‘FOR CERTAIN BECAUSE’
IN CONVERSATION WITH
According to Graham Nash the Hollies were
‘a great little band’. He tells their story to Andrew Darlington
‘FOR CERTAIN BECAUSE…’
Graham Nash was here in Manchester to launch a 2004 exhibition of his photographs. He’d been away a long time, but you can still hear traces of Salford beneath the LA veneer in his accent. For Graham, this visit is part of a promotional jaunt for his book, but it’s also a strangely personal occasion. Although born in Blackpool (2 February 1942) he spent much of his childhood within 1 Skinner Street, Salford, a now-demolished back-to-back ‘Coronation Street’ terrace house with outside lav. So what memories were provoked by returning to his home-town now? ‘Well, you know, I have so many great memories of growing up in Salford. And first being turned on to the magic of music in Salford. I didn’t leave Salford until I was eighteen. So I have lots of great memories of the struggles and the joys and the heartaches of doing something that was different from anything any of your family had done. Nobody in my family had been in a band before. Ever.’
Unexpectedly, Allan Clarke turns up at the gallery for an emotional reunion. ‘He’s my oldest friend. Yes, absolutely. My oldest friend in the world,’ gushes Graham. ‘The great lead singer of our first pro group. The Hollies were a great band. A great band. They’ve never been the same without us two, I don’t think.’
And Rock History tells it all, how – born within two months of each other (Allan, 15 April 1942), they started at Ordsall Primary School, friends at six, buying their first guitars inspired by the Skiffle fad, hanging out together as fourteen-year-olds. When his parents rewarded him with a record-player for passing his eleven-plus exam, Graham’s first record-purchase was Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula” on a big old 78rpm. Then ‘I was working six days a week and getting £1-19s-11d, then going out at weekends and getting five quid for four songs’ recalls Clarke amiably. The two served their music apprenticeship together on the cabaret circuit as The Two Teens doing Lonnie Donegan and early-Cliff covers, then they were Ricky & Dane Young, The Guytones, half of the Fourtones, then the Deltas (with bassist Eric Haydock, born 3 February 1943).
They waited outside the Midland Hotel at 2:30am to catch a glimpse of their idols, the Everly Brothers, on a 1960 tour. ‘They came out of a Night Club, slightly inebriated, and instead of patting us on the head and signing an autograph, they talked to me and Allan for twenty-eight minutes… it changed my life.’ Sure it did, six years later Don & Phil came calling, and the two Manchester graduates wound up writing eight of the twelve tracks for the Ev’s May 1966 album ‘Two Yanks In London’. A vital influence, there’s an argument that Everly harmonies also template those of Simon & Garfunkel, Status Quo and many others. Phil Everly was also the first artist to record Albert Hammond’s “The Air That I Breathe”, which the Hollies lifted for their own no.2 hit in 1974.
While in Manchester in 2004, Graham visits a venue with memories. ‘I went down to the Apollo Theatre… a place where I’d first been to see movies and stuff when I was a kid, and I’d first played there myself in 1959. It was a thrill for me.’ It was on that same stage that he’d originally competed in a 1959 pre-‘X-Factor’ talent contest, in competition with Liverpool’s Johnny & The Moondogs. ‘Johnny’ – Lennon also went on to greater things. Later, from the ‘Manchester Evening News’ stage, Graham Nash announces ‘we’re 100-yards from the Oasis club where the Hollies started out. It’s been a long strange trip, remind me to tell you some time…’ Telling that tale, it was for a December 1962 gig at the ‘Oasis’ that the Deltas rebranded themselves as the Hollies, in recognition of another formative influence – ‘Buddy Holly didn’t swivel his hips or grease his hair, he wore glasses, he was one of us.’
‘IN THE HOLLIES STYLE…’
Graham Nash’s career not only spans four decades, but two distinct life-times. The one-time assistant manager in a gent’s outfitter who once confided to an early fan magazine that he ‘liked smart suits’, was the guy who quit for warmer Californian climes. Leaving the Hollies to watch as he reinvented himself as Spokesperson for a Generation.
