Friday 4 July 2008

The Hollies "Romany" (1972) ('Core' Review #52, Revised Edition 2014)

You can buy 'Reflections Of A Long Time Past - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of The Hollies' in e-book format by clicking here!

The Hollies "Romany" (1972)

Track Listing: Won’t You Feel Good That Morning?/ Touch/ Words Don’t Come Easy/ Magic Woman Touch/ Lizzie & The Rainman/ Down River// Slow Down/ Delaware Taggett And The Outlaw Boys/ Jesus Was A Crossmaker/ Romany/ Blue In The Morning/ Courage Of Your Convictions 

The General consensus on 'Romany' is that ‘it’s very very good, but because it doesn’t sound like the Hollies it shouldn’t really be treated as a proper album and would only have been good if Allan Clarke had been singing on it’. That’s about the same as saying that Lennon/Plastic Ono Band would be great if only Lennon had sang in tune, that Windows In The Jungle would have been funnier if 10cc had gone back to using their silly voices and that the 70s Beach Boys albums would have been better if only Brian Wilson had been on them more – the point that critics often miss is that 'Romany' couldn't have turned out any other way, except worse. Back in 1972 Allan Clarke wasn't just gone for a couple of albums and will be back in a couple of years (which is how it worked out): he was apparently gone for good. The Hollies had to start again from scratch, re-invent their identity and try to launch themselves a third time (the first being when Nash had left). In that context 'Romany' is an album that's so much better than it has any right to be, The Hollies getting their experiment right first time with an exquisite consistent album that's amongst their very best. By the time of Romany, the Hollies are a new band. A very short-lasting band as it turns out, but a new band nonetheless, one who really were busy carving out a whole new sound for themselves in the belief that they had to start all over again anew. Yes singer Mickael Rickfors doesn't sound much like Allan Clarke but that's the point: the Hollies couldn't out-rock the opposition anymore so they went the other way and became an all-acoustic band, full of pathos and beauty, with those familiar Hollies harmonies the one great link between the old and the new. Ironically their new model in this period was very much Crosby, Stills and Nash: the band  still semi-resentful of Nash's success without them (Clarke also said he wanted to emulate the success of Nash's first solo album 'Songs For Beginners' with his first record 'My Real Name Is 'Arold').  In many ways this version of the Hollies is worse (the rockers don't rock as hard as before), but in many ways it's better (the spine-tingling harmonies on the ballads are out-of-this-world, Rickfors slotting perfectly into Terry's and Tony's established sound). Of course I like the 'old' Hollies sound (who wouldn't?), but to dismiss this 'new' Hollies sound out of hand would be wrong after all that effort (the band pull together more than they had in years) and so many little successes along the way (this does not, however, mean that I can't be rude about the Peter Howarth-era Hollies for sounding nothing like the 'real' thing!)

With original lead singer Allan Clarke desperate to have a bit of the critical plaudits and sales that old Hollies partner Graham Nash was getting in his solo career, he left the Hollies after a lot of soul-searching (he didn’t want to go, but he really really wanted to make his first solo album so he agreed with the band he should try and make it on his own and leave the band). Both sides created stupendous albums in this period (editor's note: both 'Romany' and Clarke's second album 'Headroom' appeared on our initial 'core' 101 neglected albums list and would have made for the perfect album had the best of both projects been joined together). Realising that they could never replace Clarkey’s dynamic voice, the Hollies went in a completely different direction for his replacement – one Mickael Rickfors, a Swedish vocalist whose band Bamboo had supported the Hollies on tour and who reportedly had only a minor grasp of the English language, which is a bit of a problem when you’re recording material with one of the most ‘English’ of bands that ever lived. However, Rickfors was still an inspired choice, with his deep rich vocals fitting in perfectly with the existing Hollies harmony singers Terry Sylvester and Tony Hicks, his bass and guitar work giving an extra dimension to the band’s sound and his own lyrical songwriting similar in style to the band’s stock in trade of heavy swampy rockers and tear-jerking ballads. The band could have gone the easy way out at this point, mimicking their recent chart success with Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress (an album track released as a single against the band’s wishes which became a surprise hit – but typically for the Hollies’ luck it came when lead writer, lead singer and lead guitarist on the track Allan Clarke had left the group, with the Hollies unable to record a follow up or even reproduce it properly live). Instead, the new-look Hollies went in the other direction, finally producing the dreamy, acoustic, harmony-drenched masterpiece fans had been waiting a decade for them to make.

