Monday, 15 February 2016
"If you can fasten on that moment and expand through the afterglow you can reverse your mind in time and travel back to when the earth was formed, the sky was born and the universe began"
"One for Paul, one for Signe, one for to make my heart rejoice, can't your hear your lambs a calling? Oh Good Shepherd feed my sheep"
I know, I know, I'm very late with this article. As in 'White Rabbit' late funnily enough given that this is, sadly, a Jefferson Airplane tribute special. Everyone else has made their tributes already and moved on in this difficult period when we seem to be losing musical heroes by the day. But as regular readers who've been waiting patiently for me to resume my reviews again know I couldn't write the article I wanted to write on January 28th when we lost not one but two founding members of one of the greatest bands on the planet (or outside it). Both Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson, key players in the AAA, deserve their tribute though however late it is. And if anyone taught to me to look outside the constructing linear structures of Earthly mortal time it was Paul, who may have represented the 1960s spirit better than almost anyone else on the one hand but on the other definitely lived outside of it, already more than a half a footstep into the great bright world of tomorrow when hippie ideals came true and humanity had finally found the right path.
That's why his death has been so hard for us Airplaners to take. Surely someone so larger than life, so utterly determined to live his life to his own value system and who spent so many years and so many songs dreaming about the future has to be there to see it. Given the amount of health scares Paul had shrugged aside down the years that should have killed him several times over: a motorbike accident that left him with a shattered skull in the mid 1960s, a cerebral haemorrhage in 1980 - even after suffering a first heart attack in March 2015 Kantner rallied enough to be playing shows with his re-booted Jefferson Starship up until a few weeks before his death. If anyone seemed to be immortal it was surely Paul, our hippie spirit guide who kept us safe whilst being built like a tank, refusing to slow down or stop to the very end and whose ability to take no nonsense from anyone singled him out in the hippie community.
This makes more sense when you learn about Paul's childhood, which funnily enough I spent some time researching last Summer in an effort to get the biographies section of my Jefferson Airplane book into gear. Now, often writing these biographies you get little sense of what will come later - it's amazing how many of the AAA bands lived full and happy childhood lives given the existential angst in much of the music to come. But Paul's childhood was the sort of Dickensian tale that usually creates mad dictators rather than writers intent on spreading peace and love. His father was of German descent and his mother French (with some ancestors who were also German) which made Paul rather the odd one out amongst his peers. In addition, Paul's father (also named Paul) had already been married previously, unusual in 1940s America. His mother Cora died when he was only eight. Unsure what to do with him his father first packed him off to the circus so he wouldn't be a 'problem' during her funeral (leaving the boy with no real chance to say goodbye) and then packed him off to a strict Catholic Military Boarding School. Paul hated almost everything about it - the rigid discipline, the restrictive teachings, the religious dogma shoved down the throats of him and his peers. Paul responded by giving what little spare time he had over to his own personal rebellion against the school's non-nonsense structure by learning to play the guitar (folk protest songs a speciality - Pete Seeger was his favourite) and spending hours in the school library entranced by science fiction writers. Though the teachers no doubt Paul he was wasting time that could be better spent learning or praying, both loves were to play a big part in Paul making his name and career.
Finding that career on leaving school, though, was difficult. Kantner reluctantly became a college student, switching between three institutions before dropping out altogether in his third year determined to make music his life. Paul had been waiting for so long to become a full time musician that, together with his natural optimistic lookout that things would work out, he probably hadn't given a thought to just how hard it was to make a living as a solo folk guitarist playing coffee houses. Paul did, at least, discover a whole new community of like-minded friends for pretty much the first time and created several friendships with members of different bands (CSNY, Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service) that would last a lifetime. After four years of not much happening Paul was playing a solo gig at a San Francisco club known as The Drinking Gourd when another singer-guitarist named Marty Balin stopped him at the end of his set and asked for a chat. Marty owned his own club and wanted to form a folk-rock band to play as the 'house band' and though the coffee houses and clubs were over-run with wannabes in 1965 Marty sensed that he'd found a musical and political soulmate, up for adventure and experimentation. As it turned out, it was a canny move: though the Airplane and later the Jefferson Starship would both grow into sextets Paul is the only member of the group to have played on every record by both incarnations, staying the course until 1984 (when the band became simply 'Starship').
That's twenty years of classic anthems, legendary gigs, top ten hits, forgotten gems and enough political waves to make establishment figures very very nervous of anything with the Jefferson name attached to it. The dynamic of the band was unique: Marty wrote the love songs, Signe (at first) stayed pure folk, Grace (later) developed her own intensely emotional style, Jorma and Jack provided the noisiest-yet-always-musical guitar-bass section in rock and first Skip Spence, then Spencer Dryden, provided the offbeat humour and drums. That's enough for six or seven bands - it was learning how to contain all these different parts together that made the Airplane so different to other bands, so ridiculously exciting with a set of original songs that ranged from drugs ('White Rabbit') to James Joyce pastiche ('ReJoyce') and from politically earth-shaking anthems ('We Can Be Together', the first song ever released with the 'f' word - as far back as 1970) to some of the most gorgeous love songs of the period ('Comin' Back To Me' and 'Today').
At first Paul was at the back: the rhythm guitarist in the unfashionable bottle glasses with the deep bass voice who was no one's idea of a pop star in the 1960s. That didn't stop Paul though: as the albums went on he grew in confidence to the point where he became as close to a leader as the democratic Airplane would ever allow and his unique, uncopyable songs provided the greatest fuel to their rocket fire. As early as the first album 'Jefferson Airplane Takes Off!' Paul is writing songs that no one else would have thought of: 'Let Me In' is an agonised rant so awkward and desperate in stark contrast to Marty's casual ease. 'DCBA-25' from the band's biggest selling album follow-up 'Surrealistic Pillow' in 1967 explored Paul's love of folk music with a new guitar tuning he'd learnt (and proudly showed off in the title). It's on album number three though, our AAA pick as the greatest album Jefferson Airplane ever made (even if hardly anyone seems to know it - shocking!) that really shows what Paul can do. With Marty drifting away from the group, Kantner fills the gap by having a hand in six of the album's eleven dazzling songs, all of which breaks new ground. The most famous of these is 'The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil' which is perhaps the most Kantner song of them all, namechecking two of his favourite and very different heroes (folk singer Freddy Neil of 'Everybody's Talkin' fame and AA Milne's Winnie The Pooh'). Surrealist imagination and brutal tell-it-like-it-is politics mesh in a song where everything is turned on its head ('Doesn't the sky look green today?!'), that opens with the most ear-piercing shriek of feedback ever recorded and in which band members get to shout 'armadillo!' at random intervals and yet it somehow all makes sense. Though something as a flop when released as the follow-up to big hits 'Somebody To Love' and 'White Rabbit', psychedelic enthusiasts recognise is today as one of the greatest concoctions of 1967. Less well known but just as strong are 'Martha' (a runaway who leaves a surburban home to find happiness in a hippie cult - if she'd read a few more sci-fi books along the way Martha could have been Paul himself), 'Wild Thyme' the ultimate hippie anthem ('I'm doing things that haven't got a name yet!') and 'Won't You Try?-Saturday Afternoon', a tribute to the hippie movement so moving and colourful surely even Richard Nixon would have run away to join in if only someone had slipped the song to him.
Talking of Nixon, Paul began to realise about 1968 that the Airplane had an important part to play in the role of attacking Conservative America and inflicted the sort of restrictions he'd spent his childhood fighting. From this point on Jefferson Airplane become one of the bravest, most radicalised of bands - 'The House At Pooneil Corners' imagines a future where the nuclear button has been pressed and 'the idiots have won!'; 'Volunteers' screams 'Gotta Revolution!' as hippies get their own rallying call to match the Government's Vietnam drafts; 'We can Be Together' promises to get the corrupt powers that be 'up against the wall'; 'The Son Of Jesus' takes a belated dig at the Catholicism shoved down his throat as a boy; Grace's 'Mexico' damns Nixon for making money out of the drug trade in Latin America while outwardly damning it. The Government of the day became genuinely afraid of the Airplane; sadly a Grace Slick-led plan to douse Nixon with acid (as a posh public school kid herself she was sent an invite under her maiden name Grace Wing and decided to take them up on it - alas security recognised her at the door and wouldn't let her in) came to nothing. This gritty realism also made a neat match for Kantner's growing pile of science-fiction songs starting with 'Crown Of Creation' in 1968 (based on a line from classic John Wyndham novel 'The Chrysalids' that man had reached his peak 'and has got no place to go'), through to 'When The Earth Moves Again' (a utopian future) and 'Have You Seen The Saucers?' (which as a tale of Government conspiracy and alien visitation would have made a handy second theme for 'The X-Files').
