Monday 24 July 2017

The Hollies "Then, Now, Always" (2009)

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

The Hollies “Then, Now, Always” (2009)

Then Now Always (Dolphin Days)/If You See Her/One Touch/ Passengers/I Would Fly/Coming Home/I Lied/One Way Ticket/Too Much Too Soon/Unforgivable/Hearts Don’t Lie/Bonus Track: She’d Kill For Me

“We sure did crack the code, back in Dolphin Days”

You may remember, dear reader, that Hollie comeback ‘Staying Power’ wasn’t (*cough*) altogether my (*wink*) cup of tea (*ahem*). After the sad retirement of Allan Clarke and the even sadder premature demise of Carl Wayne just as The Hollies seemed to be moving again, their decision to get in a new leader singer from the wonderful world of musicals wasn’t (how do I put this politely?) exactly what I’d have done with The Hollies’ legacy. Out were the harmonies, out were the original songs, out were the Tony Hicks guitar solos, out was the distinctive side that everybody everywhere instantly recognised as ‘Holliesy’ – and in came twee synth-based pop, the drum machines and lots of choruses that ran ‘A-woah-a-woah-ugh!’ In essence, The Hollies went in one foul swoop from being ‘timeless’ to the point where their decade-old album ‘Staying Power’ now suddenly sounds far more dated than anything The Hollies did in the 1960s and 1970s. The Hollies, despite going through more ‘changes’ (particularly lead and harmony singers) and more style changes (full on adrenalin rock and roll to slow ballads) than most of the bands in these books, had until now somehow managed to recover something of that thread throughout all their work – then, now, always. So does their (at the time of writing) last album undo any more of that legacy or does it add to it?

Well, this album gets a few things right based on its predecessor. It opens with exactly the sort of song that proves that the Hollies really are the same band they always were – with a rare Tony Hicks lead vocal on an even rarer original Bobby Elliott song about the old days (alas it’s the only original song here – although Bobby does get a second on the ‘deluxe’ edition - but that’s still one more than last time round). The album’s quiet star, Tony actually gets his guitar out of its case a few times on this record as well, which gives this album much of a Holliesy’ feel. The Ray Stiles production, while still awfully ‘boy bandish’, is also toned down more than a little for this album, which gives it a much more Holliesy feel. And best of all, somebody’s remembered that The Hollies are primarily a ‘harmonies’ band and while the harmonies are nothing like they were the last time we heard them properly (back in the early 1990s when Allans Clarke and Coates sang alongside Tony) they’re a step in the right direction. This is a huge improvement over ‘Staying Power’, precisely because it sounds as if the band do have staying power, with reminders of their once-great legacy. There are, still, too many moments of Peter Howarth grinning at the microphone (and The Hollies were, by and large, one of the more melancholy bands around despite their ‘pop’ image) and not enough moments that sound pure ‘Hollies’, but even if this album doesn’t add up to ‘5317704’ it’s a step in the right direction and a much happier place to leave it.

What’s more, this album seemed to be much more popular with ‘real’ fans, as opposed to casual music-goers. For some odd reason I never quite understood, throughout The Hollies history EMI treated them really badly for the most part, as less worthy of their time than The Beatles or Pink Floyd even at a time when they were matching the sales of either. However they suddenly get it into their heads once a decade to promote a Hollies record that happens to be their ‘worst’ or at any rate their least marketable: It happened with ‘Evolution’ (which is genius for the most part, but far weirder than sequel ‘Butterfly’ which got ignored), they did it with the ‘Hollies’ reunion album of 1974 (which by Hollie standards was as flimsy as their records came) and they had a big old push for their single worst single ‘The Woman I Love’ back in 1993. ‘Staying Power’ is just the latest example of EMI pushing the ‘wrong’ Hollies product – because it was the record that sounded least like The Hollies of anything they’d made so far, which in EMI’s eyes for some reason made it a ‘good’ thing (you could argue this case for the other Hollie LPs I’ve just listed). The problem with that marketing technique is that it will only work once – when the band goes back to doing things ‘their’ way it puts off the people who assumed the record that kept being advertised down at their local shop was part of an ongoing sequence, not a blip. So EMI assume the problem is with the band not their marketing team and they don’t bother marketing the next record at all, which only ‘true’ fans even know is out (for the life of me I couldn’t find ‘Then, Now, Always’ in shops and only heard about it retrospectively – I hear from older Hollie fans that the same was true when buying ‘Butterfly’ in 1967, ‘Another Night’ in 1975 – and good luck tracking down 1995’s sequel single ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’, which is about as Holliesy as they come with Graham Nash back on vocals but still recording in the 1990s Hollie style). As a general rule if you love the Hollie sound don’t buy the album that sold but the one after it that flopped, because people realised how poor the album that sold actually was. Also nothing from ‘Staying Power’ really survived long in the set (though they perform single ‘Hope’ every now and then) but both this album’s flop singles ‘Dolphin Days’ and ‘I Would Fly’ regularly appear and are greeted by fans as a much more substantial part of the catalogue than what came out on its predecessor. What’s more ‘Dolphin Days’ marks the first time the Hollies ever did the ultimate self-indulgent fan loving thing by writing about themselves in song.

