The Hollies have been better represented on other collections and this anniversary collection contains little new. But their '60s pop virtuosity is still something to be treasured.
For anyone not familiar with the Hollies, massive British pop hit makers in the '60s and (though a fading force ) the '70s, there are two things you need to know: They are under-estimated; and they produced one of the all-time '60s pop singles, "Bus Stop", a mini-drama/symphony of which more later.
The core of the band were lead vocalist Allan Clarke; his boyhood buddy -- also on vocals -- Graham Nash; and guitarist Tony Hicks. All hailing from the northern English city of Manchester, they were occasionally portrayed as the answer to the Beatles, hailing from Manchester’s northern rival Liverpool 20 miles to the west. But that was never a convincing label, as the Hollies weren’t an albums band, didn’t start writing their own songs until well into their hits career, and barely touched the breadth and depth of the Fabs’ output.
For these reasons, the Hollies have usually been bracketed behind the second order of great British '60s pop/rock bands like the Kinks and the Small Faces. But that would do them a disservice, and this three-disc collection -- meant to mark the band’s 50th anniversary (which is slightly odd, as they were formed in 1962 by Clarke and Nash) -- reinforces the view that it’s taken a long time for them to be accorded the credit they deserve.
What the Hollies did well, they did brilliantly. Clark and Nash started the band as sub-Everly Brothers copyists. A listen to some of their '60s singles, which basically comprises disc one, showcases some of the finest three-part vocal harmonies ever committed to vinyl: Clarke the powerful foundation, Hicks harmonising, and the flawlessly pure Nash voice layering on top. The highlights on the first disc are therefore manifold for the voices alone. The pseudo-psych‘ 67’s "King Midas in Reverse" deploys flutes and strings, while the soaring "Can’t Let Go" finds Nash weaving in and out of Clarke’s lead. And then there's the gorgeous three-part intro to the ’65 UK number one "I’m Alive".
The collection as a whole also makes abundantly clear what a superbly versatile guitarist Tony Hicks was: the shimmering figures to "I’m Alive"; the banjo in "Stop Stop Stop" from 1966; and the liquid electric to the band’s last great single, "The Air That I Breathe" (Clarke’s aching vocal is one of his finest moments) from 1974, by which time Graham Nash was long gone, for the rock, hippy mega-stardom of Crosby Stills and Nash (and, occasionally, Young).
Disc One would be the starter for anyone new to the Hollies. Discs two and three represent diminishing returns. The highlights on the former tend to be covers, viz a sensitive version of Emmylou Harris’s "Boulder to Birmingham" and a lush rendition of Springsteen’s "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" (another example of a Brit artist, like David Bowie and Manfred Man, latching on to the Boss early). Disc three is a hotchpotch of late Hollies, demos and live versions
Although the Hollies deserve all the plaudits they get for their past and for their longevity -- they are still touring with Hicks and drummer Bobby Elliott enduring from the quintessential '60s line-up -- it’s not clear who this collection will appeal to. For completists, the six-disc The Complete Hollies April 1963-October 1968 is a wonderful document of their golden period. The 2003 Greatest Hits package contains the same remastered tracks as 50 at Fifty, while eschewing the filler.
But check out those harmonies one more time, and you’ll forgive everything. "Bus Stop", a three-minute, third person vignette to rank with the Beatles’ "Eleanor Rigby" and the Kinks’ "Waterloo Sunset" as a highpoint of '60s glorious melodious pop and pithy lyrical mastery (“bus goes, she stays”), is the Hollies’ toppermost. Check out their June ’66 Top of the Pops performance below -- Hicks’ granny-takes-a-trip shoes, Nash goofing, Clarke’s hopeless mining -- and all will be right with your world.