Album Review of:
by ALLAN CLARKE
resurgence; plural noun: resurgences an
increase or revival after a period of
little activity, popularity, or occurrence.
His real name is Harold. The title of his first solo LP, in 1972, told us so. But forty-seven years later the voice of the Hollies is back, and as distinctive as ever. There’s a strong Classic Rock spine, name-checking one of the Hollies biggest US hits with “Long Cool Woman’s Back In Town”, Allan’s voice slightly-echoed as his cutting harmonica works that same lethal femme fatale strut – ‘sometimes the right way is the wrong way to go.’ An obvious focal point, “Hearts Of Stone” – co-written with Carla Olson, also takes its fang-and-claw riff from the same source, eighties-style soft-Rock leaning heavy on the bass. But there’s more than just that, Allan’s “The Door Is Slowly Closing” has an unobtrusive ‘Om’ meditative chant to counterpoint a slinky southern ‘Black Velvet’ feel, giving its restless lyrics an edge, ‘nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.’ And a slow-paced acoustic interplay on a premature burial image for “I’m Only Sleeping”. Then gnawing electro-pulse with guitar slap-back on “I Don’t Know The Reason”, its lyric ‘they say Rock ‘n’ Roll is over’ answered by a stinging guitar solo as if to prove the doom-sayers wrong. ‘It’s the start of a new day, I’m going to jump and hope to fly, I’d be a fool if I didn’t try.’ Allan Clarke, for certain because…
‘R’N’R’ Vol.2 Issue 78’
(November/ December 2019)
(UK – November 2019)
ALLAN CLARKE: BACK IN TOWN
Allan Clarke, the voice of the Hollies, is back,
with his first new album of the century. Which makes for a
good opportunity to look back – and to look forward too…
‘For many years, people would ask ‘why don’t you go back to singing?’ Well, what I couldn’t do was perform Hollies songs anymore. But what I should have said was, there may come a time when I’ll be able to sing again, because I’ll be doing songs I’ve written myself. Because, well, I never stopped writing, I never did. I jot lyrics down. Writing songs was always there, on the back-burner.’ His neatly-combed short iron-grey hair is combed into a fringe across his forehead, a slightly pained expression on his face to denote his seriousness. But when he grins, it’s that same ‘Top Of The Pops’ smile from all those hit records.
The cover-art for ‘Resurgence’, his first new album of the century, carries the enigmatic subtitle LXXVII, Latin for his age, seventy-seven. And the lyric for “I Don’t Know The Reason” observes darkly ‘I can’t hear the sound of music, there’s no dancers on the floor, they say Rock ‘n’ Roll is over…’ ‘But it’s not’ he counters emphatically. ‘It never went away. That was just a one-liner I came up with. I’m still a Rock ‘n’ Roller. The real thing, the 1950s Rock ‘n’ Roll. It never died.’ And the nakedly candid lyric for the closing track “I’m Coming Home” seems to be about returning, not to a physical destination, but to music itself, ‘doing something I left behind.’ ‘That’s right,’ he says, ‘those are words that were actually spoken to me, they came up in conversation while we were talking during a break when I was doing the album ‘I believed it when they told me, that I hadn’t passed my prime, didn’t think that this could happen, all good things can take their time, well – it showed me there could be a future …’ And subconsciously, seeing as it was one of the last songs I did for the album, I thought why not give it a go?’
There’s one obvious name-check on the album glancing back to the Hollies massive US hit, with “Long Cool Woman’s Back In Town”. ‘I was working on a different song when I wrote that lyric. It wasn’t meant to turn out that way. But The Long Cool Woman just emerged and took over. So I took the idea, and developed it, and I made the story up. It seemed she’d left the DA man, and I took the story from there, seeing what came next.’ While “Hearts Of Stone” seems to hark back to the same mood. ‘Again, it’s a Rock ‘n’ Roll song. My grandson plays on that track’ he adds as a casual aside.
The Hollies were always about harmonies. Sure, once Graham Nash quit the line-up in order to hang out with his California pals, Allan became more of the group’s central focus, on later and even bigger hits – such as “He’s Not Heavy, He’s My Brother”, but we’re still used to hearing him as part of a band. Which is probably unfair. ‘Resurgence’ is his eighth solo album. ‘Originally, I was trying to get away from the Hollies sound, to do something different, which is difficult as I’m the lead singer’ he admits ruefully.
The first solo shot, in its Hipgnosis sleeve-design, was ‘My Real Name Is ‘Arold’ in 1972, with Gerry Rafferty’s charming “Mary Skeffington”, but seven Allan-originals, including “Bring On Your Smiles” co-penned with Herbie Flowers. It was ‘me stripping myself bare of the past.’ Followed by the all-original gatefold vinyl ‘Headroom’ a year later, revisiting the Hollies “Would You Believe” in spirit. The 1974 ‘Allan Clarke’ consists of artfully selected covers – including songs by Lindsay Buckingham, Randy Newman, and an impressive “If I Were A Priest” from a tyro Bruce Springsteen demo, following it with “Blinded By The Light” (and a powerful bonus October 1975 single track “Born To Run”) for ‘I’ve Got Time’ (1976). Meanwhile, as part of his on-off dual-career he also recorded Bruce’s “Fourth Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” for the Hollies 1975 ‘Another Night’ album. Springsteen was gracious enough to say ‘thank you’.