The reason ‘Dolphin Days’ got such a thumbs-up from fans (including me) was that The Hollies were acknowledging their fanbase at last. Bands like The Kinks and The Rolling Stones had been doing this since pretty much the second record, but The Hollies had never returned to the ‘scene’ of any of their more famous songs – whereas this title song has a lot that only fans would understand. For instance the only two surviving members – Tony and Bobby – weren’t technically founding Hollies at all but were drafted in across 1963 and 1964 respectively from Manchester’s second most-likely-to-make-it-in-the-early-1960s band ‘The Hollies’. Bobby starts the song with the band not getting anywhere, hanging around at ‘bus stops’ waiting to get on before taking part in a rollercoaster ride that’s like a ‘carousel’. We get the first ever mention of being ‘Northern’ in a Hollie song (whereas Nash wrote a few in his CSN and solo career) with the band born into ‘grit’ and ‘mills’ with everyone around them telling them they would never make it in a band (the best example here is fellow ‘Dolphin’ Bernie Calvert, whose factory boss wouldn’t let him ‘leave’ a promising career to be in ‘some pop band’ and kept his job open for him for months before realising that, actually, he’d done the impossible and ‘made it’ out of a life of working class drudgery). That’s the ‘then’ but afterwards we get the ‘now’ and Bobby’s philosophy that, despite the ‘retirement’ of so many Hollies down the years, he needs to do this and carry on because ‘you only get one life - there is no encore’. However, what could easily have been a triumphant back-slapping song by the only Northern 1960s band still going without a pause somewhere (the Stones are the only competitors down South and they’re younger by a year and far less active!) still has a sense of unhappiness. ‘Is that all there is?’ asks Tony on Bobby’s behalf, unwilling to give up on his musical dream even forty-six years into The Hollies being an active touring and recording unit, fully aware that – with sales low and EMI having seemingly given up, The Hollies discography might well end right here. Elsewhere ‘One Touch’ is about as close as the band can get to re-recording ‘Just One Look’ without being sued.

Perhaps the best thing about this album might well be its (relative) depth. You could write a book about most Hollies albums (erm, I’m not saying anything!) but ‘Staying Power’s ideas could be collected on the back of a postage stamp. This album is a ‘postcard’: it might not get far beyond saying how depressed the narrators are, but that in itself is a step forward from the teeth-grindingly upbeat narrators from ‘Staying Power’. That album was written to the singer’s strengths, not the band’s, where love was the order of the day and you could always get through by being positive – this album, though, is much more steeped in the traditional Hollie melancholia where lovers never quite get it together, romances don’t always last and fairytales don’t always have happy endings.  Weirdly this also makes for by far Peter Howarth’s greatest moments as a Hollie (to date, at least) as – wrapped in harmonies and swathed in a less nagging production – he finally gets to prove what depth and beauty there is to that voice when it’s singing about something ‘important’. No he can’t match the poignancy of Clarke, the charisma or Rickfors or the power of Wayne, but there’s clearly an intelligent thoughtful singer hiding behind the poppy hooks and popstar looks and it’s so good to see, well, hear. What’s more The Hollies ‘fool’ us into thinking this is just going to be a straight re-tread of ‘Staying Power’s upbeat goodness. Just listen to ‘I Lied’ which starts off as a happy song about love and ends up with the narrator heartbroken, distraught that he let someone in to break his heart again too soon (so like the Hollie cover of ‘I Am A Rock’, while we haven’t had a narrator telling us something they don’t really mean since the ‘glory days’ when clowns put on their make-up and made people laugh while dying on the inside). You actually believe Peter when he mourns on ‘One Way Ticket’ that his ‘heart has died a million times’. And the way The Hollies’ studio legacy ends? (At least for now?) Depending on whether you buys the ‘standard’ or ‘deluxe’ editions you get either ‘Hearts Don’t Lie’, a sad Oasis-if-they’d-been-obsessed-by-Abba-instead-of-The-Beatles song that bleeds sadness or a final Bobby song about being ‘jumped on’ by ‘demented clowns’ which fits in so well with the overall album themes of trying to stay positive and hopeful when your life is in tatters and your heart is breaking.

