Monday 27 January 2014

The Hollies "A Distant Light" (1971) (Album Review)

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The Hollies "A Distant Light" (1971)

Life I've Led/Look What We've Got/Hold On/Pull Down The Blind/To Do With Love/Promised Land//Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress/You Know The Score/Cable Car/Little Thing Like Love/Long Dark Road

Of all the bands we cover on this site, The Hollies are amongst the sunniest and happiest. Energy, optimism and hope are the key themes of almost all Hollies songs and together with those soaring heavenly three-part harmonies and one of the most spirited rhythm sections in rock, they can surely never sound like anything else, right? Wrong! 'A Distant Light' finds The Hollies at a low ebb, with falling record sales, disinterest from record label EMI (and producer Ron Richards whose been with them eight years at this point - as long as George Martin spent with The Beatles) and watching old friends and colleagues in CSNY rule the world between 1969 and 1971 was taking its toll. 'A Distant Light' isn't a bad record - indeed, it's yet another first-class album from a band that only put a foot wrong between 1967 and 1973 when they decided to replace Graham Nash as a writer with an album full of Dylan covers instead of sticking to their own talents- but by trying so hard to sound deeply unlike their previous selves Hollies fans were deeply puzzled when this album came out. Too often 'A Distant Light' sounds even less like The Hollies than the current line-up (with only two original members) does, even though the usual five band members from the 1970s are all present and correct. Much of it is simply too far out of left-field to be likeable (Allan Clarke playing the part of a murderer on the run in Tony Hicks' opening track 'What A Life I've Led' has to be heard to be believed), but hidden amongst the unfamiliar surroundings are some real gems of Hollies magic, including absolute knockout masterpiece - and no, it's probably not the track the few of you who'll know this album will be expecting me to mean...

There's a number of reasons why the Hollies don't want to sound like themselves. For one thing, lovely lush harmonies has suddenly fallen out of favour with the record buying market. As if watching old colleague Graham Nash set the world alight in CSN/Y wasn't bad enough, the band now have to suffer when that quartet self-destruct (as they were inevitably going to do, even if it was quicker and more spectacular than almost all of us 'outsiders' expected), leaving fans with a sense of 'betrayal' and the niggling idea that lush harmonies and politics don't really belong (harmonies will be out of style after this for some time to come, worse luck). Despite the fact that Nash in part broke away from The Hollies to sound different, his old band inevitably gets tarred with the same brush. Add in the fact that despite releasing some of the very best singles of their career in this period (another plug for 'Gasoline Alley Bred', one of the top five singles of all time in our opinion, even if it just missed the top 20) The Hollies haven't had a top ten hit for a couple of years (since 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother') and you can tell why the band might be clutching at straws searching for a new sound. Lead singer Allan Clarke, for one, is convinced that The Hollies have reached a dead end and having seen Nash - the Hollies' second singer remember - break America as a solo act is desperate to launch his own solo career and break from a band sound that even he's finding slightly stifling by now after eight years of making records (to be fair on him, Clarke's idea is to release solo records alongside the band's LPs but, possibly unfairly, the other four refuse in case the plan works and he becomes a 'star', in the same way Rod Stewart 'abandoned' the Faces, or so Ronnie Lane always thought anyway...) This is an unhappy ship by 1971 and - as writers who were amongst the best at wearing their hearts on their sleeves - the songs on 'A Distant Light' show this well, bookended by the tale of a mass-murderer who learns nothing through life and the melancholy 'Long Dark Road', the closest we get to an AAA suicide song until Pete Townshend starts having nervous breakdowns circa 1975.

Even without the songs, though, you'd know something was up just from the sound. After the Beatles disbanded in late 1969 George Martin pushed forward with plans he'd had for a while and 'split away' from Abbey Road to form his own studios, 'AIR', around the corner in London. Being Martin's one-time assistant and friend (and the person who - technically - was the first person outside London to see the worth in the fab four, calling in a reluctant George Martin from the canteen the day the Beatles first appeared at Abbey Road because he thought they had 'something'), Hollies producer Ron Richards was a natural choice to join AIR studios too. As a result, 'A Distant Light' is the only Hollies album to be made anywhere other than Abbey Road right up until 1977's 'Russian Roulette' LP and the difference is striking: everything is drenched in cavernous echo, all the instruments sound 'separate' from each other and - most tellingly of all - the three-part harmonies are mixed so that they sound like three separate singers occasionally meeting in the middle rather than the one-voice-in-three-keys magic of usual. Too often these songs sound like they've been recorded down a wind-tunnel and a huge gaping 'hole' seems to exist in the middle of all of them.
One reviewer - frankly this album got so little interest I don't think I've ever read more than one review - claimed that this was deliberate and as a result of this album's single 'Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress' being recorded in this way and being such a hit. That's slightly wrong though - 'Long Cool Woman' was only released a single reluctantly after the album came out and none of the band ever expected it to be the hit it was (Clarkey recalled being asked by Ron to come in and re-do the album vocals because the elder producer was struggling to hear the words; 'leave it - it's only an album track' he's meant to have said in reply - arguably it's the very swampy, hard-to-hear menace in this song that makes it so successful). 'Long Cool Woman' was recorded roughly in the middle of the album sessions, so it hardly set the template for what was to follow and only Clarke (who notably wrote the song with 'outside' writers for the first time in his Hollies career) was particularly fond of it. The irony of all this is that 'Long Cool Woman's success was exactly the break the Hollies needed to get excited about their career again and re-invent themselves around a new sound - but by the time the song broke The Hollies had gone in quite a different direction (hiring Swedish singer Mickael Rickfors and re-kindling the band's folk roots) and struggled to tackle 'Long Cool Woman' live without the song's writer and singer there to take the lead (by contrast, no one was listening to Clarkey as a solo singer at all despite releasing some great records, 'Headroom' especially - in retrospect I'm surprised he didn't re-record the song alongside some of his 'older' Hollies solo re-recordings on the first two albums in a sort of territorial this-was-mine way). What's odder is that although this is the only Hollies album recorded at AIR (and therefore the heavy echo seems like a natural repercussion of using a new studio), neither of the two singles recorded here before and after the album ('Hey Willy' and 'The Baby') have anything like the same 'distant' sound (the former is dry and crackling with energy, while the second is typical Hollies warmth, albeit with a new lead singer in the centre of things). Even the title 'A Distant Light' (and why that title? It's not taken from the cover or appears in any of the lyrics) sounds like it's telling of 'dark times' and sounds exactly like the band are down the end of a tunnel trying to break out.

