Monday, 5 October 2015
The Hollies "Staying Power" (2006)
The Hollies "Staying Power" (2006)
Hope/So Damn Beautiful/Prove Me Wrong/Break Me/Shine On Me/Suspended Animation/Touch Me/Emotions/Weakness/Live It Up/Yesterday's Gone/Let Love Pass
"Yesterday's gone and don't you know you'll never get it back again...ain't it a pity the way we live, always thinking there should be more than this?"
From the opening 'yeah-e-yeah!' you know something is up, deep within your bones. The Hollies have long since shown that they have 'staying power', weathering the storms of losing Graham Nash, Terry Sylvester, Eric Haydock, Bernie Calvert, Allan Clarke, Mickael Rickfors, Allan Coates and Carl Wayne across their (to this point) 43 year journey. Until now The Hollies have managed to navigate each bus stop with dignity and honour, changing just enough of their signature harmony sound and tough-pop to embrace the new changes around them without sacrificing any of the integrity or uniqueness that made The Hollies one of the most criminally under-rated bands there ever was. We Hollies fans had been through such a lot down the years - bust ups, misfiring reunion albums, decades-long silence and a complete rebranding of The Hollies as cutesy pie teen fodder (how sad that Allan Clarke's 'normal' discography should end with the horrific 'Woman I Love') and still we came back pleading, hoping, yearning for this album to be a 'hit'. We told ourselves it wouldn't be that bad - that though so many old friends are missing we still have that ringing signature guitar sound of Tony Hicks, the still unbelievable drumming of Bobby Elliott and bass and keyboard support roles by Ray Stiles and Ian Parker who had by 2006 been with The Hollies longer than any other bassist or keyboard had ever lasted with the group. Surely the twenty-three years between studio albums had been good for The Hollies we told ourselves, made the band hungrier than ever and given them plenty of time to build up a stockpile of great songs, originals and covers. We were so eager to hear this record after a generation away that we made pacts online to buy every relative we knew a copy of the album for Christmas, just to make sure the album sold in such numbers that the band would be forced to keep making more. We turned out in our thousands to cheer the band on as they tried to pick up the pieces after the untimely death of Carl Wayne (the band's lead singer between 1999, when Clarkey left the band he'd founded after thirty-seven years and 2004, when he succumbed to the cancer of the oesophagus he'd only just had diagnosed). We didn't quite camp outside HMV and Virgin and Music Zone (we had all three back then...happy days) the way people did for other big events - we were all getting on a bit back then after all and hey it wasn't likely they were going to sell out of a Hollies album was it? But nevertheless 'Staying Power' was a big deal in The Hollies community, breaking a silence that seen the release of just two new songs in the past decade.
And then we heard that opening 'ye-e-yeah' which started the record and which instantly became the single worst three seconds on any Hollies album (making 'Wiggle that Wotsit' sound like Wordsworth, 'Stewball' sound like Cat Stevens and Rockin' Robin sound like Salman Rushdie, philosophers all). It sounded like a cross between Cliff Richard, jazz hands musicals and those slightly-too-full-of-themselves Christian bands who spent more time sounding smug after saving their own immortal souls than interested in saving yours or actually making any music. As it turns out, this was a pretty neat summary of The Hollies' new singer Peter Howarth's career trajectory who had spent a bit of time working with all three, none of them even close to the same universe as being suitable for a job with The Hollies. However it would be easy to blame the record on a new lead singer - the AAA review of 'Romany' lambasts everyone who blamed Mickael Rickfors for the sheer cheek of not even trying to sound like Allan Clarke for instance, when surely a better move all round was to sound as little like the person you're replacing as possible. 'Staying Power' is not the fault of one person at all, as the problems run far far deeper than that, but the fault of a band and everyone involved with all aspects of this record, from the production, to the album packaging (the least flattering Hollies picture ever), to the song choices, to the karaoke performances, to the decision to replace Bobby with alien digital drums and Tony's guitar with a synthesiser thirty years out of date.
