The Genius of The Hollies | As Told By Abbey Road's Cameron Colbeck

The Genius of The Hollies | As Told By Abbey Road's Cameron Colbeck

24th December 2021

Graham Nash, Allan Clarke, Don Rathbone, Vic Steele and Eric Haydock nonchalantly dubbed themselves The Hollies in 1962, just before a December gig at the Oasis club in Manchester.

Whether Buddy Holly or just a pervading Christmas spirit caused them to settle on the name is uncertain, but that moment turned out to be the conception of one of the best rock groups of the 1960s.

Left to right: Tony Hicks, Eric Haydock, Bobby Elliott, Allan Clarke and Graham Nash
Without a doubt, the genesis of The Hollies comes down to Graham Nash and Allan Clarke. The two met at school in Salford at the age of 5 and began to blend their voices together in the Ordsall Primary School choir. Allan would sing the lead line and Graham would intuitively find a high harmony. The sensation that occurred between them at that early age was clearly lasting, as both are still singing late into their 70s. After performing as a duo and with various skiffle and rock groups, Graham and Allan eventually found themselves leading that group of five on to the Oasis stage in ’62. In the early days The Hollies were predominately a cover band, but originals were being written behind the scenes pretty much from the outset. Eventually Graham, Allan and guitarist Tony Hicks (under the pseudonym ‘L. Ransford’) would come in to their own as songwriters, contributing greatly to their recording legacy. That legacy, whether covers or originals, was almost exclusively forged at Abbey Road Studios. Between 1963 and 1983 The Hollies recorded enough songs to fill eighteen albums, with likely another eighteen’s worth never making the cut.
In considering the genius of The Hollies, I first think of their commitment to the craft in the studio and on stage. Next I think of their brotherhood and humour. Then I think of specifics, like the swing Bobby Elliott brought on drums, or the style and skill Tony Hicks brought on guitar. In the end though, like so many others, I find myself drawn back by their most identifying feature: their sweet and ever-satisfying vocal harmonies. It was hearing The Everly Brothers sing live which sparked the fire in Graham and Allan to start making music. By recreating what they heard, they founded a great friendship and later a great band. Nash remembers, “It was obvious when me and Allan were singing the Lord’s Prayer, we were doing it in harmony. Completely naturally, from when we were six or seven years old.”[1] With the addition of Tony, The Hollies’ three-part was complete. “We always used to do the choruses round one microphone facing each other. I used to literally just watch his (Allan’s) mouth because that’s a lot easier and more accurate… The slightest variation on the phrasing and you’ve got to start again.”[2]

