Monday, 16 June 2014
The Hollies "The Hollies" (1974) (Album Review)
The Hollies "The Hollies" (1974)
Falling Calling/It's A Shame It's A Game/Don't Let Me Down/Out On The Road/The Air That I Breathe//Rubber Lucy/Trans-Atlantic Westbound Jet/Pick Up The Pieces Again/Down On The Run/Love Makes The World Go Round/The Day That Curly Billy Shot Down Crazy Sam McGee
Dear all, first up in this review an apology. For the first time ever I can prove that someone used my website to actually look up an actual album review - unfortunately it was one that wasn't there! You see, dear readers, unlike most sites that cover just one group in chronological order, from the first I wanted Alan's Album Archives to cover lots of ground at once and I had such a boring experience writing our 'core' 101 albums in order that I vowed to zig-zag my way through 50 years of popular culture (well, 20 years of popular and 30 years of unpopular culture, generally speaking). As a result, I've missed out this album from my run of 1970s Hollies reviews so I've moved it up the order - and if you're the reader who wanted this review in particular then the good news is it's here at last and we're very sorry for the delay. The bad news is that I'm not actually that keen on this record for a whole variety of reasons: certainly it's the first Hollies record that doesn't at least try to build on where the band left off on the last LP and finds the band lowering their sights, accepting for the first time that they're simply a good-time pop band. Fair enough you could say - 99% of general music collectors consider the Hollies a good time pop band after all and there's no 'just' about being a pop band if you're a good one. But coming hot on the heels of two inventive and under-rated records that went in a whole new direction (my beloved 'Romany' and close cousin 'Out On The Road'), not to mention the three ground-breaking acts precede it, this album seems like something of a let down and the moment, for me, when The Hollies finally settled for the second-tier of pop and rock groups, instead of pushing for the first (where goodness knows they had the talent to reach).
There's a whole host of reasons why the band chose 1974 to 'just' be a pop band, of course, and they all make sense. Lead singer Allan Clarke had got the stars in his eyes in 1971 as he watched his old colleague Graham Nash find success first as part of CSN and then as a solo singer and decided that as the band's lead singer he probably had a better claim to success in his own right. sadly it didn't work out that way - Epic weren't as keen to push Clarkey as a solo act as Atlantic had been to encourage Nash, he hadn't made the 'American breakthrough' that Nash had done in 1969 and in 1971 The Hollies were at their un-trendiest (Nash's remarks in the press about his final days 'trapped' in the Hollies weren't helping). You can hear the moment that it all goes wrong for Clarkey, somewhere around the end of sessions for his first solo record 'My Real Name Is 'Arold', when a bright and sunny album suddenly falls into the pit of despair (just compare 'Bring On Your Smiles' with the gorgeous 'Nature's Way Of Saying Goodbye') and the mini-masterpiece follow-up, 'Headroom', is all about reluctantly swallowing your pride and letting golden chances slip through your fingers. At the same time The Hollies are sinking without trace despite making two of their best albums, with their new singer Mickael Rickfors giving the band a new mellow, acoustic sound that audiences never took to as much as the band's tougher original sound. The fact that Rickfors struggled with the English language and it was taking an age to make records with him where it had once been so effortless was leading to a general consensus on all sides that the split had been a mistake. Nobody can quite remember how Allan got back in the band he'd founded (some reckon that he 'asked' through EMI if he could re-join and others that the remaining Hollies pushed for him to come back), but the return was what everyone seemed to want.
However, band and singer had a problem. The last album with Clarke as singer ('A Distant Light') was part of a slow worrying trend down the charts and EMI now had such a low expectation of the band's sales that the album only came out in the band's second home of Germany (not even their homeland of Britain!) To rescue the band's stuttering reputation the Hollies needed hits and fast and as a result they re-mould themselves before our eyes. Even for a 1960s band The Hollies had always evolved quickly, racing through Merseybeat, folk, psychedelia, prog rock and acoustic protest periods but had paid the price in 1969 when they faced a real divide between becoming a full-time 'pop' band or a full-blown prog rock one (you can hear this dilemma most on their first post-Nash album 'Hollies Sing Hollies') Thankfully for me, they chose the latter path at the time - but by 1974, with falling sales and a slight move away from prog rock concept albums, they clearly consider it a mistake and with this album hastily head back down the 'pop' path as if nothing has happened. The Hollies could have done it in 1969 when they were still turning out some great pop gems (like the under-rated album track 'Please Let Me Please You' and B-sides 'Not That Way At All' and 'Mad Professor Blyth', which suggest that in a parallel universe somewhere The Hollies are still Top Of The Pops and maybe still going with this second line-up). But in 1974 they're too late: glam rock, the frothy 1970s equivalent of Merseybeat, has already been and gone and the teenage record-goers have stopped buying records by younger bands like Slade and T Rex so they're hardly likely to be enchanted by their elder siblings' pop records.
