Friday, 28 May 2010
: The Hollies "Out On The Road" (1973) (Revised Review 2015; First published as News, Views and Music 62)
The Hollies “Out On The Road” (1973)
Out On The Road/A Better Place/They Don't Realise I'm Down/The Last Wind/Mr Heartbreaker//(I Was) Born A Man/Slow Down - Go Down/Don't Leave The Child Alone/Nearer To You/Pick Up The Pieces/Trans-Atlantic West Bound Jet
"We got to teach people to love, we got to teach people to sing, we got to make record collections a better place for everyone to live with" (Alan's Album Archives election party manifesto 202035)
In a nice piece of unplanned synchronicity, this review of a long lost Hollies album - only available in Britain for the past four years – comes in the same week as a rare documentary about The Hollies’ career. Given that Brian Matthew has exactly 120 minutes to take in 47 years of an ongoing career that involved no less than thirty hit singles and twenty-three albums it's probably a safe bet to say that he'll run out of time to cover one of the most fascinating periods of Hollie history properly. Once again we're back to the 'missing years' of Holliedom in 1972/73 when lead vocalist Allan Clarke left to go solo and the band went in as different a direction as possible to replace him with Swedish singer Mikael Rickfors. Both fans and even the band have been divided about the move ever since, with the group heading even further into folk-rock and with a more laidback mellow charm that seems a long way from the energy and drive of, say, 'I Can't Let Go' and 'Bus Stop'. Those of you who've already our glowing review for 'Romany' will know that for once on this site I not only sit on one side of the fence but am way out in the garden in a deckchair with my headphones on: much as I adore Allan Clarke's voice I can't help but think that this little-known period of Hollies magic was in many ways the best one. Every fan of 60s/70s harmonies owes it to themselves and their collection to get this album, never mind curious Hollies fans who want to hear what their favourite band might have sounded like in slightly different circumstances. Yes the old criticism always thrown at 'Out On The Road' and its predecessor is true: neither of them sound immediately like The Hollies. And as all of you who are interested enough to read these words will already know, there isn't a band in the world who wouldn't benefit from sounding more like The Hollies (even The Beatles are often at their best when they sound most like The Hollies!) However if this was a new band I didn't know I would still have fallen in love with this band: those harmonies, those songs, that sense of quiet authority and wisdom tinged with melancholy is a winning combination. Or at least it should have been: in the end 'Romany' sold so badly that EMI decided not to bother putting this rarest of Hollies LPs out anywhere except Germany, meaning that British and American fans had to wait until 2006 to buy it on CD for the first time (and then only via import from France, once again on the excellent archive label Magic). And after all that I bet it isn't even mentioned on the documentary in favour of yet another story about 'He Ain't Heavy' being used on a beer commercial. Bah! (Updated editor's note: true to form, the Rickfors years are passed over in a single sentence).
All of which means, dear reader, that you can imagine my delight when, after twenty-odd years of anxious waiting in vain for just a sight of this record, it finally came out on CD some twenty years after the invention of the compact disc and I discovered that the holy grail (or should that be Hollie grail?) of my long years of searching wasn't just good, but great, way beyond the reputation the album has always had . Yes the reviewers of 1973 were right - this doesn't sound like The Hollies and it doesn't even sound much like 'Romany' to be honest. But it still sounds wonderful , even if it's in an entirely different way with The Hollies pulling together and using the best of their 'old' sound and their new together with an album any band would be pleased to have in their collection (or so you'd think, as even the band seem split on this one. While guitarist Tony Hicks often nominates ‘Romany’ as one of his favourite albums, drummer Bobby Elliott dismisses the era completely as a ‘bland period’ for the band in the otherwise back-slapping box set article and rhythm guitarist Terry Sylvester rolls his eyes and talks about the problems with Swedish singer Mikael Rickfors, singing in what was after all a foreign language. Bland? These albums are amongst the richest, multi-layered, creative years the multi-layered creative The Hollies ever spent! in their half-century and counting!) I was sure that this album's central message of patience was finally going to receive its just reward by strong reviews and rapture from fans on it's return to the catalogue in 2006 - but no. So it looks like it's up to me to tell you instead: 'Out On The Road' isn't just a curio or a record not good enough to release 'properly' so it got sidelined to the country where The Hollies were always loved the most; it's a key part of The Hollies canon and a couple of oddities aside is right up there with some of the greatest things this most under-rated of bands ever made.