There’s something special about the balance of multiple singers which is hard to define, but it undoubtedly traces all the way back to the origins of music. In recording terms, before the invention of electrical microphones, instrumentalists and singers used to stagger themselves around an acoustic horn to achieve this balance. At Abbey Road engineers had implanted 'figure-of-eight' Neumann U48 microphones (able to capture sound from the front and the rear) inside of U47 bodies in order to record multiple singers simultaneously. “Ron Richards double-tracked the three-way harmony and, at the press of a button, we became choir-like. We’d been softened up. The future was set, and that simple process was to become addictive as we advanced along the lucrative road of making hit records.”[3] A clear example of The Hollies’ vocal process can be heard on the soloed tracks from On A Carousel, filmed during a 1967 session in Studio Three. They absolutely nail it. I believe singing in harmony forms a human connection that can be heard and felt; an emotional exchange between two or more people which can be captured and transported to others. This phenomenon is true of all recorded music to an extent; but vocal harmony, regardless of lyrics, feels like the truest demonstration of it. Nothing but the 'built-in' instruments! Sadly over the past 18 months many musicians have lacked this kind of face-to-face exchange. Can the same harmonic qualities be created remotely? I’m not sure. I certainly feel very lucky to be getting opportunities to sing with other people again.
At Abbey Road Studios on 4 April 1963 The Hollies passed their recording test for Ron Richards, George Martin’s assistant producer at Parlophone Records. The session was engineered by Peter Bown, with Ken Townsend acting as technical engineer and very likely Geoff Emerick serving as tape op.[4] After signing with Parlophone it was essentially straight to the charts for The Hollies. They had a string of Top Tens between ’63 and ’65 including Stay, Just One Look, Here I Go Again, Look Through Any Window and a number one with I’m Alive. Yes, they were right up there with The Beatles in terms of U.K. hits. I hear those lines of speaking about the Hollies often, but I don’t feel their hit-count quite gets across what a great band they are. Too frequently are they described in these numeric terms. Frankly the association doesn’t carry the same weight today as it did in the 1960s. Rank them by musical precision, group chemistry, harmonic qualities or their serious stage chops. Speaking of stage l just have to mention Tony’s little shoulder shrug and head dip, as well as Allan’s heel click and finger snap combo. Classic bopping right there. Dance moves aside, The Hollies need only be associated with their sound, which to this day remains striking and unique. Very different to the sound of The Beatles, who for whatever reason are nearly always mentioned in the same breath. I suppose it makes sense considering they were from a similar part of the country, on the same label at the same time, crossing paths at Abbey Road, singing in harmony and looking a bit alike. Regardless The Hollies deserve credit for staying true to themselves despite these comparisons, and for persevering as a band even when things got tough later in their career. Drummer Bobby Elliott even turned down Paul McCartney after he offered him a job with Wings in 1973. But I digress.
1966 was a real turning point for the band. It was the year Graham and Allan received what must have been a particularly surreal phone call from The Everly Brothers, asking The Hollies to write them a whole album’s worth of songs. It was the year they went to California and Mama Cass took Graham to meet David Crosby. It was also the year the quintessential Hollies lineup was formed. Tony Hicks had joined back in February 1963 as the replacement for guitarist Vic Steele. He crucially made up the final piece of The Hollies’ distinctive three-part harmony, while also contributing an undeniable musicality on lead guitar. Next came drummer Bobby Elliott in September of the same year. He arrived as the replacement for Don Rathbone who was fired by Ron Richards shortly after the band’s signing to Parlophone. Bobby was a jazz man with a rock ’n’ roll spirit, naturally holding a steady beat while dashing in his fast and intricate fills. Several years later on 18 May 1966, the final piece arrived. Bassist Bernie Calvert left his day job at a factory and drove directly to Abbey Road, having received a last-minute call from Hollies’ manager Michael Cohen. Bernie showed up, promptly nailed the bass part for Bus Stop, and stayed with them for the next 15 years.

The vacancy arose as previous bassist Eric Haydock had just been voted out of the group. This happened for several reasons, but one of which was that he had asked, quite rightly, where all the money was going. No comment from Michael Cohen. Haydock was an integral part of the band’s foundation being the one that got Nash and Clarke into The Deltas, the group that would eventually change their name to The Hollies on that fated Christmas in 1962. He also served the all-important role of band prankster. That aside, the timing of Bernie Calvert’s arrival did coincide with the group rising to their peak in my opinion. It also saw the fated reunion of The Dolphins, a Burnley band for which Hicks, Elliott and Calvert had played as teenagers. How many Hollies lineups there’ve been since that point is hard to say. Various singers and musicians have filled the gaps for this 'core five' at various times, including Terry Sylvester, Pete Wingfield, Mikael Rickfors and Peter Howarth. As well as short-term contributions from the likes of Elton John, Jack Bruce, Klaus Voorman, Jimmy Page, John Miles and one of the funniest guys I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, Brian Chatton. Brian is a family friend of mine who happens to have co-written, produced and played a mean keytar for The Hollies’ 1983 song Take My Love And Run. For a slightly different side of The Hollies, I recommend watching their performance and interview on The Russell Harty Show from that year!
Back in May 1966, a now famous Hollies session took place at Abbey Road featuring a good few of these short-term collaborators. The band were enlisted to record the title track for the film After The Fox written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Though at the time they were missing a bassist and short a piano player. Bacharach flew over to play keys; Bobby Elliott remembers him struggling with the sound of a rented harpsichord, finally opting to use the Studio Two Challen piano instead.[5] George Martin was also there, acting as producer for Peter Sellers who came in, did a pretend karate chop on the piano, and recorded his accent-heavy responses to The Hollies’ harmonic calls. Taking place mere days before Bernie Calvert came out of the factory, someone phoned up Manfred Mann and soon-to-be Cream member Jack Bruce to fill in on bass. This kind of session is just typical of Abbey Road. It was, in many ways is even more so today, a meeting place and spiritual home for creative people. Graham Nash explains as only he can, “Holy is not really the right word, but it’s almost the right word. It was revered. It was church-like. You knew you were going into a very special place, when you walked up those steps at Abbey Road, you knew that something incredible was happening here. And it was. And we were so thrilled to be there.”[6]