What The Hollies perhaps should have done was re-cast themselves as a heavy rocking band. Their last successful single had been 'Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress' in 1971, which stunned America by coming out of nowhere to reach #2 in the charts (released without the Hollies' knowledge only after lead writer singer and guitarist Allan Clarke had left the band, scuppering any real chance of the Hollies scoring a successful follow-up - although they had a couple of goes anyway). The second song taped at the sessions for 'The Hollies' (1974) was carbon copy single 'Curly Billy', which may not be quite as original or pioneering but succeeds in blowing away the interim years, getting The Hollies back to what it feels like they ought to be doing. Frustratingly, you wonder what might have happened had the band released this in 1972. The band went in quite a different direction for their next single and the album's best known song- the majestic 'The Air That I Breathe' - which once again sounds like what the band should have been doing: polished production, classic harmonies, great lead vocal, perfect unfussy production. Take the two songs together and you have the cornerstone for a terrific album, one where the Hollies seem to have regained their confidence and done what they sounded as if they were always on the cusp of achieving in 1969-73: clever, catchy pop songs that had clearly had time spent on them; the closest thing in the charts to the Hollies sound in 1974 was 10cc and they were still very much pegged as a 'comedy' band at the time. So many fans have come to 'The Hollies' (1974) expecting a great record because of those two singles - pretty much the last hits the band had excluding re-issues - and are somewhat puzzled by this record by the time it ends.
You see, the one thing you can never blame the Hollies for (at least until the 1980s) is their commitment: the band love taking their time and making a complex piece of arrangement sound effortless and simple, which is the mark of most good pop songs. On this album, however, they seem to have gone too far with the idea, taking easily the simplest collection of songs they ever wrote and slapping even more of their usual production gloss over the top than normal (there's very little production gloss at all on the bare-bones 'A Distant Light' for instance, although there's a fair bit on 'Sing Hollies' and 'Confessions'; chief engineer on this album was Alan Parsons, fresh from his work on 'Dark Side Of The Moon' which may well be the best produced album of all time, but talented as he and the band are they're clearly coming at this album form opposite paths). In the past there would generally be a good half of the album that 'deserved' the gravitas such a production statement gave it (think 'Marigold-Gloria Swansong' 'Too Young To Be Married' and ''You Know The Score' from the 1969-71 albums for example). Even when a song wasn't particularly deep ('Please Let Me Please' 'Perfect Lady Housewife' and 'Little Thing Like Love' to quote from the same albums), that made for quite a useful contrast, the band proving that they hadn't forgotten the joys of simplicity at the same time. 'The Hollies' sounds by contrast a little bit empty, with the only 'depth' to the album coming from the production - which admittedly sounds great on 'Air That I Breathe' and the album's best non-single 'Don't Let Me Down', not co-incidentally the 'deepest' two songs here. It's not as if the entire album is a complete waste (although both 'Love Makes The World Go Round' and 'It's A Shame, It's A Game' are easily the Hollies' weakest original work up till this point), but the production gloss has the effect of getting dressed up to go out to somewhere posh to eat and fining all they serve is pub food: lovely in its own place, maybe even better than the food you were waiting to be served, but it can't help but feel like an anti-climax when you bite in. Thankfully The Hollies always learnt quickly from their mistakes and next album 'Another Night' merges the best of both this new 'extra-glossy' sound with their older, deeper material -to great success, largely, even if a couple of tracks are a little on the cloying side. This album, however, tries too hard to be banally pop-songy basic and even a little earthy on the one hand and too sugary sweet on the other, creating an un-edible concoction in the middle of the two that pleases nobody.