The Hollies, then, clearly want to sound this muddy and isolated for as reason. What's puzzling is that the last album, 'Confessions Of A Mind', was accepted by most fans as the best album the band had done for some time and whilst not a best-seller by any means it sold better than any of their non-compilation albums since 'Evolution' in 1967 too. Forget the 'mind' in the title - this is a real 'heart' album, full of every emotion under the sun (anger, regret, sorrow, joy, fear) and the harmonies never sound as good again the Clarke-Hicks-Sylvester years, dripping with each feeling in turn. By contrast, 'A Distant Light' is a 'head' album, populated by narrators who are either clearly not the band members speaking to us ('To Do With Love' only makes sense if the narrator is 14-15ish, 'Hold ON' ends with the narrator caught by a jealous lover and shot, 'dying on the floor' and 'Life I've Led', as we've seen, is from the point of view of a mass-murderer), speaking to us through a 'cloud' (both 'Pull Down The Blind' and 'Look What We've Got' are 'sung' through a hangover and thus might or might not be true feelings), use metaphors of objects to put their ideas across ('Cable Car') or are speaking from an omnipotent third-narrator point of view (the two anti-war songs 'Promised Land' and 'You Know The Score'). The Hollies tend to record more love songs than most AAA bands down the years (along with most other groups who started in the early 1960s when every song was a love song, even the comedy records) but here there are only three: the classy 'To Do With Love' (which, as we've seen, is clearly a 'different' character), the lustful 'Long Cool Woman' (which isn't actually about her as a person at all but just what she looks like) and 'Little Thing Like Love', the one song from this album that sounds like The Hollies (although hardly classic 'Hollies', which might itself explain why the rest of the album is such an experiment - this song does sound a bit tired and old hat by now).
Hipgnosis, so used to creating wild and wacky album covers for wild and wacky bands like Pink Floyd and 10cc, sensibly keep things simple here and come up with a near-perfect reflection of this album's contents (suggesting that, unlike the Floyd's usual way of working, The Hollies or someone in their camp actively encouraged them to hear the record before submitting ideas). We've already covered the later 'sister' cover made for follow-up album 'Romany': A man walking across a wintry scene that might be dark and shady but depicts a woodland teaming with life if you know where to look for it, that's almost comforting (just as well, as it was on my bedroom wall for years and is one of my favourite AAA covers). This earlier album depicts Summer, which should be a natural fit for most Hollies albums, full of bright sunshine and flowers about to burst into full bloom (nature's closest way of depicting three-part harmony in full flight to a creation with no vocal chords). But no: this 'Summer' scene is as dangerous as the Winter scene was sweet, with a noticeably younger central character clearly scared out of his wits by the giant pike about to leap out of the river nearby. The back cover features multiple swallows who should, by rights, be flying 'into' the scene where it's warmer, but no: they're heading out of the picture both left and right. Hidden in the lake, upside down, is clearly a witch's head (complete with wart) looking back at the boy: has he been be-witched by something? Unsettling, unusual and the opposite of what anyone would have been expecting when they looked at this album's contents a bit closer, this is a pretty-spot on snapshot of the album's music too.

One theme across this album is drinking. The Hollies were quite a 'drinks-down-the-pub' type band so I'm told (one of the main problems Nash, never much of a drinker, had with the band - especially during his key drug-taking period of 1967-68) but they only time they ever refer to drink apart from on this album is on material by other people ('Honey and Wine' and a few Dylan songs). Here everyone seems to be drinking: that's the whole point of the songs 'Look What We've Got' and 'Pull Down The Blind' (both of which use drink to disguise the fact that a relationship has broken down), the FBI man in 'Long Cool Woman' is actually tracing a 'bootlegger of booze' when he comes across the mysterious title character, 'whiskey bottles piled up high' and the drink the narrator of 'Hold On' is supplied with makes him suitably un-cautious to be trapped in a tangled web of jealous lovers and a gun fight (the use of synthesisers here even makes the 'death' the man slips into at the end of the song like an exaggerated mirror of the drunken 'coma' the narrator is in at the start of the song). I'm no expert (no one who owns the Kinks record 'A Soap Opera' can possibly end up a drinker after three straight songs about how alcohol is only there to fill an empty life), but drinking songs generally occur when writers want to 'forget' something (compare to Lindisfarne suddenly out of nowhere getingt all boozy during their 'Mark II' days, when the remaining founding members are beginning to feel carrying on the band is a mistake; the unhappiness in both bands maybe?) Then again, drinking songs are also the scourge of the band who are now so totally out of touch with their original audience that they don't know how to trace them anymore - chances are they only meet 'ordinary people' down pubs on a regular basis and take their inspiration from there. Far from being an advert for drinking, however, only the narrator from 'Long Cool Woman' doesn't regret the drinking spell in the morning and it arguably costs the narrator of 'Hold On' his life (along with allowing himself to be chatted up by complete strangers).

