I’ve always had a soft spot for Eric Burdon because he picked my mother out of a crowd as a woman he wanted to fuck and had the civility to ask my father for permission first. That’s class!
Unfortunately for Eric, soft spots don’t earn anyone a free pass from The Alt Rock Chick!
The Animals were the first “bad boys” of the Invasion, though they were soon to be out-grunged by the more dangerous, hide-your-virgin-daughters appeal of The Rolling Stones. The “bad boys” were a group of invaders who based their music more on the work of black blues and R&B artists, whereas the “beat groups” drew more influence from the early rockers and girl group . . . so say those given to racism who have to categorize everything in sight.
The Animals, in various incarnations centered around Eric Burdon, had a comparatively long run of hits, staying on the charts until 1968. They were primarily a singles band, and the only album that reached the top ten in The States was their first. The Animals were generally at their best when they stuck to the gritty scenery that sets the stage for life in the lower classes, average when it came to pure blues or R&B and absolutely ridiculous when Eric Burdon moved to California and transformed himself into yet another tedious spokesperson for the hippie movement. From a musical standpoint, I think they lost a great deal when Alan Price left the band because he had the talent and presence to serve as a counterweight to Eric Burdon. After his departure, the Animals became Eric Burdon’s band, eventually changing the name (with two or three variations) to reflect that fait accompli. At first, Price’s departure didn’t make much of a difference, as some of the The Animals’ greatest songs are from the immediate post-Price period. In the long run, The Animals fell prey to Eric Burdon’s hunches concerning musical direction, which were hit or miss at best.
As for the degree of influence The Animals had, that’s a matter of debate. Some claim that it was The Animals, not The Byrds, who created the genre of folk rock. Talk about a tempest in a teapot! Let’s get something straight: musicians don’t create genres, marketers and librarians do. Since rock and folk are based on similar chord structures and commonly use some kind of strummed instrument (lute, balalaika, guitar, etc) as a centerpiece, all it took to “invent a new genre” was for some yahoo to plug in a guitar and play already familiar patterns. Big deal. The argument for Burdon and the boys is that The Animals’ first two hits were folk songs played with them newfangled electric instruments. Some even credit The Animals with influencing Dylan to add electric instruments to his act. I view that assertion with skepticism, because musicians and critics are always trying to rewrite history to justify their theories or make themselves look good. The evidence cited is that Dylan did “The House of the Rising Sun” on his first album and reportedly “jumped out of his car seat” when he first heard The Animals’ version on the radio. In other words, circumstantial evidence at best.
I’ll let other people argue over this trivia. My personal opinion is that I don’t think they were that influential, in large part because they took too long to start writing their own songs and many of those songs are of questionable value.
Let’s get to the music so you can form your own opinions. The Retrospective collection cheats a little by adding “Spill the Wine” to the set, reinforcing the notion that The Animals were Eric Burdon and vice versa. I don’t mind. The story of The Animals is the story of the career of Eric Burdon, so I like it that the album ends with his swan song performance and that his exit as a regular on the pop charts was a memorable musical experience. The track order isn’t perfect, but it’s better than most in following the chronology of their musical development. While the collection doesn’t begin at the beginning, we can get there with a literary flourish or two.
Once upon a time there was a band from Newcastle upon Tyne called the Kansas City Five who changed their name to The Animals after the nickname of one of their buddies and traveled down to London to play at the Crawdaddy Club, where they were introduced to an evil fart named Mickie Most who ordered them to launch their recording career with . . .
“Baby Let Me Take You Home”: Now I’m cheating a little. This song actually appears third on the CD track list, because I suppose the compilers wanted to open with The Animals’ signature song to attract consumers. Harrumph! God damn, I love that opening guitar riff, where Hilton Valentine seems to defy time and space. What happens is that his arpeggiated intro ends one beat early, so when the band comes in it takes the listener by surprise and makes the song that much more exciting. For a rookie singer, Eric Burdon shows surprising sophistication with his sometimes off-beat phrasing and sheer presence. Alan Price helps define The Animals’ early sound with his deft touch on the organ and Chas Chandler rips it on the bass in the double time coda. This is a super maiden release that sure beats the hell out of “Love Me Do.” The song can be traced back to either Blind Boy Fuller or Reverend Gary Davis, and was later transformed by 60’s folk scene presence Eric Von Schmidt into “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” the version “re-arranged” by Bert Russell and Wes Farrell into “Baby Let Me Take You Home.” Let’s see . . . that makes at least five plagiarism-related lawsuits that are no doubt still working their way through the courts with each dead man’s estate fighting for every penny.