Yet the Hollies started out as very much part of Beat Boom’s first wave, first entering the charts the week “From Me To You” was no.1. Talent-spotted at the ‘Cavern’ in January 1963 by Parlophone’s head-hunting staff producer Ron Richards, guitarist Tony Hicks (born 16 December 1943) joined the line-up in time for their EMI Studio test recordings. But before they broke into chart-dom they must have been up there in Manchester, reading the Music Press – just as I was, and imagining themselves on its pages? ‘That’s what you did. You imagined yourself on those pages. Every time you’d get ‘Disc’ or ‘New Musical Express’ – yeah, you could picture that’s what you could do. And you dreamed and you’d pull yourself towards that dream, and it happened with me. I was fortunate to have it all come true…’
And from the start they were writing their own B-sides. “Hey, What’s Wrong With Me” for their debut 45rpm – the flip of the nursery-rhyme game “Just Like Me” (no.25 in May 1963), “Whole World Over” with Everly harmonies and guitar changes for the second (all recorded at their first sessions 4 April 1963), and “Now’s The Time” to flip “Stay” – by which time ex-Fentone drummer Bobby Elliott (born 8 December 1942) completed the first classic Hollies line-up. He’d started out with Tony Hick’s former-group the Dolphins. As a kid I used to watch the Hollies on TV, doing their early R&B-covers of Leiber & Stoller’s “Searchin’” (no.12 in August 1963), then accelerating and tightening the Doo-Wop harmonies of Maurice William’s “Stay” (no.8 in November 1963). Jackson Browne later took the same song and slowed it down into an audience sing-along that made the American Top 20 in 1978, but the Hollies version retains the definite edge.
The significant breakthrough was with their breezily sleek take on “Just One Look” (no.2 in February 1964). Listen to Doris Troy’s original, which is looser and warmer, the Hollies take it harder, tighter, faster, with Graham’s near-falsetto middle-eight ‘I thought I was dreamin’, but I was wrong, yeh yeh yeah...’ Although Graham and Allan were there singing back-up for new boys The Rolling Stones on “Not Fade Away” (just as Graham with David Crosby would later add harmonies to Jefferson Starship’s extravagant ‘Blows Against The Empire’ album), the Hollies were never dangerous or confrontational. No-one begrudged them their hits, when a smartly-suited Tony Hicks mouths ‘Hello Mum’ as the ‘Top Of The Pops’ cameras pan past him, normally-disapproving parents were charmed. Even boy’s action-comic the ‘Eagle’ carried an enthusiastic Hollies feature in their 7 August 1965 issue.
This was the group line-up credited on their debut LP – ‘Stay With The Hollies’ (January 1964) which peaked at no.2, though original drummer Don Rathbone plays on the three earliest titles, including hit “Searchin’” which, although ragged when compared to what’s to come, effectively plays off Graham’s voice against Allan’s lead – his gum-shoe drawl ‘well, Sherlock Holmes and ole’ Sam Spade got nothin’, child, on me’ rising into ‘gonna walk right down that street, like Bulldog Drummond’ adding half-recited humour above the piano-led backing. Don plays on the album’s only original song too – Clarke/ Nash’s raw ‘c’mon c’mon’ typically Merseybeat “Little Lover”.
While the Beatles were working with George Martin for the same label, the Clark-Nash-Hicks axis of the Hollies went on with increasing confidence to record seven LP’s, building a close relationship with producer Ron Richards across a punishing schedule of two albums a year, plus a run of hits only rivalled by the Beatles themselves. Yet only compilations ‘Hollies Greatest Hits’ in August 1968 (no.1) and ‘Twenty Golden Greats’ in July 1978 (no.2) equalled the twenty-five week chart success of that first album.
Although ‘In The Hollies Style’ – their second album of 1964 (November), doesn’t chart, it tips the writer-balance with seven of twelve group-originals, all clean pleasant close-harmony songs with inconsequential boy-girl themes, always likeable, seldom essential. “I Though Of You Last Night” has the Folk-soft sensitivity of Simon & Garkunkel, whereas the sweet driving “To You My Love” hints at the group’s power still to come. Yet the stand-outs, performed on radio promo-slots are Big Dee Irwin’s “What Kind Of Boy” and Betty Everett’s “Its In Her Kiss” – much later Cher’s no.1 “The Shoop Shop Song”. Meanwhile, “Here I Go Again” from the trans-Atlantic Mort Shuman-Clive Westlake writing team consolidated their presence (no.4 in May 1964), until the group’s first self-penned A-side hit soon followed… “We’re Through” (no.7 in September 1964), with its distinctive descending guitar-runs.
‘STAY WITH THE HOLLIES…’
Confession time. I never got to see the Hollies during those 1960’s years. Not for want of trying. They were appearing at the Bridlington Spa, on the seafront, where I’d already seen the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, and the Animals. And I was due to go for the Hollies. But my girlfriend at the time decided no, she couldn’t risk spoiling her new bouffant by compressing it beneath the crash-helmet that would make the trip possible. So we went to the local Palais instead. I sulked most of the evening. A night that effectively ended our relationship.