Even since 'Romany' things had changed within the band. That twelve-track record had been almost all mellow, three rockers and one jazzed up blues song aside, while the band wrote a mere two songs between them (the lowest on any Hollies record, the special case of 'Sing Dylan' aside, since the first one in 1964). This time round the band deliver a much harder edged rockier set, full of uptempo material and sounds as if it was created as close to live as possible and then sweetened with a few overdubs rather than built up in lots of lovely polished layers. You could imagine Clarke singing on this one at times - in fact he will sing on part of it thanks to some re-recordings made the following year. The band are also back writing in full strength again, the Hicks/Lynch partnership getting five songs, Terry getting two of his own plus two co-writes, Mikael writing another couple of songs to add to the 'Romany' highlight 'Touch' and even drummer Bobby Elliott writes only his second ever song, without a single cover song this time around. In many ways this was a matter of expediency: EMI were unlikely to take as kindly to another album of covers on the same lines as 'Romany' when that album had fared so badly even amongst old fans and with less funds coming their way The Hollies needed the publishing money, short and simple. The other possibility is that The Hollies were rather rudderless for this album, the first Hollies LP ever to be made without long-term producer Ron Richards, who'd decided not to produce this album in his 'frustration' at 'not hearing any potential hits' amongst the track listing (though 'Magic Woman Touch' clearly has 'hit single' written all over it if only EMI had bothered to push it properly) so they decided to go back to the start. 'Out On The Road' is much more obviously 'The Hollies' than 'Romany', without ever quite matching the specifics of the old Hollies sound. The harmonies have clearly still changed beyond recognition, the CSN influences are still strong (especially on Rickfors' songs interestingly) and the recordings are still largely acoustic, but this time round the old fire has been stoked again and The Hollies have the energy of old again. They also have the curiosity to spare for the first time in ages too: just take Bobby's five-minute closer 'Transatlantic Westbound Jet', which in one bound is as bluesy and as jazzy as The Hollies ever got crackling with energy from doing something so unknown; the band already sound like they've been doing this sort of thing for years. 'They Don't Realize I'm Down' is almost soul. 'Nearer To You' is even a reggae song, less embarrassing than many other AAA attempts at this sort of thing (was there ever a whiter band than The Hollies?) if not exactly the album highlight.
In many ways too this album's low reputation is simply down to the timing. Given this album's low status amongst fans it's no surprise that the band returned to some of the material in later years, re-recording two of the songs for their 1974 Clarke reunion project 'The Hollies' ('Out On The Road' itself and 'Transatlantic Westbound Jet) and releasing a further two songs as they appeared here (the Sylvester-sung 'Pick Up The Pieces' which appeared on the album and the Hicks-sung 'Born A Man', which was released as the B-side of the 'Curly Billy' single). That album did very well in the wake of 'The Air That I Breathe', returning The Hollies back to near the tip of the album charts where they belonged - but there's always seemed to be something naggingly 'wrong' with that record - especially the re-recordings, so don't be put off if the eagle-eyed amongst you have spotted a few names you recognise. Clarke treats both 'Out On The Run' and 'Jet' as if they're full on screaming rockers when they're not - the former is a witty song about the narrator being so involved with music he's not even around for his wedding and only works because of the twinkle in Rickfors' voice - Clarke sounds almost angry that anything would distract him from his 'duty'; similarly 'Jet' is meant to be a song about discovery and works best when The Hollies are doing exactly that, using the skeleton of the song as the basis for some great loose jamming (on which they sound more like The Grateful Dead than The Hollies!) rather than simply using the song as a mere screaming rock song of a type the band had already recorded dozens of in the past few years. Although the same recording as here, the hilariously OTT sob story B-side 'Born A Man' doesn't work there, especially paired with the similar comedy of 'Curly Billy'; only on 'Out On The Road' do you realise that Hicks was sending up the 'melancholy' songwriting mood within The Hollies with his tale of working sixteen hours from being a 'child' (though it's worth remembering that he was all of eighteen when he joined The Hollies!) Our advice instead is to take 'Pick Up The Pieces' as your best template for the album - slow, pretty, full of wisdom, it sums up both Rickfors eras pretty well even though he doesn't perform a note on the album version. Of course The Hollies wouldn't have been able to recycle as much from 'Romany' even if that album hadn't already come out in most countries: though 'Romany' was very much a Rickfors album (with ten vocals out of twelve) this one is more of a group effort with that rare vocal lead for Hicks (only his third in Hollie history after 'Pegasus' and 'Look At Life'!) and two-and-a-bit for Terry (who swaps vocals with Mikael on 'Slow Down - Go Down').