“The House of the Rising Sun”: After that side trip into the complexities of the legal system, I am relieved to inform you that “The House of the Rising Sun” is of uncertain origin. Instead of wasting our time on competing hypotheses, how about if we just enjoy the damned song? It is absolutely mesmerizing! The repetitive arpeggiated chord pattern combined with the 2/4 time reflects the relentless march of evil that will inexorably and inevitably swallow the soul. Eric Burdon’s vocal is a dramatic tour de force and Alan Price’s organ adds that eerie feeling that there are certain things in life that are beyond a man’s control, especially seething passions and irresistible temptations. Gambling den or whore house, the place is a symbol of consuming temptation and creeping addiction to vice; dissolution becomes “that ball and chain” from which there is no escape. My interpretation is that the original place was where normal people went to have a good time, then returned to “normal” and found themselves drowning in various forms of Christian guilt. There could never be a House of the Rising Sun in a culture that doesn’t equate sex with sin. Eric Burdon even manages to stay in character and communicate genuine regret for his character’s debauchery. Since we know that the real Eric Burdon propositioned my mother in front of 5,000 witnesses, we have to give him credit for his acting skills.
“I’m Crying”: Their follow-up hit bursts out of the gate with the band creating maximum sound with everything they could throw at the studio microphones. The Animals generally did more vocals in unison than in harmony, and here the “ah-ah-ah” vocal pattern is particularly effective in its simplicity: you take the high note, I’ll take the low note, let’s stay on the same note. I do detect one of Eric Burdon’s flaws emerging here: sometimes he hams it up and over-emphasizes rather dull lines with excessive volume and emotion. A simple blues pattern with the flatted third and fourth chords adding a teeny bit of variety, “I’m Crying” is the classic hit carried into the top ten more on the strength of its predecessor than the song itself.
“Gonna Send You Back to Walker”: The B-side to “Baby Let Me Take You Home,” it’s really too bad that 45’s weren’t three-dimensional, because this song is clearly C-side quality. Based on Timmy Shaw’s minor (and only) hit, “Gonna Send You Back to Georgia,” The Animals attempt to localize the song for the British market by changing the return destination to Walker, a burb outside of Newcastle where Eric Burdon grew up. They carefully change the directional preposition from “from” to “to” so that the babe who is the object of the song goes south to get to Swinging London, so that Eric can send her home in a northerly direction after her big city experience turns her into a desirable possession whom other men may covet. For all their efforts at pre-GPS triangulation, the song proves to be a bore, and they made a major mistake in removing the most provocative verse from the original: “You run the streets with your bald head/Tryin’ to play the high-class game/You’d run those streets on both day and night/You don’t have pocket change.” Whoa, Nellie! What was that girl up to?
“Boom Boom”: Uh-uh (shaking head vigorously)! No way (jaw firms up in defiance)! Look, when John Lee Hooker sings, “I’m gonna shoot you right down” to his woman, he fucking means it, whether the shooting is a euphemism for getting a sassy bitch off her high horse, a fluid he would like to eject from his hardened member, or a small metal object expelled from the barrel of a .44. Eric Burdon doesn’t mean it, because he didn’t have the life experience to give those words the layers of meaning in the original. Once again, he overdoes the vocal. John Lee’s is one of quiet, cocky confidence: he knows that bitch is goin’ down.
“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”: This time Eric gets it right. His vocal is actually more restrained than Nina Simone’s original, and clearly communicates the vulnerability that men often deny. The quicker tempo also helps the song; Nina’s version sounds draggy to me, as if the point was to squeeze every last drop of emotion from every syllable. In real life, someone admitting mistakes and flaws in the personality would tend to speak at a faster rate once the words started to tumble out, with brief stutters and stops along the way. Eric Burdon understood those emotional dynamics, even occasionally slipping back into a tone of self-justification that gives his vocal more credibility. I love the unison vocals on the chorus, the quiet humming in the background and Alan Price’s work on the organ.
“Bring It on Home to Me”: It’s tough to measure up to anything Sam Cooke ever did, but Eric does a credible job with this cover. I just hate that little snickering laugh he adds in the second verse: “You know I laughed (ha-ha) when you left.” What the fuck is that? I guess no one taught Eric the Count Basie Theory: less is more!
“We Gotta Get Out of This Place”: A classic example of how cultures apply art in ways other than the artist intended. This Mann-Weill number is largely famous for the chorus and the repetition of the title line. It’s easy to understand why American boys trapped in the dismal jungles of Vietnam made this their unofficial theme song. “We’ve gotta get out of this place if it’s the last thing we ever do” is a powerful double entendre when “the last thing we ever do” may become tragically true. The real story of the song has nothing to do with Vietnam, but the thing we now call “income inequality,” hardly a new phenomenon in capitalist cultures. To work your life away and still find yourself trapped in poverty, unable to afford health care and stuck in a tiny shithole of a flat is a humiliating experience of permanent despair (“See my daddy in bed a-dyin’/See his hair turning’ gray/He’s been working and slaving his life away.”) Even high-paid professionals can relate to this song in a more existential fashion, because many of them feel like they’re working their lives away in meaningless jobs. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill were the best of the Brill Building songwriters, and this song is one for the ages. As noted above, Eric Burdon shines when he’s singing about the gritty and hard lives of the lower classes. Kudos to replacement organist Dave Rowberry for not overplaying his hand, and to Chas Chandler for one of the most recognizable bass riffs in history. By the way, this is the original American single release, so all those people who have been whining that the versions on “The Most of” and “The Best of” albums were bogus can now rest in peace.