This will reach its peak in 1971 when, in time off from recording with the Airplane, Paul brings a bunch of his friends from his own and other bands in to help him record the concept album 'Blows Against The Empire'. Set in a 1990s that sadly never came to pass, this is the tale of a bunch of hippies who steal a starship that the Government intends to use to colonise other planets in the name of capitalism and instead spreads 'free dope, free love, free music' around the universe instead. The collaborative record is a true masterpiece and was even nominated for a HUGO science fiction award in 1971 in the 'best dramatic presentation' category (oddly there was no overall winner given that year. Given that as a sci-fi buff of the highest order Paul had read almost all the nominees every year since the awards began it must have been a huge thrill, as was getting a letter from author Robert Heinlein after asking permission to use certain themes from his books as part of the record ('Everybody pinches my work all the time - but you're the first person ever to ask!') For what it's worth 'Blows' is currently listed on my 'greatest ever albums' site list as the third greatest album ever made by anyone. Lyrical yet listenable, tight but loose, musical yet experimental (with two tracks dedicated to sound effects!), it's a triumph and arguably Paul's peak as a performer and writer, notwithstanding his major achievements with the Airplane and Starship.
Paul enjoyed a particularly close relationship with Grace who surely deserved a co-credit for her hard work on that record and the pair even had a child together (China) in 1971 (the story that her parents genuinely meant to all her 'god' 'with a small 'g' to keep her humble' has been doing the rounds again in all the obituaries but isn't technically true: Grace was deliberately provoking a Conservative newspaper reporter who called round for an interview). The pair quickly became one of the most celebrated couples of their day (a hippie Posh and Becks if you will, or perhaps an even hippier John and Yoko might be closer) but the relationship took a long time to arrive. During her time in the Airplane Grace went out/slept with three other members of the band first (she never did hook up with Marty to give you a clue). The Kanter-Slick pairing was by far the most solid though and the pair made another record together, 'Sunfighter', in 1971 which is another classic album based around the rough theme of their child's birth and on Paul's songs, his worry about what sort of a world she'll be growing up in. A third album, co-credited to Quicksilver's David Freiberg, was released in 1972 in tribute to the pair's David Crosby-coined nicknames, 'Baron Von Tollbooth and The Chrome Nun' (Paul 'is very...German' as Grace puts it in the sleevenotes). The pair remained a couple until the mid-1970s when Grace moved on to the Airplane's lighting man Skip Johnson; it's a tribute to the band's free love principles that Paul, Grace and Skip worked side by side through to the 1980s despite this. Their relationship can be best summed up by a question Paul was asked in 2007 over how much of the Jefferson name Paul was allowed to use in his touring band: 'She's suing me at the moment from some unknown reason, but generally we get along very well!' Paul later met Cynthia Bowman in 1978 who became his girlfriend for much of the next decade, but never formally married.
Jefferson Airplane had naturally fallen apart by 1972: too many solo albums and line-up changes (Marty was off on his own too by now, the band were on their third drummer and Jorma and Jack were having more fun with their new blues band Hot Tuna, originally conceived of as the Airplane's warm-up act), while the mood in hippiedom had grown notably darker since the days of Monterey and Woodstock, with the Jeffersons themselves playing Altamont (where their set gets delayed when poor Marty gets beaten up for trying to rescue a member of the crowd from a hell's angel biker; Paul's angry rants from the stage being equally brave in context). Paul had already formed a sort-of sequel band 'Jefferson Starship' for Blows, which included a hot-shot then-fifteen year old guitarist named Craig Chaquico and David Frieberg amongst the cast and 'crew'. He and Grace decided to make the band a more full-time affair in 1974 with both their friends on board alongside late-period Airplane drummer Johnny Barbata (fresh from his work with CSNY), late-period Airplane violin player Papa John Creach (then in his fifties) and session bassist/keyboard player Pete Sears. A few sessions in Marty also arrived as a 'guest' - and stayed as a permanent fixture for the next three albums. Though less daring and bold than the Airplane, Jefferson Starship had lost none of their musical prowess or love of large concepts and their music also sold, at least at first, in greater numbers than the Airplane's (a fact that often gets overlooked these days).
At first Paul was the lynchpin of the band, dominating the writing and vocal credits for first (and arguably best) album 'Dragonfly' and though his influence waned as the band got more mainstream and actually started having hits again (Marty's sweet ballad 'Miracles' from 1975), Paul's work remains some of the band's best. He kicks the Starship years off in spectacular form with the driving rocker 'Ride The Tiger', an aggressive song about spirituality and a pure Kantner song if ever there was one; wrote the music for the exceptional seven minute ballad 'Caroline'; damned the entire state of the world in 1975 on 'I Want To See Another World'; came up with the idea for the gorgeously dreamy prog rock ballad 'St Charles' and went even more epic on the two-part suite 'Song Of The Sun'. By 1978 though the Starship had crash-landed with a weak fourth album 'Earth', a bizarre cameo in the much-lampooned Star Wars TV Holiday Special of 1978 (I'm still waiting for the band to appear in one of the actual films - they'd improve them no end! Princess Leia needs a bit of Grace Slicking up!) and lost members like anything: Marty to boredom, Johnny to a car crash that left an arm injured and Grace to an increasingly out of control drinking problem. Paul considered that the band had grown 'soft' and decided to re-model them as a more current, new wave band. Hiring new singer Mickey Thomas, the Starship re-launched with 'Freedom At Point Zero' in 1979, a brave album of crackling energy and primal instincts that Paul dominated like no album since 'Baxters' twelve years before. Though it doesn't 'sound' much like a Kantner LP, Paul's mixture of gritty realism and spiritual awakening is very much in evidence in the lyrics which feature several of his favourite themes mixing Armageddon and hope in equal measure. The record also introduces one of his favourite characters, Rose, who becomes the saviour of the human race in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust and represents everything Kantner longs to see happen in the future. Jefferson Starship end up making three more records with this line-up - two and a bit of them with Grace back in the band - ending with the under-rated cold war parable 'Nuclear Furniture' in 1984. Paul also got round to writing a sequel to 'Blows Against The Empire' in 1983, although the sad and bitter 'The Empire Blows Back' is often a hard album to listen to, with many of the original cast dead , dying or imprisoned (David Crosby was inside on a drugs charge; Jerry Garcia was still recovering from a diabetic coma that oh so nearly killed him) and the hippies only win at the very end this time.
By this time, though, Kantner is feeling ostracised from a band that once centred around him and feeling ever more adrift from the current music scene as new wave turns to bland 80s synth pop. Paul left in the middle of an American tour after a Starship equivalent of nuclear fallout and as the only 'founding' member left in the band (Grace had joined a year in) also took with him the rights to the band's name (or at least the 'Jefferson' bit). By 1985 what was left of the group has re-styled themselves as purely 'Starship', a far poppier mainstream band. Paul responded by forming another Jefferson-orientated band and album, the under-rated 'KBC Band' (Kantner Balin Casady), although this record sold even fewer copies than the late-period Jefferson records had. This and Grace getting bored with 'Starship' led to a full way original of as near as many of the 'famous' Airplaners as possible in 1988 (though sadly Spencer Dryden couldn't make it), for what turned out to be the last 'mainstream' album Paul was ever involved with. The band were still at loggerheards in the court-rooms at the time (the antithesis of the 'freedom' with which they'd started a quarter century earlier) but Grace turned up unannounced at a Kantner gig and started singing 'White Rabbit' - a grinning Kantner had put his differences aside and kicked the band into the song instead. The record, alas, was a disappointment, largely made up of songs recycled from solo albums, and the Airplane split for good in 1989. Paul continued touring with his own incarnation of Jefferson Starship though, sometimes alongside Marty when dates allowed for it, releasing several live albums, an album of originals on a low budget label (1999's 'Windows Of Heaven') and a reunion, of sorts, with lots of old Jeffersoners regrouping for 2008's 'Jefferson's Tree Of Liberty' (though sadly not at the same time). Paul's last release turned out to be near-impossible to find: 2010's two part 'Windowpane Collection' whose names 'A Martian Christmas' and 'Venusian Love Songs' point to the fact that the sci-fi element in his songs was still going strong.
Paul had suffered a heart attack in March 2015 which looked very bad - bad enough for the Jefferson community to hold its breath and wait in worried silence. But, as he so often did Paul recovered to the point where Jefferson Starship were back touring again months later. It really did look as if Paul was immortal, here to stay forever. Sadly, though, even Paul couldn't survive a second heart attack a few days after new year's day 2016 and the guitarist never recovered, officially dying from multiple organ failure and septic shock at the age of 74. He leaves behind him an incredible legacy; some of the greatest - and most epic - recordings in rock and roll, a more spiritually and politically aware generation and a whole host of heartbroken fans who want him back home safely on planet Earth. Kantner, however, is finally in the stars where he always wanted to be, free from the shackles of society at last and enjoying the fruits of where he believed humanity belonged some day, into infinity and beyond. I still believe that one day 'Blows Against The Empire' must come true and that mankind is due a happier, freer time enjoying getting lost in space and time; I put it to you now that when the time comes and our first starship rises into space we have to call it the 'SS Kantner' or maybe the 'Jefferson Kantner'. We owe nothing less to the musician who more than any other made us aware of the possibilities of our future and made so much effort making them real in the present. Kantner was a hero to the rest of us who were earth-bound for fifty glorious years - not a superman of course and often far from perfect, but a hero nonetheless. For he gave us hope and awareness and music, reinventing all of these over and over for us across his career. Who could ask for more than that? Pioneer, searcher, refugee. We followed you - and you followed we.