We carried on stoically, we Hollies fans, bravely telling ourselves that the 'ye-e-eah' was simply a mistake, a case of over-zealousness in a world that demanded every band had to sound like an X factor contestant, oblivious of their long heritage or influence. Things would get better when the track started properly we told ourselves - but it didn't. Instead 'Hope' turned into an uglier younger sister of 'The Woman I Love', all clichéd lyrics, gabbled verses that failed to scan and a sense that the song isn't even finished enough to be treated as a first draft, never mind a completed track that had the all-important distinction of re-igniting the band's legacy after almost a quarter century away. Never mind, we thought, the next track has to be better right? And it wasn't. Dreary and slow, exactly like the last song but without even the distinction of the 'proper' drums and rocky beat, 'So Damn Beautiful' turned out to be 'Really Damn Horrible'. And so the pattern went: surely the next track would be better?...'Prove Me Wrong' the third track was titled but proved our secret fears oh so right, adding a bit of hip hop now over an even more 80s backing smothered not in Hollies harmonies but gospel singer rejects. By the time 'Break Me' turned up with too-bad-to-be-a-Status-Quo-riff cardboard cutouts we were broken, horrified and shocked at how many lows one great band could sink to in one album. By the end of the record we were so desperate for something to praise that we began talking about the slight grit of 'Suspended Animation' with its 'Cher' style vocoder voice wobbles as proof the band could still 'do' contemporary (a song that's as 2006 as 'Just One Look' was 1964 and 'On A Carousel' was 1967 - and I hated the cheap empty faceless pop of 2006 with a passion!) We talked about how good the opening of 'Touch Me' was for the precisely eight seconds before the vocals and keyboards came in where it almost sounded as good as Jefferson Airplane sequel Starship (nearly as good as the travesty that was Starship? This is the flipping Hollies! How can this be happening?!) We were pleased enough with 'Emotions' - the best song here by a country mile thanks to actual Hollie harmonies and a lack of any real mistake - to compare it to past Hollies classics, although next to 'Air That I Breathe' and 'I'm Alive' it sounded patronising and false. We applauded 'Yesterday's Gone' for the postmodern way it ticked off fans near the end of the CD still disappointed at how the band now sounded not to live in the past, even though it's a bit of a slap in the face The Hollies tried harder than ever to sound like a completely different band (apart from the guitar solo, which shamefully stole from 'I Can't Let Go' but with only a zillionth of the feeling). We pretended in our hearts - some of us still to this day - that this album was ok, that it did the job, that The Hollies had to move on and we had too, simply because we didn't want the band to ever go away again. Most of the fan-posts and even the music reviews of this album went 'I really wanted to like this album and well, I suppose I did a bit but...' while trying to soft-coat things for the sheer love of the brand-name.
Nine years on, with only one speedily recorded successor in 'Then, Now, Always' (which is better, but only in the same way 'Forever' is a better Spice Girls album than 'Spiceworld', because it's shorter and features less Geri Halliwell but both still sound horrendous) and no real damage of hurting the band's chances of recording again (they should by the way - there's a great album this line-up can do but neither of these records are it - not yet) we can perhaps speak our mind a little bit more. As a near-enough lifelong Hollies fan I expected to love all their records till the day I died. No matter if some offerings were a little weaker than others - I'm the sort of fan who found something nice to say about 'A Crazy Steal' and 'What Goes Around...' because there was at least something worth listening to and the mistakes simply showed up how great the things the band got right were. I've made it my life's mission on this site to prove that a great talent is never lost entirely, however long a period it might be misplaced, and that if you're enough of a fan to have the patience you can learn as much from what you don't like as what you do. But this - this isn't The Hollies. Tony plays a total of three solos, one of which sounds unrecognisable, one of which mucks up the 'guitar/sitar' part of 'The Baby' (unforgiveable given that the band had been playing it live a little while by then) and one of which so blatantly dangles the sound of 'I Can't Let Go' in front of us that we can't tell if we're being taunted or whether Hicksy was just on auto-pilot. One of the world's greatest drummers, Bobby Elliott, is restricted to the pappy poppy simple pop-rock of the era with no space and lots of noise, most of which doesn't even sound as if it was played on real bands. I'm a big fan of Ian Parker, the band's greatest unsung hero of recent years, who manages to update the sound he's playing for every era while keeping something of the original sound - so why on earth did he end up stuck in 1986 instead of 2006 or (better still) 1966? Ask most people to name something The Hollies can do better than anyone else and they'll tell you 'the harmonies'. I wouldn't have minded how ragged or rugged they might have sounded for a band in their sixties (fans make allowances for these sorts of things) or how much extra treacling went on in the studio afterwards (fans tut-tut but concede to these sort of things in favour of getting new fans who only love 'perfect' music to like their favourite bands too). But on 'Staying Power' the band don't even try: instead we've got Peter Howarth's permanent grin (even on the ballads about loss and fury) surrounded by multiple Peter Howarths singing slightly more quietly in the background (which sounds like a challenge, given the overwhelming power of most of the lead vocals) and a troupe of backing singers from 'facelessgospelsingers.com' (Need us for an advert? A pop song? A eulogy? A political statement? Great! They're all the same thing anyway, right?!)
All of this could be excused (if never quite forgiven) if The Hollies had come up with a decent set of songs to sound bland and faceless to go all karaoke on us but no: 'Staying Power' features a good eleven of the top twenty-five worst songs in their catalogue ever (most of the rest are on 'Then, Now, Always by the way). Want to know how many Tony Hicks, the one songwriter left in the band, actually wrote? So do most people probably given the small print of the writing credits...which is all a ruse to cover up the fact that he didn't write any of them. That's right! Sixteen years after 'No Rules' and 'Naomi' last gave Hollies fans something to shout about, Tony apparently couldn't come up with anything better than even this sorry lot of songs! Instead the twelve songs have been written by a collection of outside writers, mainly Rob Davis and Mark Read together, separately or with other people. Most reviewers were puzzled but this isn't actually an unusual tactic by The Hollies: back in 1972 Colin Horton-Jennings came from nowhere to write half of 'Romany' and in 1978 Tony Hymas and Pete Brown alternated with Murray Head to write almost all of '5317704'. But somehow those decisions made more sense. The Hollies were always loyal to what they thought was talent that need recognising (such as Clarke's championing of Bruce Springsteen before anybody knew who he was) and all three songwriters turned in not just some great material but some great Hollies material - yes songs like 'Delaware Taggett and The Outlaw Boys' and 'Say It Ain't So Jo' didn't immediately sound like Hollies, but they were a strong enough basis for the band to add their own touches too. This time round it wouldn't surprise me if David and Read had never actually heard a Hollies album in their lives. It wouldn't surprise me either that The Hollies never actually heard the songs before they agreed to record them too (did they have some sort of a blackmail hold over them all?) Every song comes with excruciating rhymes a newbie songwriter would have thrown in the bin ('You can take me or you can break me!' 'It's just the way you touch me baby wo-a-woah-urrgh!') and nothing that hasn't been recycled from better sources (and when those sources include Cliff Richard and Elton John you know you have a problem). The resulting is an album full of rotten songs performed badly by a great band who should know better with a singer who sucks a little more of my life-force away every time I hear him go ye-e-e-ah' or 'wo-a-wo-ahhh' like John Barrowman's younger brother. This isn't staying power, it's an attempt to make long-term fans break down and cry.
