When I was a kid back in the late 60’s, me dear ol’ Mum could often be found working away in the kitchen listening to the newly created BBC Radio One; and this is where I first became interested in music – listening as I played with toy cars or soldiers at the kitchen table. This was a remarkable period in British pop history – although at the time, of course, I was totally unaware of the phenomenon. I did know however, that there were some very good bands producing some excellent songs – some of which became iconic as the years rolled by. One of the most remarkable bands from that period was THE HOLLIES – by the late 60’s, already a household name. They were one of the earliest pop groups that I remember. Half a century later and they are still extant, and, I’m glad to say, still gigging. So when I heard they were to play THE CLIFFS PAVILION at Westcliff-On-Sea, Essex; I of course jumped at the chance to see them live.
I also bought their triple album 50 At Fifty (Parlophone, 2014). As the name suggests, this is a collection of 50 of their best known songs – all the hits and more. Listening to it, I can’t help being amazed at the sheer variety of their music. There is no pigeon-hole in which you can easily place this veteran band in regards to style or genre. From the fresh-faced Mancunian boys who knocked out Mersey-beat inspired songs in the early 60s, to the subliminal and unique heights of ‘He Ain’t Heavy’ and ‘The Air That I Breathe’. Or from the CCR-esque ‘Long Cool Woman’, to the beautifully orchestrated folk epic ‘Soldier’s Song’. The gamut of their work is extraordinarily wide. And their entire back-catalogue of hits is demonstrated in 50 At Fifty. Its a great album. My only complaint with it is that the accompanying booklet has virtually no information about the band, their history, their chart stats, or their music in it at all – just photos really. This is a great shame. (They should have asked me – I could have written plenty!)
The band have apparently been gigging every year, without exception, since 1964. Incredibly enough, in all that time, I’ve never seen them play live! In spite of them often playing fairly local to me, there has always been something that stopped me going – but I’m glad to say that is a situation that has now been put right! As the ‘Trouble and Strife’ and I took our seats, a bloke near me told me that we should expect a great show – he knew because he’d seen them for the last four years at this venue. I believed him!
The Hollies have certainly had their share of personnel changes over years; but their current line-up has been stable for a decade or so. They currently consist of: 50-year men, TONY HICKS (guitar; banjo; sitar; vocals), and BOBBY ELLIOT (drums); 20-year men, RAY STILES (bass; vocals), and IAN PARKER (keys; accordion; vocals); and 10-year men, PETER HOWARTH (lead vocal, acoustic guitar, harmonica), and STEVE LAURI (guitar; vocals).
As I predicted, the band played a two-part show with no support. They emerged from the wings to great applause, in matching shirts and trousers – something which I’ve rarely seen in a band since I’ve been attending gigs; but entirely in keeping with a 60s group of course! Appropriately, they began with ‘Here I Go Again’; and without a word went straight into ‘I Can’t Let Go’, and the wonderful ‘Sorry Suzanne’. Frontman Peter spoke for the first time then – introducing ‘On A Carousel’. More old hits followed, interspersed with newer numbers, with instruments changed as necessary. We heard ‘Emotions’; ‘Priceless’; ‘Just One Look’ and ‘Stay’ among others; and ending with the lively rocker ‘Crazy Sam McGee’. At all times, this first set (of 50 minutes duration) was classy; slick, well-oiled and at times amusing. The distinctive three-part vocal harmonies, for which the band are famed, were very much in evidence.
Set Two, saw the lads return to the stage in non-matching attire – more akin to a 70s group, I suppose! There were many more classics to get through. They kicked off with their cover of ‘Stop In The Name Of Love’. and continued with more of their extensive back-catalogue of hits such as: ‘Bus Stop’; ‘Carrie-Anne’; ‘Stop, Stop, Stop’; ‘I Can’t Tell The Bottom From The Top’; and the Springsteen penned ‘Sandy’. (No, I didn’t know ‘The Boss’ wrote it either!). A couple of good new-ish numbers were thrown in for good measure too.
So far it had been a brilliant gig; but the best was yet to come, as we still hadn’t heard the three greatest Hollies hits. The show was nearing its end, when singer Peter introduced the song that, more than any other, epitomises The Hollies – the iconic and immortal ‘He Ain’t Heavy’. From the opening harmonica bars, I don’t mind admitting that I had a tear in my eye; for it was a sublime and faultless rendition of one of the most beautiful songs ever written – both musically and lyrically. How can you follow that? With another massive Hollies hit, of course! The equally wonderful ‘The Air That I Breathe’ came next – again executed perfectly with genuine feeling. By now everyone was on their feet. I thought the band would leave and return for encore; but there would be no wait – they stayed put as Tony played the distinctive arpeggiated intro to (yes, it had to be) the bluesy ‘Long Cool Woman’. The place was alive, but that was it, I’m afraid.
After the show, I bought a copy of the band’s album Then, Now, Always (Special souvenir edition, 2009) for a fiver at the merch desk. I played it on the way home, and I must say its a very good collection of work – eleven excellent, well- constructed songs; full of feeling and good lyrics. I like it a lot.
Well, its been a long winding road for The Hollies, and we don’t know where it will lead; but I can’t see them ever giving it up. They love their audience, and they obviously enjoy their work. Singer peter has apparently recently been seriously ill, yet still he wanted to carry on. I think any other member of this band would be the same. Long may The Hollies carousel keep turning!