Until now, you've either been digging out your old copy of this album to see if I'm right or you're thinking to yourself 'I think I'll give this one a miss...' Certainly we wouldn't recommend 'A Distant Light' to if you're new to this band because, well, The Hollies never sound like this again. But ignore it at your peril, because it's actually pretty interesting to hear a band who've been so intent on keeping their sound consistent between eras and genres letting it all out. Not all of these experiments are a success by any means (and as we've said before The Hollies are - usually - the most consistent of bands so it's odd in itself to get such a half-great, half-ghastly album), but those that work do so very well. 'Look What We've Got' is American bar-rock and misery without a single use of harmonies throughout (something The Hollies haven't done since their very earliest r and b covers days). 'Hold On' is possibly the most contemporary sounding recording the band ever did, not so much period 1971 as 1972 and 1973, hard hitting rock with an eccentric OTT organ part, synthesiser beeping noises and a quartet of gospelly backing singers. It's 'Dark Side Of The Moon' at its most frenetic in other words, almost 18 months early. 'To Do With Love' is a cracking pop song about longing for the future and being grown-up in a Beach Boy-sy way but ten times better than anything that band ever did in this genre, with traditional instruments like the accordion and banjo literally 'holding' the narrator back as he tries to soar into adult life too quick. 'Long Cool Woman', by far the best known song here, is a dazzling display of intensity and shadows, fizzing with lust and intent but trying (and largely failing) to stay 'cool' and on top of things till the end. Both 'Promised Land' and 'You Know The Score' are flipsides of the same coin, the first crying out for peace and the second crying out against war, with as bonkers a prog-rock moment in the middle as the Hollies ever create (complete with wind sound effects - yes, that settles it, this album was recorded down a wind tunnel - a church organ and a 'heavenly choir', plus a reprise that's near-enough identical to the start of the song, taking us in circles). And 'Long Dark Road, the second-most famous song here, a sad and lonely ballad about how life is basically over and the narrator will never ever be happy again. Despite being one of only four songs on this album to use full-on Hollies harmonies in there somewhere, this is such a switch from the upbeat, overcome-all-obstacles Hollies that we're used to that it may well be the biggest experiment of the lot.

What this means is that we have to review 'A Distant Light' on it's own terms, rather than as part of an ongoing Hollies discussion that basically uses the same language from start to finish, despite passing through such different genres and r and b, rock, folk, bossa nova, psychedelia and social protest. It seems odd to mention that a band eight years in are still finding their feet, but they are: Nash's departure in 1968 just at the point when he'd become the band's dominating force led to two rather timid albums ('Sing Dylan' and 'Sing Hollies') and a sudden blooming of what The Hollies now mean and stand for ('Confessions Of The Mind', which is basically a happier CSN album with a few things from the past like pop and r and b thrown in for fun). 'A Distant Light' tries to hard to work out what the future is that it arguably loses sight of the great things the Hollies had done in the past and hearing this album in order, between 'Mind' and 'Romany', it's clear that to most of those involved this was a failed experiment, not to be repeated (those two albums seem to follow on from each other, but 'Light' in the middle sticks out like a sore guitar-strap). 'A Distant Light' was passed over for the two 'Hollies Originals' CD sets that came out in the late 1990s (which technically start chronologically with 'Romany' but there's no reason why they should have started there) and generally gets forgotten (it's the only Hollies album from 1963-75, bar 'Sing Dylan', not to have been re-released on CD by French label 'Magic' with a helping of A and B sides as bonus tracks somewhere around the year 2000 and only three songs from this album made it onto the 'Long Road Home' box set of 2003, in contrast to the five from the even-less regarded 'A Crazy Steal'). Some of it deserves to be forgotten - and yet sometimes the chance to hear the Hollies stretching themselves is great fun and at it's best this album really does show several directions the Hollies could have taken, had Clarkey's departure and the poor sales for the two Rickfors albums not forced the band to go right back to basics when they reunite in 1974 (for 'The Hollies', an album that plays it way way too safe and isn't a patch on even this one, never mind the classics 'Mind' or 'Romany'). Personally I think the folkier Rickfors records, with the emphasis back on harmonies and acoustic guitars was the way to go whatever the sales said, but there's a case to be made for making 'Long Cool Woman' the template for a successful record or even the two proggier anti-war epics. In the end, The Hollies' direction is rather chosen for them and the band finally luck into their true post-Nash 'sound' with 'Another Night', their lush but eclectic album of many gears in 1975. But just because you took a wrong turning doesn't mean that an album is hopeless and has nothing of value - sometimes it's only by going where you didn't want to end up that you can truly work out where you really wanted to go in the first place...

'What A Life I've Led' is an odd place to start, being possibly the most unrecognisable-as-a-Hollies-recording until the 21st century (when a combination of having a new lead singer who'd worked in musicals and a penchant for going 'wo-a-woa-oh!' every other song suddenly turned the Hollies into 'Starlight Express' without the roller skates; interestingly this is the only 'classic' Hollies song to feature a similar 'wo-a-woa-oh!' but it's buried in the finale so we'll let that go for now). It is, however, of a piece with other Tony Hicks songs of the period (see B-side 'Born A Man', recorded just after this album's sessions) that are trying to stretch the public's ideas of who The Hollies are. The trouble is turning the lead character into not just the kind of quirky characters the Hollies do so well (see Mad Professor Blyth, Marigold/Swansong and a whole host more) but a psychopathic killer looking for absolution. Allan Clarke is surprisingly convincing as a ruthless killer, singing lower in his range than ever before while the swapping of the band's usual guitar-led sound for a piano-and-organ dominated backing (plus an unusual steel guitar played by Hicks in the solo) could have worked. Unfortunately in an attempt to find another style the band have picked up on the vague religious imagery of the song (the narrator asking for forgiveness from his maker) and pitched the song as all-out gospel. A gospel Hollies can work ('Why Didn't You Believe?', the opener for 'Hollies Sing Hollies' may be naive but it's clearly heartfelt), but hearing our Hollies harmonies drowned out by a female gospel chorus intoning words like 'I'm a real bad man and I ought to be dead' are a big mistake. Gospel is all about joy and revelation - this conversation, in contrast, sounds like one the narrator has been having with himself ever since he was a little boy. That's a shame because the points the song raises are interesting ones that cut a bit deeper than Hicks and Kenny Lynch's usual collaborations (if not as deep as the similar songs on 'Confessions Of The Mind'): can a person who knows he's being bad really be that bad, especially if he feels such remorse for it? As a song 'Life I've Led' isn't all that bad: it would have been right up Johnny Cash's line as a song ('There never was a man so goddamn mean, I wore only black and my eyes were green'). But here it's woefully out of place and rather than go all-out and pretend to be another band entirely (as the Hollies convincingly do on 'Long Cool Woman' later in the album), what we get here is an uncomfortable hybrid, with too many 'typical Hollies moments' to truly embrace the idea of being different (The reflective world-weary chorus which bursts through the song after every verse regardless of whether it fits or not and the sudden charge in the middle eight are vintage Hollies). The only part of the song's that's really, err, arresting is the point in the middle end when he thinks about turning himself in ('I was a bad man with a heart made of stone'), which is the most Hollies moment here, a sudden push of stunning-three part harmonies cutting the mire and building the tension ten-fold without even really trying (the rest of the song has been 'playing' with a new sound, suddenly everyone sounds like they mean it here). Interestingly a looser, clearly less rehearsed version of this song recorded for a BBC session (and still sadly unreleased at the time of writing) is much superior to this album version, being much slower and more reflective as is more usual for the Hollies and without such a ridiculous contrast between the downbeat verses and upbeat choruses. All in all, a bit of a mess.