Allan contributes guest-vocals on The Alan Parsons Project ‘I, Robot’ concept extravaganza, then returned to originals for his solo ‘I Wasn’t Born Yesterday’ (1978), and most of his Elektra debut ‘Legendary Heroes’ (1980, retitled ‘The Only One’ for UK release), in collaboration with co-writer Gary Benson. Yet ‘Reasons To Believe’ in 1990, not the Tim Hardin song, became his final shot… until now.
He says ‘what I couldn’t do was perform Hollies songs anymore.’ But why not? Paul McCartney still sings old Beatles songs. The Rolling Stones still do “Satisfaction”. ‘They’re lucky’ he chuckles. ‘They can still do that. I can’t. When I recorded those hits with the Hollies, they were really high songs. But later, my register changed. I didn’t really want to stop, but at the same time it got to the point where I was getting a bit fed up. Along with not being able to sing the high notes, not being able to perform in the way that I wanted to, that felt to me like I was letting people down. I was going on stage and singing, and it didn’t feel comfortable, it no longer felt right for me to be doing those songs that way. There is a time for everyone to say ‘that’s it’!’
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There was never a Big Bang moment for the Hollies, more a kind of gradual evolution with each single charting a little higher – “(Ain’t That) Just Like Me” (no.25), and another Coasters cover with “Searchin’” (no.12), Maurice Williams And The Zodiacs “Stay” (no.8), Doris Troy’s “Just One Look” (no.2), until their first no.1 (Clint Ballard Jrn’s “I’m Alive”) which seemed almost natural and inevitable. ‘Well, we were always Top Twenty’ he says defensively, ‘we had around eighteen Top Ten and thirty Top Forty hits.’ And he was always writing, from the very start, although fans might not have seen through the ‘L Ransford’ guise he – along with Graham Nash and guitarist Tony Hicks assume for songwriting duties. ‘That was only at the very beginning’ he avers. ‘The record company said that Clarke-Nash-Hicks was too long, and we had to come up with another name. So ‘L Ransford’ was one of Graham’s ideas. It was the name of his grandfather, or something. I always thought the B-sides we wrote together were good enough to be singles in their own right, but our producer – Ron Richards, thought better of it. He preferred to go with covers or songs by other writers. Although we wrote “We’re Through”, “On A Carousel”, “Carrie Anne”, “Jennifer Eccles” and all the others.’ And 1966 album ‘For Certain Because’ became their first to feature all original compositions.
And soon there were covers of Hollies songs. “Tell It To My Face” by ‘98.6’ star Keith. “Pay You Back With Interest” for Dana Gillespie. And “I’ve Got A Way Of My Own” was recorded by the Electric Prunes, has Allan heard that one? ‘No, I don’t think I have. The Electric Prunes? What a great name. Was it a single?’ While “Have You Ever Loved Somebody” was the subject of a chart battle between two rival versions, by Paul & Barry Ryan, and by the Searchers. ‘I started writing that song as I was going into Abbey Road’ he recalls. ‘I thought the Searchers did a very good version of it. And there was another version, by the Everly Brothers…’
Thereby hangs a tale. Along with Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers had been vocal models for the Hollies sound. Before the group had even got together, childhood friends Nash and Clarke went to see the Brothers play in Manchester. ‘We idolised them, we really did. We tried to work out where they’d be staying. We decided it must be the Midland Hotel, which was the poshest place to stay. So we went there and hung around on the pavement outside. Eventually they came out and chatted to us. They must have stopped talking with us for about twenty-five minutes.’ Years later – July 1966, the Everly’s decided to take advantage of the British Invasion by recording an album, ‘Two Yanks In England’, in London’s Pye studios, with the Hollies, and using no less than eight Hollies songs! ‘That was wonderful, that was one of the biggest things that I ever did. I’ll always remember that. There was one time we were together in the vocal booth and Don turns to me and says ‘how do I sing this, Al?’ (Alan assumes an appropriate, and uncannily accurate Everly accent).
And even later, there’s another connection. “The Air That I Breathe” became the Hollies final huge hit record in 1974, an Albert Hammond song they’d originally heard on the Phil Everly album ‘Star Spangled Springer’ (1973). ‘Ron Richards secretary, Shirley, heard it, and she drew our attention to it. She said we should do it. And she was right. It became our last really big record. We carried on working. We kept trying different things. But that was our last really big record.’