“It’s My Life”: Continuing with the formula of notable bass runs and life in the slums, we have another Brill Building creation courtesy of Roger Atkins and Carl D’Errico (this one specifically commissioned by Mickie Most for The Animals’ next single). The opening combination of Chas Chandler’s bass run and Hilton Valentine on a 12-string Ric grabs your attention with the emphasis on the flatted fifth note presaging the dysfunctional nature of the living situation. Because Eric Burdon cared more about feel than precise enunciation, some listeners never realize that the narrator is a poor young stud whose plan is to use his sexual prowess to exploit the fuck out of rich women and get the hell out of a life of “sweatin’ rent.” Can’t say I blame him, and if the women get their rocks off and are willing to pay up, everyone goes home happy. While mutually agreed-upon exploitation is a pretty pathetic way to relate to one another, this kind of thing is going to happen in a world where people are trained to believe that life is dog-eat-dog, no matter what your station in life. Rich women have to get laid like the rest of us, and poor boys with big dicks have a talent that fits nicely in a supply-and-demand economy. I actually prefer this song to “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” from a musical perspective, but both represent The Animals at their best.
“Don’t Bring Me Down”: There sure were a lot of don’t-let-me-down-bring-me-down-put-me-down songs in the 1960’s! Living under the constant threat of nuclear war must have made everyone a bit sensitive. I’m not too fond of this piece; the parts never really come together into a satisfying whole. The fuzz guitar seems to have been thrown in because of trendiness rather than fit.
“See See Rider”: Yawn. If there’s one blues number that has been played to death, it’s this one. After the swirling organ opens the song, there isn’t much to hold one’s interest. Mitch Ryder’s version with “Jenny Take a Ride” was way better.
“Inside, Looking Out”: Eric Burdon and Chas Chandler took one of the songs discovered by the Lomax brothers in their search for American roots music and turned it into a decent-sized hit in the U. K. The sound is more garage band than studio, which works well for this old work song. There’s some very nifty organ work from Dave Rowberry here, and the ham in Eric Burdon must have loved the stop-time structure of the verses.
“Hey Gyp”: The unfortunate connection between Eric Burdon and Donovan that would inform the work of Eric’s hippie phase began with this cover of a pedestrian song by Donovan that any teenager could have written at the time. Bo-ring.
“Help Me Girl”: The original Animals were in the process of breaking up, so this tune appeared on Eric Burdon’s solo album Eric Is Here, credited to Eric Burdon & The Animals. I find it very helpful when artists clearly delineate their phases, which is the only thing I like about this song. The horns are so Bob Crewe Generation.
“When I Was Young”: The last of the gritty trilogy was thankfully composed by the entire band (now Eric Burdon & The Animals), giving the performance an immediate sense of credibility. My favorite of the three and probably my favorite Animals song of them all, this song frigging works on so many levels I love replaying it just to pick out the parts: the descending distorted guitar opening, the Indian-like guitar riff courtesy of new lead guitarist Vic Briggs, the flashes of electric violin and best of all, Eric Burdon’s delivery of one line in particular: “Pain more painful, laughter much louder, yeah.” If you listen closely there’s almost a hidden laugh behind the vocalization of the word “laughter,” and the closing “yeah” is snapped off with street-wise perfection. The modulation of the dynamics from quiet to loud to utter stillness is terribly effective and the mixed-race implications of “she was brown and I was pretty green” were pretty daring for the time.
“A Girl Named Sandoz”: While I do like The Smashing Pumpkins’ version better, I like the mix of garage feel and San Francisco sound on The Animals’ version. It sounds very Haight-Ashbury, as should any song where the heroine is named after the pharma company that brought helped bring LSD into the world.
“San Franciscan Nights”: Oh, for fuck’s sake. Warm San Franciscan nights? When? I lived in the City for twenty-five years and can remember maybe three warm nights. If you come to San Francisco in July or August and you see hordes of tourists shivering in their tank tops and shorts around Union Square as they huddle closely together in line waiting for the souvenir stores to open so they can buy piles of sweatshirts and sweatpants to protect them from the relentless fog and wind of a San Francisco summer, you’ll know whom to blame. “It’s summer! Isn’t California supposed to be warm in the summer?” they whimper in pathetic explanation of their skimpy wardrobes. The only way you could possibly describe San Francisco nights as warm is through the influence of LSD. Cocaine simply won’t do—you need something that completely distorts your perceptual field to believe that icy fog is a warm and snuggly blanket. To use this song as a plug for his buddy Donovan (“fly Trans Love Airways”) adds insult to frostbite.