All that's nice and well but perhaps the single greatest thing about this album is that after years of half-sequences that run between albums and dallying with prog rock on 'A Distant Light' we finally get the first honesty-to-goodness Hollies concept album. The ‘Butterfly’ tracks shared some very similar psychedelic DNA, ‘Confessions Of The Mind’ had a definite emphasis on maturing relationships and the later ‘Russian Roulette’ does its best to juxtapose the gambling fortunes with the safety net of being comfortable, but it’s on this album that The Hollies do what they should have done a long time ago and truly tie up their loose ends together. 'Out On The Road' is all about life on the road - the middle of three AAA albums on this theme (The Hollies might have borrowed the idea from The Kinks' 1972 LP 'Everybody's In Showbiz', once intended as a TV documentary soundtrack of the band on tour; The Hollies may in turn have given the idea to their friends in 10cc for their better-than-average 1978 record 'Bloody Tourists'). The ups, the downs and the atmosphere – the excitement of seeing something new and the frustration of leaving things you take for granted behind. It’s very much the sister of the 10cc album ‘Bloody Tourists’ (see no 73 on the list) and it too sounds like it was written in dusty hotel rooms in downtime before the next gig, at times when the adrenalin’s pumping and when the audience has gone home and left the band staring at the same old empty wall on another anonymous dressing room. Like ‘Tourists’ there’s no real solution or summation at work across the album – just a series of images about what life was make while making this record. Interestingly, while the 10cc record is largely a collection of souvenier songs of things seen backstage and at hotels and airports and The Kinks album veers between joy and misery, it's The Hollies album that is the most emotional about life on the road. There's even an undercurrent of sadness, of frustration that The Hollies are having to 'act' the part of jolly entertainers when it used to come so easily (with 'Mr Heartbreaker' a real sequel to 'For Certain Because' classic 'Clown', Terry's narrator staring in the mirror and trying to will himself the enthusiasm to go on stage).
Hicks' title track is a witty retort to all the events of the narrator's home life that he's been missing and whole treated as one big fat joke there may well have been an air of truth in it as The Hollies celebrated their tenth anniversary; Hicks' 'A Better Place' is in many ways a manifesto - the band want to 'teach the world to sing' and to 'make the world a better place' for everyone; 'They Don't Realize I'm Down' is a painful shriek of sorrow and fear and surprise that the masses of crowds screaming for their heroes can't tell that they're horribly depressed and falling apart; 'The Last Wind' takes place on a boat and describes the sea-winds kicking up but also hints that Rickfors already knows which way the wind is blowing and that he won't be a Hollie for too much longer, upset until the beautiful motions of the boat a-rocking lulls him off to a lazy sleep; the stunning 'Mr Heartbreaker' decries the sadness of being able to 'travel the world - and see nothing!' as each day waking up in the same looking hotel room in a different town seems the same; 'I Was Born A Man' is another Hicks joke but can also be taken seriously as a complaint about being worked far too hard; 'Slow Down Go Down' veers off into being another love song, but starts off as a sequel to 'Slow Down's cry for patience on 'Romany', a cry that the world is going too fast and the band want to get off; 'Don't Leave The Child Alone' is Rickfors' sadness at having to leave family behind; 'Nearer To You' is the tale of a couple growing closer across a long-distance relationship of snatched conversations where they say what they really mean instead of merely living alongside each other as before; 'Pick Up The Pieces' a more general Sylvester song about spiritual re-birth in all sorts of ways: many fans naturally take it to be about love, but it could just be about coming home again to something familiar after a long time away; finally 'Transatlantic Westbound Jet' is a journey and a half, one in which the narrator debates why he even does this sort of travelling anymore before deciding that he 'travels through the nation in search of stimulation - oh yeah!' The road is both a welcoming and frightening place, one that puts the various songwriting members of The Hollies in touch with why they live the strange lives they lead - and the thing that cuts them off from their family life back home. Many an AAA band member has spoken down the years about the difficulty of effectively leading two very different lives and what happens when switching from one to another; to date though this doesn't very often end up in full albums, just the occasional one-off song so kudos to The Hollies for putting a set of these songs (presumably written on tour for the most part) together as nimbly and as neatly as they do here.