The band themselves had mixed feelings about this album: Bobby Elliott recalled it as a 'bland period for the Hollies' during his interview for the 'Long Road Home' box set and 'Romany' certainly has a consistency of sound that the other more eclectic Hollies records lack (there's also less for the drums to do, which might explain why Bobby was fairly upset). However it gave other members the chance to shine: Terry gets to take a stronger role than normal, with two lead vocals and several classic harmony pieces; Tony is now the keeper of the band's traditional flame as the last of the Clarke-Hicks-Nash trio left and fills up the sound with some excellent vocals, harmonies and guitar solos (with he and Rickfors playing several duets). Even Bernie Calvert - largely silenced in the band since coming into his own on 'Hollies Sing Hollies' - has more than a few chances to shine, playing most of the piano parts on this album (and there are many) in addition to his usual bass work. However its new boy Mickael Rickfors who shines the most, never putting a foot wrong with his emotive vocals and adding a richness and depth to the band's sound without changing it drastically (the Hollies were always an emotional sounding band: the only difference is they've nor replaced a predatory lion with a purring pussycat). While Rickfors trips up a little over the faster-paced songs on the album, he's every bit at home on the ballads as Clarke had been and songs like 'Words Don't Come Easy', his own 'Touch' and the title track itself are some of the most gorgeous things The Hollies ever created.
'Romany' was made in trying circumstances.As well as losing their vocalist and one of their three writers, the band's usually supportive producer Ron Richards, who'd been with the band since the beginning nine years earlier, actually left because he felt the album wouldn't 'sell' and had no 'single' on it - time proved him right though only because the wrong single was released: 'Magic Woman Touch' has 'hit' written all over it, one of the most deftly commercial yet still likeable songs the band ever produced. However in many ways that's a good thing, however bad it may have seemed at the time: 'Romany' not only gave the group a chance to reinvent themselves, it made them grow closer. While The Hollies had started off playing live together in the studio, somewhere they'd lost the knack of playing together in the same room. This record's predecessor 'A Distant Light', for example, is the sound of a band breaking up and rarely staying in the same room (there's less harmonies than usual as a result too). 'Romany' is a chock-a-block with terrific band performances, real live performances that feature all five (and very few outside musicians compared to normal - not even 'sixth Hollie' Pete Wingfield) bouncing off each other. 'Romany' contains several beautiful moments where the band are simply revelling in each other's company for the first time in what seems like years: the instrumental break in 'Touch' where the three guitarists in the band all swap leads, for instance, or the moment that all three suddenly attack together on 'Courage Of Your Convictions'. Whether because of circumstances, or Rickfors' calming influence, or solidarity, or all three, 'The Hollies' really do sound like a group with a purpose again and rarely sound this 'tight' again.  That's arguably just as well because the vocal overdubs were by most accounts, a rather fraught affair. Rickfors found singing in a foreign language rather a challenge and often had to record these songs one line at a time, a costly and time-consuming process that brought the band to near-breaking point. As far as the record's concerned that's to its credit, with every harmony pristine, but you can imagine how annoyed the rest of the band must have got with him. Rickfors is generally singled out for blame, but that's unfair: the band knew this weakness when they hired him and the Clarke-Hicks-Nash line-up was just as uncomfortable singing in a foreign language, as tapes of 'Look Through Any Window' and 'You Know He Did' in French plus the Italian 'Non Prego Per Me' (which came plum last at the San Remo Singing Contest for 1967) will attest. Rickfors may have struggled with pronunciation, but he's always spot-on with the emotion, never getting a note wrong.