This would perhaps matter less had long-term fans not already had the chance to compare how three of these songs ('Out On The Road' and 'Transatlantic Westbound Jet' plus the actual recording of 'Pick Up The Pieces Again', all released on the 'Out On The Road' LP) sounded without the production gloss. While Rickfors clearly doesn't have the strength of voice that Clarkey has (although his harmony singing is every bit as good), the band have done everything they can to disguise the fact, either giving him a punchier backing track than usual to respond to instead of leaving the earthiness to come from his voice (as per the first example) or letting the song build gradually layer by layer (as per the second). By keeping things simple, playing all together without overdubs and bouncing off each other The Hollies come up with some of the best sounding tracks they ever made - especially the 'Out On The Road' version of 'Transatlantic Westbound Jet', which veers towards funk-jazz by the end, even if the songs themselves are a little on the silly side. The 'Hollies' (1974) version, on the other hand, treats them all as silly pop songs and takes all the bite of the arrangements away, leaving Clarke to do all the work on a series of vocals that for a whole variety of reasons isn't quite comfortable as part of the 'Hollies' sound just yet. If ever you wanted an example of how much an arrangement affects a song just compare the two versions of 'Jet' - one a strutting, stuttering six minute epic enticingly on the verge of collapse throughout that really builds verse by verse - the other an empty-headed three minute pop song that repeats the same chords too many times. Even 'Pick Up The Pieces', the lovely Terry Sylvester ballad that has the distinction of appearing on three separate albums between 1973 and 1974 (the third is his first solo album 'Terry Sylvester' released shortly after this album), doesn't sound as good in its new 'home', despite being identical to the version that appeared on 'Out On The Road' (perhaps because it's gone from standing out as the most-produced track to the least produced track). While I'm on the subject, I'm surprised too that its these songs The Hollies sought to re-record: I can understand why the band didn't bother with Mickeal's songs (although it would have been a nice gesture for his two years of faithful service) - but why pass on Tony Hicks' 'Better Place' or Terry Sylvester's 'Mr Heartbreaker', classic songs both! That also goes for two songs recorded early on in the album sessions that finally saw the light of day in the 1980s and 1990s respectively: the charming border-narrative 'Mexico Gold' later releases on 'Rarities' (which was the first song the band recorded on Clarkey's return in case you're wondering) and 'Tip Of The Iceberg' (Released on the compilation 'At Abbey Road Volume Three' in 1998), a storming rocker that proves the band could still had a telepathy with one another. Interestingly, both songs have less production than anything that made the album (barring 'Curly Billy').
My other 'problem' with 'The Hollies' (1974) (we have to keep referring to it that way because the band had already used the title 'The Hollies' in 1965, which used to make ordering albums difficult in the days before the internet when things were bought sight unseen!) is that The Hollies have already become Clarke's showcase. Without the 'missing' years that wouldn't be a problem at all of course - Allan was on a real writing roll in this period, coming up with the best material for both 'A Distant Light' and this album ('Curly Billy' and 'Don't Let Me Down' are easily the best group originals) as well his neglected classic 'Headroom' (which is much more like 'Light' in style, being depressed and downbeat for the most part). However, the problems the Hollies had between 1972-73 with falling sales and Rickfors' struggles with singing a whole song naturally in a second language had brought the others closer together. Terry's showcases are the highlights of both 'Romany' and 'Out On The Road' and especially the B-sides ('I Had A Dream' and 'Indian Girl'), while Tony's rare lead vocals in this period (his first since 1967 and his last till a 1989 B-side) show what an under-rated singer he was, less natural than either Clarke or Sylvester but with a real character to his voice. Bernie, too, had much more to do between 1972-73 than just play the bass (that's him playing piano on most of the session tapes and clearly enjoying himself) while Bobby, though critical of the period in hindsight, is inspired enough to come up with only his second ever song ('Westbound Jet'). Sadly the minute that Clarke is back in the group this camaraderie seems to evaporate: Terry gets his last lead vocal for five years (and then only takes over when Clarkey leaves for a shorter solo spell during sessions for '5317704') and then only on a recording from an earlier album, Tony gets his last lead vocal for 15 years, Bernie gets 'replaced' by 'sixth Hollie' Pete Wingfield on this and every other 1970s Hollies record and Bobby's back to bashing out the drums. You could argue that the other Hollies did this to keep their lead singer happy, perhaps half-afraid that he'd leave them again. You could argue too that the formula worked - spectacularly so on 'The Air That I Breathe' - and clearly the band as they had been wasn't selling as many units so something had to change. But couldn't they have had something more to do on the next stretch of Hollies LPs?
There are a few themes crossing over each on this record. Naturally the theme of travel from 'Out On The Road' is back again, thanks to so many of that album's songs being recycled here (especially the theme of touring to escape problems back home). Another is responsibility: Curly Billy is a cowboy with a job to do and lots of people relying on him for future freedom; both 'The Air That I Breathe' and 'Don't Let Me Down' try to sound casual about it but they're both really asking a lot of their respective partners, 'Down On The Run' might be about meeting up with friends for a bit of fun but includes the line 'if I blackout people back out' and a hint that the narrator is actually nervous about proving himself in their company. It's easy to see where the theme with 'responsibility' might have come from - both halves of the Hollies split want the best for each other and to make it like the 'old days' and they're in danger of losing the people they respect if they don't succeed (it's worth mentioning that longterm Hollies producer Ron Richards, frustrated during sessions for 'Romany' had walked out before 'Out On The Road' but rejoined the band to make this album; they wanted a hit to repay his faith in them too). However the only lyric that 'seems' to refer to the split implicitly is the very aptly titled 'Pick Up The Pieces Again' - which was actually written long before the reunion!