And that leads to another thing – ‘Out On The Road’ is a very visual record, full of short snappy couplets that sum up the whole mood in a line or two and give or take the odd example (‘Hollies Sing Hollies’ in particular) that’s not really what we’re ideas to hearing from our Mancunian fab five. Several of these songs can be summed up by one particular image, which seems to have kick-started a song: the last wind of the day fading away, the news of a 'shack burning' while the narrator is a million miles away out on tour, unable to get involved; the sad singer sitting in front of a mirror and 'painting' his smile on 'upside down' as it were (what is it with Hollies harmony singers and dressing room mirrors?!); the chugging Westbound jet chugging relentlessly onwards, oblivious to the rollercoaster emotions of the musicians onboard. 'Romany' was very much a 'mind' album, where things happened to characters you could visualise and their actions and re-actions were described (in 'Touch' a whole song is written from the lightest of touches, 'Down River' takes place isn the narrator's head as he bumps into an old flame and on 'Words Don't Come Easy' the emotions come flooding through while being too strong to put into mere language), but this one is a 'doing' album where the characters are at the centre of the action, for better or worse. And while we’re talking about visuals, the cover art – the band’s picture as a billboard on a city backdrop – is another thing that might seem naggingly familiar to regular Hollies fans. The band liked the idea so much that they revived it for 'Another Night' and while the design is much bolder and easier to follow on the later record, it's this one where the cover seems the most suited: The Hollies' billboard poster is down a dodgy looking end of town where not many people seem to pass, the lights are fading and they're on a 'road' to somewhere, destination unknown (by contrast 'Another Night' is set in the middle of a heaving metropolis where the neon lights seem ironic for such a sad and lonely album).
In short, both ‘Romany’ and ‘Out On The Road’ are the perfect responses to that perennial rock and roll problem: what to do when the lead singer and most identifiable character says he’s leaving the band. Fans who can’t imagine the group without the searing vocals of Clarkey often get a shock when hearing either of these albums for the first time, but all the other ingredients we associate with The Hollies – pristine three-part harmonies, fiery but clean lead guitar solos and one of the liveliest rhythm sections of all time – are here in abundance and can actually be heard all the clearer for being wrapped around Rickfors’ silky lead rather than Clarke’s powerhouse vocal. They’re also much more of a ‘band’ in this period, pulling together in a way we always wanted to hear The Hollies but rarely did once Graham Nash left the group. The band also sound distinctly CSN-ish in this period, what with the acoustic guitars and faultless harmonies – something readers of this website will know can only be a plus, although there’s a lot of variants in the sound too. I came very close to adding 'Out On The Road' to our 'core' list proper in fact, before I realised that there were already more Hollies records on the list and in many ways it's actually the better of 'Romany' - the variety of styles, the new material, even more of a feeling that the band are all in this together. However there were already way more Hollies records on the list than most people were expecting and listing two albums by the same band that barely anybody was going to be able to find was pushing it even for me; 'Romany' may just have the edge though thanks to the plentiful oh so gorgeous slow ballads (though this album's 'The Last Wind' is very much in that category), the emphasis on Rickfors' gorgeous rich voice and the sheer consistency. Yes, there are mistakes on 'Out On The Road' (the unfortunate wife-beating misogynist lyrics of 'Slow Down - Go Down' and 'Nearer For You' until the harmonies kick in perhaps) and Rickfors sounds far less at home rocking out than he ever does holding a fragile breathy ballad together. That's just for comparison's sake though - yet again The Hollies prove what a remarkably consistent band they are with nearly everything on this album coming up trumps; even the period B-sides (added to the Magic CD re-issue) are fab: an acoustic remix of 'Magic Woman Touch' is ever so nearly as good as the real thing, 'Indian Girl' is charming and Terry's 'I had A Dream' is stunning, one of the best things any Hollies line-up ever did. 'Out On The Road' is another in a great run of classic Hollies LPs, even if it's the one album that barely any of the band's fans own, full of that usual Hollies magic whatever the different surroundings and textures across the LP.