“Monterey”: I guess Eric decided to pick up some extra cash as a marketing shill for the music industry. This song defines the regrettable tendency of humans in modern society to define certain happenings as “seminal events,” an exaggerative tendency much like the current practice to turn everyone who ever made a record into a “legend.” Baby Boomers are particularly prone to attaching excessive meaning to events, from Woodstock to Watergate to the Super Bowl. The most offensive aspect of this song is its elevation of musicians into godlike status. Referring to a drugged-out, unreliable guitarist as “His Majesty Prince Jones” is seriously over-the-top, as is the line “young gods smiled upon the crowd,” referring to the performers. The excess of this song is breathtaking, easily making my list of the ten worst songs ever conceived.
Look. Any objective reading of history will tell you that the truly seminal one-time events of the 60’s were JFK’s assassination and The Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The definition of ”seminal” is “strongly influencing future developments,” and those events created massive change, for evil or for good. Monterey Pop opened up another distribution channel for rock music, period. Woodstock didn’t change dick except account balances for the promoters. Some 60’s movements produced change, but the big events associated with those movements didn’t change shit. Change usually takes time, and a single event simply doesn’t have that much power or significance. The 60’s were full of big events, but when you follow the path that leads away from the event, you usually wind up nowhere. What did Kent State produce? A shitty CSNY single and a landslide for Richard Nixon.
I don’t know if Eric Burdon really cried to Ravi Shankar’s music, but I’ll bet Ravi didn’t cry even after Eric mangled his name to Shank-nar. Ravi had no reason to cry because he was the only musician who performed at Monterey who insisted on being paid for his performance. How fucking spiritual of him.
“Anything”: This is the song that Eric Burdon is most proud of writing. Uh-uh. Okay. Better not say . . . anything.
“Sky Pilot”: This opus had to be split into two sides on the 45 due to its length. The “sky pilot” is the army chaplain, a job whose existence defies reason and logic. I’ve always felt that the concept of “Christian Soldiers” is the ultimate oxymoron, and for a man of the cloth to accept a job in the military makes no sense to me at all unless you believe in predestination and are just playing out the string. The theme of “Sky Pilot” is this fundamental contradiction and the inevitable test of faith involved in choosing to serve in such a position. Although the lyrics are sometimes clumsy and the grammar atrocious (“only time it will tell”), it’s a compelling performance from the a cappella opening to the clinching line, “Thou shalt not kill.” I particularly like the strings here, especially in the passage before the last verse.
“White Houses”: One of the most underrated songs in their catalog, this Eric Burdon composition features the usual grammatical difficulties as he twists syntax to create rhyming lines (“Soon another life it will bring”), but is saved by a solid groove and a playful lead vocal. The theme of the song is “look at reality, people!” and as we continue to ignore the presence of poverty a few miles from our doorsteps and accept the daily bullshit fed to us by politicians and media, the message retains its relevance today.
“Spill the Wine”: Ironically, a band named War was created with the intent to spread peace and brotherhood. The original mixed racial-cultural lineup, from which the fairer sex was excluded, certainly met their brotherhood goal, she said snarkily. Sexism aside, War proved to be a very solid funk band that carries on to this day. They allowed a woman into the band in the late 70’s, to their credit.
“Spill the Wine” is certainly one of the most distinctive pieces ever to land a spot on the higher reaches of the charts. The carefree Latin beat enhanced by splashes of flute and a woman speaking in Spanish (Eric Burdon’s girlfriend) provides a much more interesting background for this largely spoken word piece than the programmed beats of rap and hip-hop. The dream state of the song allows for fanciful lyrics that celebrate the amazing beauty of women of all shapes and sizes (appropriate) but goes no further than validating their status as one of the many pleasures available to men (bullshit). Confident in the innate superiority of my gender, I can ignore the slings and arrows of ignorant males and enjoy this fresh and exciting piece of music.
As with the comparison of The Dave Clark Five to The Beatles, The Animals lacked the catalog depth of their leading competition, The Rolling Stones. They stuck with covers and Brill Building songs far too long and never really developed into accomplished songwriters as did Jagger and Richards. Those who survived after the Invasion had petered out possessed two qualities that made all the difference: the ability to write great songs and a sense of curiosity that led to the exploration of new possibilities in rock music. While that was certainly no guarantee of continuity, the artists who lacked those two qualities really had no chance at all.
Eric Burdon and The Animals did leave behind several songs that have an undeniable place in the history of rock music. While they may not have been as accomplished as some of their contemporaries, they gave us some great tunes that have stood the test of time. That’s more than you can say about Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick or even Tich.
