Brit Beat For Brits
Beatles fans have long heralded the band’s amazing creative growth during the sixties, from the simple lyrics of “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me” to the poetic sophistication of “Eleanor Rigby” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” just a few years later. However, the Beatles were not the only British Invasion group who ripened from a beat band to something more complex and erudite during the decade. The growth and development of the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and others have been well documented in films, books, and musical collections and even casual fans of the era can rattle off the names of the has-beens, such as Freddie and the the Dreamers, that never made it past a few hits.
The Hollies were one of the most successful acts of the period but are almost always relegated as a footnote that explains Graham Nash left The Hollies to form the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash, and (sometimes) Young. Americans generally overlook The Hollies because, in a sense, Americans always have. The Hollies were much more successful in England than in the states. In fact, several of the band’s Top 10 hits in the UK never even reached the Top 40 on the U.S. charts, such as “Just One Look”, “I Can’t Let Go”, and “I’m Alive”. When American youth seemed to be buying all things British, the Brits themselves were enjoying The Hollies more than the Yanks.
Listening to the re-released two double disc packages, Greatest + Singles 1 and Greatest + Singles 2, offers hints as to why that may have been. Nash always said the reason he left the Hollies was because they would not record his more adventurous material, such as “Marrakech Express” (which was very successful for Crosby, Stills, and Nash). The evidence proves him right, but there is more than that going on. While other successful British bands from the period seemed to lead changes in music and the larger scene, the Hollies were followers of fashion trying to cash in on the latest crazes. That did not make them bad. It made them a pop act.
Remember that all British bands, such as the Beatles, the Stones, and the Kinks, began by covering the work of American rockers such as Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and Little Richard. The Hollies were no different. The Hollies first hit singles were covers of American hit songs by the Coasters, Doris Troy, and Maurice Williams and the Zodiac back in 1963-64. It was the norm for a group of nice looking lads with decent pipes from England to play American rock and roll, sing with an American accent, harmonize the vocals and give it a beat.
While The Hollies had eight Top 25 singles in England between 1963 and 1965, six of them reaching the Top 10, they did not have even a Top 40 hit in America at the time. Although the 1965 song “I’m Alive” was a number one smash on the charts in Britain, it did not even make the Top 100 in the states.
Greatest + Singles 1 contains the same material, one disc in mono and the other in stereo. Most English people bought “I’m Alive” as a 45 rpm record—it did hit number one—while most Americans probably heard it on the album Hear! Here!, which was originally a mono release. The mono version is heavy on reverb and atmospherics. Despite the gospel sounding title, the song is straight pop with three-part harmonies, jangly electric guitars, 4/4 percussion, and simple lyrics (a certain girl makes the singer proclaim he’s alive). The stereo version is more spacious. The separation of the lyrics and the instrumentation technically are rewarding, but something is lost—a feeling of intimacy.
The Brits, it seems, enjoyed the mix as a single unit of sound. Americans tended to prefer the identifiable characteristics of a singer or player, an extension of the nation’s individualistic spirit. Despite the communal values soon to be embraced by America’s youth, there was always an emphasis on nonconformity. That’s one reason American rock tended to be dominated by discrete entities like Elvis, while Brits preferred the group.
Ironically, this can be learned from a single that proclaims the singular (sang by multiple voices) “I”, but even more can be gleaned. “I’m Alive”. The song bears a strong resemblance to American music of the time probably because it was written by U.S. songwriter Clint Ballard, Jr. Americans may have been tired of the sound, popularized by acts such as Gene Pitney earlier in the decade, but the Brits still loved the American vibrations. During the British Invasion, the Americans overwhelmed England as well. In this case it was The Hollies in guise as Americans (along with such UK acts such as Billy J, Kramer and the Dakotas and the Nashville Teens), while Americans such as the Beau Brummels and the Sir Douglas Quartet gave themselves English affectations.
The disparity between a British number one and an American #103 charting was the most extreme during the Hollies career. When “Bus Stop” came out in 1966, the infectious song was a big Top 10 hit in both markets. The song is pure pop with nothing controversial about it. Graham Gouldman’s composition was a simple boy girl love story with a deceptively modest rhyme scheme (re: “Bus stop / wet day / she’s there / I say / please share my umbrella”). The lyrics are more in tradition of Cole Porter and Noel Coward than John Lennon and Mick Jagger.
The Hollies continued to have hits on both sides of the pond that mimicked the pop conventions of “Bus Stop” with different gimmicks, such as “Stop! Stop! Stop!” with its Indian sounding raga accompaniment courtesy of the banjo. Still, the Hollies had more hits in England and they generally went higher up the charts than in the U.S. When Nash left the group in 1968, the Hollies were a pure pop machine with innocuous material such as “On a Carousel” and “Carrie Ann”. They weren’t innovators, but popularizers of what was going on in the large musical culture. In fact, despite Nash’s reservations, one of his last contributions to the Hollies was on the group’s album of Bob Dylan covers, whose datedness seemed obvious as Dylan had been covered by a multitude of mainstream artists. The Hollies cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind” here reveals Nash and the boys at their most saccharin. It’s not a protest song. It has a horn section and a swinging arrangement. It’s crap.
Of course, the Hollies continued after Nash left, and reached career pinnacles with monster songs such as “Long Cool Woman (in a Black Dress)” and “He Ain’t Heavy (He’s My Brother)”. The material on the second double-disc set overlooks some of the lesser hits and misses. The material here ranges from the delightfully quirky “Son of a Rotten Gambler” to the more mundane, like a lame version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Sandy (4th of July, Asbury Park)”.
As a whole, the package works at offering a wealth of the Hollies’ best songs in mono, and for comparison in stereo (some of the second double set includes mono and stereo recordings of the same songs as well), with a generous slab of the Nash efforts. Brit Beat fans and pop aficionados should be happy to hear the selections in such clarity.