There were moments when Clarke, Nash and Hicks raised their voices in three-part harmony and sounded as good as The Beatles or The Beach Boys ever did. Allen Clarke was one of the great lead singers of the era, his voice clear, colorful and commanding. Their arrangements often revealed a great deal of care and musical discipline. The Hollies had a very clear idea of how they wanted to sound, a state some bands never achieve.
But I have to say that The Hollies weren’t as good as I think they could have been.
Despite their obvious vocal gifts, they weren’t very good songwriters. Graham Nash’s songs generally sound like they were written for children, and are listenable only because the harmonies are often exquisite. Nash could out-cute McCartney any day of the week, and I have to go off-topic to add that if there’s one song in the world that brings out the psychopath in me, it’s CSN’s “Our House,” a song capable of triggering diabetic shock. The Hollies’ best album, Evolution, contains some very nice songs but also shows a relative lack of imagination when compared to the music other artists were making at the time. Oh, they added the funny effects and odd instruments that were the all the rage, but the songs remained firmly grounded in standard pop conventions and their lyrics barely made it to the level of “not annoying.” The Hollies’ modus operandi was the emphasis on vocal harmony, and so it all came together for me when I learned that Allen Clarke and Graham Nash started their careers as a duo attempting to emulate the Everly Brothers. The Everly Brothers did more than anyone else to establish harmony in the context of rock ‘n’ roll, but they were lucky to have peaked in the pre-Dylan era when songs were primarily boy-girl stories and lyrics didn’t matter that much. The Hollies performed in an era when lyrics and musical imagination mattered, and they simply weren’t wired to go that route.
There are two “Hollies Greatest Hits” albums, and both suffer from the Goldilocks paradox. This one is a little too small, with stunning omissions like “I’m Alive,” “I Can’t Let Go,” “Here I Go Again” and “Sorry Suzanne,” revealing a compilation targeted for the American market. Most of those missing songs are included on the 47-track competitor, but that edition spends way too much time in the 1970’s and beyond, their least interesting period. I’ll review this one now, save Evolution for another day and hope that something that’s just right comes out in the future.
The compilers seriously messed up the track order, so I’m going to present the songs in order of release AND include the four omissions mentioned above, suitably asterisked. Harrumph!
“Just One Look”: The Hollies first four singles were all covers: two from The Coasters, Maurice Williams’ “Stay” and this cover of the Doris Troy hit. This one went all the way to #2, and I’ll be damned if I can figure out why. Every bit of soul you heard in Doris’ version has been bleached out of existence in a happy-snappy performance of godawful precision. I congratulate the band for hitting all the notes, but someone should have informed them that they weren’t auditioning for the choir. Absolutely lifeless.
“Here I Go Again”*: This one shows a few more signs of life, and, with the exception of random and terrifying appearances of a ludicrously high falsetto, the harmonies are close to trademark Hollies. In their defense, this Brill Building number doesn’t offer much to work with, sounding like something McCartney and Lennon might have written in their youth and passed off to Cilla Black as a B-side.
“I’m Alive”*: This one was penned by Clint Ballard, Jr. I mean, what else do you need to know? Okay, CBJ (I can call him that because we’re old friends, she lied) wrote two other songs of note during a long and occasionally successful career as a songsmith: Linda Ronstadt’s and Dee Dee Warwick’s “You’re No Good” and Wayne Fontana’s “Game of Love”. If you listen to this song and wonder what the hell is the matter with Allen Clarke’s voice in the opening lines of the verses—where he sounds like he’s doing a piss-poor version of Roy Orbison—the only explanation I can offer is that CBJ also hailed from Texas and perhaps was trying to write a song using a Roy Orbison-like register. The in-song transformation from poor Orbison imitator to Allen Clarke is remarkable, as the pitch rises on each line to eventually land in his native register. It’s like he’s resurrecting himself right before our ears! Can I say that? Anyway, there’s a point in the middle of the fifth line where he becomes the real Allen Clarke and the emergence of that golden voice is truly triumphant. He is alive! I love that voice! Allen, don’t ever leave me again!
“Look Through Any Window”: My father was surprised when I mentioned to him that this was their first Top 40 hit in the United States. “Are you sure?” he asked, his eyes squinting in an expression that combined skepticism and the oh-shit-am-I-losing-my-memory fear that afflicts those over sixty. I pulled up the Billboard chart records and showed him but he still wasn’t happy, so he called a friend back in the homeland to search for an explanation of this discrepancy. While the friend had nothing to back up his story, his theory was that “Look Through Any Window” sold well on the East Coast but never made it out west. Regional hits were common in the era (and still common today), so I’m going to go with my dad’s story that he never heard the song until it came out on a 1967 greatest hits album. For those on the Left Coast, the history of The Hollies apparently began with “Bus Stop.”