You'd expect a 'new-look' Hollies to be chock full of new songs, especially now that Clarke's absence has given the band an extra 'third' to fill. But astonishingly the band seem to have taken the opportunity of re-inventing themselves to drop almost all of their songwriting chores. Tony Hicks and his writing partner Kenny Lynch get just one song on the album ('Bluer In The Morning') and that's not only the last the pair write together but the weakest: a far cry from the days of 'Confessions Of The Mind' (when the pair got six writing credits) and 'A Distant Light' (when they got four). Terry doesn't write any, instead choosing two cover songs to sing (if only his B-side 'I Had A Dream' had been promoted to album track, however, and 'Romany' would have got the full ten stars from me instead of nine). That leaves Rickfors as the only other 'Hollie' with a song to his name, the charming 'Touch'. Instead band associate Colin Horton-Jennings comes to the fore, writing a third of the album and many of the better songs at that. Not much is known about this writer - a night of trying to read up on him told me nothing I didn't already know except that he once worked with Frank Zappa and seems to have been linked with a jazz quartet, neither of which you'd guess from listening to this album. He is, however, the record's quiet hero: his songs (particularly 'Words Don't Come Easy' 'Magic Woman Touch' 'Delaware Taggett' and 'Romany' itself) are greatly suited to The Hollies' new acoustic style and give Rickfors lots of room to emote while Sylvester and Hicks have lots of space for harmony. Sadly, after a handful more Horton-Jennings covers on follow-up record 'Out On The Road', Jennings seems never to have been heard from again. Other Hollies cover choices for 'Romany' seem stronger than normal too: David Ackles, so often on the cusp of breaking through from 'cult' to 'legend', isn't always as good as his small but very vocal fanbase claim but 'Down River' is the real deal - a powerful song about meeting up with an old lover that was born for Rickfors' voice. Fellow cult figure Judee Sill's 'Jesus Was A Crossmaker' is less fitting to the Hollies sound but another strong thought-provoking song. Finally, 'Lizzie and the Rainman' by Larrty Henley and Kenny O'Dell is a very Hollies song about the importance of faith and hope in a world where none seem to exist: had it come out in the band's peak Merseybeat years this very 60s song might have been better remembered.

If there's a theme to this record then it's one of escape and/or embracing tomorrow without the problems of the past (as a consequence the passing or and running out of time is another key element on this album). A lot of these songs are about 'longing' in some form or another: 'Won't You Feel Good That Morning', for instance, yearns for an escape from a 'long hard dragged-our miserable life' where 'nothing means much to me' to a day when the narrator is happily married and content, his problems solved (even by Hollies standards the middle eight - which simply repeats the chorus - is infectiously joyous). 'Touch' is about an intimate night that seems to exist outside time, 'in the hours of the night', when all the narrator's senses are corrupted, 'everything close but far away', reflecting in true 1967-era Hollie style that all of the world around us is only fleeting, 'given to people as a loan'. 'Words Don't Come Easy' is about longing to say the right things but never quite managing it, the poet author running out of time to make them ring true. 'Magic Woman Touch' is another song about intimacy that looks back on another 'yesterday thrown away' and a present where 'my friends no longer speak to me' but longs for a future where the touch of a girl can 'make it alright!' 'Lizzie and the Rainman' is an argument between two lovers about whether it will rain on a 'hot Texas wagon': she says it won't, he says it will and whether they have belief in a passing salesman. 'Down River' poignantly meets an old flame and painfully (after much grieving and wailing) accepts that the relationship is over and in the past, that 'times change'. 'Slow Down' literally wants to slow down time because the narrator needs to 'stop running' and settle down into the family life he craves. 'Delaware Taggett' is concerned with adolescence and growing up ('Hair on my top lip, now I'm a man!'), treated as an outlaw cowboy story where a dangerous world lives outside the saloon. 'Romany' is about a fleeting romance that promises much, with the relationship between the narrator a gypsy girl as subtle and changing as the winds that blow around them. 'Blue In The Morning' takes the opposite path to most of the album, delighting in the present but fearing the consequences in the future (it's a typically guilt-ridden Hicks/Lynch song, in fact - what were that pair up to in the early 1970s?!) Finally 'Courage Of Your Convictions' may be a weak-kneed 'Long Cool Woman' to fans in the know, but it's the finale this album needs: take control of your destiny in the here and now instead of waiting for tomorrow.