'Look What We've Got' is a slight improvement but still very much an experiment (it's interesting that two of the four most un-Hollies like moments should be sandwiched here at the beginning of the album, as if trying to break their 'image' as quickly as possible). As on so many mid 1970s Hollies tracks bassist, organist and pianist Bernie Calvert is the song's hidden star, coming up with a big fat bass root that really pummels the song back in the Earth when Clarke's alcohol-fuelled narrator dreams of better times and the dreamy saloon-bar piano that enables him to dream at the start. A song of very real-sounding despair from Hicks and Lynch, it's as if this song is the morning-after for the racked-with-guilt songs the pair wrote for 'Confessions Of The Mind', having broken up with a long term partner for a brief exciting fling and finding out that it was more brief than exciting. Nine out of ten Hollies songs from all eras are 'healing' songs - the narrator's don't get things 'right' any more than those with any other groups but they nearly always try to make the world a better place or worry about why they can't - but this song is an open wound dripping with hurt and regret. The slightly-spaced out production, with the band playing in the distance, which is so much of an irritant across the rest of the album is also spot-on here, suggesting that the narrator is singing to us through a hangover and is actively trying not to sober up. So far so good, but a number of mis-haps prevent this song from being the classic it ought to have been. Hicks seems terribly reluctant to provide his own songs with guitar solos (perhaps because the spanish guitar part he'd set himself on 'Too Young To Be Married' was such a challenge) and instead of his superb playing we get a cheesy saxophone solo that's too glib and facile for such a 'real' sounding song. There are no opportunities for Hollies harmonies, which is a shame (if they'd been mixed in the background, as a 'ghostly' reminder of family life the narrator was missing, this song might have made more 'sense' to the listener). There's no real resolution to the song, which ends with the narrator having learnt nothing he didn't already know at the start of the song. Finally, while clearly heartfelt, there isn't really anything in the lyrics you can't gain from any number of regret-it-all-in-the-morning type songs doing the rounds, no little detail that makes this song stand out amongst all the others. Still, the band do manage to just about pull off a song that's quite different to anything they'd previously done before and on those 'Look What We've Got' is a success (certainly it's a better approach than the cod-comedy empty pop songs the band record on Clarkey's return).

'Hold On' seems familiar now, thanks to 'Long Cool Woman', but must have sounded pretty weird for listeners at the time too, turning The Hollies into a blusier Lynyrd Skynyrd or a rockier Credence Clearwater Revival, depending on your taste. Whilst Hicks has turned to one-off experiments and Sylvester has turned to ballads for self-expression, Clarke embraces swampy rock and roll for most of his songs on the album. A bumpy rollercoaster-ride of emotions, 'Hold On' is a very 1970s song caught halfway between feminist and misogynist whereby the narrator 'comes on' to a passing attractive woman only to find out he's the bait in a much bigger trap that sees her trying to make her husband jealous and results in the narrator lying dead in a pool of blood on the floor. The backdrop to this song is suitably film-like, full of sudden bursts of adrenalin and the right mix of loose and edgy guitar-bass-and-drums backing and polished, fatalism, it-was-always-going-to-end-like-this harmonic touches (The Clarke-Sylvester-Hicks intoned 'ahhhs' are downright scary). Better still are the curious synthesiser swashes that sound both other-worldly and exactly the kind of 'sound effect' that would be added to the soundtrack of a film about something like this, spookily warning the narrator in the first verse and returning to ring in his ears as the last thing he hears before losing consciousness at the end. Clarkey, too, is having great fun cutting loose at last and takes in the twists and turns of the narrator's journey, from strutting egotist to doomed victim, remarkably well. Only the return of a gospel choir and a ridiculously OTT organ solo (that sounds like Billy Preston sped-up) rather get in the way of a song that's otherwise carefully planned and controlled (Again Calvert is the star of the show, the way his bass gradually gets more and more out of control behind the organ solo a masterpiece of an arrangement). If you like your Hollies frenetic and edgy then they don't come better than this, even if the band trump themselves almost immediately with the similar but rather more intelligent 'Long Cool Woman' in a few songs' time.