As usual in these cases, the music community has come together in grief with several moving quotes. Here's fellow guitarist Jorma Kaukanen: 'Paul and I were old friends...Our commonality was always the music and whatever it took to make it happen. In my opinion Paul was the catalyst that made the alchemy happen. He held our feet to the flame. He could be argumentative and contentious… he could be loving and kind… his dedication to the Airplane’s destiny as he saw it was undeniable... Friends are always good… you can’t have too many of them. That said, the old ones share that wondrous gift of knowing you when you were young. You can’t buy that. I will miss your presence on this plane…Ride free to the end of the earth my old friend… I will not forget you!' Here's Jefferson singer Marty Balin: 'He was like an American David Bowie," says Balin. "He had these mad, epic ideas'. Here's his friend and occasional collaborator David Crosby: 'Paul was a lot like me — opinionated, confident and not very afraid of anything. But Paul wasn't trying to convince you that you had to do it his way. He did think that leading by example was the right thing. He was a believer in music as a lifting force. It lifts humanity up, makes it better... He had a very forthright approach. He didn't do tender ballads. He liked songs where he could sing out strong, in full voice. He was always the toughest of us. You thought nothing could kill him'. Grace's tribute simply read: 'Rest in peace my friend, love Grace'.
Spookily - and in a sort of spiritual mystical coincidence the pair would have loved - fellow founding member Signe Toly Anderson died the exact same day as Paul (though her family, sensibly, kept the news private an extra 24 hours in order to let the news about Kantner filter through). Though less prolific (she only ever recorded that first album with Jefferson Airplane before retiring from music more or less for good) and far less covered by the media, her death is no less tragic. Not many fans even remember that the Airplane had a female lead singer before Grace Slick but they did - and how! Signe arguably had more of a career going than any of the other band members when she took up Marty's invitation to join the fledging group, having built up a name for herself as a solo singer specialising in jazz and folk. Having mixed gender bands was deeply unusual back in 1965 but Signe was a natural fit for the band: despite her folkier roots she could holler rock and roll with the best of them and her voice was a natural blend with Marty's and Paul's. She had to move from Portland, Oregon to San Francisco to join the band and took her family with her - her husband was Jerry Anderson, a member of the 'Merry Pranksters', part of author Ken Kesey's local hippie 'commune'. Though Marty was still clearly the 'leader' in those early days, much of the publicity surrounding the early Airplane days centred around Signe: a hippie chick in pigtails who looked like a sweet and innocent schoolgirl but sounded more like Janis Joplin. Signe was a key part of developing and recording many early Airplane classics, including live favourite 'High Flying Bird' (which Grace later took over), debut single 'Runnin' Round This World' (immediately banned for its drug and sex-referencing line 'the nights I've spent with you have been fantastic trips!') and Signe's much-requested fan favourite signature tune 'Chauffeur's Blues'. A rocking remake of a blues song thought to be first recorded by 'Memphis Minnie' in 1941, it's a sign of just how many styles Signe was able to juggle with elements of folk, blues, jazz and rock adding up to an impressive whole.
Alas that was pretty much all Airplane fans were able to hear of the band's founding co-lead singer. Signe officially left the band because she fell pregnant and she was worried about bringing up a baby in the mayhem that was already part of the Airplane's touring party. However she has also since spoken about her many disagreements with the Airplane's management, disliking their manager Matthew Katz and even fat the start insisted on a clause being added to her contract whereby she would be 'free' of him when and if she chose to quit the band. Officially Signe quit the Airplane as early as July 1966, merely a month after their first gigs together, but stayed until October as a 'favour' to the band. She even had a hand in nominating her replacement, suggesting Grace whose first band The Big Society had already crashed and burned over an even shorter lifespan than the first Airplane line-up. Most fans didn't know - Signe's departure was simply mentioned at the end of her last gig at the Filmore on October 15th, after which the fans caused such an outcry Signe was urged to come back on stage and sing 'Chauffeur's Blues' one last time. The Airplane simply turned up with Grace the next day, no explanation given (both shows are now out as lovingly re-created live 'bootlegs' on the Sony label; most fans agree Signe's is the best). Signe's final words of farewell to her fans as heard at the gig now make for a rather sweet epitaph: I want you all to wear smiles and daisies and box balloons. I love you all. Thank you and goodbye'.
After leaving the Airplane both Signe and Jerry moved back to Portland for a much quieter life at home where Signe largely brought up her children in privacy, though she stayed in regular contact with Marty and Paul across the years the Airplane were at their peak. She claimed to never miss the attention but she did miss the music so hooked up with a local band, 'Carl Smith and the Natural Gas Company' with whom she performed with on and off until 1974. By then her life was in turmoil: she'd split up with Jerry and was suffering from cancer while still in her early 30s. Life got easier by the end of the decade as Signe beat the illness and married again, to Michael Ettlin, who predeceased her in 2011. Signe continued to sing with Carl Smith's band but never made another recording; the closest she got was a surprise return to the media to talk about her role in the band, first for the 'Jefferson Airplane Loves You' box set released in 1992 and later for the first release of her 'farewell' show in 2010. She also made one-off guest appearances with Paul's Jefferson Starship and the KBC Band. Unfortunately health problems continued to make life difficult in later life, with fans rallying to her cause more than once to help raise funds for life-saving operations. In the end Signe lived to be 74 when she finally succumbed to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease at her home in Oregon.
Though lesser known to the music world in general, the warmth and love shown for Signe over recent weeks proves how central she, too, was to the Jefferson story and how fond fans were of her 'footnote' role within the band. Her passing, too, was greeted with several comments by her former bandmates: Jack Casady called her 'A real sweetheart with a terrific contralto voice'. Jorma said on his blog: 'Signe was one of the strongest people I have ever met. She was our den mother in the early days of the Airplane… a voice of reason on more occasions than one… an important member of our dysfunctional little family. I always looked forward to seeing her when we played the Aladdin in Portland. She never complained and was always a joy'. And finally, Marty summed up the double tragedy with a story that both Paul and Signe would have loved, imagining them 'Both waking up in heaven, looking round in surprise and saying 'Hey! What are you doing here? I know - let's start a band!'
At first, they were iridescent. Then they became transparent. Finally, they were absent. And a whole generation mourns them.
Ten Classic Paul Kantner Songs...
The Ballad Of You and Me and Pooneil ('After Bathing At Baxters' 1967)
There has never been a song quite like 'Pooneil'. Having - temporarily - called a truce with record company RCA with the more commercial 'Surrealistic Pillow' album, Paul gleefully led the band straight back into the wild blue yonder, with the opening track and lead single of the band's third album one of the most uncompromising follow-ups to a top ten hit in history. Jorma's squealing feedback makes it clear we're going somewhere 'else' on one of the band's trippiest songs, before Paul merges his two unlikely heroes of Fred Neil and AA Milne into a land filled of imagination and new understanding where each revelation is punctuated by full-on three part-harmonies, drum battles and the single fattest bass line of the 1960s. Much of the lyrics hark back to the escape Paul felt in music, drugs and imagination as he joyfully escapes into his inner mind, a world where the sky is green and the land is full of armadillos, before crashing back to earth with the worry of loneliness and death if the narrator spends too long in this land, accompanied by the same opening crushing feedback. In concert this snakey, slinky song became a twelve minute epic (just the way Paul liked 'em) but the compact four minute original is still best.
Won't You Try?/Saturday Afternoon ('After Bathing At Baxters' 1967)
A glorious advert for the hippie way of life, this is Paul declaring 'Saturday' as his national hippie celebration day when the working week is done and humanity can get back to living life the way they were always meant to. Another urgent cry to fans to leave the 'normal' world behind this is a world where Paul promises 'caps of blue and silver sunlight for your hair', acid incense and balloons', 'people dancing everywhere largely shouting 'I don't care' and a world where 'everywhere there's sunshine instead of snow'. In short, it's a time for growing and for knowing love - and few songs capture the spirit of 1967 better. Together with a terrific Jorma-Jack guitar-bass interaction the song wanders awkwardly up to the middle section when suddenly, in true and tested Airplane fashion, the song is no longer walking but soaring. As the heavy bottom drops out of the song the guitars are circling and the three-part harmonies are gliding and...well this is why hippie music is simply the best. How can you not try after music as glorious as this? (The featured version is from the director's cut of the 'Woodstock' film and is one of the best performances of the song).
Crown Of Creation ('Crown Of Creation' 1968)
One of Paul's most intellectual songs, 'Crown' is about nothing less than the possible future evolution of mankind and whether anything can ever come along to knock him off his perch at the top of nature's tree. Paul, as usual, is deeply suspicious of the society view that mankind is the tops and turns in another song where everything is slightly 'wrong'. The track is bass heavy, Jack's yawning bass rolls dominating everything as mankind finally 'attain the stability you strive for' the only way nature knows how - as a fossil long buried in the earth as other species take over. Inspired by what might well be John Wyndham's novel grittiest novel 'The Chrysalids', Paul as ever goes further and complains: 'Life is change...I've seen their ways too often for my liking'. The closing ring of 'ahs' from Paul, Grace and Marty is gloriously final and chilling.