A bigger surprise is how 'teenagery' many of these songs sound, with the Hollies dealing with subjects such as getting ready to go out ('It's A Shame, It's A Game'), girls who keep changing their minds ('Rubber Lucy') and waiting to meet up with a 'gang' at the weekend ('Down On The Run'). It's worth remembering that when The Hollies were approximately this age (late teens/early twenties) they were already spending their time singing about such subjects as over-population ('Too Many People'), hiding behind a public persona ('Clown') and being trapped in an unhappy marriage ('Set Me Free') - the only time The Hollies come close to being this frivolous is on Clarke & Nash's first ever song 'Little Lover' back in 1963. The whole is another reason this record sounds so uneven - one minute The Hollies are pleading 'Don't Let Me Down' with the wisdom of a man whose been hurt many times and is pledging his heart to another; the next they're rhyming 'Lucy' with 'choosy' and telling us how they thought they looked cool because 'my drainpipes [presumably trousers, unless this song is about plumbing and I never realised it] were outtasite!' At least the Hollies could have put all their 'teenagery' songs together on one side of the record and followed it with their mature' side (the band tend to be amongst the best AAA stars at compiling their albums) - but mixing the two up seems to be asking for trouble.
Overall, then, 'The Hollies' (1974) is far from classic Hollies. The band seem to have squandered the inventive arrangements and exciting new directions both lead singer and singer-less band had been pursuing separately (I still say the best of 'Headroom' compared with 'Out On The Road' would have made for the best Hollies album ever!) and sacrificed it at the altar of pop. I quite understand why - the band had to regain their lost ground and a pop album was far easier to sell than a prog rock epic like 'A Distant Light' had been. I still feel sad, though, that there isn't some sort of flicker of the earlier band on this album, though - the sort of mix the band get right in their next run of records, in fact. Yes the two singles are great, yes 'Don't Let Me Down' is a great forgotten album track even for a band who made a career of them and yes 'Pick Up The Pieces Again' is a fine song, even if you already own it on the superb 'Out On The Road' re-issue on the French label Magic from a few years back (I plugged it as much as I could when it came out so I hope it isn't out of print!) Yes, also, you can understand why this album of all Hollies albums is a little bit self-conscious and lacking in confidence (however untypically arrogant a lot of the lyrics on this record are) and in many ways it's a sign of how close the band were that they've not only melded their voices together in perfect harmony once again but gone in a completely separate direction to what either party was making just a few months ago. But too much of this album sounds like the five members of the band playing at being The Hollies and remembering rather than living what life used to be like before. Only a few albums ago we were talking about how even if the Hollies weren't the pinnacle of bands from the 1960s then they may well be the era's most consistent. On this album they've lost their ability to make even their lesser songs sound great and the fact that some of their great songs sound marvellous is only half a substitute. Ah well, it's a shame, but it's a game as they say - we still have the towering achievement that is 'The Air That I Breathe' to enjoy and 'Another Night' is the album up next; thankfully that is an album The Hollies are 'living' and it manages to build on all the forks in the Hollies' long dark road up to here far more successfully than this album.
'Falling Calling' is one of the more interesting songs on the album, with Allan Clarke back to one of his favourite themes again for the last time on a Hollies album: Christianity. We started off with righteous indignation ('Why Didn't You Believe?'), calls for the second coming ('You Know The Score' and 'Promised Land') and then disbelief and outrage ('People Of That Kind' from Clarke's album 'Headroom') and now we've turned fall circle. With his life thrown in turmoil the narrator of this song 'doesn't know what to do' before calling out to his maker. You're still not quite sure whether the tactic works by the end of the song, which leaves the narrator as helpless and embittered as he began it, but it's notable that he already feels regret for the years when 'I didn't believe in the Bible, didn't believe the good book' (the album actually starts with this line, which is about as unhip a couplet as you can get in 1974!) Like many a Hollies narrator to come, this is a real wrong 'un' speaking to us here, one sentenced by a judge 'for 5000 days', presumably in prison as 1974's a bit early for 'community service' (this equates to 14 years, more or less, which is a significant chunk of time). The song is more involved with the narrator's redemption than his mistakes, however, and we never find out what he did. Not the fact that the 'prisoner' reckons he'll be '70' when he gets out of jail: by our maths that makes him 56, significantly older than the band's real age at the time (Clarke was 32 when this came out, for instance), although the sense of regret over the fact rings very true (the prisoner imagining himself leaving in the future 'with a new face to turn another page'). The end result is a song Johnny Cash could have done respectably on one of his 'prison' albums, complete with the sudden conviction for religion so many of his 'outlaw' songs transformed into. Despite being one of the last songs recorded for the album I'm tempted to see this as being written during the 'lost' years - the band have done their best to add a groovy handbeat jive to the backing track of this song but it's closer in style to the downbeat mood of 'Headroom' (perhaps Terry's co-credit came from re-shaping the song into an upbeat pop song?) Either way, it's what the Hollies do best: a catchy quality pop single with a depth to it that most of the other songs on the album don't have. The vocal arrangement on this one is particularly good, with Clarke's lead vocal is as passionate as on all his other 'religious' songs and Terry and Tony's separate backing vocals alternately nagging and sympathetic, giving the effect of the two 'halves' of the Hollies sound working in parallel with each other again, which is a clever way to start a 'reunion' album.
