Monday, 17 April 2017
The Hollies "Write On" (1976)
The Hollies "Write On" (1976)
Star/Write On/Sweet Country Calling/Love Is The Thing/I Won't Move Over//Narida/Stranger/Crocodile Woman (She Bites!)/My Island/There's Always Goodbye
'You're not the first and won't be the last to feel the frustration of a musical fast'
Back in 1966 'Bus Stop' had finally become The Hollies' breakthrough hit stateside and suddenly they were 'stars' but didn't know it, taking a while to capitalise on their success over there (it's not until 1971's 'Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress' that Americans really know who The Hollies are, Graham Nash's adventures in CSN aside). Ten years on, though and it's all gone wrong. For the first time in the band's career EMI's American subsidiary Epic has decided to pass on a Hollies album, rejecting everything after 'Another Night' on the grounds that nobody is that interested in The Hollies anymore. Given the amount of money, ideas and indeed talent thrown at that LP and this is a cruel blow, just two years after international hit 'The Air That I Breathe' and one The Hollies never quite recover from even though EMI continues to release their albums at home in the UK (Epic will instead compile a random assortment of tracks from this album and the next two as the not-at-all Crosby-Stills-Nash cash-in 'Clarke-Sylvester-Hicks-Calvert-Elliott', which is still how most American fans know these songs: actually it's pretty good as desperate marketing compilation techniques go even if it doesn't choose the songs most British fans would assume it does). The Hollies' response? Well, they mope around a bit and feel sorry for themselves a lot to be honest, turning in their moodiest, grumpiest, biggest self-pitying album since 'Would You Believe?' in 1966.
The band are stars anywaaaa-a-a-a-a-a-a-ay, though, and while half of this album sighs 'what's the point?' the other half is already trying to knock their listeners socks off so much that they have to turn this album into a 'hit'. The fact that it wasn't says more about EMI's sleepy marketing team and the sudden arrival of punk in the UK in 1976 than it does about The Hollies. Even so, the band's response to commercial annihilation isn't what most bands would do and again and again throughout this album the band try to discover a new sound rather than simply consolidate their old one. You would expect The Hollies to simply re-record 'Air That I Breathe' clones across 'Another Night' and 'Write On' and indeed that's a good part of what The Hollies do, with gorgeous period outtakes 'Here In My Dreams' and 'Sanctuary' very much in the same mould (and ever so nearly every bit as good). The band first 'lost' their eleven year commercial momentum by releasing the gamble that was 'Son Of A Rotten Gambler' - a single that most definitely didn't play it since - and ever since have been refusing to play the obvious cards. It speaks volumes that these two exquisite ballads ended up in the vaults but the Hollies' first country-rock song ('Sweet County Calling'), retro rock ('Crocodile Woman'), calypso ('My Island') and their biggest prog rock statements by far ('Love Is The Thing' and 'Stranger') all end up on this album instead. Change is often good and exactly what a band with a then-thirteen year, fourteen-album pedigree the way The Hollies had should have been doing, but you have to be careful with commercial decline - and moaning in the title track about what a great set of songs you have but that your fans are all complete idiots for not buying it is a dangerous move. So, too, is this album's attempt at a hit single in the self-deprecating 'Star' where the band strut around thinking they are still every bit as big as The Beatles and yet the girl the narrator tries to chat up admits she's never heard of them.
Humour, grumps and a sudden unexpected reversion to 1950s rockabilly is not the usual solution to commercial decline, but in context this record makes a lot of sense given that the high profile big budget 'Another Night' hadn't broken the marketplace the way the band wanted either. The 'in' sound of the year in Britain, ironically enough, is Mud who end up sounding not unlike a slightly tongue-in-cheek version of the 1960s Hollies - which is why it makes more sense to me than most fans that the band's bassist Ray Stiles should become a Hollie himself in the 1980s. Much of the album is trying to do the same slightly silly, carefree pop with which the band made their name the first time around. Unfortunately, though, the band never quite managed to hone that style on their own songs, preferring to write the more experimental and usually much more serious B-sides instead. Humour doesn't quite suit The Hollies as songwriters, however great they sound when performing it on 'Bus Stop' et al and the humour is what doesn't quite work on this album: 'Stranger' rhymes with danger, because this is an album that's meant to be slightly silly, 'Crocodile Woman' starts off as a song about a cougar before ending up being about a snappy bitter spouse instead and 'Narida' comes with more 'na na nas' than 'Hey Jude'. Only on 'Star' do The Hollies finally nail their comedy vein and it's for pretty much the last time on record sadly, Allan Clarke's smug lead getting his comeuppance the perfect response to The Hollies' dip in sales figures.