It's 6 AM. I'm awake again. I can't get this sodding album out of my head. I'm struggling to think of something nice I ought to have said. Oh stuff it there isn't any - I'm going back to bed...No hold on hold on, I'll do it properly. The Hollies are, after all, so damn beautiful right up until this point. So here we go: I pride myself on always having something nice to say about a record, however bad, so erm here goes. The Hollies do a better job with their song 'Live It Up' than CSN did with theirs. They're also brave enough to use a photograph of the band as they are now for the cover, which is unusual these days (the Stones started a right old media fuss when they did something similar the year before). Erm, I'm really struggling to think now. They don't re-record 'Stewball' 'Sorry Suzanne' or 'Wiggle That Wotsit', will that do?
More seriously, the band had to do something if they wanted to continue and were in a very difficult situation - perhaps the worst of their half century career. Allan Clarke's voice was fading rapidly during his last couple of tours with the band and he had nobly decided to sacrifice his career before it got any worse. The band did the sensible thing, rehearsed lots with their new vocalist Carl Wayne away from the public eye (once from Hollies rivals The Move) and took the opportunity to re-style their sound, dropping several songs that had been played for decades in favour of rarer songs that had never been heard live or in a few cases were given a revolutionary makeover (the Carl Wayne version of 'Here I Go Again', which sadly only exists on bootleg, is a thing of beauty; 'The Baby', a rare Rockfors era single, sounded great). The band felt comfortable enough to record again after three years with Carl in the band and were gearing up to make this album even that long ago, with a 'teaser' from the planned album sessions How Do I Survive?' released as a 'final' track on the band's excellent 'Long Road Home' box set of 2003. Alas Wayne fell poorly before any more recordings could be made and this ended up being his only recording. Though another three year gap came and went before The Hollies resurrected their album career, I can't help but wonder if the songs weren't actually chosen for Wayne. Many of these album tracks are much closer in feel to things The Move did and Carl's grittier, rockier vocals may have given these tracks just the right grit they needed to get moving. 'How Do I Survive?' also proved to be the last Hollies recording by stalwart Alan Coates after a couple of decades himself with the band and who chose to leave after Carl's death when he saw the way the new line up was heading (smart lad, that Alan Coates). No wonder the Hollies don't use many harmonies on this record (even though they'd still sounded great as recently as that 2003 Carl Wayne recording) - two of the three singers who made them aren't here (the harmonies still sound pretty good on 'Emotions' though, the one song on the album that uses them).
Given the circumstances - two new members on the band's front line, a full thirteen years after the band had last been in the studio en masse (for 'The Woman I Love' - in case you're wondering the song in the middle is 'Peggy Got Sue Got Married', a Hollies overdub fest on the original Buddy Holly recording for a tribute recording in 1997, happened to be the swansong of Clarke with the band, alongside just Tony, Bobby and a returning Nash. Avery fitting bookend it is too given the importance of Buddy Holly to the early Hollies) you could forgive The Hollies for sounding a bit nervous or edgy. There was a lot riding on this album - if it had failed to sell it seemed likely the band wouldn't get another chance for at least another twenty-three years (the gap since Nash reunion record 'What Goes Around'). Instead the band have never sounded more confident, delivering every song with gusto and the one point that reviewers did pick up on is how much 'livelier' this album is than period 'comeback' albums by 60s survivors: there are few ballads (though 'So Damn Beautiful' is still one of the slowest songs the band have ever done), even the simpler emptier songs come with doom-thwacka-bing-bang-bong drumming and Peter Howarth's vocals are the musical farmyard equivalent of the rooster, waking and energising everybody in the room. This doesn't sound like a bunch of 60-year-olds making their first album after a gap longer than most people in the top ten at the time had been alive; The Hollies sound young - and genuinely so, not artificially so.