Alas 'It's A Shame, It's A Game' is a waste of the Hollies' talents and a waste of our time. I was hoping for more when I first heard this song, which pitted guitarist Tony Hicks with Colin Horton-Jennings - the writer behind several of 'Romany's best songs (Including 'Magic Woman Touch' 'Delaware Taggett And The Outlaw Boys' and the title track itself). Separately the two turned in some of the maturer, heartfelt, acoustic songs of the decade: together they descend into pop song parody, with an uncomfortable spoof of glam rock and teenage pop songs. Personally if I was Allan Clarke, I'd have turned right round and left again after being handed lyrics about being 'out last night in my Sunday stripes, Tuesday at the hop if I wear drainpipes' and some rather threatening promises that the singer will 'teach you how to hip-jive!' Hicks does well to get a retro 50s sound on his guitar and an un-credited sax player has a great cameo, suggesting that this song is a memory of the two writers' teenage-hoods. If so then they sound a couple of pretty unlikeable teenagers, with Hicks returning to one of his favourite themes of infidelity when he promises to 'chase my girl's best friend' and afterwards worry about making up to his original girlfriend or go home alone (there's also a line about her friend going out with his brother which is suddenly inserted for no apparent reason - co-incidentally or not, Bobby Elliott was married to Tony Hicks' sister at the time of this recording). The central idea of the rites and rituals of teenager life being 'a shame' and 'a game' is a strong one, but sadly the brusque, angular backing track and the equally harsh lyrics have too many blunt edges for the Hollies sound and they struggle to come up with the right sense of menace and earthiness that, say, The Who would have brought to this song. It may be that Tony was self-consciously trying to write another 'Long Cool Woman' with the same smoky atmosphere and sultry lyrics, but the characters here are pitched too young and the drama a bit too predictable for the song to come anywhere close.
No such qualms about 'Don't Let Me Down', though, which is easily the best Allan Clarke composition on the album. Like most of Allan's lyrics for 'Headroom' the world is suddenly a scary, uncertain place with love (for wife Jennifer) the only consistency in his life. 'Down' builds on the sensitivity of his marvellous ballad 'Who?' and both versions of his 'breakthrough' song 'Would You Believe?' by asking why such a wonderful being chose to be with him when she could have chosen anybody ('can't compete with your beauty, couldn't if I tried'). The central theme, which recalls John Lennon's anguished 1969 paean to Yoko, sounds as if it should be the most edgy of all of these songs especially at the end when the song makes it clear that the girl has left (with the refrain 'come on back', the second of two times the Hollies' used this phrase), but mostly this piece is in laidback dreamy Hollies mode, with Clarke at his romantic best. There is, however, a particularly successful middle eight asking for truth and honesty which may or may not have been inspired by Terry's similar song 'Mr Heartbreaker' ('Let's build something to climb on, make this show a live one, no need for make-up let's be real'). The trouble with many a 1970s Hollies song (as opposed to solo spin-off album) is that you can tell that the Clarke-Sylvester-Hicks writing team are such pros that they've imagined a scenario and written a suitable song for it, but this one sounds almost overpoweringly 'real' and Clarke's strident vocal is a delight (as is Terry's falsetto, which seems to get higher every chorus, and Tony's work slap bang in the middle of the harmonies). I'm fascinated to know whether the song existed during Clarke's solo days - and how he'd have arranged it if it had (would it have had the same downbeat, bluesy feel of much of 'Headroom' or a more commercial sound as here?) The song was a deserved big hit when released as a single in Brazil - perhaps the band should have released it as the third single from this album in Europe and the States as well? Containing the Hollies' usual polished charm with something that cuts a little bit deeper, 'Don't Let Me Down' is easily as good as 'Air That I Breathe' and deserves to be much better known.
'Out On The Road' is the first of three songs we've already discussed on our review of the album 'Out On The Road'. The final song in the long-running Tony Hicks-Kenny Lynch partnership (the pair were neighbours for a time in the early 1970s), it's a rock song about a preening rock star who was so busy on the road that he missed out on several important moments back home (including, most worryingly, 'when my shack was burning'). Not the best song the pair ever wrote, at least the 'Rickfors' version has a lot of charm, not least because Mickael made such an unlikely rock star (he sings with a nice lot of grit on the recording, though, even so). You can almost hear the 1973-era Hollies crying out for Clarkey back in the band to sing it with his usual tougher voice - and yet this re-recording is a disappointment. Like much of the album the song sounds too rehearsed and polished, losing the spontaneity that made the 'Out On The Road' record so thrilling and with Clarke singing the song straight, without the tongue-in-cheek comedy of Rickfors. The band also plunge a little too far into their default 'retro 1950s' sound instead of the heavy-metal-meets-folk hybrid of the original - and frankly we've heard the Hollies use that style too many times by 1974. The switch to the middle eight is especially disappointing, the original sadly sighing over the fact that 'I sold my soul to the devil and the king of rock and roll!', missing out on seeing his children grow up and his wife grow old - by contrast Clarke sounds proud of his renegade lifestyle! Thankfully the highlight of the original recording is kept intact though - a particularly bonkers Tony Hicks guitar solo so unlike his usual carefully planned style, finally giving the song release with a series of chords that mange to invoke Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Big Bill Broonzy all at once.