Which means that the biggest heroes of this album are the new writers. It’s so good to have Bobby back after a quite simply ridiculous quarter-century wait since his last song (‘Transatlantic Wetsbound Jet’ – this album marks only his third and fourth songs for the band after joining them in 1964!) Mark Read is back too but has dropped his usual writing partner Graham Stark and with a whole bunch more. Thank goodness, there are no second-string Enrique Inglesias cast-offs on this album either. Even though some thirteen writers are credited across this album’s eleven songs, this record also sounds as if it hangs together a lot better than ‘Staying Power’ too, with a bit more of a ‘theme’. Basically it’s all about middle age (which is a relief after the faux teenageryness of ‘Staying Power’): did you marry the right girl? Did you marry the right girl but then drift apart? Are you trying to make it up to your insane ex-girl in order to see your kids? Is it you who put your foot in it? It seems apt that the first (the only!) Hollies album to refer to the band as ‘Northerners’ is the one that also has the theme of ‘British stiff upper lip’ and trying to put a brave face on life for the people around you. It makes for a fascinating comparison with the ‘early’ mature Hollie works (around the time of ‘Confessions Of The Mind’) debating whether it was right to leave the stable for the unknown and whether you have the right; on this album once you fall in love it binds you for-evuh and leads to responsibilities long after the romance is over, whether you want it to or not. ‘If You See Her’ has the narrator wanting to pass a message on to an ex about unfinished business. ‘Nothing’s for keeps!’ sighs ‘Passengers’, about living a life that’s out of control with no direction. Album highlight ‘I Would Fly’ dreams of escape with synthesisers, longing for someone to set them free. ‘Coming Home’ is a 10cc-style number about doing anything to bring an ex back, even though they hurt the narrator badly the last time around. ‘I Lied’ is about a narrator telling his ex that he ‘lied’ when he told her she meant nothing to her – instead she’s his everything but he said it to keep her heart from breaking as well as his. ‘One-Way Ticket’ has a lover sadly slinking away after a mistake but vowing through his tears that ‘I will be strong!’ ‘Too Much Too Soon’ is another self-kicking song about revealing your fragile heart and emotional baggage too soon in a relationship. ‘Unforgivable’ wonders at which point a relationship has broken too much to be repaired. And ‘Hearts Don’t Lie’ and ‘She’d Kill For Me’ are all about betrayal – how much do you tell someone if it will make them change their lives because of you and do you have the right? ‘Then. Now, Always’ is a nicely thoughtful album that’s a million miles better than its predecessor because it sounds as if the writers have done some thinking and the musicians and especially the singer are doing more than just ‘acting young’ this time around.