I’m not much of a morning person. Okay, I’m an impossible bitch in the morning and you don’t want to be anywhere near me until 10 a. m. I use the morning to organize self and thoughts for the day ahead and I do not appreciate distractions in the form of human contact. My partner avoids me at all costs, not an easy thing to do in a small apartment with a single bathroom. She’s learned to listen for my footsteps or the sound of my ass hitting a chair to know whether or not it’s safe to move to a particular location. I initiate the goodbye kiss-and-nipple-tweak when I’m ready to go, then I plug in the headphones to my iPod, do the walk-Metro-walk to work without acknowledging the existence of thousands of Parisians and walk straight into my office without validating the existence of my staff as I pass through their workspaces. My E. A. knows better than to do anything except bring me strong black coffee and get the hell out of my office, but sometimes, business interferes and she has to intrude on my boot-up process.
“Ce sont les Americains à l’appareil,” she will say as gently and sweetly as possible, indicating the Americans are on the line.
“What the fuck do they want?” I will inevitably snap, in English. The French understand the operative word “fuck” and use it with increasing frequency in daily discourse. She’ll excuse herself, then I’ll pick up the phone, armed with the necessary attitude to do battle with the enemies from the corporate office.
A funny thing happened the week I started immersing myself in the music of Herman’s Hermits.
For a few days, my walk-Metro-walk was choreographed to the sound of Peter Noone and pals. I found myself humming along with their tunes and throwing in a little whistle now and then. As I walked to the Metro, I actually noticed there people on the streets, and even smiled and waved at them. I arrived at the office, disconnected the headphones, and then, with a light, lithe step, scampered up the stairs to our offices, eagerly anticipating the start of another work day.
“Bonjour, ça va?” I greeted each member of the staff, delighted to see their familiar faces, frozen in shock. I complimented my E. A. on her dress, her perfume; asked her about the family, the dog, the upcoming weekend, a restaurant. I thanked her effusively for the cup of coffee she had prepared for me, then stepped happily into my office and start the work day, humming away.
In a few minutes, the E. A. appeared at my door.
“Ce sont les Americains à l’appareil,” she said with a touch of trepidation.
“Ah, bon!” I said with genuine excitement, “C’est parfait! Je voulais discuter des estimations de coûts. J’ai quelques idées sur la façon dont nous pouvons réduire la voilure la proposition et toujours rendre le client heureux! C’est parfait!” (Perfect! I wanted to talk with them about the cost estimates. I have some ideas about how we can reduce the scope of the proposal and still make the client happy!)
After a couple of days of this, my E. A. came into my office one morning, closed the door, and mustered up her developing English skills.
“What is your FUCKING problem?” she said, with the word FUCKING bursting out with tremendous velocity. I had taught her that word and she found she really enjoyed it. She usually giggled with satisfaction when she said it, but not this time. She was as grim as the reaper.
I told her nothing was wrong, that I felt great and relaxed from a long vacation. “Alors, pourquoi êtes-vous tellement fucking heureuse tout le temps?” (So why are you so fucking happy all the time?). She then let loose a flood of accusations, telling me I was terrorizing the staff with my cheerful demeanor, that rumors had started that I was going to move back to the States or I had found another job, and the Americans would then send one of their own to manage the operation and they would all be fucked, fucked, fucked. She enunciated each “fucked” with rising volume.
I hope this little tale demonstrates the insidious danger of Herman’s Hermits. They can throw an entire business operation into chaos.
I met with everyone later that day and told them that really, I just happened to be in an unusually good mood, but I would try to get over it as soon as possible. I assured them I had no intention of leaving, reminded them that my contract made it impossible for me to leave before 2015, and that I was fully committed to returning to form as the tough-talking bitch who keeps the Americans off their backs. After work, I rushed home after work to finish this review so I would never have to listen to Herman’s Hermits again. I take my responsibilities as the bulwark against the American superpower very seriously!
And, living up to my responsibilities as a critic, I will take Herman’s Hermits very seriously as well.
They were one of the most successful bands of the invasion years (the #1 pop act in the U. S. in 1965), in large part because of their uncanny ability to make people smile. Peter Noone was the terminally cute boy that every girl’s mother wanted as a son-in-law, and the band seemed much less rough around the edges than the other invaders, including The Fab Four. They were the safe, make-your-parents-happy choice of Top 40 radio fans of the period, completely inoffensive and always keeping their music firmly grounded within the strictures of pop music. Though some of their songs had rock trappings, like electric guitars and screams, they were never really rockers in the truest sense of the word.
Once they faded from the scene, they apparently became something of a joke, a group of lightweights who made it because of exquisite timing and Herman’s irresistible sweetness: the British version of The Monkees, another band whose reputation suffered after they departed from the scene. I’m not here to argue with you that Herman’s Hermits should be elevated to artistes, but I do think the criticism is over the top. At their worst, they could suck the life out of a song through excessive homogenization. At their best, they performed with sincere and unrestrained joy and made people feel good about everyday life. Their scope was limited, their influence nonexistent, but even though they were “poppy,” they did pop songs as well as anyone before or since.
