Monday, 15 February 2016
The Hollies "A Crazy Steal" (1978)
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.