These are all strong qualities. But the ultimate decider is whether that confidence and energy is well used and in both cases they're misplaced. yes The Hollies started out primarily as a 'pop' band (with less rock and R and B influences than many of their rivals in the early days) but they quickly shed that skin to try on different sets of stylistic clothes, daring to keep the ones (like bossa nova, soul and psychedelia) that best suited them while still keeping the 'pop' bounce high. There's nothing else here but pop music - the only other time this ever happened ('What Goes Around...') at least the band had the good grace to throw in a few deeper lyrics and a 'real' sounding song in there sometimes ('Someone Else's Eyes' is a good 'un, whatever you think of the rest of the record). Twelve awfully similar sounding pop songs, which can all be heard being done better by millions of different bands. The more Peter Howarth wants to gee me up like he's in some glee club, the more I feel like going round to his house and playing him 'King Midas In Reverse' to show him why The Hollies long ago decided that sad was better than chirpy. There's a reason most 'comeback' albums by 60s bands don't sound this lively: they've learnt that they look stupid still offering at sixty what they offered at eighteen and have learnt so much more in the interim that they barely remember what pop music is anyway. The Hollies do sound young, but I'd rather hear them 'old' with all the things they've learnt along the way etched in every song. If I want to hear them young I'll listen to 'Ain't That (Just Like Me)' where they also happen to sound like they mean it. The lack of that Hollies tradition the ballad, along with those traditional harmonies, is the equivalent of re-hiring Pink Floyd to record a low budget album that's small and compact (umm, err, actually that's just described 'The Endless River' pretty well!) or getting Paul Simon to waste his time performing duets with Sting (darn it, that's happened as well now - what's happening to the 21st century?!): what is the point? Either make the most of the changes in the band by taking the opportunity of doing something you've never done before and do it well - or do what you were doing anyway to the best of your abilities in the knowledge that your fans will understand what you were trying to do. Don't for goodness sake sound like everyone else around at the time, only not quite as good even as them (and dear God 2006 was awful: Gnarls Barkley, The Arctic Monkeys, Take That's reunion...if The Hollies had released anything even half-decent they'd have been within a shout of the charts, surely?)
I don't want to be too cruel. You know I love The Hollies as much as anyone. I understand what a hard time they had making this album after the loss of two lead singers and a harmoniser in six years and how fundamentally this changed the band sound. Given that they'd never done it before, Ray Stiles and Ian Parker's shared production is at least as good and shiny as anyone else's in the era (only Bobby's drums are completely wrong, way too high in the mix and sounding as if they've been rinsed through with washing up liquid to take any element of 'rock' away). The more I hear this album (it's not one I play that often - and every time I do I think 'good lord I'm never playing that again...') the more I've come to appreciate 'Emotions', a song that would have been worth at least a quick half thumbs up in another Hollies era (although you long for Allan Clarke to sing it - or Mickael Rickfors, actually, he'd have sounded great on this one too). The sequel to this record is better and proves that this line-up of The Hollies have something to offer the world (even if I wish they'd move off the same middling-paced tempo, add in some more harmonies and buy some synthesisers that were actually dated dome time in the last twenty years). Like many fans I long for The Hollies to do another and will gladly by it, no matter how much teeth-clenching and nervous-hands-hovering-over-the-skip-button there will be if it turns out like the two records we did get in this era. But loving a band and wanting them to do well, whilst finding excuses and looking for something - anything - to grasp onto before the album sinks under the weight of pop quicksand up to its neck again is not enough of a reason to recommend this record. I long for the band to prove me wrong - and I can't wait for the day they do - but I have a feeling The Hollies might be over, in terms of records at least (there are still many good reasons to see the band in concert in the present day, by the way, especially now they've dropped most of the songs from this awful record). Then again, that wasn't really The Hollies was it? A bad record I can take, a misguided record I'd understand given the circumstances, a flat record after such a long gap I was already braced for. But an un-Hollies record without anything even close to anything the band had done before? That's unforgivable. This album doesn't have 'staying power' - it sounded dated the minute it was released and sold very poorly, not even matching 'A Crazy Steal' or 'What Goes Around' - and after twenty-three years of wishing, dreaming and hoping I can't tell you how sad that makes me.
Ye-e-yeah onto the songs and ye-e-yuk 'Hope' is exactly the sort of thing the UK has been entering into the Eurovision in recent years: noisy unfocussed pop songs with awkward rhymes and less emotion than Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes stuck in a freezer. The one thing this song shares in common with the old Hollies sound is the sense of optimism and that things are going to be better in the future. But in contrast to 'I'm Alive' 'Hold On' and 'Gasoline Alley Bred' there's no sense of understanding how bad things can be before the sun comes out - instead this is just the noise of a man screaming at us 'not to feel sorry for ourselves' and 'whatever it takes, hold on!' If this wasn't The Hollies I could maybe forgive this song a little more - the chorus is catchy in a turn-that-thing-off-now-before-it-drives-me-mad kind of a way (exactly where we're going wrong with Eurovision actually - we want songs that are memorable, not repetitive and annoying) and the chorus and verse at least sound like they fit together, which is more than you can say about most of the album. But flipping slippers it doesn't sound like The Hollies. Tony Hicks seems to be doing everything he can not to sound like The Hollies, the harmonies are wretched and hard to hear (tony doesn't sing from what I can tell), Bobby Elliott's drum clatter like mice in the skirting board rather than his old roaring lion technique and that lead vocal makes Freddie Mercury sound like the shy and retiring sort. There's nothing like being yelled at to put you off a song for life! Worryingly this not only standard for the album but one of the better tracks. My poor ears... Oddly enough Allan Clarke wrote a song called 'Hope' too for his 'I Wasn't Born Yesterday' album of 1978. Though I'm not that keen on the earlier song either (Clarkey's dramatic performance is very Peter Howarth now I think about it) but at least that one had a tune and words that made sense - this song sounds like it's been badly translated from somewhere, like Sweden (is it Mickael Rickfors under a pseudonym getting his own back on the band who dared to jilt him for not sounding 'Hollies' enough?!)