Opening track ‘Out On The Road’ is one of the many Hollies songs written by Tony Hicks and singer-songwriter (and Tony’s neighbour) Kenny Lynch in the early 70s and is one of the better known songs on the album thanks to the re-recording featuring Allan Clarke in 1974. But like many of these ‘recycled’ songs I have to say I much prefer the original, which isn’t quite so commercial or gimmicky and – despite featuring a less recognisably rock-fuelled singer – seems to have far more guts and substance. The song is in both cases a spoof about how the narrator is so taken with the call of rock and roll that he’s out of the country for several major events in his life: when his ‘shack’ burnt down, when his wife fell apart at the seams and even for his wedding, but while the 1974 version is an all-out spoof lampooning the rock and roll business in general, the Rickfors version is only slightly tongue-in-cheek and really does sound regretful in places about all the things he’s missed out on because he’s been too busy playing guitar. Whilst the song isn’t exactly autobiographical (as far as I know Tony Hicks’ house never burnt down while he was out on the road) it does follow in the semi-confessional run of songs Hicks and Lynch came up with on the ‘Confessions Of A Mind’ and ‘Distant Light’ albums, a multi-layered I-love-my-lifestyle-but-it-has-it’s-downsides song which sadly reach the end of their long run here. The Hollies will start their three-way Clarke/Hicks/Sylvester credits on the next album despite the aggro it caused in the Graham Nash years and Kenny Lynch’s role in The Hollies effectively comes to an end here. That’s a shame because this song especially is a perfect fit for the new-look Hollies, giving bassist Bernie Calvert and Bobby Elliott plenty of room for them to show off their strengths before Tony turns in one of his very best guitar solos in the middle (it’s very like his run on ‘The Air That I Breathe’ but about three times the speed). Rickfors also sounds really at home here - despite saying on our ‘Romany’ review that he only really sounded comfortable on ballads this is one of his best vocals, part confessional, part obstinate rocker. In short, the whole song really crackles with energy in a way that the polished re-recording never does and The Hollies rarely sounded as fresh in the 70s again, as if they were all playing in the same room.
‘A Better Place’ is a less straightforward track from the Hicks-Lynch pairing. You don’t really hear songs like this but they were all the rage in the 1970s when the idea of the less aggressive more sensitive ‘new man’ first appeared (ironically The Hollies had their biggest success in 1988 when ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’ was used on the soundtrack of an advert that spoofed the very idea discussed in this song). You could never really picture Clarkey giving this timid, thoughtful narrator his full due but Rickforsd is perfectly cast for this song pitting the narrator between the demands of his father to be a ‘man’ and get drunk every night and those of his mother to go out and make the world a better place. Whilst the chorus gets dangerously close to charity single status (‘we gotta teach people to sing...’), this is an impressive song, with a sighing melody line that veers from minor to major key as if in search of something and forever bouncing between the two very different lives mapped out for him. The Hollies harmonies are as delightful as ever, especially when the song turns more or less a capella in the second half, and the arrangement is nicely augmented by Tony Hicks playing a curious kind of cross between a wah-wah pedal and a pedal steel. The song ends on a valedictory note when the backing of Hicks and Sylvester take over the lead from the stumbling Rickfors narrator, turning to the audience and telling us he’s made the right decision and that we really should try and make this world a better place. Well, this was 1972, you could get away with this sort of stuff back then!