Even so, let’s not get carried away. This album is still a million miles away from what The Hollies could be doing – even this line-up, never mind the older glory days. I put it to you, dear readers, that the past fifteen-ish years have been a woeful time in musical circles: it’s a poppy, empty sound that will date so very badly when we come to look back on it in decades to come, where every record released in this period sounds roughly the same and it all makes you feel slightly sick when you listen back to it en masse (you could make a similar claim for the late 1980s – maybe the early 1960s too before The Beatles got going). Most of our AAA bands have been around the houses so long that they haven’t fallen in the trap this time around – but The Hollies dived in head-first with these two albums! For a band whose principle members are now in their seventies and whose youngest member is somewhere around fifty, it’s difficult to put yourself through an album where everyone insists on pretending to be so young. Even on an album of songs where things aren’t what they seem, this feels misguided somehow, as if The Hollies are auditioning for ‘Britain’s Got No X Factor’ rather than a band with that legacy. And we know they know about that legacy because they sing about it on the opening track this time around! There are way too many times where The Hollies could have given us some of their ‘old’ sound: what a relief it would be to hear just a bit more of Tony’s guitar, maybe a few of his songs (Tony used to be the creative powerhouse in the band at one time after all) and more of those harmonies without having them drenched in twinkly ‘doorbell’ synths and production shine that makes everything sound ‘clean’. While this album is a lot less irritating than ‘Staying Power’ this reduced production is somehow even more out of place, because this is an album with an older, wiser head that still insists of being dressed up in teenager clothes. Like so many albums from the late 1980s and early 19860s a re-mix in more basic clothes would do this record the world of good. This is all far from classic Hollies and the overall sound, however diluted, is still way too much for most Hollie fans to sit through to get to the ‘good’ stuff.

Even so, at least there is ‘good stuff’ on this album, which makes for a far more suitable closing place for the Hollies legacy to rest (if indeed it does – what with the twenty-three year gap between albums 1983-2006 we can never quite count this band out!) This may well be the second-weakest record in the Hollies canon overall, but it’s a much much much better way to go out than before, with the band back to the point where they’re sort-of reflecting their generation and society, where they’re sort-of singing moving songs again and where they very very nearly almost a proper ‘band’ all over again. It’s been a long, long, long road, with many a winding turn and after ‘Staying Power’ I was afraid The Hollies may have walked down one cul-de-sac too many, their legacy hurt rather than enhanced by their last incarnation. Instead, on balance, I’d rather have this band around in some form than not and if we can’t have what we used to have (Those harmonies! Those songs! That guitar!) then this is still better than any band in their forty-sixth year has any right to sounding. Sometimes all we need is the air that we breathe and our favourite bands around us, in whatever form that takes.

 ‘Then, Now, Always’ will be now, I fear, the last classic Hollies song. Bobby’s words, set to Mark Nelson’s music, sees the band looking back over their long career for the first real time and it makes perfect sense that the celebrated ‘archivist’ of the group comes out of writing retirement to pen it. We’ve already discussed the lyrics at length – how The Hollies grew up in an industrial town where they were expected to do nothing and are still recording nearly fifty years later – but what we didn’t mention was the clever production that manages to mix all eras of The Hollies at once. Bobby is at last allowed to play his characteristic rat-a-tat drumming on one of these 21st century albums which is pure Merseybeat, there’s some swirly keyboards that sound like they’re attached to ‘Pegasus The Flying Horse’, the flashy guitar and the harmonies are very much in the Terry Sylvester-era mode and the electronic trickery sounds like the 1980s. And yet instead of being a muddle the song feels true to all these styles and has a sort of 1950s bounce that nicely mirrors the early verses when rock and roll was a ‘passing phase’ fad and hobby at best and The Hollies are playing because they want to, not because it makes them millionaires. Although it’s not purely a celebration of The Hollies: Though the band kept the ‘Hollies’ name as used by Eric Haydock’s band later joined by Clarke and Nash there was actually more Dolphin DNA in there, with Tony, Bobby and Bernie all passing through the ‘other’ early 1960s Mancunians-most-likely-to-make-it band’s ranks at one time or another. It’s so great to have Tony back singing on this one too, after not hearing a peep out of him vocally since early 1990s B-side ‘Hillsborough’ and it’s right that as a former Dolphin he should be the one to sing this one rather than Peter Howarth. The one thing with this song I have a problem with is the verse that ‘people had nothing to say but praise’, which sounds a bit grand and egotistical by Hollie standards (and blatantly wasn’t true, for either the Hollies or the Dolphins, who both got an unfair amount of kicking I always thought), while I’m also not sure how the band ‘cracked the code’ exactly (unless the full extent of their ambition really was just to make this a ‘paying’ career for a lifetime – which it was, but only for two of them). Still, that sudden unexpected shift to a minor key for that gloomy middle eight (‘Is that all there is?!?’) does do that customary Hollie thing of pulling the rug from under our feet just as we think the narrator’s getting too full of himself (lots of Nash-written Hollie songs do this; oddly most post-Hollie Nash songs skip this self-deprecating bit!) The end result is a likeable song, a worthy attempt to look back at the past that somehow manages to sound like the Hollies of yesteryear without sounding out of place on this album – no mean feat, given how unrelentingly ‘modern’ so much of it sounds. Tony’s cute vocal is a delight, Bobby’s words are clever, the melody ain’t bad and the harmonies are almost as good as they always were. First-class!