However all that laughing on the surface covers up where this album's heart really lies and that 'Write On' ends up being perhaps the most serious and heartfelt Hollies album out there. The title track takes you by surprise not because it's so grumpy (The Hollies, a candidate for the 1960s if not the 1970s' most emotionally resonant singles band, have been masters of the genre since 'We're Through') but because it's so autobiographical. This isn't a life experience turned into being about a girl or a character or a story or a crocodile woman or Pegasus the Flying Horse, it's about a musician whose songs aren't being played on the radio anymore wondering whether it's worth bothering carrying on. Two other songs on the album continue the belligerent mood and are only very slightly turned into 'love' songs. 'I Won't Move Over' has the narrator refusing to let go of something that once felt so good and admitting to us that they don't feel as if it's 'over' yet whatever they've been told - that the ring they once gave hasn't been handed back yet so they're going to pretend as if nothing's wrong and hope it goes away (is the ring an EMI contract with four albums left on it in the UK?!) Then there's the closer 'There's Always Goodbye' which rivals even 'Lucy' for the sheer amount of tears you feel like crying while listening to it. The narrator has been duped into feeling happy and contented, that the latest love of his life was 'the one' and now it's all gone wrong, again. Did we mention this was an album that felt a bit sorry for itself? Elsewhere 'My Island' demonstrates just how badly the band need this escapism, with a song born of imagination and fiction somehow sounding as 'real' as any track in The Hollies' catalogue, if only for the lines where the narrator admits it's all make-believe. Finally, many Hollies love songs are heartfelt and you can tell that they're written with someone in mind (sometimes three people given that this is the era of the Clarke-Sylvester-Hicks writing credits) but 'Love Is The Thing' is perhaps the ultimate Hollies love song, dispensing with the need for hooks, riffs and commercial appeal for a rising-falling swell of emotion so strong it will knock you off your feet. With every track on this album written by the band themselves - one of the few times this actually happens in the 1970s - this feels like more of the 'real' Hollies lurking underneath the occasional bit of finger-snapping filler and it's a far more honest and heartfelt album than, say, the 1974 Hollies one (which was all character-driven).
Unfortunately it's also in many ways the slowest - which isn't going to help The Hollies' commercial standings at all. One of the things that made the Hollies stand out during the 1960s was their energy: with Bobby Elliott's jazz thrusts driving the band along, no one could touch them for sheer enthusiasm and effort. Compared to the 'pretty' Beatles and 'laidback' Rolling Stones, it was The Hollies' calling card. From this album on, though, 'Write On' is the close of one of the greatest 180 degree turns in popular music: the ballads are that bit slower, the rockers that bit sparser and the productions that bit more lush. Only the mid-paced strut of 'Star' and the manicness of 'Crocodile Woman' buck that trend on this album, which as well as a near-enough five-minute title track and a Ron Richards production best described as 'epic', makes 'Write On' the single most prog rock Hollies album (a nose ahead of 'A Distant Light' courtesy of that suite-loving album's more lo-fi production values). Sadly for The Hollies that was a sound that had suddenly never sounded more unfashionable in the new world the punks were busy trying to shape. The irony is that had punk come with half the energy The Hollies displayed in 1963 then the movement might have lasted for longer; it's a surprise that the Merseybeat era Mancunian music wasn't embraced by them more being a mixture of rebellion, frustration and sheer joy at being alive - what every good punk in 1976 was trying to follow. By 1976 The Hollies are too gentlemanly to rebel, too set in their ways ('Star' aside) to feel frustration and too fed-up at the way their career was going to make a 'punk' album. Missing this bus, too, The Hollies will instead combine punk and disco for their next record 'Russian Roulette', which as the name suggests is something of a hit-and-miss affair.