I was surprised, too—surprised that “Look Through Any Window” didn’t make it to the top ten. This is my favorite Hollies song! Tony Hicks’ distinctive lead-in on a Vox Phantom XII (I want one!) is a definite grabber, paving the way for Allen Clarke in the sweet spot of his range. While Allen sings the opening lines, you get the feeling that Bobby Elliot back on the drum kit is trembling with anticipation to let it go, and boy, does he ever, adding the punctuation needed to give this song endless bursts of energy. It all comes together on the “highways and the byways” harmonies that thrill me every time I hear them. I love the way this song maximized the talents of the band, giving Tony Hicks a couple of lines as lead vocalist and oh, those harmonies! The song is dense with brilliant and varied three-part harmonies, peppery call-and-response lines and three perfectly executed key changes. The shift of emphasis to minor chord in the coda allows The Hollies to add a touch of melancholy to a song that celebrates life; the minor key harmonies reflect that feeling you get sometimes when you’re caught up in a wonderful life experience that you wish would go on forever, but you know it’s but a vanishing moment in time. The song was written by frequent Invasion contributor Graham Gouldman with a guy named Charles Silverman, and while I thank them for the song, it’s The Hollies who make “Look Through Any Window” a special experience.
Below are two video versions of the song. I absolutely rejected a ridiculous version of the song on Hullabaloo where they’re introduced as college football players (!) by the smarmy Frankie Avalon. Instead, you’ll see a performance at the London Palladium and another video clip containing the French version. Yes, The Hollies did this song in French! “Regardez Par Des Fenêtres!” My favorite Hollies song in my daily language! I should be delighted! No! It’s the worst fucking French I’ve ever heard!
“I Can’t Let Go”*: Bassist Eric Haydock’s last single happens to be the song with the most noticeable bass line up to this point. It isn’t much, as his pattern consists of repeatedly plunking the root note over and over again, but at least you can hear the bass. This song sounds way better in mono; the stereo mix doesn’t blend the harmonies particularly well, giving the impression that Graham Nash, Tony Hicks and Allen Clarke are in separate booths. It does allow you to hear Graham Nash’s gorgeous counterpoint vocal that Paul McCartney went gaga over, thinking it was a trumpet. “I Can’t Let Go” was written by Jon Voight’s brother Chip Taylor, who also wrote The Troggs’ “Wild Thing,” a song that required as much imagination as it takes to copy “Louie, Louie” and change the rhythm a little.
“Bus Stop”: If you had to pick one song that defined The Hollies’ sound, this is the one. Another Graham Gouldman number, it’s marked by the contrast between the melancholy minor key and a story of falling in love, which should be a rather happy occasion, don’cha think? Graham always had problems getting his modes straight, but this tune works because the visuals in the lyrics take us through the passage of the seasons, which sometimes feels like a melancholy experience. Bobby Elliot’s drums add just the right touches at the right moments, and the rhythmic interplay with the acoustic guitar is perfectly tight. The harmonies, needless to say, are as good as it gets. Damn, these guys could sing!
“Stop Stop Stop”: I normally hate fucking banjos, but Tony Hicks doesn’t play the banjo in hillbilly style, and does some clever things with the rhythm and the picking on the chorus. This was the first hit written by Clarke, Hicks and Nash, so from that perspective it’s a huge victory for the home team. I’ll tell you one thing: if I was that belly dancer and that guy tried to fondle me during my act, that restaurant would be serving chopped penis salad as tomorrow night’s special.
“On a Carousel”: Not even a silly, worse than Disney-esque story line and a thin lead vocal (solo only on the opening verse) from Graham Nash can diminish the power of those harmonies. The round-and-round-and-round-and-round segments are absolutely magical and never fail to bring a smile to my face.
“Pay You Back with Interest”: The most underrated song in their catalog, “Pay You Back with Interest” is the one tune that causes me to mourn what could have been. The rhythmic shift in the verses from waltz to 4/4 was a stroke of genius, with the 3/4 time expressing the narrator’s regret that he spends most of his life “on business,” and the upbeat 4/4 time echoing the narrator’s commitment to make it alright some day. Bobby Elliott’s drum rolls backing up the harmonies in the middle eight maintain the feeling of tension within this man’s soul as he aches for his faraway love. While I’m not fond of the use of financial metaphors to describe romance, that’s a minor quibble over what is a truly brilliant piece of work.
“Carrie Anne”: We leave one of my favorite Hollies songs for one of my least favorite. A piece that defines the phrase “sing-songy,” Graham Nash takes his sugar addiction to the extreme here. The song sticks out like a sore thumb as the opening track on the U. S. version of Evolution, a horrible decision by the record company to “single-ize” a relatively good album. The one bit I do love is the glissandi on the word “game” in the chorus. Nash said later that he wrote the lyrics about Marianne Faithfull. BFD. Actually, the song is way better without Graham Nash, as demonstrated on the clip below.