Unfortunately ‘Dolphin Days’ doesn’t sound that much like the rest of the album. ‘If You See Her’ is closer to the main album sound and it seems all the more depressing coming straight after that last track, being one of the weakest things here. A Mark Read/Hanne Sorevaag collaboration (me neither!) it’s a demented cross between ‘I’m Alive’ and ‘I’m A Believer’, complete with painful rhyme for ‘see her’ somewhere in the chorus. Peter Howarth’s grinning gurning narrator seems to be living his life in fast forward, falling in love in the first verse and watching it slowly unravel across the rest of the song. He thinks they’re going to spend the rest of their lives together but soon she’s ‘out on the run’ taking his heart with him. What’s a boy supposed to do? Well, grin mercilessly to Eurovision backing mostly by the sound of things, although at least the narrator has the sense to ask their mutual friends to put in a good word for him, which makes this track sound a little like ‘She Loves You’ for good measure too. Alas it never quite hangs together: yes The Hollies can pull off a happy-go-lucky melody with depressing lyrics (see 1970’s ‘Separated’ for one off the top of my head, in which Clarkey cries and Bobby sounds like he’s attending a party for percussionists), but not like this: there’s no clue, no hint that the narrator is keeping things together with a false smile covering a breaking heart. It just sounds like he’s gone a little bit mad to be honest. Thankfully the album will get better.

I quite like ‘One Touch’ which sounds like even more of a Eurovision song. Three writers I’ve never heard of came up with this one, which sounds a little like ‘Stop! Stop! Stop!’ going round and round in a washing machine, sadly without the banjo (although who wants to hear a soggy banjo?) This is the sort of track Peter Howarth was born to sing: he’s reaching for the stars, filled with hope, at the start of a brand new relationship that promises oh so much. It’s a little like ‘Magic Woman Touch’ too in the way that the narrator’s lover makes everything better just by a simple hug, as seen through the eyes of ‘Just One Look’ where one touch is ‘all it took’. In short, it sounds far more like a real live Hollie song, tapping into lots of past ideas and songwriting templates that worked well decades before and work equally well now. However there’s a weight behind this song which means that the song style it resembles most is the old tried and tested ‘I’m Alive’ trick this band always did better than anybody else by having the song grow from icy silence to a real peak of inspiration: the narrator isn’t just acting like a teenager with a crush, he’s aware just how rare – and how beautiful – these sudden connections in life are and he’s clearly been badly hurt in the past (he may well be the same narrator as the last song a few months on, given that Mark Read was the principle writer on both). What I would have liked was to have draped this song with more of a Hollies sound and less of an anonymous 21st century one: just imagine how great it would have been with more harmonies and a flying Tony Hicks solo to mirror the new love, ‘Air That I Breathe’ style?! Even so, this ain’t bad, which makes it better than anything on ‘Staying Power’ straight away.

Back in 1978, when he quit the band a second time, Allan Clarke recorded a fine if moody B-side called ‘Passengers’ about how we’re never in charge of our own destinies. He probably had it in the back of his mind that he was inevitably going to wind up re-joining The Hollies again and slightly resented it. I wonder if the rest of the band remembered it when they agreed to record the similar but less Hollie-centric ‘Passengers’, this one a track by the last album’s Rob Davis with songwriting partner Shelley Poole. I can’t say I liked Rob’s songs from ‘Staying Power’ much so I wasn’t looking forward to this one but it’s so much better, still poppy but much deeper with a clever lyric about how so much of our lives are set out for us from birth that the only thing we really get to choose is who we fall in love with, so we’d better make it count. Figuring that they’ve fallen into a rut when every day with his loved one should be special, Peter Howarth’s impressive vocal tries to make every moment special: ‘Let’s write everywhere like never before, contemplate every kiss, love is not above the law!’ It’s another ‘I’m Alive’ style song that grows from nothing to everything almost without you noticing and while Peter is nowhere near as subtle or multi-dimensional as Allan Clarke he’s right at home on songs like this that allow him to do more than shout or pout as per ‘Staying Power’. The result is another likeable song that you could imagine the ‘old’ Hollies doing, though perhaps without quite so much Ian Parker keyboard work laid over the top of everything.