Some of these themes can be gleamed from the cover. In truth Hipgnosis' sleeves are about the only things that link between 'A Distant Light' and 'Romany' the albums are so different and although both depict the same figure in the same wood they are very different. 'A Distant Light' is the height of summer: colourful and full of life; 'Romany' is winter, the trees bare and the animals in hiding or hibernation. The passing of time is clearly a theme of both covers, even if that idea only make sense when paired up against each other (sadly Hipgnosis never did make 'Spring' and 'Autumn' covers!) It's a lovely cover actually, once the gatefold sleeve has been opened out, one of the finest AAA sleeves of them all, like a nature 'Where's Wally' picture where the album is teeming with life if only you know where to look for it and has hung on my wall in many a house down the years.
In many ways the cover is like the album: a drawing of nature in winter doesn't sound like an immediate winner, especially when the 'action' is so well hidden. The same with the album: 'Romany' is a real hidden gem, released with a new sound that at first sounds muted and flat but eventually reveals all sorts of shading and colours. Most importantly 'Romany' has a big heart that overcomes all the problems in making it and all the time spent working on it, line by painful line. The Hollies’ patience is well rewarded however: the public may not have bought it, the critics may have ignored it, the fans may have been confused by it, but Romany is a stunning glimpse of what might have been in an alternative universe and is one of the most melodic, mature and downright beautiful records in the Hollies’ canon. Ron Richards was 'right' most every other time, but not on this Hollies record: 'Romany' could easily have been the stepping stone to a career even greater than what the band achieved the first time round. The mellow acoustic vibe is very 1972, the songs are more consistent and why 'Magic Woman Touch' wasn't a #1 single, never mind a single, is beyond me. However the album's best known song is far from the only winner here: fans will find many treasures the further they dig, from the aching power of 'Down River' to the telepathy of 'Touch' (staggering for a line-up that had only just met each other), to the power of 'Courage of Your Convictions' to the fragility of 'Words Don't Come Easy' to 'Romany' itself. ''Romany' may have been a gypsy girl dismissed as 'worthless', an outsider never quite accepted into the fold and who many assumed would disappear as quickly as she came (especially when the previous owner came back and took her landscape back). But no: with each passing decade more and more Hollies fans discover this delightful little record and fall in love with her precisely because she is so different to anything else in 'Hollies Town'. 'Romany' might have ended up as the first half of a two-record cul-de-sac, a stuttering of ideas before Allan Clarke re-joined the band and they got on with their destiny. But at the time The Hollies needed to change with the times and needed both a singer and an album that reflected the mellower vibe of 1972 and the harmonised continuity links to their earlier sound. Amazingly they got both, creating a record that's another of my all-time favourites by anybody and another Hollies life-long companion that offers thought for the mind and solace for the soul.