Many fans fell in love with 'So Damn Beautiful', partly because it was the first single from the album and the first to break the years of silence and partly because it's the closest here to vintage Hollies ballads of the past. But that's the trouble - it copies all the obvious factors of Holliedom (harmonies, guitar solo - the highlight of the song for all the three seconds it's here - and sweetly romantic lyrics) while still coming out of the mix sounding more like second-hand Take That. And when one of the greatest bands of the past fifty years ends up sounding like a godawful boyband whose songs all sound the same - well, the result is so damn ugly and not beautiful at all. The lyrics try hard to make us feel for the narrator, who wakes up at 6AM with his head filled of love for his girl and the first verse does make you feel...something, which is more than most songs on here (though in truth sick to my stomach is more like it). But what happens next? This turns into a song about stalking! Despite the aching verses about how much the narrator loves his woman and everything she stands for, it turns out they haven't even met properly yet! ('I don't even know your name - you never gave that much away.') Worse yet, the narrator doesn't even seem to have tried to talk to her - instead he slipped his phone number into her pocket and is waiting for her to call - yeah like that's going to happen. I haven't even mentioned the tune yet, which is like so many similar toothless ballads stuck together in a blender to take anything resembling an actual tune or any real grit and feeling out so that The Hollies won't upset the horses. Offensive in its very inoffensiveness, this is a real low from a band I once defended to the ends of the earth. Yes things couldn't stay sounding the same as before - not with so many band members gone - but with so many genres the band used to tackle brilliantly without even trying, why did they want to sound like this?
'Prove Me Wrong' you want to say to the album - give me something I can get excited in! 'Prove Me Wrong' nearly does, for the opening ten seconds of musicianship is at least quite inviting - Bobby hits a nice rock groove and Ian Parker's happy synths meshed with Tony's 'sitar guitar' makes for an okay-ish groove. But then the synth strings sweep in, dripping more treacle than a treacle well and the vocals start up with Peter Howarth more agonisingly artificial and emotionless than ever. Sounding more like a Spanish Eurovision flop, this song is a big torch ballad that tries hard to grow verse by verse, but only ends up sounding more and more exaggerated and inflated with each extra section. Howarth's narrator wants to know why his relationship isn't as strong as it used to be (did he sing 'well yeee-aeeeahhhhh' to her too many times?) and even quotes from an old Hollies classic when he sings 'our touch isn't the same as it was before'. But there's no rosy Mickael Rickfors tones to get lost in, no slow sense of a song unfolding and blossoming into life naturally, no great musicianship to get excited about - just a song not even good enough to send to Westlife which grows out of control as early in as the minute mark. Clearly, then, an album highlight compared to most things here (at least this song had promise and threw it away - most of the songs don't even have that!)
'Break Me' is the one that broke me though. A slightly faster paced aggressive guitar sound makes the band now sound like leftover AC/DC - but the clumsy-footed modern band rather than the days when they actually had some promise. The chorus of this song is one of the single ugliest things I've ever heard - 'You can take me, you can break me, but you can't kill my love!' sneers Howarth like he's Liam Gallagher, but the backing is tinny and horrid, the sort of thing normally only a pre-teen would try because they can get away with sounding 'cute' (the first Billie Piper album all sounds like this). But The Hollies don't sound cute - they sound deranged, like they're trying so hard to take our interest with a sound so modern it's already dated more than anything in their classic years in the last decade and with harmonies that are a sheer mockery of what the band always used to stand for. The highlight of the song by far is Tony Hicks' quick guitarwork, which manages to share a little bit of greatness with the sound of old, channelling the old solos he used to play during the blistering ten minute live versions of 'Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress' the band used to do. But then he sounds hilariously out of place playing thrash metal chords over the opening which are so alien to the Hollies sound and this is one of many songs on the album that would sound better if it actually bothered to have a riff instead of just an instantly forgettable hook in the chorus. This song took three whole writers to mess up and one of them was Enrique Inglesias. I've always hated Enrique Inglesias since before this album came out but this is easily his worst moment too. Why is a pumped up posing wannabe writing songs for The Hollies in the first place? Who called him and why? ('Yeah that's right - we're the band who did such timeless classic cover songs as 'Bus Stop' 'Look Through Any Window' and 'I Can't Let Go' but we're not interested in any of those - just give us your usual empty pop fodder please, just not quite up to your usual low standard'). Lordy lordy - it's going to take ten days of playing 'Evolution' and 'Butterfly' back to back before I can begin to feel clean again after this.