The second album highlight, though, is surely ‘I Would Fly’. It’s unusual to hear Peter singing in a minor key (he usually does happy, not sad) but he sounds rather good, his hopeful vocal tugging against the rest of the band’s sad slow footsteps, urging them to break their chains and fly away into the ‘light’. The opening line ‘They say be careful what you wish for’ is ear-catching and the lyrics about waiting a long long time to meet the right person is well handled. Admittedly the lyrics are about as predictable as you can get and much fun can be had imagining Orville the duck replying as the song goes on...('I wish we could fly...' 'Where Peter? Right up the sky? But you can’t!) True too the chorus feels slightly ‘off’ somehow, sounding a little too Eurovision even by the standards of this album! Even so, you believe this song when it talks of ‘waiting for a star of my own’ who gives this leaden narrator a chance to soar and once again ‘I’m Alive’ is a really good template to follow (the chorus even sounds suspiciously similar to the ‘I can breathe, I can see, can touch I can feel’ middle eight). Close to all the ‘Staying Power’ songs but with a much more sincere performance, this is about the closest the Peter Howarth era has come to having their own ‘classic’ moment, with this song going down well at live shows. It’s still not quite up to the warm fan glow of ‘Dolphin Days’ though.

By now the album needs a slightly different approach and the oddball ‘Coming Home’ delivers on those terms, if no other. Even in the 1980s when everybody was doing it The Hollies, mercifully, resisted the temptation of doing ska and reggae. This song isn’t quite there but it’s about the closest they’ve come so far, with the strut of a Long Cool Woman but with Dreadlocks. It’s a sound that, needless to say, doesn’t quite suit them or their new singer, who both sound equally adrift for a change (usually it’s one or the other). Things make more sense when you learn that this song was written by Mick Mullens, one time singer with new wave band Modern Romance and it clearly wasn’t written with The Hollies in mind (however the two bands do have common ground – Modern Romance is like a 1980s version of the bossa nova sound The Hollies pioneered back in 1965 on songs like ‘We’re Through’ and ‘Tell Me To My Face’; The Hollies should have recorded it like those two!) The lyrics are odd in the extreme: ‘I’m getting lazy, I’m shaking so thin, I’m a-needing money to get outta here’ is not the sort of opening line I expected from a Hollie song. Other lyrics are better: a broken sleep from worry is referred to as a ‘syncopated night’ which is quite clever (even I can’t hear that line without wanting to add ‘and I’m loooosing’ in 1975 Hollie style) and the narrator is returning, prodigal son like, to meet the people he once ran away from, ‘the Devil and his trolls’. I’ve no idea what it all means and clearly The Hollies don’t know either, but it’s good to hear a band trying to do something different after over forty years together and it’s preferable to the soppy ballads on ‘Staying Power’, even if I am equally thankful that the band didn’t just cover Mick Mullens covers the whole record. Once is more than enough.

‘I Lied’ is another of the album’s better songs, with some clever lyrics and another tale of love gone wrong with the narrator trying to put a brave face on things. Though the music is perhaps just a shade too poppy and upbeat, the lyric hidden away in what sounds like a positive song is impressively depressing: the narrator promised his girl that they would avoid all the problems they’ve both had in past relationships. Their meeting was nothing special and just for sex, no emotions involved. He vowed he would ‘walk right out that door’ the minute he felt any feelings for her. But now he admits ‘I lied’, as much to himself as to her, that he is deeply head over heels in love and now can’t be without her. But he’s broken the rules! He’s broken their solemn promise! What will her response be? Sadly we never find out (that would, I sense, make for a much more interesting song). This track does, though, nicely recall ‘Here I Go Again’, with another Mark Read-with-others song proving that he has at least attended a few Hollie gigs to get a feel for their ‘style’. On both songs there’s a narrator whose been hurt too many times vows never to open up his heart again – but the song is played with such an adrenalin rush he sounds desperate to escape his lonely tomb, ending up in a crazy rush of power as he vows he’s ‘fallen in love’ again. This sequel is nowhere near as good (there are less harmonies for one thing and The Hollies play like strangers rather than bosom buddies) but at least the band are nicking from better sources this time around and Peter Howarth is a lot better singing happy-in-denial than he is merely happy.