The Songs:

Rickfors is happier on ballads than rockers and obviously finds the fast-tempoed [195]  Won’t You Feel Good That Morning a bit of a mouthful. Even so, his conversational style vocal matched with a driving, catchy riff and full blown Hollies harmonies makes for an impressive start to the album. Quick to win over their old listeners to this new sound, Terry Sylvester adds his own distinctive and recognisable vocal to the track’s middle eight, but its Rickfors who shines on this song, adding just enough cautious joyful enthusiasm to the vocal to express the narrator’s hope invested in a new love despite being burnt several times in the past. Elliott’s distinctive drum rolls from the verses into the choruses give the song much of its character, while the presence of a fuzz-guitar from Hicks and chirping organ offer a brief return to the Hollies’ earlier psychedelic period.

Rickfors again shines on his own song [196] Touch, one of the best and – intriguingly given that its written by a new member – one of the most Hollies-like of tracks on this album. A moody, complex piece driven by Pink Floyd-like swirling keyboards and delicately plucked guitars, it’s far more sparse and empty instrumentally than most of the band’s songs and yet its mix of fragile-ness and powerfulness and its hidden depths masquerading as ear-catching simplicity is somehow very Hollies too. The lyrics to this song, about trying to get close to someone in a spiritual as well as a physical sense, are also impressive: poetic and abstract and yet somehow also very personal-sounding and intimate too. The chorus about being ‘so close yet so far away’ is also tailor made for those soaring Hollies harmonies, as the lonely narrator summons up his courage to turn to others for help, gradually finding harmony as he does so. Whoever is playing the organ on this track (normally it would be Calvert, but as Rickfors wrote the song and the playing doesn’t sound much like his usual work its probably him again) also does a perfect job of holding the track together – letting Hicks’ guitar-lines bubble through the song before rising up into a crescendo of emotion, while answered by Sylvester’s guitar chirrups. A classy Hollies ballad in the traditional manner, this track is a testament to what the band lost when they agreed to let Allan Clarke back into the fold just two years down the line and reluctantly sent Rickfors packing, back to Sweden and international obscurity (though he is something of a local hero in his homeland, I’m pleased to say).

[197] Words Don’t Come Easy is another classy song on a similar theme of miscommunication, with Rickfors at his most Scott Walker-ish and the Hollies at their acoustic CSN-like best, especially on those elongated ‘eeee—sayyyy’ chorus harmonies that are just so characteristic of this band. However, this time the song is not written by one of the group but composed by this album’s main writer CH Jennings. With a hand in four songs on this record, all tailor-made for the band, it’s a complete mystery why they never used his songs again as they suit the new-look band’s style of quiet, hidden yet catchy desperation very well. It’s also puzzling why a group looking to start anew should use so many tracks by an author they had never used before but, on the evidence of this muted mournful ballad they made a good decision even so. Delicate and romantic, with the narrator trying to work out how to put all of the contrasting ideas running round his head into words, the song works equally well as a paean to world peace (‘all we really need today is the sun in our lives’) and a band in-joke about Rickfors’ struggles with the English language (the title, perhaps?).

Talking of muted desperation, [198] Magic Woman Touch is another CH Jennings song in collaboration with the equally mysterious Watt-Roy, equally impressive and yet far more upbeat and commercial than it’s predecessor. This song, with its ear-catching opening flurry of acoustic guitars, classic Hollies harmonies, singalong chorus and heart-tugging lyrics, should have been the hit single that Romany so deserved. In fact it wasn’t released as single at all, but is still the best known song on the album thanks to its appearance on many a Hollies compilation where album compilers obviously agree with me that this catchy track fits the old Hollies hit formula to a tee, even without Clarkey singing lead. Everything in this song is perfectly placed, from Rickfors’ sighing passive lead to Sylvester’s suddenly forceful and active middle-eight and especially the twin acoustic guitars of Rickfors and Sylvester bouncing off each other in our left and right speakers, their nervous energy in contrast to the easy-flowing lead of Hicks’ echoey lead guitar and the slow patient walk of Calvert’s bass. Fans of this song will be pleased to know that there is an almost-equally impressive ‘acoustic’ (without the bass, drums or electric guitar) version of this song available as a bonus track on the Hollies’ Out On The Road CD. Taken slightly slower and with Elliott’s crashing drums ducked in the mix in favour of his bongo work, this mix brings out even more of the Hollies’ fine harmony work, which is jaw-droppingly impressive, even after 15 years of listening to CSN records. Released as a single in some countries but not others (like Hollie homeland the UK) , it made #60 in the US - it deserved to sell more.