I refuse to apologize for liking Herman’s Hermits!
Of course, I must qualify that statement. I actually like fewer than half of the songs on this collection. Most of the time the problem is that Herman gets way too cute, in large part because Mickie Most wanted to squeeze every penny out of that cuteness for as long as he could. They absolutely ruined some songs by removing the slightest hint of a rough edge, and studiously avoided anything that smacked of spontaneity. Though they wrote some of their own songs, all of their major hits were covers, which diminishes their status in music history. As was true of The Dave Clark Five, their song selection weakened as time went on and passed them by. But when they were on, enjoying themselves and the music, they had the ability to express the sweet and honest emotions of youth in a way that reminded people how sweet those innocent feelings were. Compare and contrast that to the celebration of suicidal tendencies in 90’s teen rock and I’ll take Herman’s Hermits every time, as uncool as that may be.
So, yes, this dominant, leather-clad, sadistic, cigarette-smoking, vodka-guzzling, martial-arts-trained, whip-wielding terror of a woman has absolutely no guilt about expressing her appreciation for Herman’s Hermits, any more than I feel hoity-toity for admiring the work of Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. I have the right to feel happy, people!
Rather than go through the tracks one-by-one, I’m going to break the set down into three categories: Good Herman, Meh Herman and Bad Herman.
“I’m into Something Good”: Their cover of Earl-Jean McCrea’s bubbly soul hit captures Herman’s Hermits at their absolute best. Over a nice, solid beat and supported by background vocals so appealing that you simply have to try them out yourself, Peter Noone delivers a vocal that expresses the joy, innocence and tingling sensation that accompanies the hope attached to teenage love. Given his musical and theatrical training and his starring role in the British TV series Coronation Street, it’s no surprise he performs like a trouper. While I’m sure there are misanthropes in the world who despise this song, and snobs who dismiss it as pap, I would put them in the same category as Grinches and Blue Meanies and urge them to get laid and get over it. This is a fabulous song, fabulously performed.
“Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat”: One of my Guilty Pleasures, this is another wonderful piece with a teeny-weeny hint of blues roots with the seventh chord on the fifth line of each verse that gives it a little snap. The sad thing about the song is that the original artists, Goldie and the Gingerbreads—the first all-woman rock group—released their version in the U. S. just as Herman’s Hermits released theirs. With the power of Invasion promotional dollars behind them, Herman and company sent the Gingerbreads into U. S. pop chart oblivion. The Hermits’ version is more upbeat and joyful; the Gingerbread’s version more girl-group and faintly R&B-ish. While Goldie and the girls did wind up touring with The Beatles, Stones and Kinks, it’s kind of sad that they had their big chance snatched away at the last minute.
“Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter”: Recorded and released exclusively for the U. S. market after a grand total of two takes, this heavily-accented piece couldn’t help but top the charts in a country where the populace had become manic Anglophiles overnight. My father confessed to me that after The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, he and his friends spoke in British accents for months and started calling french fries chips and girls birds. The Invasion was huge, my friends! D-Day pales in comparison! The muted Gretsch sounds marvelously clear and clean even today, and Herman plays his role as romantic loser perfectly. I was surprised to learn that the original was sung by Tom Courtenay, one of my absolute all-time favorite actors. I love research!
“I’m Henry the VIII, I Am”: This song has been savagely attacked by some critics as the ultimate in frivolity and silliness. Well, it is frivolous and silly, but what the fuck is wrong with that? Some times you have to let your inner silliness go and have some fun! I also think the attackers fail to realize the true value of this song: anyone can join in, no matter how vocally challenged they may be. I mentioned in my review of Past Masters, Volume Two how my Irish half of the family would get together on New Year’s Eve and devote the evening to drunken revelry and raising our voices in song. Those who could carry a tune spent hours perfecting harmonies on “Paperback Writer,” “Bus Stop,” “In My Room” and old Irish ballads while the others sat on their hands looking uncomfortable and envious (and getting drunker by the minute). The hams detected this alienation and we’d stop (yes, I was a ham) and play some songs that required no musical talent whatsoever. “I’m Henry the VIII, I Am” was perfect for such an occasion! Anyone could do the “Hen-er-y” call-and-response, and if they weren’t too bombed, could manage to spell and shout out the letters, “H! E! N-R-Y!” We had way more fun with this silly and frivolous song than our more ambitious efforts, and since one purpose of music is to chase your blues away, I hereby pronounce “I’m Henry the VIII, I Am” a fucking masterpiece.
