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THE HOLLIES “RUSSIAN ROULETTE” (1976)
Wiggle That Wotsit/24 Hour Parole/Thanks For The Memories/My Love/Lady Of The Night//Russian Roulette/Draggin’ My Heels/Louise/Be With You/Daddy Don’t Mind
From the title on down, ‘Russian Roulette’ is a real gamble of a record. By the time this album was released in the dying weeks of 1976 The Hollies had been without a hit single for two years (by far their biggest gap at the time although sadly this was set to get bigger), their long-serving producer Ron Richards who’d been with the band since the beginning in 1963 had retired after the commercial failure of last record ‘Write On’ and record label EMI were talking about dropping the band if things didn’t improve (they didn’t even bother to release this album complete in America, though fans might know some songs from the ‘Clarke, Sylvester, Hicks, Calvert, Elliott’ album which was also out together with a few leftovers from the ‘Write On’ album). With punk on the way and a youth revolution out to demonise even the sources that led to punk in the first place, it was time to change. The problem was, what to change to? Like many AAA bands caught up in the headwind of musical change in the mid 70s, there was nothing wrong with the records the Hollies were making and they’d reached something of a career peak with some of the songs from 1975’s ‘Another Night’, but record sales aren’t necessarily linked to artistic integrity and without the hit record to keep the album sales figures up The Hollies were in trouble. Desperate for success, the band threw everything they could think of at this album coming up with 10 slices of every genre and style they could think of including some old and trusted Hollies sounds, some new ones much more in keeping with the styles of 1976 and then reaching out for sounds that were entirely new, then and always (and I’m thinking about the unique blend of trumpet, congas and barbershop quartet harmonies on ‘Thanks For The Memories’ especially here). Many Hollies fans, especially the long-term monkeynuts fans like me who own everything the Hollies did, hate this record because it’s arguably the least traditional Hollies sounding album of them all, without the normal blend of swamp rock and passionate ballads and arrangements that place more emphasis on the rhythms, rather than the melodies and harmonies as normal. But I love this record – well bits of it anyway – because it’s as good a response as anybody had to the changing sounds of the times and shows at least four ways forward the Hollies could have taken to move with the times.
Somehow, despite tackling at least nine different genres, the genre that’s always come to define this record is ‘disco’. Nearly every review of this album I’ve ever read (and to be fair there aren’t that many – as I say ‘Russian Roulette’ is a rather overlooked record) refer to this as the Hollies’ disco album and moan about the fact that the band are clearly jumping on the bandwagon of ‘Saturday Night Fever’. Well, let me put the record straight on that: this record came out in December 1976. The Bee Gees-filled film about gurning disco rave icon John Travolta came out in December 1977. Unlike other AAA bands such as, say, Stephen Stills (whose ‘Thoroughfare Gap’ album was released in 1978), The Kinks (whose disco single ‘Wish I Could Fly Like Superman’ came out in 1979) and The Beach Boys (whose ‘Here Comes The Night’ disco single also came out in 1979) The Hollies aren’t jumping on the bandwagon at all – or if they are then arguably they’re in the front seat of the bandwagon with the driver, with a view far ahead of their contemporaries. Now things aren’t helped by the fact that this album’s lead single ‘Wiggle That Wotsit’ is possibly the world’s worst disco song – and boy are there lots of other nominations around for that award out there - an uncomfortable attempt to be hip on a song that sounds awfully like ‘Saturday Night Fever’s lesser moments and the fact the band themselves uniformly talk about it today as their all time worst song (just see the abuse the song gets in the sleeve-notes to the ‘Long Road Home’ box set of 2003). But ‘Russian Roulette’s ‘other’ disco single ‘Draggin’ My Heels’ is regarded by the few people who heard it as one of the very best disco singles of the era, surprising quite a few people who loved the sounds of the day but hated The Hollies.