[199] Lizzie and the Rainman gives Terry Sylvester a chance to shine on a song that, despite being another ‘outside’ song, sounds mightily like his own work for the band, with its peculiar angular riff and allegorical lyrics about bossy females (think Cable Car and Indian Girl). A re-write of Harry Nilsson’s fine song Rainmaker – albeit released in such close proximity the two songwriters probably never heard each other’s songs as they were writing theirs – it follows the narrator’s naïve but optimistic attempts to overturn his partner’s sceptical manner. With the narrator still hoping for rain long after his partner has started believing a current drought will last forever, this song is obviously meant as a metaphor for the pair’s love for each other. Yet the Hollies may well have chosen this song for another reason, as the metaphor about proving disbelievers who have written you off must have struck a bit of a chord with a band being booed off the stage every night when they failed to sound anything like the band hired for tours on the back of  Long Cool Woman. After pestering me for months to find a song with her name in the title and having been rather hilariously insulted with the Beatles’ take on Dizzy Miss Lizzie, my friend is now convinced this song was written with her in mind. Nice try Lizzie, you’d have been about minus ten when this song came out!

Side closer [200] Down River is back to the yearning Rickfors ballads again, a beautiful song from period songwriter David Ackles, another fine performer who never quite got the kudos he deserved at the time either. One of those songs about meeting up with an ex-girlfriend and trying to stay cool and detached despite the flame still being there (a mainstay of several groups down the years, see review no 90 to study the Human League’s take on the same theme with Louise) it gives the Hollies another chance to show off an I-don’t-care-honestly façade while letting the emotion shine through brilliantly in Rickfors’ expressive vocal (The Hollies used this trick of ‘hidden meanings’ and different levels of consciousness several times in the 60s, from their first #1 hit I’m Alive where the world suddenly changes colour and meaning when the narrator falls in love, to the ‘causal friends becoming more or are they?’ story Rain On My Window (see review no 11). The band even memorably spoofed this approach on their song Dear Eloise (see review no 14) where an opening Graham Nash ‘writing a letter to make you feel better’ segues into a heartfelt plea of the forget-about-him-and-fall-in-love-with-me variety from Allan Clarke, asking the object of his affections to ‘read between the lines’ of the letter and see the emotions the narrator can never quite express in person). There’s nothing in these lyrics to suggest that the narrator feels anything but pleasure in seeing his old partner so happy and settled yet, with Rickfors at his deepest and with the backing at their most sombre and slow, its easy to read behind the lines and see all the things that the narrator is desperately trying not to say. ‘Times change’ he says, but with those last sombre piano chords and some final desperate cries of ‘Rosie’ (I’ve yet another friend called Rosie who thinks this song was written for her now after lending Lizzie the album, what is it about this LP?!?) the Hollies make it clear that some things  - and some loves - never change. A classic of the highest order, with the Hollies giving some fine material the justice it deserves.

Side two opens with another rocker in the band’s gritty and riff-filled Hey Willy mode (the single before last, as it were, from 1971). [201] Slow Down is desperation captured in a song, a narrator who is trying not to rush into things but as the energetic riff and restless melody tells us is just too excited to take his own advice. Rickfors can’t help to give such a simple song as this the depth of emotion that is his forte, but nevertheless has a fair go at sounding like a gritty deep-voiced Clarke with the help of some double-tracking. The arrangement of this song helps to rescue some relatively poor material, with Hicks’ urgent guitar the standout, playing an excitable riff that is nevertheless so tricky and angular and filled with so much echo that it can’t hope to do anything but pause and take stock of the song every so often, as the narrator urges himself to do. The Rickfors-era band even go on to write their own copycat song Slow Down – Go Down on their next album Out On The Road, so impressed were they with this song, although this earlier incarnation sounds is the better of the two.

