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  • Tony Harris

PRICKLY SITUATION


I was about 13 or 14 when I first saw a documentary that was on TV late one Saturday night called "Heroes Of Rock N Roll" - I know it was then because I still have a VHS recording and my world changed at the start of the 1980s when Radio Rentals dropped off the Ferguson Videostar to our house.


The film had Jeff Bridges as its host largely walking around California in Hawaiian Shirts going "Whew! Rock N Roll!". It was already four years old when it was aired so even to my then young eyes and ears seemed a little out of date. However, by then, I was already obsessed with The Beatles and was excited to see footage of them because then everything was new to me except the cartoon of "Yellow Submarine" which I had seen many times.


The film was skewed to an American audience but I recall it being the first time I heard or saw The Ronettes and The Lovin' Spoonful for instance. It certainly was the moment I became really interested in the history of pop and for that, dear reader, you must blame the trusted Videostar, I suppose.


The section that I became most interested in was the piece on the British Invasion beyond The Beatles. I had a burgeoning interest in the Stones too by then but their appearance was breathtaking with both an old Movietone clip of them performing "Around And Around" in Stockton and then the intense promo for "Jumpin' Jack Flash" kindled a passion for that band's music that those who know me are aware burns just as brightly today.


However, there was a section between The Beatles and The Stones which spliced together 20-30 second snippets of performances from "Shindig" or "Hullaballoo" of the bands that also symbolised the best of the British Invasion. I remember the sequence because I watched it so many times:


Dave Clark Five "Glad All Over"

Herman's Hermits "I'm Into Something Good"

The Animals "The House Of The Rising Sun"

The Kinks "All Day And All Of The Night"

The Yardbirds "For Your Love"


To this day, if I hear these records I half expect them to segue into the next one at the point of the edit in the film.


I became fascinated with all these bands - even Herman's Hermits who take a right pasting in David Mitchell's recent wonderful novel "Utopia Avenue" - and even now you'll find them all as staples in my jukebox selection.


Interestingly, however, after The Beatles and The Stones, the band with the most UK Top 10 singles from this period was none of the above. Nor before you ask was it The Who - they were introduced (it being an American film) as more of the Monterey/Hendrix/Joplin crowd.


It was in fact, the often over-looked Hollies who are the subject of this latest Classic Curio.


They were a band every bit a part of the "scene" as their peers and were certainly considered as such. The Hollies were the band who would come across from Manchester and play at The Cavern once The Beatles had first broken through with a similar repertoire of recycled RnB classics.


They would also be signed to EMI and they would also record the majority of their work in Abbey Road. Their producer was Ron Richards who was indeed the former assistant to George Martin. Yet they are not viewed with anything like the reverence of their contemporaries. It is hugely unfair to write them of as also-rans because without doubt they produced probably the finest harmonies of any band of the time and were at least as good as The Fab Four or even the Beach Boys and their later contemporaries The Moody Blues.


They wrote many of their songs as well - largely under the guise of Granto - Graham Nash, Alan Clarke and Tony Hicks - even when there may have been a far heavier individual contribution. However, they were more than happy to complement their own work with selections from Tin Pan Alley. This was normally the task for Hicks, as musical leader, and so they would come across such classics as "Bus Stop" and "Look Through Any Window" from the pen of a teenage Graham Gouldman.


Few bands had such a good ear.


Tony Hicks is something of an unsung hero of British pop as it is often his inventiveness and imagination that would make every Hollies song sound so interesting (a delayed banjo on "Stop Stop Stop" sounded like a balalaika) together with his ability to weld together the harmonies of Nash and Clarke. When the band was admitted to the Hall of Fame in 2008 it was Miami Steve who led the inauguration and talked with some awe of Hicks's playing abilities which made complex guitar parts seem inordinately simple. There is a great piece of film of the band putting together "On A Carousel" in Abbey Road which shows off the band's abilities, particularly Hicks's. Watch after the main clip when they put their vocal harmonies down - it's particularly inspiring.



"On A Carousel" was released in January 1967 and was the first single from them that began to hint at the more experimental psychedelic sound that was emerging with its sitar-like guitar hook. The follow-up "Carrie Anne", was originally called "Marianne" in honour of Marianne Faithfull, who had toured with (and suitably enchanted) the entire band; it was changed for fear of offending her then boyfriend, one Michael P Jagger. As a record, it was less psychedelic but experimental in including Caribbean steel drums for the first time on a major release.


Their run of success seemed unstoppable and they had also broken through in America finally - one of the last to do so. However, all was not well with all of them in the camp - particularly Graham Nash.


Back in 1965, the Hollies had been given the fantastic George Harrison composition "If I Needed Someone" as a single which they then recorded and released. However, it was rather sidelined by the Beatles then including their own version on "Rubber Soul" which made the Hollies look more like band wagon jumpers, trying to ally themselves to the then unstoppable Beatle juggernaut. The horror was compounded when Harrison himself was interviewed and said he hated their version and that they sounded technically proficient but like a bunch of session men.


This unsurprisingly rankled and built on some animosity that had started to creep into their relationship - particularly with John Lennon who never hid his dislike of the band.