'Pull Down The Blind' is Terry Sylvester's first truly solo song for the band (who only write together once across the whole album) and it sets the pace for much of what's to follow. A slow, broken-down blues so weary it sounds like it takes real effort to spit this song out, it's the first of many songs of heartbreak and regret to come from his pen (see 'I Had A Dream' 'Mr Heartbreaker' and this album's 'Cable Car'). Till now Terry's voice has been angelic in the extreme, the few times we've heard it since 1969 on it's own acting as the 'conscience' to Clarkey's more embittered vocals (in a similar way that Pete Townshend's parts are the 'worry' behind Roger Daltrey's macho posing in The Who). So it's odd to hear his double-tracked voice sounding so wrecked on yet another Hollies song about drinking. Lyrically I prefer this song to the similar 'What We Got', as it tells us more despite telling us less - 'Blind' is almost Haiku-like in the way it reduces every sentence down to its barest bones, the narrator struggling to form his thoughts through the haze of drink (and emotion). While you know exactly what the sorry story is in 'What We Got' (boy dumps girl, boy regrets it), this song is vaguer: the narrator hopes that his loved one will come back, hallucinates the doorbell is ringing only to find no one there and then hopes that she'll write him a letter instead (although it's worth nothing that he doesn't actually write her a letter first). Has she left him outright? Does he just suspect that she's left him but doesn't actually know? (he is a bit clueless where she is). Is he somewhere out of touch from her wondering if she'll visit (on tour? The events seem to fit the very much on-tour scenario of 'Mr Heartbreaker' from 1973's German-only Hollies LP 'Mr Heartbreaker', where the 'performer' has to steel himself to sing on stage after receiving a nasty letter). Or is she dead? (Clearly the 'hidden' scenario in 'Cable Car', Terry's other song on this album). There's the one clever title phrase there tying this strangely-structured song together though: the narrator figures it's too late for 'her' to come and so pulls down the blind on his door and also on his soul, accepting in his heart that the relationship really is over after all, however many times he goes on to convince us in the verses that there's still a chance. Musically this song is less sure of itself, stuttering around in a simple, rather retro blues phrasing that's the last of many times the Hollies pull this same trick ('Perfect Lady Housewife' from the last album is a more upbeat twist on the same phrasing). On the plus side, we get to hear Tony Hicks playing against himself and turning in some rather good Chuck Berry impersonations. On the downside, it's all too clear that The Hollies aren't playing in the same room like they usually do: the harmonies are Terry singing to himself and Clarkey may well not appear on this track at all (unless that's him tapping the tambourine). Fascinatingly oblique but not all that listenable, 'Blind' is one of those slow-burning songs that you admire more than you like.

There are no such qualms with 'To Do With Love', though, the brightest light on 'A Distant Light' and not co-incidentally the most easily recognisable Hollies moment on the album. Another Hicks-Lynch song, it's full of gorgeous Hollies Harmonies, a classic guitar solo and one of those upbeat singalong melodies mixed with a set of lyrics that cut slightly deeper than most probably realise on first hearing. The narrator this time is a youngster, possibly a young teenager, dreaming of escape from his narrow family life doing chores for his parents and wondering whether he'll ever meet the girl of his dreams. Much of the song is as bouncy and hopeful as you'd expect and yet there's a darker undercurrent there: far from being inexperienced the narrator knows all too well the 'pain' being in a relationship can cause and seems to have made a 'mistake' by telling his last girlfriend too much about himself and how desperate he is to 'escape' his current life ('The next time I meet a girl, I won't tell her my name, or where I've been or where I came from...') A classy middle eight, which switches to a sudden minor key and twists the song on its head whilst sounding totally natural to what came before (a hard trick to pull off), then tells us 'Each girl I meet comes out stronger - And I can't take it all much longer!', suggesting that actually there's been more than one doomed romance in the narrator's short life. Could it be, though, that the clues to his suffering are in the song? He starts off by basically not caring what the love of his life might be like as long as she's 'different' to the people he knows now and between the lines the narrator cares more about escaping his present life than who he escapes it with (He also seems to be mistaking 'love' for 'lust' - his comment that 'I was washing up for ma and lighting pipes for pa and fetching water - and that's got nothing to do with love' is clearly wrong; he is doing it for 'love', but for a different kind of 'love' for family, filled with responsibility; there's actually nothing to stop him walking out and living on his own. What he really means in this song is that he wants a different kind of responsibility to another person - more mysterious and romantic than the love he feels for his family). Forget the lyrics if you want to: the music for this song is a delight too, built on a tricky acoustic guitar riff and with a backing track that cleverly points both forwards (the then very-contemporary guitar solo, which rushes headlong into the riff and trips over its own feet in its haste to get going and experience life) and backwards (the accordion, ducked in the mix, which holds the whole song together and suggests this is an ageless story across time). Add in some terrific vocal work (Clarke's best on the album - he's at his best when singing an emotional part filled with longing and his buried cry of 'oh!' into the solo is a masterstroke) and you have a classic song about wanting to grow up and do all the things that adults do (the sort of thing The Beach Boys tried but failed with when writing the gormless 'Wouldn't It Be Nice?' The fact that billions of people know that song and possibly mere hundreds know 'To Do With Love', which beats it in every way, is the one of the things that really gall me as a collector). Perfectly crafted, made with a lot of care and love and - yes let's say it again for the first time in a while on this site because it's true - catchy but deep, 'To Do With Love' should have been the Hollies' return to the single charts. Instead it got passed over for a moody impenetrable sound experiment that everyone (the band included) thought EMI was monkeynuts for putting out instead of this one...