Elsewhere the Hollies are growing up before our ears, with copious references to gambling casinos, booze and sex that would seem unthinkable even an album earlier (as well as an album cover of a cocktail and a back cover featuring the band drinking in a posh-looking wine bar). This is evidenced too by the sounds of some of this album, with The Hollies tackling perhaps their ultimate heavy metal rocker (‘24 Hour Parole’, in which they out-Sabbath Ozzy Osbourne), turn all adult and shocking on ‘Lady Of The Night’ (which is about exactly what you think it might be from the title – I for one have always maintained that the Hollies’ goody-goody image is false and that they covered as much adult ground as their contemporaries and more, but even so it’s hard to think of another Hollies album where a song about a prostitute would fit), the riff-heavy title track is closer to George Clinton’s funk band than harmony-laden pop while closing song ‘Daddy Don’t Mind’ is a fascinating one-off ion which the band bid goodbye to both their and our innocence, with the tale of a pair of 17 year olds losing their virginity in the back of a car. Suddenly the innocence of ‘Bus Stop’ and ‘Jennifer Eccles’ seems a world away, but had even one of this album’s three flop singles (‘Wiggle That Wotsit’ ‘Draggin’ My Heels’ and ‘Daddy Don’t Mind’) broken through then it could have been the start of a whole new sound (and one the band could have been highly successful with; well, perhaps not with the first one).
Interestingly, though, it’s the return of the old Hollies styles that are often the highlights on this album. ‘My Love’ is a gorgeous pop song, breezy and beautiful in the grand Hollies tradition with complex three-part harmonies to die for and a sense of joy that anything is possible, with one of the cutest chorus lines in the whole AAA canon that goes on and on (‘Please don’t forsake it and make it and take it and please don’t forsake me and take me and break me...’). ‘Louise’ is a retro rocker more like 1956 than 1976 , a close cousin of ‘Crocodile Woman’ from predecessor ‘Write On’ but with a little more bite and a classic basic grunge sound that sounds particularly spare and basic in the middle of this production-filled album. ‘Be With You’ is a gorgeous harmony-drenched song, one that’s currently fighting it out with ‘Soldier’s Song’ and ‘Love Is The Thing’ in the great battle in the sky to the official accolade of best Hollies ballad ever and only lost on the ‘greatest AAA ballads of all time’ contest to The Moody Blues’ ‘For My Lady’ and The Beach Boys’ ‘Only With You’ on a technicality. Best of all, ‘Thanks For The Memories’ is almost a goodbye song for the band’s long-term fans, ostensibly about a man quite happy to live his life alone because the memories of his missing wife are still so strong for him but clearly written with at least a glance over the shoulder at fading record sales and thinning concert audiences, a premature goodbye to the faithful few who’ve followed them all the way to the present.
Interestingly, the most traditional sounding Hollies song recorded at these sessions, ‘Here In My Dreams’ never made the record (it was released on the Hollies’ excellent 1988 ‘Rarities’ collection instead). Written by the band’s main outside writing source of Horton and Jennings, it’s a far more typical Hollies ballad than either ‘Lady Of The Night’ or ‘Thanks For The Memories’ and features a spine-tingling performance by Clarke at his best and ‘sixth Hollies’ Pete Wingfield doubling on piano and synthesiser. ‘Dreams’ really should have made the album, which definitely needed a strong song in the Hollies tradition like this one to make up for its more outré moments, although it’s really much more suited to the sound and pace of the ‘Another Night’ and ‘Write On’ albums than this one (only the saxophone solo, more typical of the ‘Roulette’ album, gives away which ‘parent’ album it belongs to!) As any good Hollies fan will tell you, an awful lot of their best work seemed to end up on the cutting room floor and ‘Here In My Dreams’ is one of the biggest losses of the period. Definitely a wrong gamble. Mind you, arguably their other ‘outtake’ gambling decision was right: the other outtake was (by Hollies standards) rather a drippy take on Emmylou Harris’ ‘Boulder To Birmingham’, was unexpectedly released on next album ‘A Crazy Steal’ – the song always seemed slightly out of step when heard as part of both records. Unusually, too, the two exclusive Hollies b-sides of the period, ‘Corrine’ and ‘C’mon’ are the worst of the bunch, the former a shrill pop song originally demoed a while earlier under the more common name ‘Maureen’ and the latter a rather anonymous piece of mid-70s rock with more ‘c’mon’s per line than any song since ‘Twist and Shout’. Usually Hollie B-sides rank with their best work, but not this time, showing perhaps what a troubled and difficult album this one was compared to normal.