‘One Way Ticket’ is a case of one of the better album performances of one of the lesser album songs. Writer Kevin McCarthy is presumably the singer-songwriter involved in ‘youth programs’ whose been a big hit with the Buffalo Music Hall Of Fame (did they induct the Buffalo Springfield?) rather than the American politician or the actor from ‘Invasion Of The Body Snatchers’. This track is sultry and sexy – not two adjectives usually linked to The Hollies – but it’s a sound that suits both the gutsy Tony Hicks guitar solo (at last!) and Peter Howarth who does pretty good at this sort of thing. The narrator is heading home after a long time away – he’s coming home for good this time, with a single not a return ticket in his pocket and the chorus is nicely Holliesy with its close harmonies and a melody that recalls ‘Stay’ this time, just for variety. There’s a sense, hidden away in the depths of this song, that the narrator’s been away for more reasons than love too, that he’s been either on the run or in prison, although it could just be divorce papers that he’s decided not to use (‘The sentence of a reprimand, a piece of paper in my hand’). Even so, this song has the drama and flair and edginess not heard from The Hollies since ’48 Hour Parole’.

Rob Davis is back for the rather forgettable ‘Too Much Too Soon’. This is another track about falling in love but that falling having consequences later on down the line, with Peter Howarth less successful as he tries to act both romantic and scared out of his wits. ‘You catch my eye, you draw me closer’ he croons, but he sounds less convincing as he wonders whether he’s giving his heart away ‘too much, too soon’. Alas that’s pretty much all this song does, with lots and lots and lots of repeats (and I do mean repeats!) but even here this song feels better than the similar songs did on ‘Staying Power’. There are some actual bona fide harmonies and while they don’t sound that much like The Hollies they’re better than having none. Plus Bobby gets to play real drums! Ian Parker has updated his keyboards from the 1980s! Tony plays some pretty acoustic guitar! If you can ignore the icky tune, the so-so words and a vocalist whose singing a song he wasn’t born to sing then there’s still much to enjoy in the backing track.

By the time of ‘Unforgivable’ I think I’ve worked out what The Hollies are going for here: a middle-aged boy band. Take That can get away with far worse dross than this song so why not The Hollies too? The ‘problem’ is that this band is too good to do just that so they keep throwing bits into the mix that remind you how good they could be: a harmonica part here, a proper harmony part there. Another Mark Read song, written with Christopher Masterson, it’s the only one of his tracks for this album that doesn’t sound like a previous Hollies song. Instead it sounds exactly like a Take That or a Westlife or a Boyzone song: the same drippy wet lifelessness, the same egotistical preening, the same there-are-six-people-in-the-band-but-they-can’t-make-the-noise-of-one-person sense of weakness. And those lyrics! The narrrator’s been ‘hurt’, he wants his ‘revenge’, he can’t believe that you stood there ‘laughing’ which he was ‘crying’ (actually that’s the one bit that does sound like a Hollies track: the much more believable ‘If you cry I’ll sympathise with you, if you’ll laugh I’ll die!’ from ‘Have You Ever Loved Somebody’). Needless to say it doesn’t work and ‘Unforgivable’ may well be the weakest moment here, the most depressingly ordinary return to ‘Staying Power’s average anonymity. Sadly ‘Unforgivable’ is not ‘Unforgettable’.