‘They Don’t Realise I’m Down’ is a surprisingly moody ballad and is the only time that Sylvester and Rickfors ever worked together. Having studied Hollies writing credits closely for nigh on 20 years I’ve noticed that Terry is something of a chameleon in his writing – whilst he specialised in breathy ballads he was also responsible for many of the tracks we now associate with Hicks or Clarke. This song is very much in the Rickfors mould (it’s like ‘Touch’ from ‘Romany’, although not quite as sublime and certainly not as contented) but fits with what Sylvester was writing at the time too (the absolutely sublime period B-side ‘I had A Dream’ is a case in point). Hicks’ wah-wah pedal is to the fore again here, bubbling throughout the song as the narrator reveals bit by bit how things have gradually got on top of him and how he’s about to break. As ever with The Hollies some very English reserve has got in the way of this narrator’s ability to talk about his problems which has brought the matter to crisis pitch. It’s tempting to speculate that this is Rickfors knowing that his short tenure with The Hollies is already coming to an end (‘now I’m feeling strange, its going to take a long time for me to make a change’) and – given what we’ve already said about how close and tight The Hollies were as a band in this period – he’s taking the blow particularly hard and personal, lashing out at his band members for backing Clarke over him. Certainly Rickfors is committed in his vocal like never before, reaching out from his usual Scott Walker tones to some falsetto soul screaming at one point. The fact is though we just don’t know – so little is written about The Hollies in general that fan just don’t know when Clarke first mooted the idea of rejoining the band (although the band were back in Abbey Road with their old singer just five months after this album’s last session, which seems awfully tight on the schedules to me). If not, though, then this song is quite a one-off in Rickfors’ short canon, as its a very accusatory song (‘You! You could make me feel glad!...’) in sharp contrast to his usual lazy harmony-fests. Indeed, had this song been given a less sumptuous setting it would be easy to see it as a demented rocker – and Bobby Elliott for one really picks up on the vibe, really thrashing his cymbals at the song’s end – but the end result is a curious blend of anger and harmony, an unsettling song that never quite nails its sails to the mast. The chorus melody (‘for me to make a cha-ange’) is also so Stephen Stills-like as to suggest the band were trying to fill in the gaping hole left when CSNY disbanded for the first time.
‘The Last Wind’ is more evidence about what a great talent the Hollies let go when Clarkey did come back. This sumptuous acoustic harmony feast might well be the best thing on the whole album, although it’s much more in the style of Rickfors’ other tracks for The Hollies. This is the closest we ever get to hearing the band a capella in any era, with just a low mixed acoustic guitar for harmony and the result is very much like The Beatles’ ‘Because’ in that its the most peaceful representation possible of what are actually quite a tormented and powerful set of lyrics. The narrator of the song is saying goodbye to his last voyage (again, is this Rickfors waving goodbye to The Hollies, especially the crewman ‘yawning’) while the gentle rocking of the shop lulls himself to sleep. It can’t have been easy for Rickfors – he’d left his Swedish band ‘Bamboo’ to join the Hollies just two years before after they seemed to be vaguely heading for the big time and his hiring at the last minute to fill in for what had been quite a big tour planned in 1972 was more of a favour to friends than a shot at superstardom. Emotions are known to have run high at some of these album sessions, as Rickfors’ pronunciation of English took time to get right but it seems fair to say that the Swedish singer had slotted in well in 1973 and even helped the band out-perform ‘Long Cool Woman’ in the UK with the superlative ‘The Baby’, suggesting that Hollies fans were warming to him, so in some alternate universe where Clarkey really did get the solo success he dreamt of it seems fair to say that Rickfors would probably still be with the band. Like many songs on this album there’s a really eerie atmosphere in the song despite the fact that on face value its very much at one with the lazy textures of ‘Romany’ and the band’s downright gorgeous vocal work on this song is a testament to how good this line-up of the band could have been given more time, more money and a decent break.
‘Mr Heartbreaker’ is Terry Sylvester’s turn to shine and its surprising that this excellent track wasn’t also included in the Hollies reunion album (Terry’s and Tony’s other vocal showcases were kept intact either for album tracks or period B-sides, but the ones where Rickfors sang lead understandably got re-recorded). It’s a classic ballad in true Hollies mould, nodding backwards to Graham Nash’s Clown and forward to the band’s cover of Gray Brooker’s ‘Harlequin’ in the way that it has a performer staring at his dressing room mirror, about to go on stage and act a smiling fool while all the time his heart is breaking. The song is well up to the standard of both these Hollies gems, with another clever switch between major and minor keys as the narrator juxtaposes the morning sunlight filtering through his window and telling him to embrace the future and the horrid present, stuck in hotel room after hotel room, pretending to the world outside that everything’s OK. The narrator then turns on himself and names himself as ‘Mr Heartbreaker’, ending the melody with a plunge right down to the bottom of the scale, as if the bottom has dropped out of his world. Full marks to Terry for coming up with this moving song and an adding an expressionless vocal to match which is all the more moving in its blank stare. The recording is held together by a glorious circling piano lick played by the band’s bassist Berrnie Calvert who at long last gets to play his ‘true’ instrument on a Hollies album instead of handing it over to a less talented session musician as well as a typically excellent Hollies harmonica lick – which, err, sounds just like Allan Clarke. It couldn’t be, could it? Another excellent track and another of the album’s highlights.