Going back to the ‘Roulette’ album, if there’s a theme across the record its one of desperation. The title track finds the character betting everything he’s got on a roulette table and ‘taking a chance’ and ‘gunning for red’. In the poor narrator’s doomed imagination while he waits for the end result (something which we never get to hear), the roulette table becomes a gun, loaded with blanks or the bullet that will finish him off for good. Given that we never hear what happens it seems relatively safe to claim that this song is at least in part a metaphor for the band’s fortunes, that this is their last great roll of the dice to stay a respected, strong-selling band still cutting it with the big boys otherwise break-ups and a fading career in cabaret yawns out before them. This song is far from unique on the record too: there’s a real tension and undercurrent of angst in ’24 Hour Parole’ that the narrator can’t dispel no matter how many times he boasts ‘ I wasn’t born, I was carved out of stone!’ while the nervous, hallucinating, out-of-control narrator in ‘Lady Of The Night’ makes for an interesting comparison if you hear it back to back with the sultry, cocksure narrator of past Hollies songs like ‘Long Cool Woman’ with its warning tag line ‘one’s of these night’s she’s going to get you!’ The characters in these songs are struggling to keep up with a world that’s suddenly one step ahead of them all the time and where artists have to toe the line without creative control (’24 Hour Parole’ may feature one of the least pleasant Hollies characters around but even he’s being forced to be a ‘good boy’ to get his turn in the spotlight). Only on ‘Thanks For The Memories’ are the characters at ease and, as we’ve seen, this is in many ways a ‘so long and thanks for all the fish’ song, with a middle eight that adds like a last-song-on-a-last-album coda ‘Don’t shed no tears for me, I’m happy this way, it’s better to have lost and loved than never having no love at all’ – quite the opposite message of the still-wired, still-bitter composer of the song ‘Write On’ from earlier in the year (‘even though there’s no one listening to your songs’).
Certainly the band were on their last legs, due to the usual rock and roll mixtures of malaise, fatigue and frustration suffered by any long-term band. On the surface things look good: unusually this album is only the second to feature three-way writing credits for Hollies composers Allan Clarke, Terry Sylvester and Tony Hicks (‘Write On’ being the first), while the speed with which this album was released (a mere eleven months after that very record) usually suggests a band with a lot to say who can’t wait to get into the recording studio and let it out. Unfortunately, things aren’t quite as rosy as this sounds. The Hollies were never a band that had major and public rows like Pink Floyd and Oasis did, but you can hear the frustration at their lack of progress in many of these album songs (although interestingly you can hear it even more in the songs on ‘Write On’) and the band hadn’t yet altogether got over the ‘missing years’ of 1972-3 when Clarkey had left for a solo career (which he will try for again a year after making this record). The Sylvester/Bernie Calvert years (1969-80) is by far the longest and most stable in the band’s history, but without a direction or a big success it’s clear that even this supportive, empathetic and rapport-filled line-up of The Hollies is becoming increasingly fragile. There were plenty of outside sources of tension for a time too: Clarke cryptically comments in the box set that in this period that ‘there were a lot of internal things wrong with the band after 1975’ and certainly the loss of Ron Richards who’d stayed with the band through thick and thin (barring a break in the under-rated Mickael Rickfors years) and the lack of support from EMI suggests that nobody really believed in The Hollies anymore. There’s a world of difference between a band scoring regular hits that makes them the darlings of a record label and one that’s being quietly buried until their record contract runs out and sadly that’s exactly what’s happened to The Hollies in this period.