For now, though, 'Write On' is close to what The Hollies should have been doing in this period given the circumstances. If 'Another Night' couldn't win over a new audience with its bigger production, catchy mature songs and exotic packaging then by comparison the made-on-the-cheap plain-white-sleeved 'Write On' had no hope. But still the band gamely try, perfecting their branch of homespun thoughtful orchestral ballads, throwing in a retro rock song, a catchy comedy number and a handful of songs that go to places we've never seen The Hollies go to before. Of these new unexplored avenues 'Stranger' nearly works - it's an edgy paranoid number in a contemporary Pink Floyd style that adds layers of mystery and mayhem that could have worked well for The Hollies had they tidied up the clichéd lyrics in the chorus a bit more. 'Sweet Country Calling' also makes a better fist of country-rock than anything The Eagles ever did, even if you can tell that the band's hearts are still closer to the banking town of Manchester than the banks of the Mississippi. 'Crocodile Woman' wears its rockabilly crocodile shoes with pride, even if the backing is oddly sloppy for 1970s Hollies standards and Tony Hicks' guitar solo doesn't so much go into full throttle as sound as if it's being throttled. 'Narida' adds a touch of exoticness to go alongside 'My Island', suggesting that at least part of The Hollies' recent mega world tour ended up somewhere bear the Caribbean and compared to what other AAA bands do in this period (why 10cc why?!?) the attempt to go native isn't as excruciating as you might expect. The trouble is, though, that's four songs on which The Hollies really really really don't sound much like The Hollies and as good as these songs are to visit and as pleasing as it is to hear The Hollies break out of their signature sound for something new, you're also kind of glad the band don't choose to live here.
No, it still comes down to 'love' in the end for the album's greatest moments. The ballads about romance that have been slowly building in power across the decade since the band's heart-throb Terry Sylvester joined the band (you might need a lie-down at this point Roselyn!) suddenly flower like never before here. 'Love Is The Thing' is perhaps the greatest Hollies love song of them all - no small feat for a band who did so many great romantic numbers - but that's because it's slow-burning sizzle and coast is so unlike anything The Hollies have ever tried before, a dramatic outpouring of emotion that still manages to sound serene and hypnotic. It's the difference between what men in their thirties and men in their twenties would write (with 'Carrie Anne' an example): this isn't a teenage crush, or something light and fluffy to kid to the guys in the bar about the next day or even lust - it's overpowering three-dimensional love and after seeing through these eyes you sense the narrator is never ev-uh going to see life quite the same way again. In a similar way 'There's Always Goodbye' challenges what we heard the last time out, that you 'Gotta Give Me Time' because the band aren't ready to settle down quite yet, with an idea that the biological clock is ticking and ticking fast. 'I Won't Move Over' also suggests the band aren't quite ready to give up love and what it means to them just yet, however strong the case is for moving on. Of course this wouldn't be The Hollies if they weren't still playful and both Narida and Crocodile Woman sound very much like 'cougars', one-off flings the band are keen not to tell their wives about back home (there is a book by groupie Pamela Des Barres from somewhere loosely round this period that remembers a fivesome going on in a hotel room and taking place in a bath - Tony being the goody-two-shoes who stayed watching TV although he wasn't above joining in too, at least if the book is to be believed!) As with all things Hollies these two 'naughty' songs are delivered with such a knowing twinkle that somehow they get away with it - especially when songs like 'Love Is The Thing' prove that they really did take their love lives seriously too.
There is, of course, a sixth Hollie that not many people talk about, but his fingerprints are all over this album more than the band's and more perhaps than any of their other LPs. Pete Wingfield had joined the band as their tour keyboardist in 1975 and for a time his fame eclipsed the lot of them when his similarly twinkly solo single 'Eighteen With A Bullet' shot into the American top twenty (funnily enough peaking at number eighteen!) Today better known as part of Paul McCartney's 'Run Devil Run' band in the late 1990s, Wingfield has a style eclectic enough to match whatever The Hollies have to offer him - which on this album means the synthesiser swirl of passion on 'Love Is The Thing' (the best use of the instrument after The Who?), the honky-tonk solos on 'Crocodile Woman', the bleeping noises of 'Star', the spooky faux-bass funk of 'Stranger' and the country-honk of 'Sweet Country Calling'. Wingfield has his fingers in a lot of pies across this record and does the band proud, as he will across the next three record too. However, it's also a sign of sad things to come. Poor Bernie Calvert, whose at least Pete's equal as a piano player, has been trying to get more of his 'original' instrument onto a Hollies album since he joined the group in 1966, which a brief flurry on 'Hollies Sing Hollies' in 1969 and 'Romany' in 1972 (when the rest of the band are distracted by line-up changes) never quite materialises. What's worse is that, in the spirit of the day, Wingfield often plays his bass parts for him on the keyboard too - and as all good AAA fans know why play something on an artificial synth that works perfectly well on a 'proper' instrument? (Especially one played by one of the most under-valued bass players in pop history).