“Hold On”: Herman’s Hermits adhered to the formula for success established by The Fab Four and ventured into film. Really! With Shelley Fabares, no less! Wow! I’ll never forgive Shelley for “Johnny Angel” and for the five minutes of truly terrible acting I saw on a truncated version of an episode of The Donna Reed Show. I haven’t seen the movie but one 21st century critic did and described Herman’s Hermits as “a Backstreet Boys for their time.” Ouch! The song itself is as close to a rocker as they would ever get, one of four P. F. Sloan-Steve Barri compositions from the movie. That pair would go on to write songs for several bands, including The Grass Roots, an execrable American band they invented to market their wares.
“Just a Little Bit Better”: This one is borderline, but it’s the only song in their catalog where Peter Noone comes close to belting out lines with some feel for the groove. So what if he’s parroting Buddy Holly and coming up short? I’ll take it. The chord structure is also more interesting than the typical HH number.
“Listen People”: A Graham Gouldman number that The Hollies might have had some fun with, the combination of the dreamy lead guitar opening (I hope it was Derek Leckenby and not a Mickie Most temp) and Peter Noone’s alternating vocal approach make it a keeper. It probably made many a teenage girl swoon with desire without possibility of release, for back then the belief was that if you jacked off, hair would grow on your hands, and that simply wouldn’t do for a young lady programmed from birth to catch a man. Anyway, here’s a clip from another film they did, When the Boys Meet the Girls, starring the truly wonderful Connie Francis:
“No Milk Today”: Graham Gouldman penned quite a few hits for Invasion bands: “For Your Love,” “Heart Full of Soul,” “Bus Stop,” “Look Through Any Window” and this flawed gem. The defect in this song irritates the shit out of me. This is a sad song about a man whose woman has left him, and appropriately begins in a minor key. For some unknown reason (boredom, probably), Gouldman shifts to a major key in the bridge, leading the listener to expect a happy resolution. She’s coming back! Not! Read these lyrics and tell me if these are suitable for a major key:
But all that’s left is a place dark and lonely
A terraced house in a mean street back of town
Becomes a shrine when I think of you only
Just two up two down
The arrangement does get a bit busy as the song proceeds; the opening acoustic guitar should have remained the dominant instrument throughout the song. Still, it’s a very pretty melody and one of Peter’s more mature vocal performances.
“This Door Swings Both Ways”: I’ll admit this is a curious choice for my HH A-list, but once we get past the corny intro, the mix of loose-string acoustic guitar and deadened drum skin grabs me every time I hear it. The song is an unusual mix of styles; sometimes it’s a folk-rock song, sometimes pop and sometimes almost reggae in feel. Peter Noone really seemed to perk up for the songs with denser lyrics, and this is one of his most enthusiastic vocal performances.
“(What A) Wonderful World”: This cheery Sam Cooke number should have been a perfect fit for Peter Noone, but the problem is in the comparison. Even when Sam Cooke forced himself to do pop numbers to pay the bills, he always added a touch of soul to his performances that gave light numbers a feel of something more substantial. Nice try, Peter, but you can’t compete with Sam Cooke. No one can.
“A Must to Avoid”: The title should have earned it a spot in the Bad Herman list, but I resisted the pun and raised its status to mediocrity. It was the closer to the film soundtrack for Hold On! and after seeing a clip, I hereby renounce any intention of watching the entire movie.
“There’s a Kind of Hush”: Originally recorded by The New Vaudeville Band (I love “Winchester Cathedral,” she said, fully aware of the irony in her statement), the arrangement is so Easy Listening that I can hardly hear the song through all those unnecessary layers. Just as they wiped out Goldie and the Gingerbreads, Herman’s Hermits would destroy a promising adolescent band from Cincinnati called Gary and the Hornets who were starting to gain traction with the song before the HH Music Machine went into high gear promoting the HH version.
“It’s Nice to Be Out in the Morning”: Graham Gouldman fucks up the major-minor thing again, and the strings define the word “superfluous,” but beneath that there’s a nice acoustic groove and Peter Noone again seems to enjoy the more challenging lyrical opportunity.
“Museum”: Trying to cash in on the growing hipster-hippie scene, Herman’s Hermits simply had to cover a Donovan song. As regular readers know, I consider Donovan 90% water and 10% bullshit, so the song itself doesn’t impress me in the least. The arrangement is dreadful, with canned horns burying any trace of the band. The only reason it makes the “Meh” list is that it’s great to hear Peter Noone to sing the opening line, “I drink sweet wine for breakfast,” which allows the listener to imagine this ultimate vision of good clean fun as a down-and-out destitute drunk. “Museum” was the opening song to Blaze, an album that attempted to help them make the transition from Invasion heroes to post-Pepper relevance. It was praised by the critics at the time, all of who were stoned out of their minds.
