One of the best and most commercially successful pop/rock acts of the British Invasion, when the Hollies began recording in 1963, they relied heavily upon the R&B/early rock & roll covers that provided the staple diet for countless British bands of the time. They quickly developed a more distinctive style of three-part harmonies (heavily influenced bythe Everly Brothers), ringing guitars, and hook-happy material, penned by both outside writers (especially Graham Gouldman) and themselves, eventually composing most of their repertoire on their own. The best early Hollies records evoke an infectious, melodic cheer similar to that of the early Beatles, although the Hollies were neither in their class (not an insult: nobody else was) nor demonstrated a similar capacity for artistic growth. They tried, though, easing into somewhat more sophisticated folk-rock and mildly psychedelic sounds as the decade wore on, especially on their albums (which contain quite a few overlooked highlights).
Allan Clarke (lead singer) and Graham Nash (vocals, guitar) had been friends since childhood in Manchester, and formed the nucleus of the Hollies in the early ’60s with bassist Eric Haydock. In early 1963, EMI producer Ron Richards signed the group after seeing them at the famous Cavern Club in Liverpool. Guitarist Vic Steele left before the first session, to be replaced by 17-year-old Tony Hicks. Drummer Don Rathbone only lasted for a couple of singles before being replaced by Bobby Elliott, who had played withHicks in his pre-Hollies group, the Dolphins. The lineup changes were most fortuitous:Hicks contributed a lot to the group with his ringing guitar work and songwriting, andElliott was one of the very finest drummers in all of pop/rock.
Although their first singles were R&B covers, the Hollies were no match for the Rolling Stones (or for that matter the Beatles) in this department, and were much more at home with pop/rock material that provided a sympathetic complement to their glittering harmonies. They ran off an awesome series of hits in the U.K. in the ’60s, making the Top 20 almost 20 times. Some of their best mid-’60s singles, like “Here I Go Again,” “We’re Through,” and the British number one “I’m Alive,” passed virtually unnoticed in the United States, where they couldn’t make the Top 40 until early 1966, when Graham Gouldman‘s “Look Through Any Window” did the trick. In 1966, Eric Haydock left the group under cloudy circumstances, replaced by Bernie Calvert.
The Hollies really didn’t break in America in a big way until “Bus Stop” (1966), their first Stateside Top Tenner; “On a Carousel,” “Carrie Ann,” and “Stop Stop Stop” were also big hits. Here the Hollies were providing something of a satisfying option for pop-oriented listeners that found the increasingly experimental outings of groups like the Beatles andKinks too difficult to follow. At the same time, the production and harmonies were sophisticated enough to maintain a broader audience than more teen- and bubblegum-oriented British Invasion acts like Herman’s Hermits. Their albums showed a more serious and ambitious side, particularly on the part of Graham Nash, without ever escaping the truth that their forte was well-executed pop/rock, not serious statements.
Nash, however, itched to make an impression as a more serious artist, particularly on the “King Midas in Reverse” single (1967). Its relatively modest commercial success didn’t augur well for his influence over the band’s direction, and their next 45s were solidly in the more tried-and-true romantic tradition. By 1968, though, Nash really felt constrained by the band’s commercial orientation, and by the end of the year he was gone, left for the States to help found Crosby, Stills, & Nash. His departure really marked the end of the group’s peak era.
In 1969, the band tried to have their cake and eat it too by doing a whole album of Hollie-ized Dylan songs, which was received poorly by some critics, although it was a decent seller in Britain. Nash was replaced by Terry Sylvester (formerly of Liverpool bands the Escorts and Swinging Blue Jeans), and the hit streak continued for a while. “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” in fact, was one of their biggest international singles. But the group was really reaching a cul de sac; they’d managed a remarkably long run at the top considering that they hadn’t changed their formula much since the mid-’60s, adding enough sophistication to the lyrics and arrangements to avoid sounding markedly dated. It was apparent they really weren’t capable of producing long-playing works striking enough to appeal to the album audience, though, and their singles, though still hits on occasion, weren’t as memorable as their best ’60s work.
A modest slide in the early ’70s was arrested by “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress,” aCreedence Clearwater Revival-type rocker that made number two in the States in 1972. The timing wasn’t ideal; by the time it became a smash, Clarke, who had sung lead on the single, had left to go solo, to be replaced by Swedish vocalist Mikael Rikfors. Clarke re-joined in mid-1973, and the group had one last international monster, “The Air That I Breathe,” which made number six in the U.S. in 1974. The group went on to record a string of further albums in the second half of the 1970’s.
Curiously, mostly thanks to Clarke, they did pick up on Bruce Springsteen‘s work as a songwriter earlier than a lot of other acts, but not even their beautiful rendition of “Sandy” could avert their slide from the public’s consciousness. Most of their late 70’s releases were heavily influenced by the prevailing disco and dance-rock sounds of the era, although they never entirely abandoned their harmony vocal sound. Under other cirucmstances they might have pulled off a career conversion similar to that achieved by the Bee Gees after 1974, but luck wasn’t with the group and their output in this period was ignored, passed over by fans of thier old sound and the disco audience alike. This coincided with a decision by their American label, Epic Records — apparently conceding that the Hollies would never sell large numbers of LPs regardless of how big their hits ever were — to minimize the marketing efforts invested in the band’s records, essentially running out the clock on their contract. Ironically, the label ended up passing on the one LP the group issued in the late 1970’s that would have reached out to old and new audiences, the concert album originally titled Hollies Live. It ended up getting reviewed enthusiastically in numerous American magazines and newspapers as a Canadian import. The group seemed to reach a dead end in the early 1980’s, with Sylvester and Calvert exiting suddenly during that period.
The Hollies received a small boost in press interest in America during 1983, however, whenGraham Nash rejoined for one LP (What Goes Around), but even this proved a false start — the album got reviews, but the latter were often negative, and a tour by this line-up had to be hastily re-booked into smaller halls. The group continued to play concerts and make beautiful records, but there was no public demand for the latter and by the 1990s they’d ceased recording regularly. As the twenty-first century beckoned, Allan Clarke — after nearly 40 years as the lead vocalist for the band — found that his singing didn’t come to him as strongly or as well as he was used to, and he decided to retire, leaving Hicks and Elliott as the last two core members of the group. Clarke’s successor was Carl Wayne, the one-time lead singer of the 1960’s Birmingham-spawned band the Move. In 2003, EMI Records recognized the Hollies’ musical significance with a huge (and hugely satisfying) six-CD box set, The Long Road Home: 1963-2003, covering every era and major line-up in the group’s history.
Biography by Richie Unterberger & Bruce Eder