In fact the band performances are Write On's Achilles Heel all the way through. Though one of Ron Richards' final productions with the band coats everything with the same glossy sheen, whether it needs it or not, too often underneath the sound is a band who have forgotten what it's like to play together and are in overdub city. Unusually Bobby Elliott's drumming is all over the place and nowhere more than on 'Crocodile Woman', the one track on this album that tries to 'cut loose' but remembers too late that the band haven't tried this in so long they probably should have had a few rehearsals first. As well as Bernie being sidelined there's barely any Terry acoustic guitar here either, while Bobby too only plays on about half the album and Terry's guitar solos aren't as plentiful as on most other albums. As good as Pete Wingfield is, he should be complementing the Hollies sound, not replacing it. Thankfully the Hollies spend more time on their harmonies than they do on the backing tracks and these are as sumptuous as ever, especially 'Love Is The Thing' which may well be the definitive vocal performance by the Sylvester-era line-up. Clarkey too is in good voice, typically nailing this album's pot pourri (russian roulette?) of styles without even breaking sweat, although as on 'Another Night' it's rather a shame that since he returned to the band Terry and Tony don't seem to be getting their album dose of lead vocals anymore.
Overall, then, there's much to love about 'Write On'. From the self-laughing fun of 'Star' to the drama of 'Love Is The Thing' to the poignancy of 'There's Always Goodbye' this album packs an emotional whallop as heavy as any of their 1970s albums and there are some impressive stabs at something new. The downside to this is that 'Write On' lacks the cohesion and general air of brilliance heard on 'Another Night' and is perhaps a little ballad-heavy (if not quite as continually slow as '5317704' in three albums' time). 'Star' should have been the hit single the band needed and 'Write On' is more than good enough to be a hit on the back of it, but sadly musical success isn't always about worthy winners and lousy losers (if it was The Spice Girls would still be washing dishes in a club somewhere and Belle and Sebastian would have more gold discs than they know what to do with!) EMI really goofed with the packaging, which is boring on the front and ugly on the back (five caricatures of the band's faces, complete with more wrinkles than they had in real life!) and with the promotion, assuming this record wouldn't sell so they wouldn't bother to push it instead of giving the third most successful band in their history (behind The Beatles and Pink Floyd) the benefit of the doubt. Ultimately 'Write On' is a step down from the sheer genius Hollies records that ended with 'Another Night' and the start of a downward trend where the band lose their fanbase, their confidence and much of their originality. But it's not over yet by any means and this should have been a great new beginning with 'Write On' getting a lot more things 'right' than it does 'wrong'.
'Star' is the funniest song in The Hollies' canon. A knowing parody of the band's recent fall from fame it has Allan Clarke camping it up like the long lost love child of The Pinball Wizard and The Acid Queen, picking up a hitch-hiker with the unlikely name of 'Beverly Drive', actually a posh road-name in Sunset Boulevard) in his Cadillac and expecting the girl to be impressed. She doesn't know who he is, so Clarke's rockstar resorts to chatting (admitting he usually doesn't have to), tells he about the 'giant size neons' that display his name and in the end gets his personal archivist out to show her tapes. Nothing works and his increasingly irritation throughout the song is the perfect under-cut to the usual traditional Hollies build-up of emotions, replacing feelings of love and obsession (as heard in everything from 'I Can't Let Go' through to 'The Air That I Breathe') with indignation and frustration. The clever twist to the song is that she is herself a much bigger star than he is and he didn't recognise her either (suggesting that she's from a 'current' generation the ageing rocker still thinks he's part of). Though nobody ever explains why a fellow multi-millionaire rockstar needs to hitch-hike in the first place (did her Rolls Royce have a flat tyre?) it's the perfect response to a band who have been told in no uncertain terms that they're 'past it' and aren't as famous or as big as they used to be, delivered with just the right amount of strutting, sarcasm and teeth-nashing. As well as being inventive it's also catchy enough for listeners not patient enough to wait until the pay-off, with its period synthesiser riff (the first sound on the album is all Pete Wingfield's creation), a nicely jolly riff and some particularly noisy hi-hat drumming from Bobby Elliott. It's another one of those undeserving Hollies mid 1970s flop singles in other words, even though it's ten times catchier than most other things out there and a hundred times more inventive. Along with 'Another Night' and 'I'm Down' it's proof that The Hollies couldn't get a hit with anything, despite trying their hardest to update their sound without losing the Hollies aspects (the long drawn out harmonies on the word 'sta-a-a-a-a-a-ar' are particularly impressive). All this song needs is a Tony Hicks guitar solo to finish things off - good as Pete Wingfield's synthwork is, his jazzy middle section can't quite compete.