Side one then ends with 'The Air That I Breathe', which is about as perfect a pop single as they can be. Producer Ron Richards suggested the song to the band after hearing a rather throwaway version on Phil Everly (formerly of perhaps the Hollies' biggest influence The Everly Brothers') on his 1973 album 'The Star Spangled Banner'. It's odd, actually, that the Hollies didn't spot the song earlier - writers Hammond and Hazelwood had done a lot of work with the band and indeed Terry Sylvester was already planning his Hammond/Hazelwood filled first solo album and the track had originally appeared on Hammond's gloriously titled 1972 album 'It Never Rains In Southern California' (if I had my way I'd have had the band recording the writers' classic 'The Tress, The Flowers and The Shame' as the follow-up - Terry does a great solo version of it but it's crying out for the Hollies sound). Like 'Don't Let Me Down', the song is both simple and powerful, the narrator figuring that if they were given perfection they'd turn it down because they already have the girl of their dreams and air to breathe. Personally I'd have added a big old music collection in my three wishes too, but it's clearly a great idea for a song and is one of those songs that says a great deal with very few words: you instantly know how deep the attraction of the lovers in the song goes. The Hollies' third version is easily the best: Clarke is born to soar on emotionally resonant songs like these, Tony Hicks adds a stunning guitar part missing from both other versions that's his single best part for the band in nearly a decade (since 'Hard Hard Year' in 1966; Eric Clapton allegedly rang him up to compliment him on it) and Bobby Elliott gets the open space he longs for to give one of those characteristic 'Bobby fills', with a sudden rhythmical run across the kit at key moments across the song. Best of all, the Hollies add extra tension by transposing the last verse up an octave, doubling the tension in the song and Tony letting fly with another soaring guitar part, adding an extra kick at the end to sear the song into the memory. Always masters of perfecting other people's songs, this talent had lain dormant within the band since they started doing only their own material circa 1966, but they clearly still had it. Even old rival Graham Nash was gracious enough to call this 'a great Hollies record - a really well-constructed pop song' and he's not wrong. The Hollies' third big breakthrough hit in America (on the heels of 'Bus Stop' and 'Long Cool Woman'), it's just a shame that the band could never find the right vehicle to follow and most of the Hollies' reviews to come after this will trace their failed attempts to replicate the magic they got here. No matter - few bands ever get to create a recording this perfect once and 'The Air That I Breathe' stands as one of their greatest achievements and the clear highlight of the album. One final footnote for you: Radiohead's breakthrough hit 'Creep' shares a passing similarity with the chords of this song (though not exactly the mood!) and Thom Yorke now has to share writer's credits with Hammond and Hazlewood on perhaps the band's best known song!
'Rubber Lucy' kicks off the second side with the best rocker on the album - although that's a comparative measure. Clarkey's song shares much with the rather gormless happy-go-lucky songs that take up much of his first solo album 'My Real Name Is 'Arold', a record that frustratingly is still awaiting its first CD release. Another surprisingly juvenile song, it's scarily similar to the Grateful Dead's 'Loose Lucy' released three months later: both girls are promiscuous and keep changing their suitors daily, but both narrator's are clearly smitten and unable to think about anything else despite their concerns. The song bounces with the enthusiasm of the chase and the stunning three-part harmonies, a typical rat-a-tat Bobby Elliott drum lick and some more gonzo guitar work from Tony (this time channelling Frank Zappa via Led Zeppelin!) add up to the best band performance on the album outside the two hit singles. However, it's a waste to hear such talent wasted on a song whose opening lines run: 'Lucy you're a floozy, you ain't choosy, you've been flashing those big blue eyes at the other guys...' Weirder still is the middle eight which implores 'As the queen Bee I'll make your honey, I'll even populate your hive!' - we've covered many metaphors for love across this site, dear readers, but I don't think we've ever had bee-keeping before! There's something slightly disturbing about the 'Carry On' style of the word 'honey' but - no - stop that, this is the Hollies they can't mean that can they? A sort of sequel to 'The Games We Play', this is another song that's actually pretty rubbish but is rescued by a stunning performance and the commitment of all concerned. Coming straight after the poise, wit, depth and polish of 'The Air That I Breathe', though, this is second-run filler at best.