A Child Is Coming ('Blows Against The Empire' 1971)
And 'China' is her name. Our pick from 'Blows Against The Empire' (though, really, you could pick any of it) turns on a sixpence from joyous celebration to wide-awake-in-the-middle-of-the-night worry as Paul worries about the world his daughter might grow up in. With the help of Grace and David Crosby (who have a most magical blend of harmonies, even by Airplane/CSN standards), Paul refuses to hand over her details to 'Uncle Sam', 'looking for the print of their hand for the files in their number game'. 'I don't want his chances for freedom to ever be that slim' sings Paul, guessing the gender of his baby wrong, 'So let's not tell them about him!' Suddenly the track has switched gears, joined by a passionate Jack Casady bass squeal that peals up to the heavens and expands across the rest of the song as if turning from monochrome to technicolour ('Blows' is amongst the best engineered AAA albums alongside all its other strengths). Meanwhile, all three singers are off, trading and improvising lines both celebrating and fearing for the newborn's future life. Kantner, as usual, is the optimist: 'It's getting brighter, finer...higher'.
When I Was A Boy I Watched The Wolves ('Sunfighter' 1972)
As, effectively, an only child (who didn't live with his two older half-siblings) who felt abandoned for most of his childhood in a school where friendships were frowned on, Paul always longed to feel part of a 'gang'. He found it at last with his band and his hippie crowd - but 'Wolves' isn't really a 'hippie' sort of song. It's more of a primal song, about the desperate need all humans have to 'belong', accompanied by some stunning piercing guitar bursts from a still teenage Craig Chaquico and some more lovely Grace 'n' Crosby harmonies. Kantner is no longer so alone he has to 'rely on the fire of my friends' and is now in the fortunate position where 'I can carry a few - and I do when I can'. He still feels the other-worldly, supernatural pull of needing to 'belong' though leading to a final guttural cry: 'Get back, be bright, run with the wolfpack!' as the 'gang' turns into hippies everywhere, taking the world over one town at a time.
Your Mind Has Left Your Body ('Baron Von Tollbooth and The Chrome Nun' 1973)
Paul was slightly over-stretched in 1972, struggling to fill out the last two Airplane studio albums and contribute equal shares to the 'Chrome Nun' album. The highlight of the year, effectively, has him blissed out and meditating his way to a new spiritual understanding. Paul's 'floatiest', most surreal song, as we drift from being buried underneath the polar ice cap to rising up to the sky and a rainbow 'to see 2000 city lights flash below you'. Paul's most openly drug-riddled song, it's a final lament to a hippie way of life that was fading and a last instruction manual from the musician who more than almost anyone tried to make the world turn on. The song ends though, as so many Kantner epics do, with the knowledge that there is more to learn, waiting patiently till next time you manage to journey so far out.
St Charles ('Spitfire' 1976)
Though the credits list Marty, Craig and band friend Jesse Barrish as collaborators, this is surely a 'Kantner' song - it just has that 'feel' about it. One of the Starship's proggier moments, this haunting ballad follows a dream overseen by an imaginary saint. China, by now a feisty five-year-old with both her parent's outspoken-ness, is a 'dragon princess', while her dad gets hypnotised by a 'demon' and falls in love. Suddenly the vision - and the tempo - changes and we're inside the world of the future that Paul has spent his life dreaming of; 'another world of people dancin' in rhyme, dancing in the air, six fingered, webbed'. Suddenly 'she' is the 'storm changer' as the narrator gets brusquely tumbled back into the real world, convinced of a 'storm coming'. Craig's typically jaw-dropping virtuoso solo brings the curtain closing on a truly magical piece of music, impenetrable by Paul's usual standards but fascinatingly so with Jefferson Starship working together as a band like never before.
Girl With The Hungry Eyes ('Freedom At Point Zero' 1979)
By 1979 Jefferson Starship were getting a little bloated and ballad/top 40 hit heavy. Paul embraced the changing world of punk and new wave by making the band relevant all over again with a series of gritty, crunching, guitar 'n' drum heavy pop songs without a drug or hippie reference in sight. This example is one of the best: the closest to a straightforward 'love' song Paul ever wrote. Few love songs have ever included the line 'every atom of my body will inhale her' or finds the time to remind us how short-lived any romance in 1978 might be: 'I am a child of atomic war!' Fun and catchy, but in a blunt and tough way, 'Hungry Eyes' features a classic rock riff and a great performance from a band who weren't supposed to be able to pull off this sort of thing.
Stairway To Cleveland ('Modern Times' 1981)
A list of complaints about the modern world and music critics and even the band themselves ('The new drummer's crazy! The manager's an asshole! I can't stand your guitar playing!') set to music shouldn't be this good - but somehow it is. 'Why don't you sound like you used to?' the critics sigh 'Like '65' '67' '69' 75?' while saying that the band will 'never make it, never never never never never never never!' Saying 'can't' to Paul is a red rag to a bull though and he responds by drilling Jefferson Starship through a song that sounded more dangerous and daring than anything bands half the Jefferson's age were releasing in 1982 with a tour de force of a performance. Responding with a big (and literal by the end) 'fuck you' to the band's detractors and the world in general, Kantner asks a series of rhetorical questions that never get answered as he rants away over a simple rock and roll chord. 'Chaos coming?' asks Kantner. 'Keep strumming!' is his answer, just as it always has been. You know I like it, though predictably most of the band's critics said this one was 'too noisy'.
(I Came Back) From The Jaws Of The Dragon ('Winds Of Change' 1983)
Finally, dragons feature a lot in Kantner's work: mythical and exotic yet capable of great strength combined with spirituality, they were his perfect emblem. This track from the penultimate Jefferson Starship album has the dragon as a metaphor for life though - or possibly death given how close Paul had come to dying three years before (strangely enough Paul's mid 60s motorbike crash, which left a hole in his skull, probably saved his life at this point when a haemorrhage built up in Paul's brain). Predictably this near-brush with death ended up a song about refusing to give up on the one hand and to not get so stressed on the other. In one great last Kantner rant against the establishment he tells us: 'That's how they want you feel - dissatisfaction! Massive demoralisation! You are supposed to believe that war is imminent, that crime soars, that chaos prevails. Then they give you a moment of sweet sweet peace where you become so happy they send you to jail!' I'm convinced, by the way, that this track was 'swapped' with Jefferson Starship performance 'She's A Telepath' from 'The Empire Blows Back' as this song fits the 'story' much better.
...And one classic Signe Anderson Performance
Chauffeur Blues ('Jefferson Airplane Takes Off!' 1966)
As for Signe, there can only be one choice. 'Cheuffeur' may have been an old blues song but Signe makes it her own, delivering a groundbreaking performance that was outrageous for a girl to be singing in 1965. She likes her chauffeur but worries about him hanging around with girls and wants him to herself so she holds him up at gun point and asks to be driven round the world instead. Though the song could be done in many ways Signe gives it bounce and a childish glee as she relishes the thought of being in control of a relationship she's always wanted to happen. Though Grace always refused to sing the song, saying it was 'special' to Signe and her fans, the creation of Slick's tough uncompromising outspoken character starts here before she's even in the band. Signe's combination of blues, folk. jazz and rock would have been hard to beat though in any case, a sadly single example of just what Signe brought to the band as a lead vocalist.
That's all for now. We'll be back to our usual run of album reviews next Monday, alongside our further adventures with Lindisfarne. See you then!
Other Jefferson-flavoured articles from this website you might be interested in:
You can buy 'Reflections Of A Long Time Past - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of The Hollies' in e-book form by clicking here!
The Hollies "A Crazy Steal" (1978)
Writing On The Wall/What Am I Gonna Do?/Let It Pour/Burn Out/Hello To Romance//Amnesty/Caracas/Boulder To Birmingham/Clown Service/Feet On The Ground
"Hold me close, we've reached the end, so let's drift on away..."
Well, dear faithful readers, here we are again after an unintended break - did you miss us?! - and it's rather a strange feeling, like going back to school with only a term to go or trying to concentrate on your old job while your nice new one is beckoning to you like a new CSN album you don't know yet with all the promise waiting to be unwrapped. This is, you see, hopefully the last stretch of extended writing on the AAA eight years into a ten year project that's resulted in more than a few 'crazy steals' (most of them Hollies reviews now I think about it). For those of you who like your lists we're left at the present moment with just 78 of our 500 albums to review and just seven of our 30 books to write (new releases and multiple fine-tooth-combing drafts and why-the-hell-has-Neil-Young-just-released-another-archive-release-when-I-thought-I'd-finished-the-sodding-book-yet-again moments notwithstanding). I have written so many reviews in my sleep while I've been away this should be easy (seriously, I write more in my sleep than when I'm awake, especially when you sleep this much in 'recovery' mode) and I've been longing to put pen to paper (well, finger to keyboard) again so much it hurts (because if I can work out and make sense of an obscure album from ten years before I was born that nobody knows then life somehow makes more sense. Well, a little). I've got endless lists on my phone about what I was going to review and when set until the Summer - most of them uptempo in celebration of getting back to work- but somehow now I'm actually here with a splitting headache and a pile of nasty forms in post I don't want to deal with and a realisation that this might be the last hurrah I'm craving something with more of a sense of finality and endings to it (my intended reviews of Lindisfarne's adventures with 1980s synthesisers, Neil Young's adventures with feedback and Beach Boy adventures with Little Deuce Coupes might have to wait a little bit until my head no longer feels as if Keith Moon is playing a drum solo in quadraphonic over the top).