'Write On' is, by contrast, probably how not to re-act to your fading celebrity status: by moaning about it. Not since Graham Nash discovered America in 1966 and then had to go back to his day job with The Hollies has this band sounded so down in the dumps. For once there's no masking their real feelings behind a facade of a boy being dumped or his wife dying either: this is a direct song about feeling hurt that sales have been slipping. Though the song tries hard to be upbeat, the narrator telling himself to 'shine on' and 'get it together' and that son 'you'll be going out and slaying them!', still the mood is downbeat. A melancholy melody sighs its way through the song, limply moving at a sluggish speed and emphasising all the things the narrator is trying to hide: that 'The radio ain't playing 'em' that 'you're feeling the frustration of a musical fast' and most bitterly of all 'that there's no one listening to your song'. Finding new life Clarke's narrator suddenly decides to 'rock on!', but even this jazzier Elton John style middle section is no real relief, as the band are back on tour playing one-nighters to a dwindling audience and longing for a 'helping hand'. They're also being taken advantage of by musical 'hustlers' and managers and even the Hollies advice 'gotta give it time' doesn't do much to soothe things. Even the pun in the title (on the then-hip rock saying 'right on!') is bitter - the band writing on because they don't know how to do anything else rather than because they're 'right on' ie correct in what they're doing. The Hollies are floundering and hard as this song tries to make this piece of insecurity sound at one with the usual Hollies style (complete with a rare period stunning Hicks guitar solo), it doesn't quite come off. This song is a little bit too real, a little bit too vulnerable and rather too sad for any fan whose ever cared enough about The Hollies to stay loyal to this point in their history to listen to. In short, after thirteen years, The Hollies are more or less back where they started, overlooked against noisier, hipper but far less talented bands still waiting for their day in the sunshine. Sadly it's also a little bit ponderous and over-long, stretched out to nearly five minutes (the longest Hollie song to feature Clarke since 'You Know The Score?' five years earlier?) and without the happy twist all fans were hoping for. Ultimately this song comes over as mere moping - Impressive well-made moping for sure, but moping all the same.
'Sweet Country Calling' is an example of the band trying to jump onto another bandwagon in their quest to stay afloat and save the good ship Hollies. On its own terms the song is a success, easily the better of anything The Eagles did and equal with Poco, while Clarkey thankfully rejects the temptation to go all American and makes this local countryside lover purely English instead. The lyrics are basically all the usual clichés: the narrator wants to 'breathe the mountain air' and 'drink some moonshine' (ie whiskey - for some reason there's a lot of it on Clarke's solo records!) but they're cleverer than most similar lyrics. For instance at the end of a run of bits of nature to be enjoyed there's a clever pun as Clarke hears the 'bluegrass', listed as if it's a bird or a crop rather than a style of music! He also shyly admits that he wants to spend time with a 'friend of mine', in contrast to the sexual shenanigans of 'Star'! However throughout there's still a feeling that The Hollies don't quite fit this style and that at best they're outsiders looking in rather than embracing country-rock with the gusto of The Byrds or their spin-off group The Flying Burrito Brothers. The clunky chorus, which slows the tempo right down whenever it re-appears (which is a lot!) is also perhaps a cliché too far. However the song isn't as wretched as a band who've been together thirteen years and never even felt the urge to dabble their feet in the toes of country music should be and it's a sign, again, that The Hollies may well have been the best interpreters in the business.
