When the book on British Invasion rock 'n' roll is finally closed--which, one suspects, may not happen until Mick Jagger and Keith Richards depart the concert stage in wheelchairs--someone may just take a long look at the deserving acts that didn't make it to fame and fortune in the United States.
Maybe somewhere, someone will take a look at the most under-appreciated of all successful British Invasion acts: The Hollies.
Calling The Hollies under-appreciated may seem surprising to anyone who has passed through a record store lately and seen the two hits anthologies from Epic Records, the triple-CD anthology from EMI, the CDs of two of their early-1970s albums, and upwards of a half-dozen overlapping low-priced reissues, intended for the bargain bins. Add on a dozen or so imports from England and elsewhere, devoted to their music from 1964 through the end of the 1970s, and it seems like The Hollies are reasonably well-recognized as a successful band of the 1960s and 1970s.
And that's true, except that their mass recognition is generally limited (especially in America) to a selection of perhaps a dozen hit songs, from 1964's "Just One Look" up through 1976's "The Air That I Breathe." In reality, their recorded history started in 1963 and encompasses more than 350 songs, spread over dozens of albums, EPs and singles, across 33 years. And the band continues to perform to significant audiences all over Europe in the 1990s, and began 1996 with a new release on MCA, one that puts them in effective "collaboration" with the late Buddy Holly, in a re-dubbed version of the latter's "Peggy Sue Got Married.
Like a lot of long-lived creative endeavors, The Hollies' history began by chance, in this case, five-year-old Allan Clarke's arrival as a new student one day at the Ordsall Primary School in Manchester, England in 1947.
Harold Allan Clarke was born April 5, 1942 in Salford, one of six children. He made the acquaintance of five-year-old Graham Nash (born February 2, 1942) on his first day at school, when Nash was the only student to volunteer to let Clarke sit next to him in class. The two became friends then and there, and it turned out that one of the interests they shared was music. They both sang in choir, joining their voices together for the first time in "The Lord Is My Shepherd," and it was from there that the notion of their singing together took root. They found that, even as they matured, their voices complemented each other magnificently. Unfortunately, there was no such thing as rock 'n' roll at the time, and their spontaneous musical efforts together didn't begin until the 1950s.
In 1956, everything changed, as rock 'n' roll began to trickle in to England from America, but the immediate impetus for Clarke and Nash to begin music careers together lay in the birth of skiffle music, with Lonnie Donegan and his version of "Rock Island Line," and its various follow-ups.
"We didn't know what hit when skiffle came along," Clarke observed. "We all wanted to be rock 'n' roll stars, and skiffle was one way to start, because it was all based on the easiest chords to play, A, D, G, and C, and we loved the songs. Graham and I played clubs in Manchester, doing an Everly Brothers-type thing. The Everly Brothers were our real inspiration, because of the two-part harmonies."
They worked under a variety of names, including the Two Teens and the Levins. The Levins, in particular, symbolized important breakthroughs in Clarke's mind, at least at the time, because the name was derived from the brand of guitars they were using, and simply having a brand of guitar that didn't make one ashamed was progress. "The Levins were named after my first jumbo guitar. I was very pleased with that at the time," he recalled in a 1996 interview.
With help from their families, Clarke and Nash purchased Guytone guitars, and re-christened themselves the Guytones, which later became the Fourtones.
Clarke and Nash played any place that anyone would listen to them, and this included a performance at the legendary Two I's coffee bar in London, where acts such as Tommy Steele and the Vipers (featuring future Shadows lead guitarist Hank B. Marvin) were discovered, and Cliff Richard played and sang. "It was years and years and years before we were a group," Clarke recalled of the Two I's, adding that it had little mystique for him, being a miserably tiny little place compared to locales such as the Cavern in Liverpool.
At one point, when it seemed like sibling acts such as the Everly Brothers were the coming thing, Clarke and Nash billed themselves as Ricky and Dane Young (Clarke was Ricky and Nash was Dane), hoping to be taken for a brother act. Such strategies would work better for real-life and fake siblings alike, such as the Brook Brothers and the Walker Brothers, not to mention the Righteous Brothers. But the Ricky and Dane Young gambit paid off, getting them hooked up for a time with a local Manchester band called the Fourtones, whose membership included Derek Quinn, later of Freddie and the Dreamers.