‘Hearts Don’t Lie’ is somewhere in the middle. This one starts off sounding every bit as bad, but there’s a neat key change that crops up in the middle of the chorus line and the whole thing is rather catchy in a traditional Hollies type way, even if it recalls more the latter-day work of rivals The Searchers (with its mention of ‘hearts’ and a very Rickenbackery style guitar part buried amongst the synths). It’s another song about growing older and (eventually) wiser, the naive narrator thinking that love was pure – so how come his lover walked all over him? The sense of shock and hurt comes over well and while Peter Howarth is as bad at ‘revenge’ as he is at most emotions (he sings this song with only a slightly sadder version of his usual joy) he comes over well on the last verse about regret and loss. ‘But...but...but remember when we shared a dream!’ he cries, ‘staring at the sun rising in the silver sky’. It seems an odd way to end the Hollies catalogue (if you own the standard version anyway) with a song that never quite takes off, but there are some good ideas in there and there’s a nice mirror with the ‘naive’ songs with which The Hollies started their career.

If you went to a Hollies concert around 2009 though you got the chance to buy the album direct from the band themselves, complete with an exclusive track ‘She’d Kill For Me’ on the end (thankfully that’s the edition that tends to appear on Amazon most frequently too and seems to have sold the most). Though this oddball song about passion and murder is even less Hollies-like and and even less likely ending, it’s a much stronger song and it’s nice to hear Bobby writing again, the first time Peter’s had a band original to sing. Thankfully it’s far less nicey-nicey than most of the songs he got to do and while Peter sounds more than a little lost here too, it’s a far better song about how love can push you far out your comfort zone. These two lovers are committed for life, they have each other’s backs and would do anything for each other – so far so good, right? But actually that power scares the narrator. He’s well aware what lengths he would go to in order to keep his loved one safe and what she would do for him – even murder. This terrifies him rather than thrills him as he imagines all sorts of hallucinations, worried about what might ever happen if one loses or betrays the other. There’s a fan-pleasing reference back to that old Hollie ‘thematic thread’ of ‘clowns’ pretending to be something they’re not (see ‘Harlequin’ ‘Mr Heartbreaker’ and of course ‘Clown’), which is as good a summary as any of what The Hollies always were: people considered them ‘just’ an escapist pop band, but they were so much more than that, with an inner melancholy and sense of loss and sadness and depth that us ‘real’ fans realised even if the general public never did. The Hollies’ biggest problem was always the way they were marketed, as a ‘lighter, poppier’ substitute for The Beatles when actually they went to darker places lyrically than the fab four ever did (they just did it without losing their capability of saying everything in two-three minute pop nuggets, that’s all). By taking that clown, that symbol of what they seemed to be to the public, and leaving them bloodied and stabbed, is a pretty dark twist on how they usually handle that image but it’s a haunting one that shows just how much the band realised this and makes it a fine place to end – especially as, elsewhere, this is another fine pop song played the way The Hollies always did them, an iron fist in a velvet glove – or a piece of chalk written on red brick, with the contradictions always inherent in The Hollies story there right to the end. This song really should have made the album ‘proper’.

Overall, then, this album is no substitute for a Hollies album that sounded the way they always did or a career that saw them popular enough to keep recording and adding to that rich legacy. But all things considered I’ll take it as a far more suitable and enjoyable sequel to ‘Staying Power’s sheer emptiness, proving that the singer can do more than just go ‘a woah a woah –urk!’ and that the other five can do more than just sound like a second rate boy band. I’d have loved more original songs, more guitar, more harmonies, more things Hollies, but this time round the outside writers have clearly at least heard a few Hollie albums and everyone in this new-look band have worked out their strengths and weaknesses much more than on the last album. This is still far from an essential album for anyone who came to this band sometime in the 20th century when they were genuinely one of the greatest bands on the planet, but they’re no longer the embarrassment to that rich legacy they once were. It’s this album, not it’s frightful predecessor, that proves how much this band has ‘Staying Power’ and that – after a dip – they had what it takes then, now, always. Is that all there is? Well if that’s true – with an eight year gap and counting suggesting it is – then it’s another pretty bow to add to the side of a discography that was one of the brightest, bravest, brilliant and most under-rated catalogues of music in rock and pop. At last, after an album that ignored their strengths, ain’t this comeback after a time of monumental change just like the Hollies? And isn’t that song, indeed, where we came in?


'Stay With The Hollies' (1964)

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

'For Certain, Because' (1966)

'Evolution' (1967)

'Butterfly' (1967)

‘Hollies Sing Hollies’ (1969)

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

'Romany' (1972)

'Out On The Road' (1973)

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

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

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

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

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

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