[202] Delaware Taggett And The Outlaw Boys  is an interesting song, quite unlike any I’ve ever heard before despite being yet another catchy-but-deep CH Jennings masterpiece and mixed so strangely that its hard to pick out the words at all, although Rickfors’ little-boy-lost-in-the-mix vocal captures the doubtful adolescent at the heart of the song well. Rickfors sings in his best American accent for parts of this song, adding a Texas slur to his voice as he narrates this sub-cowboy story that at first hearing seems to be a song about a Western-style gangster showdown, but actually focuses more on the right-of-passage the narrator goes through with some rascally friends than any actual ‘battle’. The song’s peculiar structure comes from the fact that everything in this song seems to be reversed – we get the verse and the middle eight long before we get the repeated catchy chorus a full 75 seconds into the song, sung by Rickfors partly solo in contrast to the fully harmony-laden verses (normally on Hollies tracks their harmony chorus comes in for the, well, chorus). The tightly woven acoustic riff is another classic, but on close inspection it bears little resemblance to the song’s melody and vocal line and seems to be working at cross purposes most of the time. The track then fades out on an interesting guitar solo –a technique traditionally kept for the middle of a song rather than the end. You’ve got to be careful with rule-breaking in music – audiences have such a firm idea of a ‘pop’ template that getting them to listen to anything outside the ordinary can be a challenge, especially on a surreal storyline song mixed so low as to be incomprehensible. Yet Delaware Taggett pulls off the achievement really well, thanks in part to the song’s clever mix of the familiar with the unknown: the riff is ear-catching and the chorus, when it finally does arrive, is the sort of classic singalong we can all recognize (even if we haven’t got a clue what it means). The Hollies five-star performance is also spot-on, with plenty of trademarks like the heavy guitar-riffing, three-part harmonies and sighing vocal lines all correct and in their place and sounding even brighter than normal in their new setting. The album’s undoubted slow-burning highlight.

[203] Jesus Was A Crossmaker is Sylvester’s second and final vocal on  the album, but it’s not one of his better ones or one of The Hollies’ better covers in general (it’s a Judee Sill song really, a rare example of the Hollies covering a well known track barring their Dylan and Buddy Holly albums). The hymn-like, quietly gospel arrangement - another old Hollies standby of the late 60s/ early 70s, most commonly heard on Romany’s immediate predecessors Hollies Sing Hollies and Distant Light -  is a good try though, nearly supplanting the dreamy hypnotic state of the original and the story of how man keeps creating his own problems for himself again and again is one that’s calling out to be developed but is left tantalisingly unfinished in the song. The harmonies are well arranged and even more complex than usual but, unlike the other tracks on this album, the band don’t seem to have their heart in the song and in the context of the other arranging gems on Romany  this plodding song falls rather flat.