It was while they were playing a gig with the Fourtones that Clarke and Nash were approached by Eric Haydock (born Feb. 3, 1943), the bassist for a group called the Deltas, and invited to join his band. After abandoning the Fourtones, they took up Haydock's offer and signed aboard his band. The Deltas were a large ensemble group whose stage act included novelty songs and costume changes, none of which seemed to offer much of a future in the band scene as it was developing in Manchester and other points north.
Following a few membership and repertory changes, the Deltas provided the nucleus around which The Hollies formed. The new group, not yet named, featured Allan Clarke on lead vocals, Graham Nash on rhythm guitar and vocals, Eric Haydock on bass (rather unusually, a six-string model, incidentally, as opposed to the usual four), Vic Steele on lead guitar and Don Rathbone on drums.
How the new band got its name has been a subject of conjecture for decades, and stories are sufficiently vague to convince one that not even the band members remember exactly.
The conventional assumption for many years was that Hollies was chosen as a tribute to Buddy Holly, in much the same manner that the Beatles chose their name as a sort of acknowledgment of the Crickets. But the truth was little more uncertain.
The group members all admired Buddy Holly, to be sure, as did virtually every rock 'n' roller in England during this period. But the most likely reason for the choice of the name The Hollies was pure expediency and sheer luck, not admiration of Buddy Holly. According to one oft-told story which seems to have the kernel of truth within it, the group had been assembled out of the Deltas at the end of 1962, as the holidays were approaching, and were busy trying to decide upon a name in a room that happened to be heavily decorated with, among other Christmas-related accoutrements, holly. The band name followed, initially as a stop-gap, and it's stuck for 34 years and counting.
The band's first gig as The Hollies took place at the Oasis Club in Manchester in December 1962, and was a great success. Not long after, the Beatles graduated from the Cavern Club, having been signed to EMI's Parlophone label by producer George Martin, and soon after, The Hollies took their place at the most celebrated music venue in all of England.
At the time, the Liverpool quartet had barely scraped the charts with their debut single, "Love Me Do," but something was in the air in the north of England. The amount of musical activity in Liverpool and Manchester, coupled with the mere fact that Parlophone, a tiny label in the EMI family scarcely known for its acumen with popular music (the label's biggest releases until then were comedy records by Peter Sellers and Bernard Cribbins), had reached the Top 20 with a song by a Liverpool band, caused record producers who'd previously never ventured very far from London to start looking to the north.
One of them was Ron Richards, a staff producer at EMI, who went up to the Cavern in January 1963, just a few weeks after The Hollies were formed and shortly after they'd taken over the Beatles' spot at the Cavern, playing the mid-day shows. What he found was a tiny club that lived up (or down) to its name, packed to the rafters with teenagers jammed in as tight as they could, listening to this group wail away.
He also found that The Hollies could do more than just wail. They played fast and hard, because one just didn't compete in that environment without doing that--Richards was especially impressed with the furious manner in which Graham Nash attacked the fretboard on his guitar, until he learned that there were no strings on the instrument--but so did a lot of other bands on the Liverpool scene. Indeed, groups such as the Big Three, a northern power trio that held their fans in awe for a time, were considered far more formidable musically than either the Beatles or The Hollies.
But The Hollies, like the Beatles, the Searchers and a relative handful of bands working in those days, could also sing--and, like the Beatles, the Searchers et al, The Hollies could do more than just thump out a song with a pile-driver beat if that was what was needed. And as record producers soon discovered, that was exactly what was needed to put these acts over on record, as opposed to the clubs. Clarke and Nash could sing, and they could harmonize together, and the seemed to offer the possibility that they might be able to move beyond the American rock 'n' roll standards that they were learning off of the original records at the time.
Not all of this was necessarily obvious to Richards at the time. What was clear was that the group put on a good show, had charisma on stage, and offered at least as much potential as the Beatles seemed to at the time.