There is, thankfully, an AAA album perfectly cast for my current mood of lethargy, tranquility and finality. 'A Crazy Steal' may not in fact be the very final Hollies album or even the final album by the Terry Sylvester line-up (every calculator-wielding fan's favourite '5317704' comes next and that's even more of a 'goodbye'), but it's a 'goodbye' to many of the formulas that had made The Hollies a success for so long and what's more it feels like it too. So many of the album songs sound like a lament for times past, or wave goodbye to someone - in slow motion too, given the comparatively slow tempos of all but one of the album songs - that even by 1970s standards 'A Crazy Steal' is the Hollies album that sounds most in need of a comforting hug. There's an elegiac mood to this album, which is surely The Hollies equivalent of 'All Things Must Pass' with a suite of songs about the inevitability of things falling apart and coming to a natural end, however much you don't want them to. The tempos are slow, the mood is sad (with only a token rocking car song and a novelty track that builds on the Hollies grand tradition of clowns to get in the way) and everything sounds heavy, weighed down with the pressure of an uncaring world; low on the guitar stings of the Hollies youth and the heaviest of all their albums on the strings of adulthood.
Few people who bought 'Ain't That Just Like Me' or 'Stay' back in the early days would ever have guessed that this was The Hollies with almost all the usual Hollies trademarks gone bar the harmonies (Where are the guitars? Why is drummer Bobby Elliott suddenly the quietest person in the room?) - and yet it also sounds more like The Hollies than any of the recent and increasingly desperate attempts at hit-making on 'Russian Roulette'. 'A Crazy Steal' is after all a natural extension of the growing melancholic sigh that's always been there in tiny whispered doses since The Hollies' first B-side but which has now become the only real sentiment in the room. This came as a shock at the time (where did all the fun go?) but it makes sense. If you're even a casual reader of our existing 422 album reviews (many of them Hollies related) then you'll probably know by now that The Hollies have been gradually shedding their image as cheery pop urchins almost since the first, turning their irresistible grins into something deeper and more melancholy as the years wear on. As early as 1966 'For Certain Because' is one of the grumpiest mainstream pop albums out there with its Pagliacci clowns, doomed crusaders and bossa nova break-up songs, while the arrival of Terry Sylvester over Graham Nash in 1969 brings yet sadder subjects like the futility of war, death, loneliness and despair and, erm, wotsits (at least I hope that's what that disco song was all about...) It's been a bumpy ride getting here, with a few too many attempts at trying to stay young and innocent in middle age, but at last The Hollies are sounding the way you sense they were always striving to sound - older, wiser and definitely sadder. In many ways it's a mirror of where this post-Graham Nash line-up of The Hollies started in 1969/1970 with Tony Hicks' songs about divorce and loss, but played here by a band who now sound old enough to be having a mid-life crisis. If you like your Hollies full of fun and frolics then this album probably isn't for you (any of the first three will do for that), but if you've learnt to look past the hit singles to the Hollies' true calling as a band of grace and melancholy then this might not be the craziest purchase you've ever made (unless you're buying it for £70 on Amazon, which really is crazy - try tracking down the 'Four More Hollies Originals' box set as an alternative or wait for what will hopefully be a third Hollies set covering the complete years from where they last left off on 'Changing Times' in 1973).
The Hollies even look middle aged now, suddenly, on this most bonkers of all their bonkers album covers (not Tony Hicks mind - he still looks about seventeen) on what's actually the first cover to feature them at any decent size since their 'reunion' in 1974. The Hollies' last token attempt to look young and trendy, it's left many a fan scratching their heads as the band hang around what looks suspiciously like a motorway service vending machine (EMI were clearly not spending the budget on Hollies album covers in this period, though it's still better than the Russian Roulette cocktail or the Buddy Holly glasses to come because, hey, it actually features The Hollies on it). Cue jokes about this album being 'cheap' or 'disposable' or 'of no nutritional value' - and yet things get weirder when you take a closer look and realise that alongside what's plainly orange juice is a drink that's an unfashionable shade of green (Mint? Broccoli? Anti-freeze? Either way, I think I'll stick with the orange...) Things get weirder on the back sleeve where Terry and Tony collect their drinks which are pouring out of the coin slots (taking the lyrics to album track 'Let It Pour' to rather literal extremes) - a comment on the horrors of capitalism perhaps or just a 'crazy' gag? One other thing that puzzles me is that the front cover is one of those 'motion' shots that shows that the band have moved - but if the graphics are to be believed they seem to be walking backwards, with Bobby practically perched on top of the self-service display given where the movement is (the band are, left to right, Bobby Allan Bernie Terry and Tony by the way as we haven't had a proper Hollies cover to list for a little while). A passerby, seeing the shots the cameraman was taking of the band, understandably declared the shot as a 'crazy steal' - then current vogue slang for 'that's a pretty weird picture, dude!' Someone remembered that by chance the Hollies had already used the phrase in one of the songs already recorded for the album ('Hello To Romance', already out as a single) and tickled by the coincidence (it's never been that common a phrase) gave the album it's name (it seems likely that the original album title was 'Self Service' as that's what's written alongside 'The Hollies' on the vending machine, itself perhaps a reference to album track 'Clown Service' and - possibly - the growing lack of interest in the band from EMI, with longterm producer Ron Richards having sat this and the last two albums out). Neat symmetry as the new album title is, though, it's always bothered me that this album title and cover went hand in hand with this of all albums. 'A Crazy Steal' as an album is dark and brooding, full of late night fears and nightmares, overwhelmingly real. 'A Crazy Steal' as an album package is zany and daft and brightly coloured, overwhelmingly artificial. The album wrestles with trying to make sense of some of the hardest questions there is - the cover only has to answer the question whether you want the orange juice or fancy being poisoned by whatever the green stuff is (actually now I come to look at it again is it just green paint? Did the caterers run out of apple or blackcurrant juice?) Someone in the art department had clearly been listening to 'A Russian Roulette' rather than the album The Hollies were intending to make because the cover would have suited that album fine, better than the cocktail cover - and why the sudden obsessions with drinks by the way?
Most of the 'Crazy' album songs, for instance, are about love gone wrong and about to collapse completely and in many ways this is as 'themed' a record as The Hollies ever made, though I've never heard bands or fans ever refer to it that way. The record is bookended by two of the best tracks which both deal with the fact that a romance is at a crossroads and if the couple take the wrong track they'll be no going back from here, delaying the decision by saying 'goodnight' rather than 'goodbye' but worrying that come next morning 'will there be anyone there?' This is an album that begins with the sad bluesy wail of a harmonica (the first time The Hollies had used one of their early trademarks in a while, actually) and ends with syrupy 'epic' heart-tugging strings. Between these two songs though is a series of compositions that try out alternating strands of that crossroads - the illicit thrill of the affair and the loneliness of losing your true love through illicit affairs - before ending up back where we started, the question hanging heavy over the album still unanswered. On the one side of the road is despair: 'What Am I Gonna Do?' imagines one possible future alone - and it isn't a pretty sight, the happiest line being a soul-destroying shrug on the sentence 'I suppose that I'll survive', though the narrator sounds like has no reason to want to anymore. 'Clown Service', though intended as a comedy, finds the narrator a pitiable chap who appears to all intents and purpose to be phoning a dating version of The Samaritans, desperate for someone to mend his heart as a last resort, all the romance gone out of his searching. Cover song one 'Boulder To Birmingham' (actually a song two years old by this point) remembers once promising to walk 500 miles and more long before The Proclaimers had the same idea (1120 miles in fact so The Proclaimers are taking it easy - and yes I was sad enough to look that up!) Cover song two 'Amnesty' just wants peace and for all the dilemmas and doubts to be over.