Perhaps I'm just getting worn down, but 'Shine On Me' sounds like a slight improvement. Howarth sings in falsetto and everyone sounds daft singing in falsetto so you can forgive the vocals that little bit more. The synths back away to reveal more of Tony and Bobby - they're not doing anything that exciting but, hey, I can hear them, this is an improvement. The song makes a bona fide attempt to grow in stature little bit by little bit until the best chorus of the album arrives, with some actual nearly-recognisable harmonies until the gospel singers join in uncomfortably too. However the lyrics are still absolute trash, so badly in need of a re-write. Most of them don't even rhyme: 'Like a tide we rise and fall, we sail on through the storm'. Eh?! So it continues: 'life' doesn't rhyme with 'sacreee-fice' no matter how badly you try to make it, 'alone and carry on' come close but no cigar and what is this song's grand chorus line hook: 'Oh baby, you were my fight'. That doesn't even make sense! And these lyrics aren't hard to write: here's my improvement on the chorus to singalong with (and drown out the real lyrics) and it took me all of two minutes to write: 'I was standing in the park, listening to The Hollies in the dark waiting for the band to wash over me, the band who once enriched my life, are now stabbing with a knife, making music so hopelessly, I have nowhere left to go and I can't take it anymore, I really don't want to know just want to take it back to the store, 'cause I'm tired of holding out and giving all I've got, while longing that the album will contain something other than just rot, yes I felt the walls closing in around me, and just when I thought this album might astound me, baby I so wasn't right'. I'm also available for the next Hollies album, by the way, and I bet I'm a lot cheaper than Enrique Flipping Inglesias too.
'Suspended Animation' wins the 'most inventive song on the album award' so kudos for that: Bobby turns in quite an impressive drum shuffle, the band go all trip-hop (a sort of psychedelic hip-hop) and there are some nice harmonies, even if most of them are the artificial sort played by keyboard. Alas the song itself is utterly forgettable without that backing and the chorus once again sounds unfinished and doesn't even try to scan: 'They say you never rise above your station' turns 'station' into a ten syllable word and even then it's a couple short of what it needs to reach the end of the line. The subject should be Hollies-like - a love sick narrator pines his life away 'for a girl who just wants to play' who sounds not unlike an older (but still no wiser) Carrie Anne, while the poor lonely narrator mopes his life away. The backing almost does a good job of suggesting a life now running at half speed, if it weren't for Bobby's most energetic playing yet, while the harmonies are nicely surreal and dreamlike. But the 'vocoder' effect on Peter's vocal is distracting and so of its time it hurts (at least it was quite inventive when Cher resurrected it on 'Believe' - by 2006 so many bands had done it this was the single most obvious thing you do to a song). Even so, relatively speaking, this is more like it as at least The Hollies are falling flat on their faces while trying to stretch out and do something a little different and for that at least I salute them, even if I still don't want to particularly go back and hear this track ever again.
Actually the songs in the middle of the album do seem a little less lumpy than the others. I'm not so sure about the 'come on baby aw-huh' chorus that comes on like a robotic Elvis or the 'ye-e-eah-yay!' hook-line or sidelining one of the greatest guitar talents of his generation on a riff that wouldn't exactly give Status Quo sleepless nights. But hey 'Touch Me' is the first song on the album you can imagine The Hollies doing in their previous life - the way Howarth sings the line 'I'm more than just a one-night...staaaaaaand', for instance, is exactly the way Clarkey would have sung it in the 1970s while the backing does have a few 60s touches in it (with a cheery busy Ian Parker synth riff) alongside this album's obsession with the 1980s and 2000s. Though still embarrassingly light and twee, at least the lyrics show a modicum of character as Howarth's narrator asks a girl he's been seeing to become something more in his life. Sung with wild Hollies abandon, with a catchy (again slightly too-catchy - like this album is a virus or something) chorus and an optimistic feel, I'd have been much happier about the album all round if it had reached this base level rather than some of the others. Though I like my Hollies deep and thoughtful, there's a place in the world for pop music if it's done ever so well and this one at least shows a little care and thought, if still nowhere near even the final few years of the Clarke band (this song still falls short of 'Shine Silently' 'Find Me A Family' and 'Purple Rain' - it just isn't as mercilessly bad as 'The Woman I Love' for a change). However even this song has a few really daft moments. Take the final verse, which is hard to hear in any case (and sensibly the band don't bother printing the godawful lyrics to these songs in the CD booklet, even though that's what almost all band do nowadays): 'As if you didn't know you got me feeding from your hand, my chef is gonna blow - and baby it ain't going to end till your command'. I feel sick!
'Emotions' is the song on the album I've always liked, not just in a 'gee there must something in this album to make me justify forking out full price on an album I'll never play again - gee that three second Tony Hicks guitar solo was really promising there for a milli-second' kind of way. Howarth sounds better on the ballads and far better when he's got some actual genuine, well, 'emotion' to impart. His voice combined with a still rather-good Hicks/Lauri harmony part is the single most convincing moment on the album and the sighing melody is pretty, recalling 'Soldier's Song' in the way it rises and falls with a why-can't-I-change-this? shrug. Ian Parker has finally worked out how to add modern sound effects onto a Hollies song by using them as decoration instead of where the rest of the band ought to be (I've always rated his playing, not that we got that many chances to hear it - this is more proof of just what a fine and sensitive player he can be when the material is as good as he is). Better yet Tony plugs his guitar in - his real electric guitar this time - and plays like he actually believes what he means, for the only time on the album that doesn't have him going through the paces. The lyrics still needs a re-write as badly as all the other songs here, sounding more like a greetings card than a song ('Everyday the world gets harder to face, For those loving arms there's no better place') but, credit where it's due, the chorus is a good one: 'Emotions running away with me, changing me endless, affecting my gravity'. It's a clever way of suggesting 'falling' in love, which is something every other song on this album does too pretty much but in a way that hasn't been expressed gazillions of times before. On any other album this might sound average, but here it's a golden rosy moment in a sea of mediocrity, proof that this line-up of The Hollies still have a way forward and that their signature sound really does have a place in the modern world. Excuse me, I'm getting quite emotional...