He invited the group to come to London for an audition for EMI's Parlophone label. The acceptance of this invitation led to the first split in the primordial ranks of The Hollies, as guitarist Vic Steele bowed out, preferring not to turn professional.
The group's manager, Alan Cheetham, began scouting a replacement in one Tony Hicks (born December 16, 1945), who was making a name for himself locally as an ax-man with a band called Ricky Shaw and the Dolphins. The Dolphins' drummer was Bobby Elliott (born December 8, 1941), who would later become the final link in The Hollies' success. At that time, however, Elliott was more concerned with losing a talented band mate to a rival group.
Tony Hicks was, even then, a guitarist's guitarist, one of the most skilled players in a field filled with many would-be stars but relatively few genuine, viable talents. His own entry into music came by way of skiffle music, which he loved. He was drawn to the guitar early on, and his first instrument, an acoustic model, came to him by the kindness of an aunt who purchased it for him. Early on, he knew what he wanted to do with music and what he wanted to play. This, in turn, only heightened his fixation on American rock 'n' rollers, because they had better players and better guitars than almost anything available in England at the time.
Hicks was born too late to have seen Buddy Holly play in England, but he is old enough to remember the ads for Holly's shows. Holly and other American guitarists, most notably Rick Nelson's lead player, James Burton, fascinated him. "I remember hearing 'Hello Mary Lou,'" he recalled in an interview early in 1996, "and wondering who was playing that wonderful guitar."
In those days, he recalled, this was not a lonely fixation. "Concerts would sell out just because of the guitars that these bands were playing," he remembered. "We would travel to the shows just to get a look at the guitars."
Hicks's first group was a skiffle band named, appropriately enough, Les Skifflelets, which, he recalled, was a bunch of guitars, all playing rhythm, one board and one bass. As with most skiffle bands, the members generally drifted off gradually into other activities as they discovered the limits of their abilities or, as in Hicks's case, they remained in music and began expanding those limits. His own early guitar idols included Big Jim Sullivan, James Burton and Chet Atkins, but not--perhaps not surprisingly, in view of these preferences--Chuck Berry. "I was more into Eddie Cochran," he recalled, of rock 'n' roll's first wave.
Eventually, Hicks's musical sensibilities took him in a very specific direction, through his experience of the legendary English band Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. "I was 14 or 15 when I saw them, playing ballrooms," he remembered of the group, who were responsible for writing and having the first hit with "Shakin' All Over," generally acknowledged as the first piece of genuinely top-grade rock 'n' roll to come out of England. "There was Johnny Kidd, and this three-piece band, and they were just incredible to hear, they played so loud and clean. That was the sound that I wanted on stage--just one guitar, one bass, and drums, with no rhythm guitar in the way."
Ricky Shaw and the Dolphins was a popular local act, and despite Cheetham's entreaties to consider joining The Hollies, Hicks wasn't about to give up a spot in his group to join and band barely 60 days old. At the time, Hicks remembered in an early 1970s interview, the band scene in the north was one of healthy competition, but not necessarily the frenzied rivalries portrayed in the press. "I think it was just good press news to make the north--Liverpool, Manchester and whatever--out to be that. Fierce? I don't know.
"There was competition, inasmuch as there were groups equally as good as each other. There was no jealousy. I must admit that the Liverpool groups come more to mind. As far as Liverpool goes, top of the tree was the Beatles, and then you move down with Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and then names that didn't particularly make it, the Remo Four and the Big Three. They stick out in my mind more than Manchester.
Hicks decided to check The Hollies out, and went to one of their shows. He liked what he heard, and was given more to think about when he learned from Graham Nash of Ron Richards's offer of an EMI audition.
Hicks decided to play a rehearsal with the group, and their run-through of a handful of songs satisfied everyone, and he was in the band. The EMI audition took place on April 4, 1963 at EMI's Abbey Road Studio No. 2, which led to three finished songs, a cover of the Coasters' "(Ain't That) Just Like Me," and two originals by Allan Clarke and Graham Nash, "Hey What's Wrong With Me," and "Whole World Over." "(Ain't That) Just Like Me," completed in 10 takes, became the band's debut single, released at the beginning of May 1963 backed with "Hey What's Wrong With Me."