‘I Was Born A Man’ isn’t in the same league, although ironically enough its probably the best known and certainly the most widely circulated recording here, after being chosen to appear on the B-side of the ‘reunion’ single ‘The Day That Curly Billy Shot Down Crazy Sam McGee’ (they don’t write titles like that any more!) Hicks takes a rare lead vocal on this song and handles it well, but alas its no ‘Pegasus’ and this tale of a working class man made to work throughout his childhood is so self-centred it even has the audacity to include the chorus line ‘no I won’t bore you, it has been good – but it could have been better’. That’s a shame because there are little glimpses of genius throughout this song – the way the harmonies kick in on the chorus is delightful and the middle eight (‘life’s like a woman, you can tame her if you are good back to her’) is the saving grace of the song, suddenly pulling this rather aimless and coasting song into some kind of focus. The melody is quite catchy too, although it doesn’t sound much like The Hollies – the swampy organ and Tony’s vocal make it sound more like Credence Clear Water Revival!
‘Slow Down – Go Down’ is another unusual song in The Hollies’ catalogue, a brisk rocker that sees the return of the banjo despite being the most guitar riff-heavy song any of The Hollies had come up with since the early 60s. The title sounds like a variation on the ‘Romany’ track ‘Slow Down’ and its easy to see how this song might have evolved from a jam on the latter track – although ironically the melody has been speeded up, not slowed down. There are lots of parts to this track stuck together seemingly at random – one moment we’re in pure Kinks territory with the full rock harmonies on the verses, the next Terry Hick’s singing a straight rock verse without harmonies, the next we’ve turned to Sylvester for a burst of Caribbean reggae! The rather unfortunate chorus line aside (‘give me a woman that I can trust and I don’t have to beat’, which even The Hollies sound uncomfortable singing despite the fact this is another Hicks/Lynch song), this is another impressive track, with a real energy and verve that works well with the lyrics about forcing yourself to slow down when you fall in love or you won’t consider all the pitfalls. The bass work by Calvert is particularly strong on this track and its nice to hear the Hollies working as a seemingly ‘live’ band again, going back to basics with a song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the early Kinks canon. Hicks turns in one of his best guitar solos here too, enjoying the chance to stretch out on a song that’s a good platform for going in all sorts of directions.
‘Don’t Leave The Child Alone’ is a rather lesser song from Rickfors which sounds like a hurried re-write of all his past successes strung together into one melody. This is interestingly a second breathless song on the trot, with Rickfors a beat or so ahead of the twisting, turning melody line that seems to be threatening to run him over at times. Hicks’ use of the wah-wah pedal and his bouncy guitar solo is the only real ear-catching part of the song, though, which demonstrates all its wares in the opening 30 seconds and struggles to go anywhere after that. The middle eight is another strong one, though, with Rickfors cutting through the lazy harmonies for an angry attack on a parent leaving their child to fend for themselves in a scary world out to get them. In the context of this album about travel, it’s tempting to hear this song as an open letter back home, with the narrator trying desperately to manage his family life from afar.
‘Nearer To You’ is the band’s shot at reggae (!) and like many a white band they just don’t ‘get’ it at all. Paul Simon is the AAA musician who came closest to understanding the genre and it took him a few goes to get it right. The Hollies’ version isn’t as shabby as some, but the solo chirpy flute playing parrying blows with some murky out-of-tune guitar playing off the beat must make for one of the oddest few seconds in the band’s lengthy catalogue. The song gets much better as the track develops, dropping the awkward moments and turning into a more Hollies-like song, especially when the harmonies and Bobby Elliott’s drums kick in together. Lyrically, this is another nothing-really-happening Hicks/Lynch song about travelling home, ticking off the milestones as the traveller narrator gets closer to his family. Surprisingly, though, this song isn’t in a melodic tearing hurry like it was on the last two tracks – instead its taking the scenic route, inching forward bit by bit. All credit to the band for trying something new, but this isn’t a great journey so much as a cul-de-sac.