The band aren’t going down without a fight, however. Of all the band’s flop singles following ‘The Air That I Breathe’ and ‘The Day That Curly Billy Shot Down Crazy Sam McGee’ in 1974 ‘Daddy Don’t Mind’ is perhaps the band’s best chance and least deserving flop of the decade (till ‘Soldier’s Song’ in the dying weeks of 1979 anyway) and the one they plugged the most, appearing on so many TV and radio shows in this period that most fans have been brainwashed into thinking it was a semi-hit single. It’s arguably the best direction the band take here (along with ‘Draggin’ My Heels’ perhaps) and is probably where the band should have been gone had the band been around to promote the similarly adult ‘Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress’ in 1971 (for those who don’t know the song’s release as a single came as something of a surprise to the Clarke-less Hollies of 1972, who’d gone in a much more harmony-and-ballads direction without their lead singer, writer and for that song guitar player to follow it up).It’s also much more in keeping with the time period than anything else on the record, given that the band have come admirably early to the disco party, fitting the in-vogue 1976 sound of retro rock with a sneer and a smile (although Shakin Stevens and co never made a record that in anyway matched up to this song’s ambition and poise). Had the rest of the album been based on this sound then ‘Russian Roulette’ might have been a winning role of the dice – but as it is new fans trying to hear the band don’t get to hear that song till the end of the record and inevitably didn’t get past the first, flawed single/debut track ‘Wiggle That Wotsit’. Frankly, what a shame – by 1976 the Hollies might not have been at their peak but they still had plenty to give and arguably had survived into the mid 70s with more of their integrity and drive intact than most long-term bands of the period (of the AAA bands The Kinks don’t find their revival till 1977 and ‘Sleepwalker’, The Beach Boys appear to be dead and buried (despite a revival of sorts in 1979 with ‘L.A. Light’), The Who have lost momentum in the years past ‘Quadrophenia’ while The Rolling Stones are already sleepwalking into a lazy career dip).
That’s the trouble with this record, really, which almost seems to be preparing to wave goodbye to long-term fans while desperately trying to entice new ones. The Hollies are caught in two, between the past and the future, before sadly reverting back to normal with the lacklustre ‘A Crazy Steal’ and the covers-dominated ‘5317704’. For the most part, however, ‘Russian Roulette’ is a genuinely exciting record and if you have the patience to put yourself back in time to a period when the fashions of the late 70s were something to aspire to rather than the punch line for a joke about clothes and haircuts and are prepared to look for more than the usual Hollies sound then ‘Roulette’ has much to admire. For me, it’s the ‘dark horse’ of the Hollies’ 70s albums, not as polished as ‘Another Night’ or the ‘calculator’ album to come and in the grand scheme of things probably not as consistent or with as high a peak as either of those albums. However The Hollies are trying hard to break new ground and as so often happens I love this album more than the recognised semi-classics around it for those very reasons: nowhere else do you get to hear the band channelling their inner rock God as per ’24 Hour Parole’, serenading a ‘lady of the night’ with lyrics as risqué as any uncensored in 1976 and out-doing The Bee Gees hands down on ‘Draggin’ My Heels’. Unfortunately in the end ‘Russian Roulette’ ended up becoming just another casualty of what the band called their ‘oblivion years’, with EMI/Polydor doing their best to bury the band until such a time as their contract ran out. Uneven, occasionally bland and on one occasion mistaken the band may be, but at least they’re trying to find something here to pull them out of the doldrums (which is more than most bands were doing in 1976 – or indeed The Hollies once this album is out of the way and they’re back to auto-pilot, even if it is a very lovely auto-pilot). In actual fact, the band make less mistakes than we probably have a right to expect – its just a shame that the biggest one, ‘Wiggle That Wotsit’, was released as the big attempt at a hit single and as the opening track of the album has become the stick with which to beat the album with over all these years. Yes this album is a gamble and, like all gambles, things can go very wrong as well as very right – and yet, taken as a whole, there’s more things called right here than wrong. And when the stakes are as high as ‘Russian Roulette’ that’s as good a thing you can say about the experience as any.