Meanwhile, though, the band are having 'fun', however short-term. 'Let It Pour' - The Hollies' equivalent of 'Let It Be' - takes another tack by relishing an illicit romance and secretly longing for cover to be blown and for hard decisions to be made. 'Hello To Romance' doesn't make it clear whether the characters are single or not but is full of the yearning passion for the first flush of love that comes with dating, rather than love in a deep and meaningful 'Writing On The Wall' sense. 'Caracas' is a short break in Venezuela, The Hollies this time sounding drunk and reckless as they pause at the start of 'a big affair (stop me if you dare!)' 'Burn Out', the one album track that pounces rather than simmers, is more 'Daddy Don't Mind' teenage fun with the memorably named 'Floozy Sue' taking her pick of some boy racers, oblivious of whether they have a girlfriend already. Overall it's as if the ghost of 'Confessions Of A Mind' has suddenly started haunting The Hollies again - which leads to a similar problem to our review for that LP. One of The Hollies (Clarke) was happily married, another (Hicks) was single and a third (Sylvester) had got divorced long before becoming a Hollie and while that doesn't necessarily mean those songs were 'fiction' (every relationship has ups and downs 'riding along on a carousel...') it makes working out where those songs came from and why they were being written at this point in time a lot harder. Ditto in 1978: all three Hollies are happily married by now and will be for some time (to the present day in two cases out of three) which makes the timing seem even stranger.
However there is a split of one sort hanging in the air at this point. The Hollies, once the epitome of harmony in all senses of the word, are cracking a little under the strain of a decade of constant touring and recording and relatively little to show for it (at least since 1974). For the last four albums now they've put their all into a project determined to make it a 'hit' and gone with every daft idea the EMI marketing department can throw at them (disco songs, Emmylou Harris covers, vending machines and all). Uniquely they'd already picked the singles out from the album sessions and released them early (very early in the case of 'Boulder') and so were in the uncomfortable position of knowing that all three singles released ahead of the album were flops and that this record wasn't likely to do an awful lot better, which can't exactly have helped morale. A band can brace quite a lot of difficulties and inter-band friction when it's doing well, but it takes a rare group that can survive the lean years without a falling out somewhere. In retrospect 'A Crazy Steal' sounds like an album of band divorce more than anything else, of three unhappy writers all trying to face up to a split they know is inevitable without wanting to be the one to cause it or bring up the elephant in the room. Though The Hollies will make another two albums with this line-up, they'll lose Allan Clarke almost immediately after 'A Crazy Steal's release in a third and final failed attempt to launch a solo career (sessions for '5317704' will start without him - Procul Harum's Gary Brooker was even a replacement for a few weeks) and this will be the last Hollies album ever to feature more than a cameo for band originals. The Hollies will continue with this quintet until Terry and bass player Bernie quit in frustration in 1981, but as that famous three-way songwriting Hollies credit goes (and which has existed in some format since 1963), this is it. Suddenly lines like 'when I wake up in the morning will there be anyone there?' and 'we've reached the end' take on a new meaning. The Hollies just feel as if they're ready to throw in the towel here whatever their record contract dictated.
As a result, 'A Crazy Steal' sounds slightly soggy and sorry for itself, without much evidence of the usual Hollies crisp edges and the infectious enthusiasm that's been in the band's formula somewhere since day one (at least on their A sides). It's not the sort of album you want to play your none-Hollies-fanatical friends to convert them necessarily (believe me, I've tried) and much of the middle of the record especially leaves you wondering whether that green stuff in that vending machine is actually meant to be poisonous. However, like many things The Hollies released in the 1970s this remains a woefully overlooked and mis-underestimated album that, had it been released by a younger trendier band or simply been a bit luckier on the hit single stakes could yet have been the winner the band were looking for. The non-hit singles are amongst the weakest material here actually, two curio cover songs that are lovingly sung but can't compare to the Clarke/Sylvester/Hicks writing team on even a poor day, while 'Clown Service' is the one part of the band's 'clown quartet' (Clown/Mr Heartbreaker/Harlequin) that's meant to be funny - but patently isn't (you have to look back towards 'Stewball' or 'High Classed' for a Hollies song quite this misguided). 'Burn Out' loses a wheel somewhere around the middle too when you realise that retro 50s rock is all this odd little song is going to do (despite all that though this is a song oddly, weirdly ahead of its time and released a mere three months before 'Grease' makes this sort of thing popular all over again, for reasons I never did quite understand).
You'd have to be a real Hollies-hater not to love the rest though. 'Writing On The Wall' and 'Feet On The Ground' make good on the promise of the last few years of powerful punchy dramas, exquisite songs where the sadness and hopelessness is all too palpable. Even when going through death throes, this band could still perform with an exquisite note-performance of both songs and plenty more (though 'Burn Out' is the only one that sounds as if all five turned up at the same time). 'What Am I Gonna Do?' is more bare bones but just as powerful, with the album's almost lone Hicks guitar sound adding extra crunch to the pained howl of a chorus. 'Caracas' and 'Let It Pour', meanwhile, are noble failures that try two very different sounds The Hollies had never really tried before this: energetic jazz and cool synth respectively ('Let It Pour' sounding more like the impending new wave sound of 1981 than perhaps anything else in the AAA canon, a full three years early). Neither wins awards for songwriting (in truth only 'Feet On The Ground' on this album matches past triumphs), but a band still trying something new in their fifteenth year is still something to be proud of (I mean, the Spice Girls got repetitive on their second ever song!) This is, perhaps, the first time where The Hollies actually sound as if they've been around long enough to reach their fifteenth year which was in 1978 something to keep quiet about but here in 2016 sounds like a good thing - this is a band who have been around long enough to know how to get themselves out of trouble. Productionwise 'A Crazy Steal' still sounds like one of the band's best records - well thought out, well produced (the band really didn't need Ron Richards by this point, though he'll back for the next record just in case!) and with some lovely textural touches throughout (heck, even the saxophone part on 'Writing On The Wall' didn't make me immediately reach for the sick bag!)
There is a problem, though. Lyrically this album is deeply dismissive of 'one-night-stands' and longs for something deep and stable; musically, though, it's an album crying out for adventure and where one long-winded epic ballad with strings lies next to another long-winded epic ballad with synthesisers and strings. It's simply too static and immovable with the songs largely staying in the same place from first note to last. Though it's ever-changing predecessor 'Russian Roulette' suffered from the polar opposite problem by possessing something of an identity crisis where you never quite knew what was coming next, both of these records suffer the same problem of sounding more interesting heard in bits than in one go together. Heard apart 'Let It Pour', say, sounds mysterious and enigmatic, 'Caracas' nicely jazzy and 'Burn Out' a bit of inconsequential fun, while many of the album's similar ballads take on more of a personality when heard on 'shuffle'. Heard as an album 'A Crazy Steal' sounds like the same song in seven similar ways, while the other three tracks are just the ones that are there to break up the album's string-laden ballads. If anything 'A Crazy Steal' needed to be just that bit crazier - not 'Russian Roulette' crazy perhaps, but a record this bland and unwilling to take risks in 1978 was as ultimately doomed to failure as it's scatterbrained bandwagon-jumping cousin. 'A Crazy Steal' is ultimately less interesting than its companion piece - but far more heartfelt and, you sense, closely to where The Hollies' hearts really lay. It all comes down to whether you prefer adventure or safety, burn outs or wotsits I guess.
Strangely successor '5317704' doesn't have the problem of either album, with more of a sense of build up and flow to it despite the fact that this time all ten songs are long winded epic ballads, most of them with strings too (the difference is how many of the tracks end up in a different tempo to where they started; by contrast 'A Crazy Steal' seems to learn it's life lessons at the same pace throughout). Ultimately 'Steal' is just too repetitive and inconsistent to be the classic The Hollies longed for to set them back on the straight and narrow. It remains, though, a fascinatingly flawed attempt to work out just how to get back to that straight and narrow, with some brilliant and typically Holliesian woefully underestimated classics crying out to be re-discovered. Certainly compared to its rather unloved reputation - 'A Crazy Steal' is a record that might just surprise you with its depth of feeling and a couple of unique experiments that represent a breadth of vision too. This is after all a record that seems rather unloved and unforgotten, even amongst the Hollies community who rate highly other forgotten masterpieces like 'Romany' and 'Another Night'. It's a record that deserved a lot better both then and - as probably the hardest to find Hollies LP of them all now reunion album 'What Goes Around...' is finally out on CD - now. Certainly there are crazier purchases you can make (even at £70) and if this record ever gets the re-release it deserves at a decent price it will surely be a 'steal', if only for the power of 'Feet On The Ground', the shock of the futuristic 'Let It Pour' and the hours of fun spent working out who the hell thought that album cover was a good idea.
For the first time in their career The Hollies pass over their usual ear-grabbing opener and instead go for something slow and subtle which builds in pace slowly and apart from a sudden stinging peak ('You know that I still want you!') barely gets above a whisper, an exercise in separation as the narrator practices sounding alone. 'Writing On The Wall' is one of the album's better marriages of words and music, learning it's life lessons slowly as it leisurely explores its surroundings, the band joining in line by line. The theme is that a day the narrator has been dreading has arrived and the signs of doom are so great he can no longer pretend this isn't happening to him. The narrator has in fact always realised that this day would come - even during the very real moment when the lover's eyes meet 'the transformation is there to see'. It's the gritty middle eight, which finally stops floating and starts feeling things deeply, that turns the track from wannabe to triumph as Clarke's narrator realises that for all of the sorrow and anger he feels and always knew one day he'd feel, he'd still go and do it all again, that 'I still want you'. As with many of the best Hollies tracks the harmonies are used sparingly, emphasising even while contradicting the narrator's loneliness. There's a touch of 'Separated' on this song (Clarkey's earlier, similar ode from 'Confessions Of A Mind'), the singer even pausing on that same line as if having a sense of deja vu. Clarkey is born for these sort of slow burning epics and does double duty with some nice harmonica playing (a bit more would have been welcome frankly as even though the sudden burst of colour with a saxophone solo isn't quite as tacky as most uses are a nice bluesy lament would have been more in keeping with a song about refusing to admit to the truth). The rest of The Hollies are barely anywhere to be heard by the way - a few harmonies, a single Hicks guitar phrase on the middle eight(which is barely worth getting the guitar out the case to be honest), a short burst of Sylvester acoustic strumming, Bobby's drums several lines into the song and 'fifth Hollies' Pete Wingfield doing his usual solid,. unobtrusive job (I'd still rather have heard Bernie's piano playing though - he's good at songs like this and his bass is inaudible). A very solid start.
