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The beat goes on, for 40 years and counting
Greatest Hits - The Hollies
Member Name: JOHNDMR
Greatest Hits - The Hollies
Advantages: A handful of absolute classics and great songs that deserved to be hits but sadly weren't
Disadvantages: One or two so-so numbers - but with 47 altogether, what do you expect?
The Hollies were formed at the end of 1962, at around the same time the Beatles and Rolling Stones were starting out. During the 60s and early 70s they had nearly thirty hits in Britain, and many more in most other countries throughout the world. Most of the original members have long since left, but guitarist/backing vocalist Tony Hicks and drummer Bobby Elliott, both part of the 1963 line-up, are still leading the six-piece band. There have been many 'Best Of' compilations [see end of review], but this comprehensive 47-track double CD, issued in 2003 to celebrate their 40th anniversary, is in my opinion the best to go for.
The tracks aren't arranged chronologically, and seem to be in a rather random order. All except the last have been hit singles somewhere in the world. However, it's probably best to look at them - or a comprehensive cross-section, at least - more or less in order of age or initial release.
The debut single, '(Ain't That) Just Like Me', is a chirpy beat-pop number. Recorded and issued in the summer of 1963 as Beatlemania was taking over the nation, it sounds very like early Beatles, though it was not long before vocalist Allan Clarke developed a vocal style which meant that once you heard a Hollies record, you knew it had to be them. Once they were established, in Britain they had an almost unbroken run of hits for the rest of the 1960s. The most readily remembered are 'I'm Alive', a No. 1 in summer 1965, and 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother', a dramatic ballad from 1969 which made the top three first time around and had a new lease of life when used as a lager commercial in 1988, and made No. 1 - their first (and only) Top 10 hit since 1974.
Clarke was a distinctive singer, and Hicks an ace guitarist and excellent harmony vocalist. They knew when to rely on other writers for songs, and when to write their own, which probably helps to explain why they kept on having hits long after many of their contemporaries had faded from public view. For my money, the best of the early songs has to be 'I Can't Let Go', (No. 2, 1966), with its irresistible hook, three-part vocal harmony and guitar line. An oft-overlooked classic is the rather more experimental 'King Midas in Reverse', with its novel flutes, strings and brass arrangement. Its modest success was a major disappointment to the group at the time, especially guitarist Graham Nash, who quit to help form Crosby, Stills, Nash (and occasionally Young) shortly afterwards.
The only song from this period I'm not convinced about is their version of Bob Dylan's 'Blowin' In The Wind', taken from their album 'Hollies Sing Dylan', which turns into a full-blooded brassy singalong. Quite clever, but as a Dylan fan I find it a bit overblown, rather at odds with the spirit and simplicity of the original. But when it's surrounded with gems like 'Stop Stop Stop' (love that banjo sound - the talented Mr Hicks again), 'On a Carousel', the calypso-tinged 'Carrie-Anne', and the infectious 'Jennifer Eccles', who's complaining?
The 1970s started well for them with the sombre, reflective 'I Can't Tell the Bottom from the Top' and the mid-paced 'Gasoline Alley Bred'. But after that interest was starting to diminish, the heavier 'Hey Willy', only reached No. 22 in the charts in 1971, a poor showing by their usual standards. Clarke went for a solo career, leaving them with the wonderful but uncharacteristic swamp-rocker (reminiscent of American contemporaries Creedence Clearwater Revival), 'Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress'. They had to promote it without him, but it still reached the UK Top 40 and No 2 in the US, their greatest hit ever there.
Clarke's replacement, Swedish singer Michael Rickfors, made two singles with them, both of which are included here. 'The Baby', with its sitar-guitar and prominent strings, is a rather odd but likeable record, but the bland 'Magic Woman Touch' failed without trace.
Back came Clarke in 1973 with one of his own songs, another swamp-rocker, the snappily-titled 'The Day That Crazy Billy Shot Down Curly Sam McGee'. This was one of their best-ever singles and a moderate hit, reaching No. 24. It was followed by their last burst of 70s chart glory, the gentle 'The Air That I Breathe', which made No. 2.
After that, they entered a fallow period. Part of the joy of this set is hearing many of the singles that should have been hits in Britain but never were. The achingly beautiful 'I'm Down' is surely one of their finest ballads ever, but they sounded equally good on 'Daddy Don't Mind', with a funky guitar intro that could almost be mistaken for the Doobie Brothers (think 'Listen To The Music', 'Long Train Runnin''), and wonderful chorus with organ, more scorching guitar and trumpet. The bouncy 'Star', with its distinctive flute backing, is another gem ripe for rediscovery. There are two more fine slow numbers in their version of Emmylou Harris's 'Boulder to Birmingham' and the epic Mike (Wombles) Batt number, 'Soldier's Song', as well as the lively Nik Kershaw song 'The Woman I Love', which just missed the Top 40 in 1993.
There's one track that appears here for the first time, recorded in 2003, 'How Do I Survive'. Although Clarke had retired by then and been replaced by Carl Wayne, formerly of The Move, it's not one of their best. The song doesn't do much for me, though it's saved from total blandness by Hicks' wonderful guitar work. [Wayne sadly died of cancer the following year].
Yet there are more than enough nuggets to compensate for that slight disappointment. And they had the good taste to omit that questionable 'Stars on 45'-type 1981 hit medley 'Holliedaze', which was their sole Top 30 UK hit between 1974 and 1988.
There are no notes in the booklet, but instead you will find a generous selection of pictures featuring several different line-ups from 1963 to 2003. The tracklisting includes the date(s) of recording, plus a list of global chart positions for each. Which of their songs went to No. 1 in Sweden, Malaysia, Switzerland and New Zealand? If you really need to know, you'll find the answers here.
As you would expect, there are several Hollies compilations with very similar titles to choose from. Just so as to avoid any confusion, I can confirm that this review relates to the one illustrated above, with gold lettering on a cloud design.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]
Summary: A comprehensive singlesfest from one of Britain's most durable groups