Alas 'Weakness' is the start of a run of weak songs again. By now the songs are conforming to a pattern: soft atmospheric openings, sad simple verses, powerpop choruses that are meant to erupt (but come across as obvious and inevitable) and a key change in the middle eight that really sticks the knife in. It's a pattern that can work: 'I'm Alive' was the first Hollies song to use it and many many more have used it since. But 'Weakness' in particular sounds like exactly what you expect from the moment the song starts and doesn't have any surprises in there at all. It also features the worst single performance by Tony and Bobby yet: Tony sounds like every other slick posing wannabe who only actually knows how to play two guitar chords throughout, while Bobby is so far away from the beat at times its most disheartening. Above it all, sits, no screams Peter Howarth doing his best impression of Starship's Mickey Thomas and John Barrowman if they'd had a baby together (shouty in other words) with all the usual Hollies subtlety long gone. Once again the narrator can't sleep (me neither - and this album ringing in my ears isn't helping!) and is lying in bed sighing, wondering why he 'burns' for a girl who doesn't even seem to know he exists. He feels weak, time stands still, the world seems like it's going to end...go and take a cold shower and listen to the similarly love-struck but better in every way 'Romany' or 'Another Night' is the AAA doctor's advice. Talk about sixty going on sixteen...
'Live It Up' is the worst response to racism and sexism I've ever heard. The narrator is tired of living in a world where 'we're straight, we're gay, we're bi, we're black, we're white - but why to tell the truth we lie?' So he goes out on the town to party and be himself and wants everyone else to as well. Despite the fact that racist/homophobic morons will be out in droves and will only pick on their prey again - do talk sense! This is terrible writing of the highest order and even throws in another over-dramatic 'Do you say I'm fine cos' I died!' chorus line that's meant to sound all edgy and emotional but just sounds like the silliest thing since The Spice Girls were talked about as if they were singers, not mass-media puppets. If the lyrics are outright offensive, though, at least they're less offensive than the bland tune which is so instantly forgettable that in itself is a criminal offence. Hicks sounds as if he's playing underwater, the backing is so empty and cavernous that if you stripped the vocals out this would be the single emptiest Hollies song ever and Bobby's drums play pat-a-cake with the listener after forty-odd years of being the greatest drummer-boxer on the planet. The one redeeming feature of this song is Peter's vocals, which are genuinely sincere and moving and sound as if he really connected with this song. Goodness knows why though - a second co-write with Enrique Blooming Inglesias, this is the sort of song that in future decades will give the mid-00s a bad name: patronising and empty.
'Yesterday's Gone' alas has Peter 'intoning' again like a gorilla learning to talk. I'm not sure what I think of this song, which is totally forgettable melody-wise and sounds more like 'Starship' than ever with a stupid chorus that's just 'We Built This City' with even more ye-e-eah's thrown in too. The lyrics try though, they really do, the closest The Hollies ever came to writing a third social protest song alongside 'Gasoline Alley Bred' and 'Too Young To Be Married'. Though the credit crunch was still a good eighteen months away yet, this is a lyric about 'people trying to make ends meet' and 'always looking over their shoulder', which shows a bit of emotional integrity as Howarth urges the listener not to 'have a heart of stone' and accept that though the present might be sad 'we've always got tomorrow'. This could also, of course, refer to The Hollies' own position of having to have overcome so many obstacles to reach this point and sounds as if even they know it's not like the old days. To underline the point Tony revives the spirit of 'I Can't Let Go' with his wild guitar solo which is over far too quick. But here's the rub: 'Yesterday's Gone' sounds as if it's pointing out the problems with the world or even The Hollies as they are now, but offers no solution or offer of help. In terms of this song being about The Hollies career you could argue that this song says 'yeah it's not as good as the old days' whilst doing their best to show us why it's not as good as the old days. I'd rather the band had simply stuck with doing what they did best - nicely constructed pop songs based around real emotions and real instruments, not sound as they're trying to audition for pop idol or X Factor. The only part of this song that rings true are the lyrics about taking it easy, of 'lying in the sunshine sipping red wine' while the world goes to hell around the narrator, oblivious. This, sadly, is the image I take from this album not the promising first verse when it sounds like this band are going to put the world to rights the way they always did. Yes, yesterday's gone, but they needn't sound so smug about it.