At the time they were well into their second wind – a first no.1 with Clint Ballard Jrn’s “I’m Alive” (May 1965), followed a couple of records later by the complex harmonies of Chip Taylor’s even better “I Can’t Let Go” (no.2, February 1966). Opening with a nagging bass-figure the voices blend in with a sharp multi-layered precision worthy of Brian Wilson, harmonies and counter-harmonies unfurl, rising against each other through a strafing guitar-break into a dramatic ‘Hey!’, after which it drops back to the bass-run, and begins again. Ironically, Eric Haydock was the first to leave this Hollies’ line-up, Nash telling the press at the time ‘after all, the bass player does the least work in the group’! He was replaced by another ex-Dolphin, Bernie Calvert.
With an unbroken string of stand-out 45-rpm’s, the Hollies had become masters of the singles medium, hits that have become as comfortable as old friends. Without the heavy subversive darknesses of the Stones or the Who, they were either writing, or remodelling other’s material with a killer instinct for melody and rhythm, using idiosyncratic alchemy to turn confectionary-cute Pop into carefully constructed vignettes of endearing charm and energy. “Bus Stop” (no.5, June 1966), which gave them their first American chart-visibility and which Nash still cites as his personal favourite, might be a Graham Gouldman song (their second, following “Look Through Any Window”, no.4 in September 1965), but – with promotional photographs of the group in city-bowlers beneath umbrellas posed at the bus-stop, they make it very much their own. Even their slight missteps, their collaboration with Peter Sellers on the “After The Fox” movie-theme (with Jack Bruce on bass) which didn’t chart, or their cover of the ‘Rubber Soul’ track “If I Needed Someone” which grumpy-writer George Harrison claimed to dislike – which peaked no higher than no.19 (December 1965), were validated by their slick upbeat quality.
By now, others of that first Beat-Boom wave – Billy J Kramer, Gerry & The Pacemakers, and Freddie & The Dreamers, were falling by the wayside, while after their long slow-burn ascent the Hollies were now effortlessly competing creatively and commercially with the next wave, Manfred Mann, the Kinks and the Small Faces.
The Hollies’ ‘L. Ransford’ writer-alias was lifted from Nash’s grandfather, and used by the Nash/Clarke/Tony Hicks triumvirate. Their first all-original album in December 1966 (‘For Certain Because’), includes Graham’s jangling ‘serious artist behind the mask’ “Clown” – with his smile painted on upside-down and its circus-effects, plus his reflective “Crusader” which fades out to the sampled sound of marching Beefeaters. The album was also responsible for the tempo-inventive “Pay You Back With Interest” – covered by the Corsairs, and the bossa-nova “Tell It To My Face” – a US hit for ‘98.6’ star Keith. But while the Beatles were an environment open to change, the Hollies resist it.
Talking to ‘NME’ about the album Tony Hicks attacks ‘so-called ‘Freak Out’ music and progressive pop’ as way above the heads of fans, ‘how can you understand the LSD scene unless you take it? It’s no use doing a Yardbirds lyric – those things just spin your mind.’ Easy to interpret that as an attack on Graham’s emerging tendency. Never innovative in that Yardbirds sense, the Hollies nevertheless use novel ideas, such as the six-string banjo riff on “Stop Stop Stop” (no.2 in November 1966) or the steel-band on “Carrie Anne” (no.3 in June 1967).
There were two wonderfully diverse albums in 1967 – ‘Evolution’ in June, with its lavish sleeve-art designed by the Fool, and ‘Butterfly’ in November. The first has attractively-catchy straight-Pop “When The Light’s Turned On” and a fuzz-guitar addition to “Have You Ever Loved Somebody?” – lifted as a hit for both the Searchers and Paul & Barry Ryan. There’s the sharp three-way harmonies of “You Need Love” and the slyly lascivious “The Games We Play”. But both sets are also caught up in the surging lysergic post-‘Sgt Pepper’ Summer of Love euphoria. There are twee moments, the harpsichord nostalgia of “Ye Olde Toffee Shoppe” on the former, and the ‘Steptoe & Son’ pathos of “Charlie And Fred” on the latter, rampant phasing on ‘Evolution’s fairy-tale “Lullaby To Tim” and sitar-tabla drones on ‘Butterfly’s preposterously overblown “Maker” (‘days of yellow saffron lightning purple skies, melting in the sunbeams from my maker’s eyes’). There’s a lemonade lake with candyfloss snow and classical twiddly-strings on “Butterfly” plus backward-tapes and chiming bells on the stately “Would You Believe”.