‘Wiggle That Wotsit’ is, as a good example of how not to gamble with your career, sadly, an embarrassing cod disco strut that tries so hard to be the cool boy dancing solo in the middle of the dance floor that you can just hear everyone else backing away and leaving him to it. Elsewhere on this album The Hollies will – just about – get away with more adult material than normal, with references to sex and booze (if not drugs, which they leave to Graham Nash), but here the metaphors are far too blatant (and childish) for the idea to work. We all know what Clarke means when he ‘wiggles that wotsit’ (and we aren’t talking about the crisps here) and the lyrics about ‘blowing my dynamo’ are among the band’s weakest of their career, even if the opening few seconds are quite inventive and ear-catching (‘Wiggle that what? Wiggle that wotsit!) The unfortunate thing is that even though the lyrics mess it up wholesale the music is actually a pretty good pastiche of disco and has exactly the right sort of drive and power and unexpected musical changes to show how good the band can be. Bobby Elliott sounds remarkably at home doing disco on the drums, Bernie Calvert’s bass at last has room to breathe without being swamped by guitars and the harmony work by Sylvester and an unusually prominent Hicks is a good foil for Clarke’s deliberately OTT lead. Of course this song sounds horribly dated now, the horn overdubs conjuring up images of bare chests and flares, but compared to other songs of the day the Hollies at least understand this genre and get the balance between groove and melody just right. It’s unfortunate, then, that the lyrics truly are so bad that they demolish the whole thing. As regular readers will know, I generally hate music made for dancing anyway – I really don’t see the point of it (if music doesn’t reach the heart and the head first then it’s got no right reaching my legs), but then that might be because I’m about as uncoordinated as Demis Roussos dancing in a Spice Girls musical. Even so, the lyrics on this song fail to cover even the small amount of ground this song demands. The Hollies themselves speak about this song nowadays in hushed tones, as if they can’t believe that their generally infallible quality control let this song through at such a crucial time in their career– frankly neither can most of their fans, even if frustratingly there is a good song to be had underneath it all. By far the weakest moment on the record – or indeed any Hollies record for the next 30 years.
’48 Hour Parole’ is much more like it, the heaviest the Hollies had sounded to date and while similar in many ways to the last track (the strut, the dance-like tempo, the unusual rhythm-not-melody based guitar solo) it beats in every way because the band sound like they mean it. Clarke’s latest narrator is a bad boy, released out of prison for two days and out to enjoy himself to the maximum even though the powers that be are looking for any excuse to put him away. The band get the humour on this track just right, the narrator strutting his way round the whole song on lines like ‘I wasn’t born I was carved out of stone!’ and ‘Toeing the line ain’t my style!’ Clarke is in his element here, unleashing his inner rock God and the raised tension he brings into the last verse is one of the most exciting of all Hollies moments, the obvious successor to ‘Long Cool Woman’ five years before. What’s surprising is how far the rest of the band follow suit: Hicks’ guitar doesn’t follow any regular way of playing but squeals and grunts throughout the song to great effect whilst Bernie Calvert – possibly the world’s least unlikely heavy metal bass player – fulfils his role superbly, holding the tension superbly with his walking bass that suddenly pounces and swoops in the choruses. By the time the band arrive, breathless, at the last verse they’ve done a great job conjuring up a whole new sound that’s miles apart from the usual Hollies style and yet one that suits them to a tee. The third straight repeat of the chorus at the end – something so annoying on most AAA songs when they do that – is also a stroke of genius, stretching out the narrator’s good times as if he’s simply unable to let all the excitement go and return limply to his solitude in prison. Overall ‘24 Hour Parole’ is one of the best Hollies rockers around, even if it has very little in common with any of their others.
‘Thanks For The Memories’ is slower and more harmony-drenched, but it doesn’t particularly sound like The Hollies either. In fact it’s hard to say what it does sound like – the instrumental with triple-tracked trumpets soloing over each other sounds like nothing else ever made while the backing track of sleepy synths and congas shares some of its DNA with ‘Santana’ but does something very different with the same mix of ingredients. The song is unusual too, a (presumably) widowed narrator telling us that he doesn’t care he’s lost his wife – because he still has the memories and they keep him going. The lyrics are simple but poetic (such as the narrator looking at a picture on the wall: ‘sepia shade, signature signed, thanks for the memories’) unusual for the band but highly fitting for this unusual sounding song. For the most part the recording floats by in a dream-like haze that suggests that he’s deluding himself, but a typically Hollies classy middle eight makes perfect sense of the song, a sudden angular burst of harmony that tells us that the narrator’s simply glad to have had such a special relationship at all, even if it’s over against his will. (Sadly the band repeat it a second time straight away, which undoes much of their good work, but the unexpected and inventive way they get back into the structure of the verses is so clever I’ll let them off). As we’ve said it’s hard to view this song at face value as it’s surely more of a message to the slowly fading numbers of fans still buying Hollies records, especially if these lyrics are read in tandem with ‘Write On’, with the singer sitting sadly alone ‘at a table for two’ wondering why he’s singing to himself. The ‘smile from the wall’ of good times past seems like a fitting epitaph too for a band who’ve been through just about everything together and just know that those days might be at an end soon. As if to make a point, though, the Hollies get all warm and nostalgic on a song that seems to have come out of a completely new decade and has almost nothing in common with the songs of the same year – this is a band bidding goodbye not because they’ve run out of ideas but because they’ve run out of audience. Exotic and memorable ‘Memories’ is a great little song that deserves much more respect from Hollies fans.