Like many an AAA album, I first got to know 'A Crazy Steal' from the cassette version where because of timing differences some of the tracks got shiggled around. For me 'Clown Service' makes a much better track two than what we actually get - 'What Am I Gonna Do?' - because it's so similar in every way to 'Writing On The Wall', another song about what the future will be like alone and getting scared by the prospect. 'Do' is another very under-rated track though, quicker on the contrasts which are nicely balanced between the sad verse and the sudden stinging attack of the title line chorus, between the wordy and erudite and the howl of pain in the title that doesn't need any other word to make it's point. The lyrics refer back to previous albums ('Another Lonely Night') but the break seems more final this time, more realistic than histrionic but still haunted by what might have been. 'I suppose that I'll survive', sung by Clarke with as little enthusiasm as he can muster, is the key line to this song - the narrator's been through so many heartbreaks he knows he can survive this one and yet this is still a wound felt deeply. Unusually for The Hollies, this time it's the middle eight that lets the song down and one that sounds rather shoe-horned in from elsewhere, sung in the third person and still with an element of hope as if the narrator is pleading with a third party to intervene and put things right. Hicks' solo sounds rather stapled on too without the drama of the main part of the song. Still the main part of the song is ear-catching and powerful - or at least it would be if it's effect hadn't been diluted by coming after another song even more ear-catching and powerful.
'Let It Pour' is the album's soothing balm, a relaxing of the shoulders in the midst of all this tension from the gloriously flowery Pete Wingfield synth opening to one last revival of Clarke's sultry voice. At first the song sounds like a repeat of Nash's old Hollies song 'Relax', a hymn to a dependable partner with whom the narrator knows he can take his time and who are tried and tested 'weathering the storm'. But little by little the song changes to a song where the narrator is anything but relaxed and where his relationship is anything but open and honest. 'It caught us on the rebound, baby' Clarke grins devilishly as he urges his partner to come clean alongside him, relishing the idea of the news of the affair 'pouring' out but afraid to announce the news himself. Sometimes in Hollies songs like this the narrator is clearly a villain but here at least Clarke is kind enough to add 'It always hurts when I leave you' as the pair depart to return to their respective partners, a human touch which offers an intriguing contrast with the robotic synthetic backing which must have been quite new circa 1978. Effectively inventing the new wave movement three years early (this is almost a Human League song, with human dramas and feeling accompanied by cold blooded synths), 'Let It Pour' could have done with a few lyrical twists but musically is spot on, perhaps Pete Wingfield's greatest moment with the band. You could argue that this track is the last time The Hollies come close to sounding 'modern' in fact, which is reason enough alone to celebrate even if the song's blasé sentiments rather fly in the face of the album's overall cautious tone of 'be sensible or be hurt'.
Switching gears rather literally, 'Burn Out' is the first time in a long time The Hollies have sounded so out of touch and reveal their 50s rock and roll roots quite so openly. Though shaped like a Chuck Berry teenagers 'n' cars song via their own cheeky 'Daddy Don't Mind' from the year before, it's handclaps, tempo and especially the poppy chorus recall their biggest hero Buddy Holly a couple of years before the band turn making Holly covers into a career move. Sadly The Hollies, or Clarke at least, were probably thinking more of aping Bruce Springsteen again, the singer having been the first person to ever cover a Springsteen song (even if the record company, stupidly, refused to release it on the grounds that the writer wasn't well known enough). Alas the cartoon cut-out characters can't match the Boss' grasp of gritty life on the streets and both the music and storyline sound more like something from the band's own teenage years than their audience's. The result is something of a mixed success: the silliest song on the album, without an ounce of the gravitas of anything else on 'A Crazy Steal' and not a patch on the genuine subversive thrill of 'Daddy Don't Mind', it's the one song on the album that sounds better in context, here to break up the sound of the many ballads either side of it. Like Sass E Frass and Joe D Glow, Jimmy and Soft Shoe Louie are using their new motor to pull the birds, specifically Floozy Sue. The 'cops' though have other ideas and have been after Louie for a while; Jimmy thinks he's been stood up but Louie comes through after shrugging the police off. Which is rather an odd moral for a Hollies song when you think about it and more like something from a Rolling Stones song. The performance rescues the song somewhat though with the band having fun going OTT for a change, especially Clarke's cheeky vocal and the greatest (to be fair there aren't many) Hicks actual guitar solo on the album, over far too soon. The result is a song that beats anything from 'Grease' without you ever really wanting to go out your way to hear it again and a track that sounds strangely dated for a band who have spent the last few years doing everything they can to sound fashionable and cool and not a relic from the past at all, oh no (Grandaddy don't mind?)
'Hello To Romance' enjoys a mixed reputation amongst fans. There are many who will tell you that it's the best Hollies single of the 1970s (well, give or take 'Air That I Breathe') and that it's failure was the single biggest tragedy of The Hollies' career. The Hollies themselves certainly thought they'd come up with a winner and plugged it to death, spending far more time and energy making it just right than anything they'd done in a long time. However to these ears at least the band tried too hard. This schmoozy schmaltzy song about love at first sight is one of those songs that anyone could have written, whether they'd been in love or not. All of the clichés are here: a flamenco flurry from Hicks heard in tandem with that blooming saxophone back again and strings that make Mantovani sound subtle (they're by Pip Williams, who in three years time will be causing similar OTT problems for fellow AAA band The Moody Blues). It's hard to say where the fault lies as those powerful Hollies harmonies soar nicely and the chorus (including the 'Crazy Steal' line) has a nice unexpected rhythm to it. There's even a disco middle eight which is less embarrassing a go than 'Wiggle That Wotsit' (if not quite up to 'Draggin' My Heels'). However heard back to back with a Hollies song on a similar subject (the unreleased 'Here In My Dreams' recorded during sessions for 'Roulette' or 'She Looked My Way' first taped for 'Hollies Sing Hollies' and both first released on 'Rarities' will do) it just doesn't ring true. Romance is more than two people hearing a symphony playing when their eyes meet (something that's hard to pull off anyway on a Hollies budget) and there's something slightly gauche about the melody which spends so long trying to work out how to sound memorable that it's lost the essence that made the band want to write it down in the first place. For me it's one of the weakest Hollies singles of the 1970s, certainly out of the ones the band wrote themselves, and possibly the only one of their releases of the decade that didn't deserve to be a big hit. Terry Sylvester says in the 'Long Road Home' box set that 'a boy band could have covered that and had a big hit with it' and he's spot on; that's exactly what the audience for this sort of insincere oddity is. Hollies fans, however, have grown to expect better. The single recycled the 'Roulette' B-side '48 Hour Parole' if you're wondering, a far more convincing attempt at reaching out to the modern pop market in 1978, complete with mischievous wink - 'Hello To Romance' is by contrast so clean it wouldn't know what a wink is.
That was the second album single. The third, released three months before the album, was a cover of Bobby Doumas' sweet ballad 'Amnesty'. The Hollies admitted later they'd learnt the song from ex-Byrd Chris Hillman's album 'Slippin' Away' in 1976 (they may well have been keeping tabs on the competition through Nash's CSN/Byrds connections) but got the last laugh when Queen came in from the studio next door to take notes about how the band got their distinctive sound (which is very much in their style - a style that as all AAA readers know was nicked from 10cc originally anyway). As so often happens with Hollie covers, they take a song that originally sounded small and vulnerable and is all about the 'isolation' and intimacy and turn it into a very different sound thanks to their lush harmonies and layers of production. As usual with Hollies covers what you might expect to be called 'Travesty' rather than 'Amnesty' works better than it has any right to, mainly because the Hollies harmonies are just so good and because they know how to structure songs so well. Hillman's more bluegrass take, for instance, starts with the simple muted verse but The Hollies go straight to the chorus - and then sing it a capella for good measure. Tony even gets the guitar out for an 'Air That I Breathe' style howl, again cut far too short. The best string arrangement on the album by, well, a string (sadly Geoff Westley's only work with The Hollies - he's better known for his work with The Bee Gees) enhances the mood nicely too and the song really grows towards the final verse. So why wasn't this one a hit? Well, the song itself is, sadly, not one of The Hollies' more inspired choices however well they dress it up. The main melody is rather dreary while some of the lines are questionable (this is surely the only song to contain the mouthful 'Between you and me there's bound to be some kind of unconscious objection'). There are, admittedly, some nice ideas in there too - there's a neat twist on 'love' and 'peace' meaning the same thing which would have appealed to John Lennon if nothing else and the idea of love as an active process continued by two people simultaneously is a subject matter deep enough for this album and aching out to be developed more. The result, though, is another of this period's Hollies singles that once you get past the stunning opening simply sounds as if it's trying too hard and has lost the natural casualness that used to be this band's hallmark.