Although the group – other than Graham, had a somewhat ambivalent attitude to Britpsych, it’s Allan who contributes the giddy ‘I’m so high’ astral projection mind excursion that is “Elevated Observations”, and Tony Hicks is the motivating force behind “Pegasus”. And when all the elements come together, they can be breathtaking, with Graham’s wonderfully strange “Dear Eloise” spun-off ‘Butterfly’ to become a US singles hit. In ‘Record Collector’ magazine’s ‘100 Greatest Psychedelic Records’ (Diamond Publ, 2005), David Wells says it ‘remains by far their most adventurous studio album, described by one pundit as ‘a Northern England counterpart to ‘Odyssey And Oracle’.’ And for the Hollies it was a career-peak, and a breakpoint.
Graham and Allan might have co-written “Jennifer Eccles” – ‘with its cute guitar-string wolf-whistles’, to return the Hollies to the Top Ten (no.7 in March 1968), but the high-flying artist versus prosaic Beat-group dichotomy was already clearly defined. ‘The reason I left the Hollies was simply that I was smoking a lot of dope, and they weren’t. It was as simple as that,’ he jokes. But the ill-advised album of – what Graham considered, jauntily trivialised Dylan songs, ‘Hollies Sing Dylan’ (no.3 in June 1969), was the final decider. Ironically it features “All I Really Want To Do”, strongly associated with David Crosby-period Byrds!, while – unissued at the time, Graham’s contribution “Blowin In The Wind” was only added as a bonus track to the CD reissue. It, alongside another early Graham song, “Relax” from 1968 but unissued until the Hollies’ ‘Rarities’ album, provide more clues. Retrospectively, Bobby Elliot writes on the re-issue CD insert that ‘our pushing ahead with the (Dylan) project helped Graham to make his decision to split.’ ‘Now you know why I had to leave’ Nash comments later, ‘I was writing all these tunes that, for me, were self-expression things, and I was happy with them. But the Hollies didn’t want to know.’ You don’t do covers. You express yourself through your own songs.
Graham was smoothly replaced by Terry Sylvester, formerly of the Escorts and the Swinging Blue Jeans, and the Hollies continue as durable consummate professionals… with an enduring mastery of tuneful harmony-Rock and even bigger career-defining successes, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” (no.3 in October 1969, then no.1 in September 1988!), “I Can’t Tell The Bottom From The Top” (no.7 in April 1970), “Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress” (American no.2 in July 1972) and “The Air That I Breathe” (no.2 in February 1974). Even Allan Clarke’s brief replacement by Michael Rickfors does little to dent their enduring status.
Some names are still touring and living well off a brief space of Sixties celebrity. Indeed, Eric Haydock could be seen as part of a Sixties Nostalgia Package, on a bill with a version of the Animals. While a line-up of the Hollies itself, with Bobby Elliot sitting in the drum-chair, can still be occasionally glimpsed. Yet for Graham, that Beat-Boom celebrity first career-phase with the Hollies was to be used as just an Atlantic Crossing springboard to an even more high-profile second-phase career alongside Byrd David Crosby and errant mavericks Stephen Stills and Neil Young – with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. ‘Indeed, yeah, I’m a very lucky man that way. To a lot of people, it may have appeared to be a foolish move to leave the band, to leave the Hollies, and leave all of that kind of hit-band environment that we had created there, and yet I’d heard that different sound, and I’d been moved enough by that sound to bring an end to the Hollies, and to me coming to America to follow that sound. You’ve got to keep moving forward. You’re dead if you stay the same…’
‘WOULD YOU BELIEVE…’
There have been two important partnerships in Graham’s two careers. The Hollies period writing and performing with Allan Clarke (“Allan and I are the same person in a lot of ways, but he’s the me that didn’t leave for the States, and I’m the me that did”). Then the second with David Crosby.
The Byrds briefly reformed for their ‘Full Circle’ album. Then the original Hollies reformed in September 1981 to appear together on ‘Top Of The Pops’ for a “HollieDaze” compilation-single, followed by ‘What Goes Around’ – an album for WEA that reworks their original hit “Just One Look”, and features Graham’s distinctively high harmonies on their cover of “Stop In The Name Of Love”. Another major dose of nostalgia followed in the form of a 2003 six-CD-set ‘The Hollies Long Box’ featuring rare B-sides, foreign-language versions, and previously unissued outtakes.
‘The Hollies were a great band’ says Graham Nash, ‘a great band.’