‘My Love’ must have come as something of a relief to audiences of the time, an oh-so Hollies bright and breezy pop concoction after three straight experiments. The song is clearly lightweight, but all the better for that with an infectious chorus (‘Ooooooh...My love!’) sung in staggering three part harmony and verses that are sung with urgency and tension the way all good pop songs should be. There’s even a cowbell in the last verse, a musical nod of the head to the very Beatlesy Merseybeatish sound of the song (cowbells were the sound of 1963/64!) Like many a Hollies song of the mid 70s a couple in love disagree over the timescale of their relationship, only unlike the narrator of ‘Give Me Time’ it’s the lover whose rejecting the speed and enthusiasm of the narrator. Unfortunately the narrator isn’t taking her natural patience and caution on board as the narrator asks her to reconsider over and over in a wonderful outpouring of rhymes and enthusiasm (‘please don’t forsake it and take it and make it and break it and please don’t...’ etc), the musical equivalent of infectious equivalent. Again this song is about as far away from the pop market of 1976 as its possible to be (even in 1966 it would have sounded a bit dated), but as a last farewell gust of the Hollies pop magic it’s hard to beat. It sounds rather better in the middle of two very exotic tracks than it does on its own but ‘My Love’ is a bit of fresh air, a memory of the Hollies when they were a great pop singles band rather than the deeper band Graham Nash left behind when he split for America in 1968.
‘Lady Of The Night’ isn’t about an infectious, easy-going relationship at all. Instead the lady of the title is a mysterious, exotic creature with hypnotic powers and Clarke’s increasingly histrionic narrator is completely under her spell. ‘Confused but tantalised’ the hapless narrator is still trying to put the experience into words and the Hollies come up with another of their slightly hazy dreamlike backing tracks where Clarke’s usually self-assured voice sounds lost and alone in the middle of it all. There’s another sax break on an album full of them, although it’s arguably the best and most suitable on the whole album, used here as an emotional equivalent of the narrator squealing his way out of a maze rather than simply added for colour. Tony Hicks adds another all too brief guitar solo that for him is unusually deep and guttural, as if re-jigging his trademark sound for a deeper and more adult ‘Hollies’. The musical highlight of the song, though, is Pete Wingfield’s excellent keyboard work that somehow manages to cover some quite difficult chord changes with a twinkling sound that softens the blow and adds a layer of peace and calm to a rather turbulent song. ‘Lady of the night’ then ends with a warning to the listener, that ‘I’m letting you in to what’s happening my friend’ and that, sooner or later, she’s going to get you and change your life too! Ooh, scary! A brave slab at trying something different, the alluring ‘Lady Of The Night’ pulls off a great deal, even if it’s not up to the best tracks on the album and is unlikely to appear on many fan’s favourite lists.
The title track of the album is one of those songs that sounds absolutely brilliant, but is actually abut very little when you analyse it beneath all that bluff and bluster. The song seems to follow on from the ‘loser’ character that features in a few mid-70s Hollies songs (notably the title track of ‘Another Night’) who has really hit rock bottom here, gambling everything on one throw of the roulette wheel. Unfortunately we never get to really ‘know’ this character as the song quickly becomes a list of clichéd Las Vegas casino clichés (‘whisky’s cheap at twice the price, and it kills the pain of bad tumbling dice’) but the central idea – that the roulette wheel is a game of ‘Russian Roulette’ where a bad call means the difference between life and death – elevates this one past the run of the mill gambling songs. As with ‘Lady Of The Night’ and ’24 Hour Parole’ this sort of thing should sound wrong in the Hollies’ hands but actually they serve the idea well, with a stunning ear-grabbing soundscape full of sound effects and a rock performance that’s as tough as old nails (and more like AC/DC than The Hollies) but with a bit of character alongside the noise. The song has one of the Hollies’ greatest riffs too, one that sounds like ‘Long Cool Woman’ cut in two and it sounds as if there are four guitars playing it throughout the song, giving the song a real muscle and punch. Sadly, though, the guitar solo itself is a little disappointing, distorted and simple compared to the clean clear-cut sound of the rest of the song (odd considering that Hicks is at least a candidate for having the best control over feedbacking guitar solos –The Hollies classic ‘Hard Hard Year’ being the best of many examples over the years). Had the band added just that little bit more to the song (unusually there’s no middle eight and the chorus sounds suspiciously similar to the verses) and a proper ending where the gambler either takes everything or loses all then they could have had a hit on their hands here. Ah well, even if not every gamble taken on this song succeeds it still sounds like a winner to my ears!