'Promised Land' is the fourth of five Hicks-Lynch songs on the album and while musically it's pure Hollies (a 'busy' acoustic guitar part, spooky ghostly three-part harmonies, an upbeat catchy riff), lyrically it's very far removed from their usual sound. The last fruits of the band's under-rated 'social protest' phase (which started late, in 1969, but turned in some real gems such as 'Gasoline Alley Bred' 'Too Young To Be Married' and 'Soldier's Dilemma'), 'Promised Land' is an anti-war polemic at a time when most music fans had moved on (the 'disgraceful' split of CSNY at their peak in late 1970 was partly responsible for this as we've seen, meaning Graham Nash somehow manages to cause trouble for his old band's 'new' sound as well as their old). With a year to go before Watergate and Nixon's downfall, the general feeling was that the Vietnam War was unstoppable and that if the riots and protests and gauges of public opinion against it in the late 60s hadn't worked then everyone might as well give up. As a result, it's rather strange to hear The Hollies so out of step with the times, crying 'bring them all back home!' and mentioning Vietnam by name at a time when empty 'silly' glam rock was dominating the airwaves. The Hollies may have been late to the anti-war party, but to me they sang some of the genre's greatest songs, harder hitting than anyone else would dare to but all dressed up to sound completely 'normal' (ie the sound of the mainstream rather than a 'fringe group' who'd only be preaching to the converted anyway). Just listen to the band calmly tossing out anti-American polemic (peace 'can't be where the eagle has landed' because the USA always cause war, not peace - a brave statement for pre-Watergate days) and saying that the fighting is now breaking out 'at home', dividing countries with 'protests, violence, marches'. Yes some of the lyric is naive and more like a song written in 1967 than 1971 ('War's a better game when played with toys, let's change the game and let's start loving!') but this song's heart is in the right place and you have to admire the fact that one of the band's sturdiest, catchiest melodies has been 'commandered' for an 'address to the nation' that was always going to be unpopular with a large percentage of the Hollies fanbase. There's even a wonderful ear-catching opening, where first Clarkey solo, then the three harmonists together and then a whole overdubbed chorus of Hollie goodness chime in to sound like nothing less than 'We Shall Not Be Moved'. The one thing that prevents this song from being top-notch Hollies is how uninvolving the whole thing is: the song is triple-tracked, badly, for most of the song so the song's message gets lost (unusual for the Hollies who are usually spot-on in their diction) and the song's curious wind-tunnel production values are at their worst here, putting everything here into the 'background' (just some more 'background' than others) rather than the song's values be heard loud and proud. The result is a terrific song that the band seem to have had second thoughts about recording but - with so few songs available - they've tried to bury here as much as possible. That's a shame because from the opening glorious extended 'We-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-lll' to the mock-church organ finale, this is a recording that gets things more right than most. Unfairly forgotten.

'Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress' was simply an album track for almost a year, before EMI noticed how many rock and roll radio stations had picked up on it and thought they'd take a gamble on putting some publicity behind the song. Certainly Clarkey thought he had something special with this track, choosing to take his early draft of the lyrics and memorable guitar riff with him not to his band colleagues but to famous songwriters Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway (with whom he wrote many of the original songs on his early solo albums - was 'Long Cool Woman' intended for the first of these albums 'My Real Name Is 'Arold' but pinched by The Hollies when after material in a hurry?; Cook's and Greenaway's other songs include 'I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing' 'You've Got Your Troubles (I've Got Mine)' and Gene Pitney's best song 'Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart'). Put loosely 'Long Cool Woman' is the tale of a cool-headed FBI agent who thinks he's seen it all, before a 'long cool woman in a black dress' successfully deduces who he is and holds him up at gunpoint, a gunfight breaking out and the District Attorney bringing the narrator round from a bullet-inflicted coma only to find that he cares more about her than the case. This song isn't about the lyrics, though: it's about the atmosphere and one of the greatest guitar riffs in rock and roll history, one neatly doubled by drummer Bobby Elliott whose particularly 'on the money' for this song. Taut, tight and ear-catching, with the album's unusual production values' second success story full of smoke and mirrors and with a sound quite unlike anything else around at the time, you can hear why this song made such an impact - and why both the Hollies and Clarke after he left had such a hard time trying to capture it's 'essence' again (unlike many fans I quite like the close cousin's 'The Day That Curly Billy Shot Down Crazy Sam McGee', the first thing the band cut on Clarke's return to the group in 1974, but it's like comparing a noisy children's cartoon to a film noire classic; similarly 'Courage Of Your Convictions' from next album 'Romany' - the Rickfors' line-up's attempt to repeat the song - is great on its own terms but sounds like one of those modern film re-makes that speak the same lines as the original but somehow lose the whole 'message' in the process). Clarke himself played lead guitar on the track for the only time in his career (and on stage too), with Hicks doubling him from the 0:15 point, and it's a shame he didn't play more because he gets the song's casual peacock strut spot-on. Better yet is his smoky vocal, full of such mystery and longing that you can forgive the fact that you can't quite tell what's going on (this is the first time the Hollies 'produced' themselves, Ron Richards being ill that day; confused by the song on his return he's meant to have asked Clarke to re-record his vocals for this song to make them clearer, which makes sense but rather misses the point - that would be akin to re-writing rebel nonsense song 'Louie Louie' to actually make sense, as the un-knowingness of the recording is the whole reason for the record). What we've forgotten, because we've heard this song so many times nowadays is a) how unlike anything else this song still sounds (the closest I've ever heard is Dire Strait's 'Private Investigations', a similarly 'smoky' song about an FBI investigator falling in love and that won't come out till 1982) b) how unlike anything else by The Hollies it is (only 'Hold On' comes close to capturing the same 'feel' and that does so in quite an aggressive way - this song is passive-aggressive) and c) that although everyone thinks it was a worldwide hit it was only really a hit in America, scaring as many fans as it enticed across Europe (it only made #32 in the UK charts, perhaps because the album did rather better over here than in the States).