'Transatlantic Westbound Jet' is the second and last Bobby Elliott song (feel free to look really smug right now if you knew that the other was 'Just One Look' B-side 'Keep Off That Friend Of Mine'), touched up with a bit of chord work from Terry Sylvester. Written by Bobby 'because no one else seemed to be', this song was one of the highlights of the 'Out On The Road' album, with the Hollies 'doing' jazz across six whole minutes, letting the song build and build across a series of cat-and-mouse tension releases punctuated by fiery instrumentals (on which Bernie Calvert, back on his first love of piano, truly shines). The song really fitted into the album concept of travel, too, with a strutting band 'playing guitar' during a bored flight to JFK airport before musing on how music-making 'is the only thing I can do' while the band 'travel through the nation in need of stimulation'. Alas, this more straightforward, rockier version pales by comparison: shorn to three minutes, with the instrumentals taken out and lots of posh sound effects phased in, the song just sounds...empty. Clarke has fun barking out his vocal (and sounding more and more demented with the amount of 'airline tannoy' effects heaped on his vocal) but the whole air is one of boredom: the band simply don't connect with each other on this song and the most memorable passage is another un-credited saxophone part, which seems to fly through one cargo bay door and out the other. It's hard to tell what the difference is, except that the 'Rickfors' plane is a rickety one about to crash any minute, making the ride all the more exciting and the 'Clarke' jet is on auto-pilot, trying to get through the song with as few mistakes as possible. Bobby's promising and likeable song deserved better - sometimes it really is better to travel low budget!
The band have added a little bit of echo by the sound of it, but otherwise 'Pick Up The Pieces Again' is identical to the recording on 'Out On The Road' and a as a result, it's the only song here on which Clarke doesn't appear (presumably the band chose it because Rickfors doesn't appear on it either). Like many of Terry's solo songs for the band, it's a beautiful, well rounded song about the mysteries of love and in this case is incredibly apt: reflecting on how only seconds ago the narrator and his love were fighting and yet now seem to be reconciliated he simply reflects, puzzled, that 'love is strange' sometimes. Even without Clarke the harmonies are tremendously lovely (Terry and Tony have an even greater blend together than with Allan or Tony did with Graham), Hicks' wah-wah guitar work is pristine as ever and the lovely, sighing melancholy melody is tailor-made for the band. Here, though, on 'The Hollies' (1974) (Why couldn't they have called it something else - I hate having to write that title out every time!) it sounds rather out of place, a reminder of a time when the Hollies were mellow, acoustic and laidback which gets lost in amongst two of the noisier album songs either side of it.
'Down On The Run' is a 'new' Tony Hicks/Colin Horton-Jennings song that sounds tailor-made for the new look Hollies: there's a poppy shuffle beat and a brasher lyric track that fits Clarke's brasher voice. Alas the song is only a slight improvement from 'It's A Shame, It's A Game', being another silly juvenile song about being part of a gang and wanting to impress. There's a hint that the gang are less than the savoury characters the narrator points them out to be (the references to 'Angels' suggest they're bikers and the many references to alcohol to steady the narrator's nerves suggests they aren't doing anything legal). The third verse, in fact, is particularly un-Hollies like and almost savours the cruelty of the song: 'Two shadows are passing, cutting like knives, short cut on our lives'. This song, should, then, be a fascinating experiment into the Hollies doing something different, but sadly they've stuck the same old shuffle-beat we've heard several times on top of the song and there's no drama in the proceedings: Clarke could be singing his shopping list for all the resonance the lyrics seem to possess. There's no resolution either: you're expecting the protagonist to get caught, see the error of his ways, see his friend knifed, be overcome with remorse, something - but nothing happens, he simply ends the song waiting for the next weekend when he can do it all over again, which is about the worst ending the song could have. At least there's a welcome return of Clarke's ever-wonderful harmonica playing though (sadly the only time it's used on this album) and the band are at least trying something different on this track, although they should really have gone that little bit further to make Hollies history.
Sadly 'Love Makes The World Go Round' doesn't have either saving caveat: it's the kind of sickly sentimental song the band always seem to lapse into when they're not quite sure what to do next. At their best The Hollies are a pop band with a real gravitas and emotional weight behind them - at their worst, as here, they're simply a pop band and not a particularly good one. Sung just that little bit too slow and with just that little bit over-cliched lyrics, this is one of the worst Hollies recordings of them all. You can almost tick off all the lines you'd expect from the awful title: 'Mr Right turned into Mr Wrong' 'Love can make you feel three feet off the ground' etc etc. A more interesting song would have been to turn the last angst-filled verse into the main theme: with his heart crushed the narrator wonders if the world will stop too because without the love that's always made 'the world go round for him' it seems as if it will stop altogether. Interestingly this horror is not by Hicks and collaborators (who have a tendency to lapse into this sort of thing and the hint at infidelity at the song's end, which is quickly becoming a Hicks trademarkicks trademark) but by Allan and Terry, the pair reviving their partnership from before Clarke left. Even Tony's burbling frog-like guitar riff and a sweeping orchestral arrangement can't save this from being one of the slowest four minutes in the Hollies' canon. They won't make a mistake this big again until the 1990s...