In the years post-1966, Graham began to bring in more of his own songs in an attempt to push the band forward creatively. Songs like King Midas in Reverse and Marrakesh Express were not always met with open arms by the other members of the group and eventually it led to him leaving the band in late-1968. Considering what came next for Graham it’s hard to resent his choice. He went on to form another one of the most successful harmony bands of all time, Crosby, Stills & Nash. The rest of The Hollies deserve a huge amount of credit for their resiliency at that time by remaining so self-aware. “Nobody wanted to know the Hollies for King Midas, they wanted The Hollies for doing the stuff they’d done previous. So you can’t really blame anybody. We more or less trained the public into liking us for what we’d done with pop songs and we really weren’t going anywhere. We couldn’t be The Beatles, so we had to carry on being The Hollies.”[7] Soon after Graham’s departure they were right back in the studio recording more pop classics. First came Sorry Suzanne, followed by another notable Abbey Road session, the recording of He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. Arriving in Studio Two on 25 June 1969, The Hollies were greeted by a session pianist named Reg Dwight, hired for a whopping 12 pounds. Having only just released his debut album under the name Elton John, no one yet knew what was to come for young Reg. Bobby recounts setting up his drums next to Elton with Allan sitting on a stool nearby and nailing the track in the first or second take.[8] The piano on He Ain’t Heavy is great, but the glory for the song truly goes to Allan Clarke. He delivers not only an iconic vocal but also one of the most memorable harmonica lines of all-time.
Left to right: Bernie Calvert, Allan Clarke, Tony Hicks, Terry Sylvester and Bobby Elliott
The Hollies were at the crest of the British rock ’n’ roll wave in the ‘60s and have ridden it a long way since. The number of hits they’ve had is staggering, but even more staggering is their commitment to the craft of music-making and the effortless, catchy and beautiful sound they create. Despite various reformations and reinterpretations over the years, their sound remains just as defined as it was in 1962. To me the Clarke, Hicks and Nash harmony was one of the best to ever do it. Rivalling The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and even their heroes The Everly Brothers. The Hollies continue to recapture that unmistakable sound today, even without Allan or Graham singing. It says to me that Tony Hicks’ contribution on guitar and Bobby Elliott's on drums are just as distinct and important as the vocals are. Now as they approach their 59th Christmas as a band, Bobby and Tony still carry the Hollies torch on stage and maintain their legacy behind the scenes. Long may they do so, long live The Hollies!
[1] Graham Nash, The Hollies: Look Through Any Window 1963-1975, David Peck 2011
[2] Tony Hicks, Ibid
[3] It Ain’t Heavy, It’s My Story by Bobby Elliott, 2020, p.67
[4] The Road is Long: The Hollies Story by Brian Southall, 2015, p.33
[5] It Ain’t Heavy, It’s My Story by Bobby Elliott, 2020, p.132
[6] Graham Nash, The Hollies: Look Through Any Window 1963-1975, David Peck 2011
[7] Allan Clarke, Ibid
[8] It Ain’t Heavy, It’s My Story by Bobby Elliott, 2020, p.186

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