“Here Comes the Star”: Released as a bonus track on the updated version of Blaze, this song about the horrible loneliness of stardom (yeah, right) gets a Meh Herman rating only because of Peter Noone’s convincing delivery of the spoken line, “Step aside,” which he delivers as if he were still a real star who had to shoo away the riff-raff at the time this song was recorded. He wasn’t, so the song has a certain hit-the-skids flavor that gives it more emotional credibility than some of the songs in the next section. It would have been even more interesting and might have made the Good Herman list had he written the lyrics, but alas, such is not the case.
“Silhouettes”: This is the prime example of Herman’s Hermits taking something with substance and turning it into Wonder Bread. The original doo-wop version by The Rays emphasizes the tension arising from the narrator’s jealousy; you can feel his irrational side taking control as he mistakenly perceives his woman in the arms of another man. Herman’s Hermits’ version is a mechanical repetition of words and melody with no passion whatsoever. In retrospect, I’m surprised they didn’t use stop time to emphasize the punch line (the guy was on the wrong block seeing silhouettes in the window of a different apartment).
“Leaning on a Lamp Post”: Reincarnating this George Formby hit from the 1930’s was clearly an act of exploiting the American obsession with anything British during the Invasion years. Peter Noone could have read excerpts from Churchill’s war speeches or recited Swinburne and it would have sold millions. In his hands, the double entendres of the Formby version vanish into very thin air. It also doesn’t help that I’m not a big fan of anything that smells remotely like a “show tune.”
“End of the World”: No, no, no, no and no! No one can ever duplicate the American girl teenage angst of Skeeter Davis! Her original is the ultimate early 60’s break-up song, solidifying the dominant myth that a girl could never amount to shit without a male companion. As disgusting as the mythos was, the pathetic sincerity of her performance expresses those cultural limitations better than any similar song of the era. “End of the World” is the expression of the cause that led to the effect of women setting bras on fire. A guy can’t sing this fucking song! Sheesh!
“East West”: We have Graham Gouldman again, this time longing for home for the holidays after traveling the world over bonking beautiful babes. The imagery of the home life is superficial Dickensian, sanitized by nostalgia. Too sweet for my tastes, and frankly, I rather like the idea traveling the world over bonking beautiful babes.
“Dandy”: Peter Noone delivers this Ray Davies’ number with all the excitement of reading the classifieds aloud. Gone are Ray’s rakish, wink-filled delivery and any signs of life. Double raspberry!
“Sleepy Joe”: Good title, because this cutesy-wootsy number puts you to sleep in eleven seconds. If you drink lots of espresso, you can stay awake long enough to hear Peter Noone deliver a too-obvious, chuckle-tinged vocal on a song so out of touch with 1968 that it screams “BAND IN DECLINE!”
“Don’t Go Out into the Rain, You’re Going to Melt”: The Brill Building was producing Brit-like songs by the dozens, and this Kenny Young number is one of the worst. Amazingly, this piece of shit was covered by the Swinging Blue Jeans a year or so later. So sweet you can feel your teeth rotting.
“Sunshine Girl”: Oh, jeez. Sunshine! Love! Happiness! Joy! Yuck! The choral intro is clearly Beach Boys-influenced, but oceans away from Smiley Smile.
“I Can Take or Leave Your Loving”: Oh, for fuck’s sake. Was this supposed to be a TV show theme song? It sure sounds like one, but had I accidentally tuned into the show and heard this, I would have changed the channel immediately. In truth, the song was a B-side from a curious multi-ethnic British group called The Foundations whose schtick was Motown imitation songs. Peter Noone simply lacks the feeling for soul music, even that which is twice-removed from the source.
“Something’s Happening”: Oh, wait, this must be the TV theme song. No? Well, that’s fortunate. No song better defines Herman’s Hermits’ late-period status as “stuck in amber.” Released in December 1968, it might have been relevant in December 1964 as a B-side or as a filler song on a generally crappy album.
“My Sentimental Friend”: The only sentiment I feel when listening to this song is, “Get ‘dese bums off da stage!” Maudlin doesn’t even begin to describe this loser.
The funny thing is that even some of the Bad Herman songs are mildly pleasant on the ear, and there’s no question that the entirety of the record just . . . well, I’ve said it before . . . it just makes you feel good. I really wish that their career hadn’t been so repressively managed, as they were more accomplished musicians than most, and with a little time and less pressure they might have done some interesting music. I don’t think they would have ever approached The Kinks or The Beatles in terms of songwriting excellence or the ability to rock, but they could have restructured the foundation in such a way to become a very strong melodic group without all the fuzzy, cuddly stuff.
Preparing for this review was a delightful little period in my life, but truth be told, I wasn’t constructed out of sunshine and light. Once I switched from Herman’s Hermits to the next group on the list, I could feel my edge return, sense my human-resistant energy shield snap back into place and look at myself in the mirror and say, “The bitch is back.”
Now that felt good!