That's despite the fact that The Hollies already had a pretty magnificent trademark sound all of their own making. 'Love Is The Thing' is perhaps the ultimate expression of harmony-drenched blissful romance - the band played around with this style many times but in their catalogue only 'The Air That I Breathe' comes close. Even this song is, well, weird by Hollie standards though. The chorus consists of just one word (luuuuuuurve!') sung in unison three times over as the song reaches a swell and climax that's quite over-powering (it's also perhaps your best chance to hear just how tight the Clarke-Sylvester-Hicks harmonies are, so well suited to each other that it's hard to hear where one voice ends and another begins). The backing too is oddball for The Hollies, featuring no one else except three Pete Wingfields (who surely deserves a co-credit for his work on this track), his three very different keyboards sounding like the past (harpsichord), present (piano) and future (a very modern sounding synthesiser). The only other colour except these three parts and the harmonies all song is a heartbeat from Bobby Elliott on his bass drum every so often that makes this song sound more than ever like an intimate night between the sheets. The lyrics, too, are surreal and haiku-like (not a very Hollies style at all) but amongst the best the Sylvester-era band ever wrote, saying everything that needed to be said in just a few fleshed out lines. Here love isn't a crush at a bus-stop or 'just one look' that leaves the narrator 'hooked' but closer to the vibe of 'I Can't Let Go', a multi-dimensional obsession that encompasses every one of the narrator's senses. This goes for past, present and future love too, indiscriminately: 'They say you can't forget your first taste of love...memories' Clarke wistfully reflects, note-perfect as always. In the present he feels himself drawn to someone whose been a friend but 'love' is what has changed their friendship to something more. And then there's the future, in which the narrator knows well whatever happens in this relationship, whoever else he meets, he's going to spend his life searching for exactly what he's found here. All three verses end in that chorus of 'love', swelling and opening up from nothing into the loudest, most powerful sound on the album. The result is an extraordinary song, romantic and sensual, easily accessible yet very very daring and different and beautifully performed by a band still at the peak of their powers. fame and fortune should indeed have followed on strong after career highpoints like this one.
Sadly the rest of the album can't quite match 'Love Is The Thing', but that's not for lack of effort. 'I Won't Move Over', for instance, is a full-band glossy-performance ballad more in the Hollies tradition. Clarke again excels on a quality lyric as he acts out a heartbroken character who knows that his intuition and all his friends have assumed his romance is 'over', but he refuses to accept it and 'move over'. Later verses fill in the gaps, that another love tried to make a pass and his beloved has been two-timing him - no wonder his friends want him to break off and run away, but he's too besotted and too stubborn to admit defeat. He hasn't heard from her how she feels and tells us in a repeated, desperate middle eight that they once exchanged rings and 'I still got mine and I ain't got hers - that's how I know for sure' that the marriage is rescuable, telling his good-natured concerned friends 'I don't need to say no more' before breaking down on the line 'I don't wanna hear no more!' It's a kind of 'She Loves You' a generation on this track, but with the narrator the party coming out badly rather than the friend passing on happy advice. You can tell, though, that even the narrator is in his heart knows it's 'over', emphasising that word every time it appears at the end of the chorus while Hicks lets fly on another excellent (but far too short) guitar solo that's full of the drama and passion he's kidding himself he doesn't really feel. Together with the spoken-word patter and feel of this song, always lurching from one verse to another in a tumble of words, it goes a long way to explaining just how the narrator feels. However what lets this song down slightly is that it all gets a bit stuck in the same place - there's no pause for reflection in this song, no neat twist at the end and far too many repeats. It would be nice to hear a bare-bones take on this gut-raw mod song than the usual Hollies slick production values too - there's a great 'solo demo with acoustic guitar' demo of this song out there in somebody's loft, I'm sure of it!
'Narida' is the start of Write On's more ordinary secondary side. It's not so much that this song and the ones that follow are bad, just a tad unmemorable. Clarke puts on his best 'Long Cool Woman' swagger on this one about a girl with a 'hoochie coochie' sway and Wingfield tries some Latin American rhythms that make this song come over like an outtake from 'West Side Story'. Bernie sounds right at home with the walking bass, as does Hicks' snarl of a solo which is two parts his usual electric sound to one part flamenco flourish. However the rest of the band seem to struggle here and there's a bit too much over-dubbing in the room you sense. It's also hard to forgive the slightly dodgy lyrics, which go downhill from the chorus line of 'Na Na Na Na Rida' into a world where the title girl lives in the 'back street-ah'. There's a hint, too, that Narida might be a bit naughtier than most Hollie girls, as the band revert to the twinkle of their late-period Nash days (see 'The Games We Play' and 'Step Inside') and hint again that the narrator is after sex, not love. Narida may in fact run a brothel, a 'shepherdess to her flock' but in the 'pay' of some guy named Joe Minnesota (not another street name sadly, but St Joseph is a city in Minnesota as it happens - did The Hollies do a lot of sight-seeing on their 1975 American tour?!) This leads to the best part of the song, a melancholic single line (repeated) middle eight where the song stops strutting and starts living, Clarke and Sylvester sobbing 'I can't blame her, for turning out the way she did!' Alas this song is all 'front' and quickly goes back to being about her streetwise character and the act she puts on so that you never really get to know 'Narita Pastrita, Queen of the Avenue Girls'.