Next comes [204] Romany itself - the final CH Jennings song on the album - and in contrast to the last two it’s a beautiful, very Hollies like tale of two soulmates starting a new life together. The opening two minutes are as wistful and delicate as this most sumptuously fragile of bands ever got, developing their acoustic side rarely heard outside their other must-own 70s album Confessions Of A Mind. Rickfors’ sweet-as-honey vocal is superb, Hicks’ acoustic playing as great as ever, the complex arrangement adding instrument after instrument is clever and well done and the harmonies when they finally kick in 90 seconds into the song are exquisite. The song itself tells us less about the ‘romany’ girlfriend of the title than the narrator, his need to have ‘an old friend round’ and his picturesque images of what is in reality a hard back-breaking and lonely travelling life showing how desperate his need is to get away from something (‘In this context lines like ‘feeling safe to reach the harbour sound’ take on a far more sinister meaning despite the beauty going on within). The sudden change into a rocker halfway through the song is impressive stuff, catching the listener by surprise, as they listen in on the narrator’s desperate attempt to get away from some lurking menace, only to lose first his liberty and then his partner, drowned in the river before his eyes by his pursuers (‘Romany sank like a stone’). You wouldn’t know about this graphic scene without studying the lyrics though, such is the band’s tranquil harmony-filled performance and Rickfors’ sweet and gentle vocal. The most intriguing line here is ‘everyone’s thoughts were their own’ – are the two travellers political refugees, perhaps? Romany ends unfinished however, bowing out over a sighing melancholic harmonica lick, leaving its characters once more waiting for rescue. Another under-rated impressive song from an under-rated impressive album.

Hicks then attempts to jazz things up on his own song [205] Blue In The Morning, but unusually for Hicks it’s a pretty poor composition he’s brought to the table this time around, with an irritating riff that only a full Hollies-sung hook-filled chorus-line can rescue from averageness. In amongst the other strong songs here lines like ‘help me to choose her, to lose her no more’ stand no chance and even Hicks’ guitar solo (trading lines with Rickfors? It doesn’t sound like Sylvester’s playing here) sounds curiously pedestrian. A shame because, as one of only four or five songs where Tony ever sang lead on a Hollies track, he deserved better material to show off his fine voice. 

Things then close out with the most backward-looking track on the album, [206] Courage Of Your Convictions. Like a lot of the other songs, it’s a tale of standing up to be counted even when the world and his dog assumes you are wrong and it’s riff is a direct steal from the band’s then-last big hit Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress. Annoyingly for both The Hollies and their departed singer Clarke, their last sessions together provided a monstrous hit that neither could promote or follow-up successfully – but the band gamely try here. Most fans dislike this song, seeing it as some sort of weak-kneed version of a well loved song the band would have tossed off easily in the old Clarke days, but even though Rickfors is obviously outclassed by Clarke on songs of this ilk that really don’t suit his warm, velvety voice, he still does a pretty good job and the song itself is certainly up to their old standards, even if the performance isn’t quite there. Hicks’ guitar, drenched with plenty of feedback, gets things swinging and the downtrodden but about to rise-up lyrics still make for a rousing finale, thematically pointing this angry, rebellious outsider song calling for international peace in a quite different direction to Long Cool Woman’s hypnotic partying seductiveness.

So there you have it – gentle but with added bite, the new Hollies line-up seemed like a success to me and given the chance to grow might even have topped their old following. Sadly Romany didn’t sell (to quote a line from the title song ‘Romany sank like a stone’ in fact) and the band’s only other album with Rickfors – Down The Road – was only released in The Hollies’ biggest market (Germany, where the band are still revered in the same hushed tones as the Beatles and the Stones, an accolade that in my opinion if nobody else’s in Britain they certainly deserve). A great great shame because – with a lot more group-written originals – that record comes very very close to beating even the likes of this one. With Clarkey’s solo career also grounding to a halt, the two sides decided to patch up their differences in 1974 and – after scoring big with their return singles Air That I Breathe and The Day That Curly Billy Shot Down Crazy Sam McGee Curly Billy – the Hollies came to something of a full-stop, both in sales terms and in artistic terms. If only the band had continued in this idiom but, ah well, let’s just be content that the Hollies got this classic under their belt before saying any more. A terrific, under-rated souvenir from a terrific, under-rated band’s bursting-at-the-seams catalogue that is just crying out for a revival. 


'Stay With The Hollies' (1964)

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

'For Certain, Because' (1966)

'Evolution' (1967)

'Butterfly' (1967)

‘Hollies Sing Hollies’ (1969)

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

'Romany' (1972)

'Out On The Road' (1973)

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

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

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

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

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

No comments:

Post a Comment