‘Draggin’ My Heels’ is generally accepted by fans as the album’s biggest classic. Compared to everything else on this all-singing and especially all-dancing album it’s an understated laidback song that only really draws attention to itself in a storming rat-a-tat of a middle eight that comes out of nowhere. Another disco song, its far more successful than ‘Wotsit’ because instead of some posing wannabe you want to punch it matches the dancefloor scenario with a winning, hapless narrator ‘dragging my heels’ over career and romance opportunities while the world around him dances on. Clarke finds the song is a much better match for his vocal than the other songs on the album and plays to his strengths, the uncoordinated narrator growing in stature with every verse, while the full blown Hollies harmonies on the chorus line ‘heeeeeeeeeeels’ is mesmerising and a prime example of why only The Beach Boys and CSN on a good day could match The Hollies for sheer harmonic blend and power. That’s especially true of the powerhouse middle eight (‘While still a flop single (the third from the album) ‘Heels’ has deservedly become a bit of a retrospective hit and is notably one of only two songs from this album to make the ‘Long Road Home’ box set (along with ‘Daddy Don’t Mind’ – ‘Roulette’ scores rather badly compared to other period albums like ‘5317704’ which has five songs and ‘A Crazy Steal’ which has four). The song worked especially well in concert apparently (sadly the only live recording that exists is a 1976 German TV show named ‘Supersonic’ which is rather marred by bad sound, a shortened running time and an OTT Perte Wingfield losing himself in his keyboard runs) but usually the band doubled the length of the song and played cat-and-mouse with the audience, dropping in out of the song as the mood took them with only Bobby Elliott’s strong drumming keeping the momentum going. The band released a rare 12” mix of the song too (included as a bonus track on copies of the ‘Roulette’ CD which is almost as rare now as the original) that’s rather less successful, doing the same job artificially by editing the tape of the album version, but there’s enough nous there to show what a great song this would have been live. Listen out too for Pete Wingfield getting really carried away with his jazz licks on the song’s outrageous fade, getting more and more into his part by the song’s end!
Talking of all-singing and all-dancing, ‘Louise’ is The Hollies as a retro rock band and - along with Louise’s big sister ‘Crocodile Woman’ from last album ‘Write On’ – the first time they returned to their roots as a rock and roll r and b style band like they were circa 1963-65. Although it’s another Hollie original, it’s easy to imagine this song as part of the early Hollies setlist and on an album packed to the gutters with production sound it’s nice to hear a song this simple. Arguably, though, this song is a little too simple – The Hollies have already done lots of similar songs with similar rhymes (although their preferred name for songs in the 60s is ‘Eloise’) and a chorus of ‘Queen in blue jeans, bopping at the hop’ seems awfully dated for an album all about addressing a new audience and a new sound. There’s also the problems there is with many a 70s rock song dressed up to sound like a 50s song: there’s a reason the older songs tended to be two minutes long and at three and a half there just isn’t enough changes within this song to keep it interesting. Still, this song has a great stomp in it and it’s nice to hear The Hollies forgetting their troubles and having a ball remembering why they got into making music in the first place!