'You Know The Score' is the weirdest song on the Hollies' weirdest album. Writers Clarke and Sylvester, having enjoyed working on the multi-part epic about a fading celebrity speaking to the narrator across time via a message in a book ('Marigold/Gloria Swansong' from 'Hollies Sing Hollies') try something similar, but with the same anti-war feel Hicks and Lynch have just come up with for 'Promised Land'. As a result, this is the most prog-rock Hollies song ever and sounds like something that would have appeared on a Moody Blues album ('House of Four Doors' in particular is structured like this). Starting as a simple rock-pop song filled with guitars (Tony Hicks seems to have brought his fuzz guitar sound effects out of the attic for the first time since 1968), the song starts off as a view of the cold war from the view of the innocent people trapped in the middle who don't find hope in the 'East' or the 'West' and challenging Government hypocrisy that can spend millions of pounds on missiles in order to 'save' their populations when that many go hungry and uncared for as a result of that money being taken out of the system. It's a brave stab at something 'grown-up' for a band still looking for new directions and this first third of the song (the opening ninety seconds) is great indeed, warning us of 'death and destruction' if we don't get it together to put an end to the madness now (the cold war officially ended 19 years after this song for those who didn't know). After warning us what a 'tomorrow' based on a nuclear winter might be like, however, the song gets weirder, a group of ghostly angelic voices calling us to through the wind while a church organ plays (again, it's tempting to believe that the band really did record this album in a wind-tunnel - or that they created the effect for this part of this track and 'forgot' to press the button to put things right for the rest of the album). The sentiments are clearly heartfelt and the harmonies are as gloriously other-worldly as you'd expect, but without much of a tune the listener soon gets bored and this section seems overly long (taking from 1:30 to 4:00 with not much happening). In truth, The Hollies just aren't built for making these epic statements which sound better in the hands of, say, label mates Pink Floyd - although it's worth noting the similarity between this song and the better-regarded soon-to-be-recorded 'One Of These Days' from the Floyd's 'Meddle album begun late in 1971 (they have similar guitar riffs and what sounds like the same 'wind' sound effect). Part three is a rousing repeat of the first part, again calling on God to 'come on down on your fiery sword' and put the world right. We've already spoken about the Hollies (and particularly Clarke's) changing views on Christianity on this site: apparently a firm believer in 1965 ('The Very Last Day') and 1969 ('Why Didn't You Believe?') he'll end up a noisy angry atheist by the time of second solo album 'Headroom' in 1973 ('People Of That Kind'). This song sounds like the 'halfway point', still believing in religion as a salvation to all but becoming increasingly impatient for Jesus' resurrection to happen and becoming more and more convinced it actually won't. Overall, it's hard not to come away thinking that the band have bitten off more than they can chew with 'You Know The Score' but you know me - they should at least have the kudos for trying something different rather than playing safe, even if the result isn't all that successful. At 5:38 this was at the time the longest Hollies track of all by some margin, till 'Touch' on 'Romany' steal's its thunder at 6:06 (ironically a 1988 re-recording/remix of the nicely compact 'Long Cool Woman' is currently their 'longest' song - let's just say it's a bit of a mistake and leave it at that).

'Cable Car' is a lovely Terry Sylvester song that, typically for The Hollies but atypically for this album, tells us something different musically and lyrically. On first hearing this is a love song with a sweet melody that's Paul McCartney-esque in its so-obvious-it's-surely-been-around-for-years-even-though-it-hasn't kind of a way and a delightfully soppy vocal from its author. The fact that you pick up vague lines about 'clouds' and the song seems to be about being up in the sky looking down from a cable car (i.e. ski-lifts with a lid on, that take you mechanically up into the air) suggest that this is going to be a love song. It is, but not the way you might be expecting: the narrator is lonely, pining for someone whose died and his emotions come to a head while in a 'cable car' heading upwards, wondering is his loved one is 'in the clouds' or whether death is truly final and he'll never be reunited with her again. A moody harmonica part (which sounds as if it's played by Terry rather than Clarke as per normal) is well placed in the song, bringing out it's folky qualities and all-in-all this is one of the better songs on the album, with both a beautiful tune and deeper-than-usual lyrics. However, the lyrics are few and far between, with lots of repeats, and the song's fairly lengthy (for the period) 4:22 running time is mainly made up from several repeats of the 'swooshing' strings, a finale that goes on far too long. Terry's re-recording of this song for his 1977 LP 'Terry Sylvester', sans this ending, is actually a better version, with Terry's higher vocal a much more natural fit than the half-emotional, half full-fo-flu vocal he gives here. Sadly, though, the fact that Terry could re-create this song so easily with non-Hollies studio musicians (unlike his re-recordings of Hollies B-sides 'I Had A Dream' and 'Indian Girl') shows how little input they seem to have had into this recording: Bobby and Bernie are there again, but that sounds like Terry double-tracking the acoustic guitar part to me and Clarkey presumably doesn't appear. The Hollies really aren't working well together in this period.

'Little Thing Like Love' might prove why: a Clarke song co-written with little known writer Tony McCauley, it's everything you'd expect from a typical Hollies song (upbeat theme, glossy harmonies, inventive guitarwork, orchestra overdub, catchy riff) but it all sounds so horribly lifeless. The production really doesn't work here (this sweet song about the narrator not standing in the way of his loved one should be dripping with warmth, but instead it sounds as if they hardly know each other) and there's a curious mixture in the lyrics of the narrator chastising his loved one and sweeping her off her feet ('You're going to have to change your ways! But don't let a little thing like me ever stand in your way!') There's a hint that the song is going to be a 'tamed savage' 'Calamity Jane' type song, with lines like 'Took you from Dakota...I brought you up a lady and the right way to behave' but sadly this theme is abandoned in favour of simpering verses about he doesn't mind even though she blew his life-savings and is - apparently - a gold digger of the Heather Mills variety. The best thing about this song is undoubtedly Johnny Scott's orchestrations, with undoubtedly their best arranger (who'd also worked with the band on 'Butterfly' and 'Confessions Of The Mind') getting a fine send-off (unlike the band's other arrangers, Mike Vickers and Alan Tew, he treats the orchestra as being 'at one' with the band, rather than competing for our attention). Ultimately, though, this song is 'filler' (was it in fact recorded for an earlier album, when the band worked with Scott more frequently?) that doesn't have much to say and seems to be rather unsure of the best way to say it. One of the album's lesser moments.