‘Pick Up The Pieces’ is the album’s other well known recording, having appeared in its entirety on the ‘Hollies’ reunion album of 1974. And deservedly so – this track was one of that album’s few real highlights although its not quite up to ‘Mr Heartbreaker’ on this one. This is Terry Sylvester’s second chance to shine and after being the ‘junior’ member of the band since 1969 it’s great to see him step up to the front with two of his best songs. Like many a Sylvester song this is a dreamy ballad about trying to put the best spin on things when they go wrong and it acts as a fine counterpart to Mr Heartbreaker, because while that sun finds the hang-over filled regretful narrator cursing the new day, this is the narrator in the evening, looking forward to the next dawn. Anyone who thinks that ‘The Air That I Breathe’ came from nowhere has obviously never heard this track which does an equally good job at being romantic and realistic, with the narrator only too grateful at the hand of cards he’d been played. Coming near the end of what has been till now quite a grumpy album, it’s a treat to hear and those gorgeous wordless soaring harmonies towards the end of the song really do sound like the sun coming out. Could it be, too, that Sylvester is saying goodbye to Rickfors and welcoming Clarke back into the group and looking forward to the better chance of reward The Hollies might find with their old singer? Certainly the curious last verse seems to sit well outside the rest of the song which is firmly pointed towards a partner (‘long time, friend of mine, words of farewell, love is for learning, I knew you well’). If so, then what a fitting choice to be revived for the all-singing all-dancing reunion party that will be ‘The Hollies’ album the following year? You can hear a second, less produced version on Terry’s eponymous solo album ‘Terry Sylvester’ album from 1974 (very Hollies that, no sooner has one member re-joined then there’s another one off giving the solo career thing a go!)
The album ends with perhaps its strangest song, a co-write between Sylvester and drummer Bobby Elliott who says he came up with this song in an effort to inspire the band who seemed to have ‘stopped writing’. In its re-recorded 1974 format it’s a rather lame and silly rocker about a band flying into town by aircraft and I can’t say I’ve ever been a big fan of it. But the Rickfors version is a real revelation, all gnashing teeth and unrelenting tension that sounds more like one of the extended blues tracks The Animals used to do than The Hollies. The song builds verse by verse as the instruments come in and Rickfors’ vocal is delicious, singing the song straight without the irony Clarkey gives it, while the guitar meshing between Rickfors, Sylvester and Hicks is among the most exciting of any Hollies record. Ironically, two years after scoring a hit with ‘Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress’ and working out how they can get their balladeer vocalist to replicate it the band had cracked it. Full marks too to Bernie Calvert, who not only turns his usual flair-filled bass work but also the piano half of the guitar-keyboard duel going on in the extended fade out. The moment when the song backs off and quietens down to the sound of just the slinky, repetitive bass and drum riffs only to explode again with fire is a masterpiece of dynamics and the only thing wrong with this recording is that it fades down right there – please, this recording could have gone on for hours and I can’t believe that somebody actually came in to stop the band during such a ‘cooking’ track (unless one of them made a mistake of course). There’s one curious element to this song by the way that I’ve never heard anyone mention before – why isn’t the sound of one of the band bumping into a microphone stand during the opening section ducked in the mix? I realise that production on this record was hurried but surely not that hurried?!
So, an album that delivers its fair share of surprises and doesn’t disappoint despite its hard-to-find status ‘Out On The Road’ is definitely worth having if you’re even in the least bit curious as to how the Hollies would sound without their lead singer. And to those who’ve come straight to the band from seeing the awful singer they’ve got at present, rest assured – this album still sounds like The Hollies in most places and the even the bits that don’t sound on the whole like a good route to go down. Whilst not quite having the charisma and quiet understated confidence of ‘Romany’, this is the sound of an on-form band giving it everything they’ve got and its more than due its period of re-appraisal. ‘Out On The Road’ might go out on a limb at times, but for the most part its the most under-rated album by the most under-rated line-up of the world’s most under-rated band and it can proudly hold its own with practically everything made in 1973.