So far ‘Russian Roulette’ has played a lot of clever cards with its head but hasn’t had much from the heart. The one exception to that rule is ‘Be With You’, a classy ballad right up there with all the better known Hollies classics. The song starts with a slow-fade in on an organ scrawl, a fitting entrance from a song closer to gospel than the usual Hollies ballads. Simple as the lyrics are, they’re terribly poignant and might be a return to the theme of ‘Memories’ by acknowledging the band’s fans and the link between them and the band (a la The Who who were always doing this sort of thing). Just listen to the second verse which adds, as if in reference to the disco songs on the album and record company demands for younger, trendier, more plentiful fans, ‘We don’t need to dance, don’t need no outside friends, just we two, wanna be with you’. The swirling three-part harmonies which come in one at a time (Allan, Terry and Tony) are superb as ever and the ‘aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah, wanna be with you!’ chorus is highly effective and more like the trademarks of the Nash-era Hollies, as if to prove the band are still the same. Unfortunately inspiration falters by the end – there’s no middle eight, only that ‘aaaaaah’ chorus and the last verse doesn’t even rhyme – but even so this is one of the loveliest melodies the band ever came up with and the recording makes the most of this sweet and simple song rather than overpowering it with pointless overdubs it simply doesn’t need.
The album ends with ‘Daddy Don’t Mind’, a slightly more thoughtful and wordy rocker that features a stunning arrangement and production (how on earth did they get those opening guitars to shimmer in just that way?!) this is the Hollies sound taken up a notch and going directly after the younger audience with a tale of two seventeen year old ragamuffins both out for one thing away from the prying eyes of their family (or at least their parent – in an intriguing twist nobody mentions the fact that their mothers might not like what they’ve been up to!) Note the many references to age here – the two are ‘not yet eighteen’, that little bit above the age of consent (first references in song by The Beatles on ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ –‘you know what I mean!’) but are clearly poking fun at the idea that any couple should be innocent until a certain date and then suddenly become ‘adult’. Instead of sounding like old fogeys the Hollies pitch the song beautifully here, not ‘acting’ out the song but covering it like those omnipotent narrators of old stage plays, shaking their heads over circumstances with a mixture of innocence and taunting (sample dialogue: ‘Given strict instructions to fall for no seductions, but ooo-ooh! Daddy don’t mind what daddy don’t see’). Both Sass E Frass (what a great name!) and her partner Joe D Glow are clearly ‘playing’ at their parts here too: they both have sex on their minds but neither communicate directly; instead she ‘straightens her seams’ and he pretends his car has suddenly got a flat tyre. The pair then drop their inhibitions with a mesmerising guitar solo from Tony Hicks that rockets out of the tight rhythmic riff the song has found itself in for an outburst of pure pleasure and sound, clearly demonstrates what the pair have been up to. The Greek Chorus then comes back in for a disturbing elongated middle eight that worries about the futures of both of them (‘Will they standing side by side with a love they cannot hide? No turning back for little Sass E Frass!’) By the last verse, though, narrator Clarke is back to chuckling about how ‘she’ll be the same no more’, losing so much more than her virginity in that first sexual act. On paper, then, an extraordinary song – quite unlike anything around in 1976 never mind by The Hollies – but everything is judged right. This isn’t totally salacious, outrageous, mocking or innocent but somewhere in between and there are so many twists and turns to this song that, like the car journey of awakening the two teens embark on, it really feels as if we’ve come a long way by the end. Definitely the highlight of the album and a strong song on which to close. Interesting side fact for you here for people who think children are growing up too fast: the age of consent in the UK was 12 until as recently as 1875 (when the law was updated to the great age of 13).
Overall, then, ‘Russian Roulette’ has been rather wiped off the Hollies map because it sounds so different from the other Hollies albums. Clearly looking round for a new sound and a new way of going about things there are several avenues here the band could have explored further, but as this album wasn’t all that well received at the time and only matched the poor performance of ‘Write On’ earlier in the year the Hollies went backwards, recording a far more lacklustre and tired-sounding album of originals in ‘A Crazy Steal’ (although closing song ‘Feet On The Ground’ is the last great Hollies song) and the two largely covers albums ‘5317704’ and ‘Hollies Sing Holly’ before the usual rock and roll band pattern of splits, reunion albums, aborted comebacks with flop new material success from TV commercials/compilation albums/remixed compilation singles of old material and backing the Coronation Street Cast of 1993 on the world’s worst version of ‘He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother’ (actually this last one is exclusive to The Hollies if you hadn’t guessed!) From here on in it’s a tough journey for fans and both them and us deserve better but for now, in 1976, this last role of the dice is exactly what the band should have been trying and its shame on us, not them, for the fact that it didn’t come off sales-wise.