The album then ends with it's saddest moment yet, 'Long Dark Road'. Although Clarke didn't officially leave the band until the beginning of 1972, the band clearly know it and sound like they're worried that things will never be the same again (Terry, for one, admits in the booklet of the 'Long Road Home' set that he thought the band was 'over' at this point). A final Hicks-Lynch song about the end of a relationship, it probably wasn't about the band (it may actually have been about the end of their writing partnership - only 'Blue In The Morning' from 'Romany' is ever credited to the pair again on a Hollies LP and that sounds like it was a leftover) but it somehow seems right as the song that everyone at least expected to be the end of that trademark sound. Whilst short and to the point, the sentiments of the song are clearly heartfelt and make for an interesting comparison to Clarke's song of goodbye to Nash 'My Life Is Over With You' (there's no attempt to talk him out of it - just a simple admission that 'it's over, well over, in my mind and in my soul', albeit with the sweeter chorus reflection 'but you know I loved you'). The song starts like a folk-rock song a la CSN (Hicks was the writer most influenced by what his old colleague was up to, although sadly that inspiration seems to end after this song) and of all the songs here it's the one that points the way forward to Rickfors and 'Romany' the most (with Rickfors able to play acoustic guitar along with Hicks and Sylvester, this undoubtedly broadens the band's scope, even though they lose that rocky edge Clarke brought to the band). A suicide note of sorts, admitting that the narrator may as well pack it in because things will never be the same again, it's lyrically most unusual for The Hollies though, the closest thing we have to this in their canon the reflective start of 'He Ain't Heavy He's My Brother' (where the road isn't 'dark' but is 'long, with many a winding turn'). A stapled-on sounding rousing finale, complete with mock r-and-b screams (recalling the band's beginnings) and handclaps is fooling nobody: this isn't a celebration, this is a funeral and it's a shame the band didn't have (to quote from a later song) the 'courage of their convictions' in making this song an all-out sobfest. What it is, however, is a great seemingly last chance to hear those classy harmonies in full gear and a reminder of the sound that will be put in mothballs for the next couple of years.

In fact, that's what a lot of 'A Distant Light' is all about. Knowing that the band are undoubtedly going their separate ways, the three main writers for the band start defining their own writing styles a lot more and start working on songs alone instead of together. Each of them is searching for a 'clue' as to what that 'new' sound might band do their best to work 'without' the others (Clarke's songs and Terry's songs seem to have been made by very different bands and the song they write together, 'You Know The Score', seems to be the two stapled together almost randomly as if to prove their differences). All that seems perfectly normal for a band in crisis, with each member already imagining what the future will be like rather than concentrating on the present. What's odd is how little of the experiments tried here actually end up in each sides' future work, even the tracks that everyone agreed 'worked'. Anyone expecting an album full of 'Long Cool Woman's will be most surprised by Clarke's solo albums, which start off mixing straight ahead shallow rock with passionate ballads and the odd novelty pop song before coalescing as a kind of boogie-woogie protest on 'Headroom' (a great album with a sound all of its own). Equally The Hollies will turn to folk-rock full time after Mickael Rickfors joins the group, dispensing with both the harder-edged rock of this album and the social protest of this album. Of the eleven songs here only 'Cable Car' and 'Long Dark Road' sound anything remotely like being by the same band and even they are most notable by the differences once songs like these are released on 'Romany' (none of the slower songs on that record have the sting-in-the-tale of 'Cable Car' and none are as intrinsically miserable as 'Long Dark Road'). Even the overall mood is different: 'A Distant Light' is an extrovert album, trying to knock us off out feet with every new experiment and sound and adding in a bucket load of sound effects to catch out ears. Both 'Romany' and the first two Clarke solo albums are 'introverts', albums with the same sound throughout that open themselves up to new layers with every hearing but don't actually grab you by the ear and make you listen. Compared to both what's come before and what comes after, 'A Distant Light' seems like the bastard child that no one involved wanted and none of the band recall very fondly (this album gets short shrift in the box set sleevenotes and the fact that this is an album always passed over for re-issue on CD seems telling). But given that the band clearly didn't want to make an album the 'old way' and were already edgy about what they might sound like in the future, apart, 'A Distant Light' makes perfect sense and we'd have thought less of the band for sticking to the same thing again instead of trying something new (a whole album of 'A Little Thing Like Love' would have been horrid). Yes some of it doesn't work and some of it really really doesn't work, but there are at least three classic songs here ('To Do With Love' 'Long Cool Woman' and 'Cable Car') and even the worst of it isn't that bad. Give this album a re-issue and - preferably - a remix to stop it sounding so woolly and in-the-distance and 'A Distant Light' could yet be a fan favourite, the presence of one of the band's most famous songs notwithstanding. Overall rating 6/10


'Stay With The Hollies' (1964)

'In The Hollies Style' (1964)
'Would You Believe?' (1966)

'For Certain, Because' (1966)

'Evolution' (1967)

'Butterfly' (1967)

‘Hollies Sing Hollies’ (1969)

'Confessions Of The Mind' (1970)
'A Distant Light' (1971)

'Romany' (1972)

'Out On The Road' (1973)

'Headroom' (Allan Clarke solo) (1973)
'The Hollies' (1974)
'Another Night' (1975)

‘Write On’ (1976)
'A Crazy Steal' (1978)

'5317704' (1979)
'What Goes Around..." (1983)
‘Then, Now, Always’ (2009)

'Radio Fun' (BBC Sessions) (2012)
The Best Unreleased Hollies Recordings
Surviving TV Footage 1964-2010
Non-Album Songs Part One: 1963-1970
Non-Album Songs Part Two: 1971-2014

Live/Solo/Compilation/US Editions/Covers Albums Part One 1964-1975
Live/Solo/Compilation/US Editions/Covers Albums Part Two 1976-2014


  1. For what little it's worth,I LOVE Distant Light. One of of my favorite albums Hollies or otherwise.possibly because of the ways in which it departs from the established sound. I don't really think it does depart that much from Sing Hollies or Confessions. The boys were getting into some strange things by then but the wind had shifted and the Hollies suffered. i even love the production. To me,a very dark,moody amazing release from a dark time.

  2. For what little it's worth,I LOVE Distant Light. One of of my favorite albums Hollies or otherwise.possibly because of the ways in which it departs from the established sound. I don't really think it does depart that much from Sing Hollies or Confessions. The boys were getting into some strange things by then but the wind had shifted and the Hollies suffered. i even love the production. To me,a very dark,moody amazing release from a dark time.

    1. Thanks for the comment, always good to hear what other fans think. 'A Distant Light' is certainly an overlooked record! Thanks for taking the time to comment 8>)