“King Midas in Reverse”: The Hollies began their decline when Graham Nash started to take over after Evolution, a classic case of a man having a highly inflated view of his talent. The follow-up album, Butterfly, is more of a Graham Nash solo project than a Hollies record. This song was supposed to create excitement for the upcoming album release, but the response was middling because it’s a pretty middling song on a pretty middling album. The Hollies eliminated any value the song might have had by making the chorus impossible for the average person to sing without repeatedly poking him or herself in the tummy to try to duplicate the warble on the words “worse” and “reverse.” I’d hate to see what would happen if someone tried to do that while behind the wheel. Fortunately, the song didn’t exactly take off, so the authorities of the time never had to take measures to outlaw the use of “tummy vibrato” while driving.
“Dear Eloise”: How many synonyms are there for the word “loathe?” Let’s find out! According to Roget’s we have abhor, abominate, reject, be allergic to, have aversion to, despise, decline, repudiate, be down on, have no use for, detest, execrate, revolt, feel repugnance, hate, spurn and find disgusting. I (all of the above) “Dear Eloise.” Sexless, syrupy, sacchariferous and senseless sums it up, she said snottily. It sounds like it was written on a toy xylophone.
“Sorry Suzanne”:* This is the post-Nash song that defines the end of The Hollies, Phase One. The song is dull and repetitive, serving up a diluted, weak-soup version of The Hollies. I only mention it because the band seemed rudderless after Graham Nash’s departure, ironic as that may sound. The split was occasioned by Nash’s refusal to go along with the desire of the others to do an entire album of Dylan covers, a seriously bad idea that told the world, “We’ve given up trying to be original so we’re going to try to be The Byrds instead.” The lesson here is that the whole is usually better than the parts, something that was as true for The Hollies as it was for The Beatles.
“He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother”: Shit! I already used up the entire set of hate words from the thesaurus, so I’ll have to use intensives instead. I hate this fucking song. It’s an American Idol song, one of those awful tunes that gives the singer too much room to ham it up. It’s even got Elton fucking John on piano, for chrissakes, the drama queen of all drama queens. The original source of the song actually tells a very touching story. From Wikipedia:
In 1884, James Wells, Moderator of the United Free Church of Scotland, in his book “The Parables of Jesus” tells the story of a little girl carrying a big baby boy. Seeing her struggling, someone asked if she wasn’t tired. With surprise she replied, “No, he’s not heavy; he’s my brother.”
In an 1918 publication by Ralph Waldo Trine titled “The Higher Powers of Mind and Spirit”, he relates the following anecdote: “Do you know that incident in connection with the little Scottish girl? She was trudging along, carrying as best she could a boy younger, but it seemed almost as big as she herself, when one remarked to her how heavy he must be for her to carry, when instantly came the reply: ‘He’s na heavy. He’s mi brother.’
To turn that rare tale of charm, grace and female superiority into a corny song designed for a Vegas lounge act was one of the crimes of the century.
“Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress)”: The Hollies wanted to do a song that sounded like Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Green River.” As phony as he was, John Fogerty was the bees’ knees at that point in musical history. Go figure. Anyway, Allen Clarke took the bull by the horns and wrote most of the song in five minutes. It’s a stunning vocal performance by a man who hadn’t really done much belt-it-out rock with a strong groove, and makes me wish that The Hollies would have balanced their catalog with more rockers during their peak period. Way better than anything Credence ever did.
“Long Dark Road”: Why is this song here? I see it made #26 in the U. S. Must have been a seller’s market. The most undistinguished song on the record, it’s only virtue is that it isn’t particularly offensive, kind of like a long dark road to boredom.
“The Air That I Breathe”: You think I’m going to hate this song, too, don’cha? Wrong! The performance is more restrained, the strings more subtle and the musical structure more interesting. It doesn’t exactly get my heart all-a-flutter, but I don’t skip over it when it comes up on the iPod. I very much like the insertion of the truncated line “sometimes” just before the chorus, as it’s a nice bit of not par-for-the-course musical structure. Allen Clarke’s lead vocal is very strong without crossing the line into melodrama. And I love that the lyrics list cigarettes as the first human need, ahead of sleep, light, sound, food, and literature. Take that, 21st Century Health Nazis!
The Hollies will always be remembered for their fabulous harmonies, but I think they could have done so much more had anyone other than Graham Nash had been blessed with the explorer’s spirit. Nash certainly wanted to explore new things, but he limited his exploration to a very narrow musical sphere: children’s songs for adults who never wanted to grow up. There aren’t many real Peter Pans in the world, so that path was a dead-end from the start. Given The Hollies’ combined vocal gifts, I was hoping for a real opus to appear somewhere in the catalog, but il n’existe pas.
Amazingly, another Invasion band achieved what I had hoped for The Hollies: the creation of a work of timeless excellence characterized by superb harmonies, brilliant lyrics and imaginative music. Their achievement was “amazing” because, well . . . I’ll explain it all to you next time.