'Stranger' is a valiant attempt at something different that's let down only at the seemingly last-minute decision to make it sound like a more accessible Hollie tune complete with catchy chorus. For the most part this is Moody Blues-Pink Floyd prog rock territory about a hit man who 'might be from the CIA' and whose hired to kill strangers and all the thoughts that rush through his head. Very un-Hollies, even if the narrator of 'Long Cool Woman' spent his day job 'working for the FBI', but this song switches from third person to second to first in quick succession so that the mysterious 'stranger' starts off as 'cool' then 'mysterious' then 'sinister'. This is matched by another excellent turn from Pete Wingfield who provides both the funky, thoughtful bass and the high twinkling notes that make this song sound like a cross between a gospel chorus and the doorbell on the Pearly Gates of Heaven. The main lyric is unusually brusque and dark by Hollie standards, reflecting on poverty in an even darker way than 'Gasoline Alley Bred' and 'Too Young To Be Married' and depicting a very American world of New York's 'bowery boys' and slums, where people have no way out except to live in gangs and take revenge on each other - out of boredom, the song implies, as much as anything else. This is a world where the sun never shines and the tight claustrophobic backing track does a good job at showing a world, perhaps round the corner from 'Gasoline Alley Bred', where everybody born there is doomed to die there, probably violently or from malnutrition, through no fault of their own. So far so great - but then in comes a typically Hollies wide-awake chorus that runs 'Danger! There's a stranger!' as if this song is a Government commercial for primary school children. The characters become less and less lifelike and more cartoonish too: witness 'Sneaky Peate' who knows how to 'use his feet' (decades before the 2015 crime drama 'sneaky pete' might refer to Flying Burrito pedal steel player Sneaky Pete Knlienow, who played the sort of things Tony does on 'Sweet Country Calling' - or is it a tribute to Pete Wingfield? Or just gibberish?!?) A real shame because for the elongated whispered fade-in opening and the first verse there (about a minute's worth) this is a great song that again on this album proves that The Hollies can do much more than just play their signature sounds. If only this song had stayed a prog rock anthem, instead of a cutesy pop song! I'd love to know which Hollie wrote the basics of it (Clarkey at a guess?) but this piece sounds like the others got hold of it and missed the point. The album track that got away.
Which is pretty much what I feel about 'Crocodile Woman (She Bites) too. The album desperately needs some raw rock and roll on it by now after so many slow, sleepy ballads and this demented rocker ought to fit the biscuit. It's a very retro (and thus in 1976 rather unfashionable) 1950s style rocker, complete with bar-room piano twinkling from Wingfield (who rather hogs the instrumental break!) and rat-a-tat Elliott drumming. The lyrics too are fine in a one-dimensional sense, spelling out yet another wild and dangerous Hollie woman who has keen seductive skills ('Sly girl, good timer, she's just a social climber, but you have to pay the price - she bites!') However The Hollies had spent so long overdubbing and adding polish to their songs that they've all but forgotten how to play songs like these - the kind of energetic rock and roll track that would have been most recognisable to a fan of the 1960s Hollie sound had you stuck them in a 'time machine jive' and dropped them off in 1976. This take is badly sloppy, Clarke's bark leaving him hoarse by the end, while Elliott soon looses control, Wingfield gets carried away busking a jazz improv and Hicks plays what must be the most gonzo guitar he ever put on record, sounding somewhere between strangling a snake and attacking a cougar! The band also mess up the ending, not quite coming in altogether (something half-covered up by the echo-drenched pay-off line 'she bites!') By my reckoning The Hollies have got this raw since 'Transatlantic Westbound Jet' in their Mickael Rickfors days of 1973 and with Clarke in the band not since about 1964 (when most of the 'In The Hollies Style' LP has the 'feeling' it was cut in one take, even when it probably wasn't). This track though still carries a sense of the usual Hollies production polish and couldn't they have gone for at least one more take when they actually, you know, knew how the song went? In a parallel universe, though, both this song and the last one make for a perfect contrasting double 'A' sided single that was done 'properly' and restored The Hollies to #1.