Against all odds 'Let Love Pass' is a fair album closer. I wouldn't say I like it in the same way I liked 'Emotions' and I certainly don't love it the way I do a good 70% of The Hollies discography. But this song sounds like a message to fans - the fans like me who aren't quite sure what they think of the new-look Hollies. 'I won't cry' sings Peter at his best (i.e. quiet - he's got a really lovely voice when he isn't shouting or using the vibrato wobble all 21st century kids seem to think passes as real singing) 'if you tell me this is it'. He even tells us that this is our choice, our prerogative 'if that's what you want', but at the same time tries to tell us about all the love The Hollies still have for their audience. Even the mocking middle eight ('One day you'll realise that you've thrown away') I can forgive - at least it's a bit of real emotion and the band sing this simply and with more sophistication than the rest of the record. Well to be fair, I doubt for a second the writers Braide and Davis were thinking of the band's long career when they wrote this - at face value this is just another sickly love ballad. However the performance is far more powerful and 'straight' than anything else the band do and the fact this album sits right at the end of the album does suggest to me a sort of certain finality - as if, after a twenty-three year gap, the band are determined to make sure the Hollies album career, if it does end, ends definitively this time rather than the sarcastic note of 'Having A Good Time' (the last song on 1983's 'What Goes Around...' ). The Hollies must have known they had an uphill battle convincing long-timers like me that this new sound with two new members was a) still The Hollies and b) worth hearing, so it's rather sweet to think that they might be trying to do a 'Romany' and cut us off at the past. You have to admire a band who says 'this what we're like now - like or lump it though obviously we hope you love it'. Had the album been more like this - understated rather than full of overkill, sophisticated rather than twee and sounding as if more than five minutes had been spent working on it - then I would have liked it a lot more.
However, even with the self-knowing final track and the relative highlights 'Suspended Animation' 'Touch Me' and 'Emotions' that's a third of the album that's almost passable, with eight tracks that are different shades of excruciating. To put that in context, only the two covers albums ('Sing Dylan' and 'Sing Holly') came close to odds that bad and you don't expect to hear that much ambition from covers albums anyway (all you can ask is that the band don't mess up too many times - something I'm not sure we can really say about those albums either). Clearly something has gone intrinsically wrong here (for me anyway - I'm rather alarmed at how many other fans actually seem to like it, though as we said earlier I'm sure half of them are kidding themselves!) and not just in one place, but many. The songs, the strength of so many Hollies records, are all from the same three sources and that's a problem if all three sources can't actually write - well only up to forgettable Eurovision standard. If you're going to make an album with such a different sound - with two new vocalists and a far bigger role for Ian Parker than he ever had when he was a newbie back in the 80s and 90s - then for goodness sake use your 'old' members as much as you can. Bobby Elliott might as well not have turned up, sounding as if he's been replaced by a drum machine on some tracks and sounding tinny and false even on the songs where he isn't. Tony Hicks gets more to do, but doesn't exactly 'star' - the rest of the band wheel him on as if they're doing a favour to 'Grandad' (who for the record still looks younger than almost all of the band - so much for him being just a year younger than Keith Richards!) whereas even The Hollies at their worst always had Hicks as an integral part of the sound, in every era. Tony should have been given more space to work with than ever, not less than when he was a flipping newcomer back in 1963!
Throwing out every element of The Hollies sound and replacing the famous rockers and ballads alike with slightly-livened-up-slowies is a truly terrible move. Taking out the Hollies harmonies (which still sound pretty darn good the one time we hear Peter, Steve and Tony unencumbered by anonymous session singers on 'Emotions') is outrageous. The Hollies have so much great history to choose from - so why did they go back to where their album career left off, a sappy pop album full of covers where you can tell that the band spent as little time together in the studio as they could (if ever a band needed to be playing all at the same time...well it's The Who actually but The Hollies comes a close second). I wish I could be more supportive. I do think that producers Ray and Ian did a great job on the production under very trying circumstances and this record is certainly no worse than the Take That album which sold bucket-loads that year and is clearly the single biggest influence on this record. But The Hollies were a band who once rode shoulder to shoulder with the greatest bands in the business - they shouldn't be reduced to hanging on to the coat-tails of latterday pop bands who can't even write or sing or even appear in the studio at the same time together; using modern music as a guide to making The Hollies is an idea that should have been strangled at birth. The album is called 'Staying Power' for a reason - after all, how many other bands ever bounced back from as many disasters and line-up changes as The Hollies? It would have been nice if the band had remembered some of it. This record currently sits in my AAA hall of shame, along with other bands who should have known better (Paul McCartney's 'Chaos and Creation In The Back Yard', Neil Young's 'Greendale', The Moody Blues' 'December' and Pink Floyd's 'A Momentary Lapse Of Reason' are all in there too, just in case you think I'm only picking on The Hollies here). But in many ways this album is worse, simply because after such a long gap away I expected...something. I was all ready to praise this album whatever it sounded like, just for the sheer joy of having to make room on my Hollies shelf for a new CD I never thought I'd live to see. I could have taken the pale Hollies pastiches. I would have accepted the uneasy hybrids of the classic and modern sound. I would have been completely understanding that Tony and Bobby are slowing down and can't sound like they always did. Heck, I was even ready to admit that there was life after Allan (they did it before with the great 'Romany' and 'Out On The Road', they can do it again, right?) But I thought there's be something here that even if it wasn't all that good at least sounded like The Hollies. I was already to accept new for what it was - but completely alien? Why? What on earth is the point when so many other gone-tomorrow bands do this sort of stuff better? Thankfully The Hollies seem to realise this and will bounce back with 'Then, Now, Always' so at least this tired album won't be the last in the canon, even if they never make another one. Yes that album is exactly what we were thinking above - a tired cynical mix of the old and modern, with pale pastiches of songs we've known and loved, played by a band who sometimes sound past it, struggling to sound young. But it has heart, it's brave enough to make mistakes and it sounds at least on rare occasions like The Hollies. That was all I asked: a boyband Hollies makeover I did not. Ye-e-eah!