The Hollies had always been a most professional band capable of recording on time, keeping to their touring commitments, happy to spend time on the entertainment circuit and so seemed the square cousins of their beat peers. This, together with aspersions cast upon their musical performance, would really start to eat away at Nash who wanted the band to become more experimental.


He was the member of the band most affected by their now regular visits to the States and particularly with the emerging crowd around Laurel Canyon in California where he would begin his collaborations with Stephen Stills from Buffalo Springfield and David Crosby from the Byrds. This whole new attitude to living (including a considerable narcotic intake) drove a wedge between Nash and both his family and his bandmates.


Hurt by criticism from his peers and excited by the new musical influences, Nash encouraged his band to try and move their sound on into more experimental territories.


And so was born their own masterpiece of the psychedelic era that was "King Midas In Reverse".


There is far greater orchestral arrangement than had been expected from a Hollies single as it sought to find a more obviously "summer of love" vibe. Seemingly with hatchets buried, Nash had been one of the assembled background chorus of "All You Need Is Love" so was well aware of where his contemporaries were moving.


Lyrically, it is far more introspective than most of their other hits and though credited to all three, was really an outpouring of self-loathing from Nash as he struggled to come to terms with his decaying life in England (personal and professional) and his desire for the West Coast. However, like all Hollies singles it is full of catchy hooks and beautiful harmonies. It certainly seemed as if the band were trying to happily accommodate Nash in an effort to keep the band together.



However, the record buying publics all over the world largely rejected the single - at least comparatively speaking and the band retrenched - Nash more reluctantly than ever. This was compounded by their next move to put out an album of Bob Dylan covers - which was at best patchy.


By now it was clear that the band and Nash were not headed in the same direction. There had been some overseas success with a more plaintive but naive song called "Dear Eloise" but this still did not feel like a direction the band was entirely comfortable with. Nash had also started taking drugs on a fairly regular basis whilst his bandmates were still largely happy with a few drinks - our own experiences from whatever side of that particular fence you have sat yourself will remind you that the conversation is seldom joined up.


The Hollies themselves had returned to more familiar territory with "Jennifer Eccles" - an amalgam of the names of both Clarke and Nash's wives - it was cabaret, singalong and sold bucketloads. It is the one Hollies single I truly blanch at - they could not sound like more knockabout Manc lads if they tried. There is a clip on YouTube of them performing the monstrosity, Nash appears enormously embarrassed and the rest of the band seem equally embarrassed at him.


Nash had even tried to get the band interested in recording "Marrakesh Express" - the breakthrough hit later for Crosby Stills & Nash but they just never sounded comfortable with it. On the demo, Bobby Elliot's drumming in particular, shows how much of a struggle it was as it lacks all the swing and pace of the version we have all come to know and love. Clearly, this is a band no longer all headed in the same direction.



By now, the reasons to stay together were far outnumbered by the reasons to split and so the partnership between Graham Nash and Alan Clarke - friends since primary school came to an end rather bitterly.


"King Midas In Reverse"?


It certainly looked that way.


And yet though it is always cited as the single that started to bring about the schism within the band through its lack of success, I think it is still one of the finest Britsh records that could be filed under psychedelic.


Many of their contemporaries struggled with the whimsy of psychedelia and although albums like "Sgt Pepper" are held up as such it is more the variety and orchestration that lead to its categorisation there. Parts as pop as anything the Beatles had performed before. "Magical Mystery Tour"'s theme certainly had more of a trippy feel about it but again it is really the classic gobbledegook of "I Am The Walrus" and the dirge-like drone of "Blue Jay Way" that lead you there. Personally, I think "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "She Said She Said" are far closer to the genuine psychedelic vibe than much of their later work


The Stones never seemed comfortable with the whole scene - dabbling with it for a year when their status dropped through the floors while they flitted in and out of gaol; leaving us with only "We Love You", "She's A Rainbow" and the excellent "2000 Light Years From Home".


The Kinks never really went that way, dropping more into the trippiness of quintessential Englishness and whilst The Who's live performances of "I Can See For Miles" and "Magic Bus" are very powerful transforming these into rock classics, the original 45s are far less so.


"King Midas In Reverse" is an outlier both for English psychedelia and the Hollies themselves and stands out as one of the best records of the period. It has all the fairytale trappings and romance of the genre but never drops into addled nonsense - this is no "Green Tambourine". There is beautiful orchestration and a sense of expansion not normally associated with the usually tight band. Instead, it is a song that retains its narrative throughout - classic storytelling, as so much of the Hollies work is. Listen to the solo version by Nash on CSNY's "4 Way Street" and you can feel the emotion in the song despite its stripped down delivery.


The Hollies themselves may never have felt comfortable with the direction Nash wanted to go but it did open their eyes to developing their sound. Another trip to Tin Pan Alley would see Tony Hicks unearthing "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" and creating a new bluesier more grown-up sound for the band that fully exploited the wonderful vocal techniques of Alan Clarke in harmony with the rest of the group.


Incidentally, session musician Elton John would play piano on that record and help out with the vocals. Soon after, one of his compositions "Your Song" came to Tony Hicks's attention and he asked to record it but was told that Elton was going to use it to launch his own career.


"King Midas In Reverse" should now rightly be seen as a genuine classic. The irony is that for the band and their relationship with their audience and themselves it absolutely lived up to the promise of its title.

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