'My Island' is very much a Clarke song, one which coats the album with a soothing balm and revels in its warmth and Hollie harmonies for the first time in five tracks. Clarkey gets escapist here, dreaming of a new home on an island in his head where 'life that will be mine once again'. His imagination must be pretty big, what with the neat tip of the hat to 'the air that I breathe' along with 'warm sand under my feet' and the 'sun on my face'. However there's a hint at something darker even in this idyll: the narrator tells us that he's nearly 'done my time once again' and other lyrics point at him being a re-offender. This time around he didn't 'even get a chance to say goodbye to my loved ones', the hint being that this song is taking place in Clarke's head behind bars (is this the same character heard in '48 Hour Parole' from the next album maybe?) However the song doesn't linger there: this is a song more about where he's escaping to than escaping from, as in his head he's 'sailed the seven seas' and experienced more of the world than he would have done leading a 'normal' life, even if its all just fiction. There's certainly no hint at the darker side in the backing track. The Hollies are convincing playing calypso (a style not that far removed from their old favoured 1960s style of the bossa nova as heard on tracks like 'We're Through', I guess) and Tony fits in another guitar solo that sounds like sun coming out all by itself. A popular fan favourite and the only track from this album to be performed in concert for any length of time (as heard on the 'Hollies Live Hits' album out the following year), this is another worthy attempt at something new but needs a little extra something to 'shake it up', like a middle eight or something. There's a great song in here somewhere, with just an extra insight into why the narrator needs to escape so badly, but alas it never quite comes.
Album closer 'There's Always Goodbye' is a really traditional Hollies moment to end on and one of the best things on the album, as everyone knows exactly what they're doing on a track like this. Clarke's latest hapless narrator is ruing another relationship gone wrong and he doesn't quite know why. It all seemed so good and she was perfect from the first night they met, 'my sunlight shining thro-o-o-o-o-o-o-ugh' a life that once seemed to be dead miserable. Only now it's gone wrong for unstated reasons, Clarke sobbing in another excellent album middle eight that 'you are too kind and I am too shy to say what we really mean'. If this song had been released in the last decade or so you'd say Clarke has been 'friendzoned', the lovers that seemed meant to be never quite getting it together. The couple feel that they're meant apart so sadly leave each other, her goodbye kiss on his forehead 'saying all that could be said'. It's kind of like 'I'm Alive' in reverse this song, the narrator coming to terms with the fact that the one thing that made them experience life in more detail and scope than ever before is disappearing and leaving them heartbroken. On Hollies albums past you'd expect the narrator to get his act together and propose - but no, it's not that kind of a song and The Hollies aren't that kind of a band anymore so he sadly slinks away brooding over the fact that love's gone wrong again and he really thought she was the one that time. Which has always made me wonder: is this song really 'Write On' part two written not to a lover but to the band's audience? The Hollies had a particularly rough rollercoaster ride in their career. While The Beatles started big and kept getting bigger and The Rolling Stones started off small and then grew in following by leaps and bounds, The Hollies kept going in and out of fashion like a yo-yo depending what current single they had out. Their core fans are as loyal as any other 1960s following (and I know that for a fact, having met many of you down the years!) but we're smaller in number than the Beatles and Stones fans; instead The Hollies tended to appeal to a more general public who bought a song if they liked it and got to hear about it and left it in the shops if they didn't. The loss of the band's American market two years on from their last hit single is clearly a killer blow for The Hollies and this song sounds like them grieving over the fact that this is going to be harder to come back from than ever before. No matter what The Hollies do, changing styles from Merseybeat to psychedelia to orchestral ballads to 'Long Cool Woman' style rockers, they never ever managed to get two really big hits in a row from the same 'source'. No matter how hard they tried to find a new successful formula, there's always 'goodbye' soon afterwards and the band have to start all over again.
'Write On' is clearly a more thoughtful album than usual for The Hollies. Lacking the sparkle and colourful production colours of the high budget 'Another Night' and lacking the disco swagger of 'Russian Roulette' to come it's one of those albums doomed to be forgotten and overlooked and to some extent you can see why: this is perhaps the most uneven album of the band's 1970s run and only sparks to life on the three romantic ballads at the album's core (plus the one self-deprecating joke at the start). But even when this album messes up it never does so badly and usually does so because the band are trying to either punch above their weight of visit a destination far beyond their normal comfort zones. For this the band should be applauded. The Hollies could easily have recorded a whole album of 'Air That I Breathe' soundalikes in a desperate chance of getting another copycat of their last big hit, but no - instead they branch out into country-rock, prog rock, rockabilly and calypso. To do all that, even when there was 'no one listening to their song' takes guts and it's 'Write On's courage that impresses the most - even if it lags behind certain other period Hollies LPs for sheer listenability or ideas.