is,” recorded the same day as the “I Need You” guitar overdubs, is absolutely drenched in volume swells, indicating Harrison’s confidence with the pedal.

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