The noisy 'Caracas' sees a third use of the saxophone for a song that sounds the perfect musical metaphor for a holiday. Exotic and exciting, it's held together by a gulped guitar line that again points towards disco and a nice shimmering synth effect from Wingfield again. You can almost imagine 10cc of the period doing this one (it's very 'Dreadlock Holiday') though it's more like the swishing bossa novas of old than pure reggae. However sadly the lyrics also sound like a song written on 'holiday' - by Hollies standards the lines are slightly sloppy and lacks the intimacy of the band's similar go on 'My Island'. Effectively the tale of a holiday romance, it's hard to work out where our sympathies lie and depends really on how you read the slightly garbled middle eight. Is it, as the only lyric site that's bothered to list this album, says 'Got my ticket, paid my fare' or 'Gonna take a big affair' (both of which make sense in context). 'Caracas' is after all another of those Hollies cheeky songs where rules have gone out the window and where inhibitions are fading in the sunshine; a Venezuelan Sass E Frass and Joe D Glow if you will. My research (sadly limited to the internet rather than visiting personally given the AAA budgets) suggests that Caracas is these days more of a business capital, somewhere you go to avoid spending time with your taxman rather than your wife. This song is definitely going for something more boisterous than that though and seems to be confusing Caracas with Ibiza or New Orleans. You hope that the locals got to hear it (unlikely, given how few people back in Britain ever heard this album) as it would work well for a tourist board theme tune with it's oh-so-perfect 'ohhhhh' with Hollies harmonies sliding into the chorus line. The backing sounds uncomfortably close to a 70s cop show theme tune at times though, with that same kind of gritty intoxication that powered more than one show of the period. The result is a song you're glad The Hollies tried once - and which you're also rather glad they never tried again.
Emmylou Harris' 'Boulder To Birmingham' is perhaps the best known of the Hollies' 1970s cover songs, a big hit for the singer in 1970 in collaboration with her writing partner Bill Danoff. In this album's second Byrds connection, Emmylou wrote the song heartbroken after learning of the death of Gram Parsons with whom she'd risen to fame and who she still missed badly as a guiding light. This is also the track that proved that Emmylou actually had more talent than she was allowed to show while working as a duet singer, full of pathos and power with a lyric that's screamingly personal (Emmylou was herself born in Birmingham Alabama while Boulder, Colorado was a favourite place of country-rock stars) and yet universal enough to appeal to lots of different artists to cover. The Hollies as usual make their version more epic and more harmony-laced than most covers (Emmylou's original only features her lone voice throughout), with Clarkey's nicely fragile vocal (one of his best on this album) set against the syrupy strings (this time by Andrew Powell - Cockney Rebel and Kate Bush's main arranger, amongst other guest spots). Recorded with much hope in between the sessions for 'Write On' and 'Russian Roulette'. The Hollies really thought they'd found another big seller, but the single became the fourth straight post-'Air That I Breathe' single to miss the charts. Quite why they decided to demote this song from 'Roulette' is a mystery (especially given that 'Wiggle That Wotsit' missed the charts for reasons of taste and yet still got included), but it is probably fair to say that it's sad what-might-have-been air suits 'A Crazy Steal' rather better. The most substantial of the three singles from the album (Write On's 'Crocodile Woman' made for a rather uneven pairing on the B side by the way), it's somehow not quite Hollies enough to truly stick in the memory like the band's best. Though a nice song well performed, the strings are a tad too mainstream and the energy a tad too low for the track to match 'Breathe' et al, more of an album track than an obvious hit. Still, many music fans with wider tastes than me reckon this is the greatest version of this much covered song around and I'm not about to argue. I just wouldn't walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham to pay for a copy, especially given the price tag for both single and album on Amazon.
Hidden away near the end of the album, perhaps in hope that we'll overlook it, is the album's biggest misfire however. 'Clown Service' is seemingly designed to make us laugh: it starts with one of those descending piano notes opening that hasn't been heard since the days of silent comedy accompaniment, while the rest of the song is pure tongue-in-cheek music hall. The trouble is, it isn't funny - and I'm not sure it's meant to be. The narrator is calling up a dating hotline that might as well be a suicide hotline given the problems he pours out. He's alone again, he can't afford to buy new shoes or trousers, he probably can't even afford this phone call and yet here he is desperate because his heart's been broken once again. My guess is this started out as a 'straight' kind of lyric before it suddenly devolved into the sort of song where 'cupid' rhymes with 'stupid' and somebody had the bright idea of a comedy melody to go along with it. The one line that is funny has the narrator asking to have his fortune told, offering up his 'frown lines' that tell their own story - although unless he's on a video phone the person down the other line is going to have problems with those! Clarke, though, sounds uncomfortable, unsure quite why he's calling up a 'clown service' (are clowns the only people he feels able to date? Or is this a new hotline where the other end get turned on by his tales of woe?) and whether to go all out and play for laughs or go for pity. The Hollies aren't as natural a fit for music hall as, say, The Kinks are and this probably isn't the best time for Clarke to go all transatlantic with his accent on such a very 'English' song either. The rest of the band, meanwhile, simply sound embarrassed, with Hicks mimicking the narrator's misfortune with a 'comedy' wah wah guitar part that's not one of his best ideas. At least the song gets moving I suppose, if only in slow motion, but even this is quite a nice change after so many four straight ballads in a row and Clarkey fits in a harmonica solo again - a proper full one this time, so it isn't all bad. Most of it is though: 'Clown Service' is a track that few fans take to their hearts and rather falls over its comedy clown shoes too many times, one of those songs so daft that only The Hollies would ever think it up and a track that didn't exactly help in making them 'hip' to a 1978 public who'd been through the rigours of punk in order to get away from exactly this sort of song.
Luckily The Hollies return to the album's central theme for the last track in impressive style. 'Feet On The Ground' is, surely, unequivocally, the one song on this album that could and should have been the hit single. Returning to the crossroads of love theme of the first two tracks after seven songs of delaying tactics, the narrator of 'Writing On The Wall' still can't make up his mind whether to bring a long great partnership that's collapsing at the seams to an end or not. The track starts like many of The Hollies best with Clarke alone and vulnerable against yet another Pete Wingfield piano part, before a second section adds tension and a chorus finally brings release, upping the ante with each twist and turn (it's a progression the band have been using on and off since 'I'm Alive'). There's even a middle eight that seems to work in reverse, the narrator this time descending rather than ascending through the chords as the anguish becomes almost too much to bear (it's another nod of the head to Buddy Holly; 'You're wishing, I'm hoping that the flame doesn't die!') In many ways it's the polar opposite of 'Wings', that lovely Clarke-Nash song from 1968 that was something of a much debated Hollies rarity by 1978. Now all that effortless soaring from the early days of a romance has gone and the lovers have to be real and grounded in working out their futures. Ironically the shared experience temporally brings them closer. Note the line near the end that seems to contradict itself 'Hold me close, we've reached the end...' However the end is ambiguous, the pair still torn whether to say 'goodnight' or 'goodbye' to each other as those mass Hollies harmonies float overhead one more time. The track isn't perfect - Tony's guitar solo is perfunctory and Wingfield's synth strings aren't as impressive as the real thing might have been - but the song is both clever and 'real', with a heartfelt performance from Clarke in particular hinting at how much is at stake this time around. Just as 'Clown Service' is everything bad only The Hollies would ever try, so 'Feet On The Ground' is everything that made them special and so different to other bands, with this track featuring many of the things they'd learnt across their fifteen years that still sounds different to anything the band had done before.
If only 'A Crazy Steal' had delivered a full album on the theme they'd outlined on tracks one, two and ten this album might have been better remembered. Even with the other tracks, though, it feels like a more respectful and mature project than anything the band had been doing for a while (even if the 'Russian Roulette' wheel came up with a handful more winners) and with a mature melancholy that suits the band very well. More of a full luncheon than the Motorway Services front cover would suggest, it's a shame that The Hollies had fallen so out of fashion by 1978, though sadly there probably isn't much here that had a chance of reversing that trend with 'A Crazy Steal' not so much a 'hello to romance' as a 'goodbye to The Hollies' made by a band who know the writing is on the wall. Good bands rarely make bad records though (well, alright, Crazy Horse's 'Greendale' might buck that trend) and there's enough here to show that the band still cared and often had the skills to bring their ideas off. Though there are better Hollies LPs out there, the unloved and unfairly forgotten 'A Crazy Steal' still deserves a toast. Though perhaps not with whatever that green liquid is.