The album thankfully ends on another high point with the longest song title in Hollies history: 'The Day That Curly Billy Shot Down Crazy Sam McGee'. A tense cowboy epic written in the style of 'Long Cool Woman', it manages to sound both musically tougher than the original (the delay till the bass and drums kick in) and lighter lyrically (despite the death of McGee in the chorus). Some fans wondered at the time whether there was space for two such similar songs in the Hollies canon but I say there is: Clarke's strident macho cowboy is a world away from the shadowy FBI informant of 'Cool Woman' and - safe in the knowledge that this might be the album single rather than just an album track - every trick in the band's arsenal is brought out to play, including a catchy singalong chorus and a real peak of tension heading out of the instrumental. Considering that this is only the second song the Hollies worked on together post-split (after the unreleased 'Mexico Gold') and the fact that it sounds nothing like either Clarke's solo work or the two Rickfors Hollies albums, the performance is remarkably tight, dripping with energy and sweat. Clarke's vocal is at least as his good as his work on 'Long Cool Woman' and he just about manages to steer his Wild West tale with the chorus line 'Curly Billy silly with his colt he calls philly' away from the comedy that lesser bands would have given it. After all, some of these lyrics are actually quite dark: the narrator hints that he recognises the baddy after shooting his son who had the same look of fear in his eyes, the cowboy is betrayed not out of loyalty or bravery but a bribe from the man who runs the local hotel and the narrator makes no bones about his death in the last verse, feeling the 'rippling lead' pass through him. Forget the silly chorus if you can: this is as intense and upsetting as any Western film and it ends with the rogue still on the loose and the town without a sheriff, even if he was 'crazy'. The central guitar riff isn't quite as menacing or powerful as 'Long Cool Woman' and yet it does its job, with all three guitarists in the band (Clarke included) turning in a great performance, along with Bobby's sparse, spare drums and Bernie's walking bass part. Incidentally, if you can look out for the Hollies' Top Of The Pops appearance plugging this song: caught in the middle of one of the show's many 'miming' debates the band chooses to go for a half-live half-recorded hybrid, Clarke singing a new lead vocal along with his old one and Bobby adding some 'new' drums. The result is even better than the studio take that made the album, without even the slight production polish of the finished version. Sadly the song didn't stay in the band's setlist for very long, but I bet it was a killer track when the band played it back then. The rest of the album may have squandered many of its chances, but the Clarke-reunion period clearly starts with a bang, with everything The Hollies could have been in the wake of 'Long Cool Woman' and the 'missing' years dispelled in one swoop.
What we have, then, is one of the lesser Hollies albums but even the lesser Hollies albums have much to enjoy: you can pretty neatly saw this album in half from the tracks that work ('Falling Calling' 'Don't Let Me Down' 'The Air That I Breathe' 'Pick Up The Pieces' and 'Curly Billy') and those that don't. The Hollies clearly aren't quite sure yet how to play their 'reunion' - whether they pick up where they left off, go back to being a 'pop' band, continue with the more downbeat bluesy and acoustic things they've been up to while they've been apart or try something new and darker. The result is an album that tries everything but only really succeeds when the band try to do what they used to do - but better; the ballads are more polished and more heartfelt than ever, 'Curly Billy' is a rock song that takes no prisoners and 'Falling Calling' is a superior pop song that touched on big debates and danger. Everything else falls slightly short somehow - the band 'playing' at being pop stars, wearing drainpipe trousers, writing about knife crimes and discussing promiscuous girlfriends, none of which really make sense as a 'new' direction. Certainly fans coming to this album from the two hit singles were bemused: there's nothing here as powerful as 'Breathe' or as rocky as 'Curly Billy' and the two songs clearly had more time spent on them than anything else on the LP. Thankfully the Hollies were always quick to learn and they seem to instinctively realise that their future depends on building on the bits of this album that work: from here-on in the outside collaborators will be gone in favour of group compositions, the production will be top notch and glossy but only when the songs demand it rather than being piled on everything and the band will go back to writing classy pop with a touch of depth and emotion. The Hollies needed the learning curve 'The Hollies (1974)' represented, which given the circumstances of slight resentments on both halves that the group was bigger than they were ought to have been worse. Thankfully, though, they've done learning by the time of the next LP and both their mojo and consistency come back the very next 'Night', a record regarded by many Hollies aficionados as their best work of the 1970s...