When I talked to Graham Nash some time ago he spoke with great respect and affection about his Hollies years, and he told me ‘Allan and I are the same person in a lot of ways, but he’s the me that didn’t leave for the States, and I’m the me that did.’ I quote this back to Allan now. ‘Did he really say that? That’s interesting. I’ll have to ask him about that the next time I see him. We are still friends. In fact, I had lunch with him just three days ago…’
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Allan quit music in 1999 when his wife – Jennifer, was given a second cancer diagnosis, and he decided that spending time with her took priority. ‘It’s quite scary when those things happen. We’ve been married fifty-five years now and Jeni getting cancer was one of the reasons I left the group. It was like ‘Bam!!!’ We decided we didn’t want to be apart for any length of time and instead see which way it goes. So then, when you’ve got into a life away from the business and you’re involved with your kids helping to bring up two grandchildren that are now men, in that twenty years that I wasn’t in music, the thinking was that I needed to be within the family to be a guiding figure or whatever. I got a better relationship with them for being there. Rather than being on the road. Thankfully, Jeni is still with me and it worked out OK.’ I fact, they’re still living together – not in Manchester, but in Buckinghamshire. ‘I’ve been living my life for the last twenty years, and enjoying it. The last twenty years of my life have been the happiest I’ve ever been. I am in a very good place. I’ve got a great family and have got great grandchildren. Life’s been good and I hope it carries on being as good to me. Let’s say this – I don’t worry, I do fine, but I wouldn’t put myself in the Paul McCartney bracket.’
The lead-off single is “Journey Of Regret”, with curling steel guitar, solid ridges of guitar and a catchy ‘Oh-Oh-Oh’ chorus. Regrets…? I have a few. But then again, too few to mention. ‘That’s just notifications of the time when I was writing. I just got to thinking of one-liners, and the first thing that came to me was ‘blistering sands are shifting across an ice-cold moon’, and I thought ‘that feels pretty nice’. It’s sorta, it grows… you have a picture of things happening through lyrics, and that is what… I painted this picture, which means this man standing in a desert singing when the moon is bright-white. So these are one-liners that have happened within my own life situations that I either did, or didn’t do. And each time that I didn’t do that there was a regret about not doing that. So I’ve felt that my life has been full of regrets, because I do go back in life and say ‘I wish I hadn’t done that’ or ‘I should have done that.’ And that’s what this song – I feel, means. I’ve been on a journey of regrets. Not that my whole life has been a regret, but there’s been many regrets in my life. These are just a few of them.’
‘I wrote all the songs, five of them with Denis Haines. He’d played keyboards with the Hollies from around 1983, I’d worked with him in the past so I knew how great he was at arranging demos, so I invited him to my home and played him some of these tunes and he said he liked them, but still wanted to make them a little bit better.’ And ‘I mean, I was waiting for my wife, I think she’d gone to do some shopping and I usually take a book with me, and one of those books was one of my favourite books, which was all about mythology. And by the time she’d done, I had the idea for the song...’ There’s wailing harmonica on “I’ll Just Keep On Walking”, and a lyric that runs ‘I tried reading all the books that profess to know the truth, always seem to miss their point of view.’ And “Hearts Of Stone” – written with Carla Olson (Allan plays guest harmonica on her Textones track “Twenty Miles South Of Wrong” on the 2018 ‘Old Stone Gang’ album). In a 2014 ‘Strange Brew’ interview he’d teased about the collaboration ‘at the moment I’ve got somebody doing a song that I wrote called ‘A Love That Never Blooms’. I sent the lyrics to this particular person that I like and she’s putting music to it. So I’m just waiting to see how that turns out and get back into doing a few more lyrics and maybe doing a few vocals here and there. Maybe I could sing in a lower voice?’
Unfazed by the transformation of the music industry by new technology that’s happened since his previous album, Allan secured a new record deal after teaching himself how to use GarageBand on his computer. ‘I said to my son Toby – who’s been involved musically in the family since the year he was born ‘I’ve got a song I’ve done on guitar, but I don’t know what to do with it, what do you suggest?’ He said ‘you should learn to use GarageBand’ and he showed me how. Once I managed to learn GarageBand, I realized I could probably do more. So I started writing more lyrics, and as I wrote lyrics, I began putting tunes to them. So I’m piecing songs together, at my own pace. I was quite pleased with the way things were going. I put some lead guitar on a couple of them. Then I’m playing bass. I’m playing harmonica. If you’ve got your own time and there’s no-one with a stopwatch, it can be very relaxing. I wasn’t thinking that this would turn into an album in any way, shape or form. It was not my idea to turn it into an album. Not at that point. I was just writing, and playing for myself. But when Hartwig Masuch, CEO of BMG heard about it and wanted to release it, well, you don’t argue. And streaming, downloading and Spotify, I’m pretty much up with that. To me, as long as they’re listening to the music it doesn’t matter in which way they happen to be listening to it.’
The Hollies still perform, ‘yes, they’re still doing it. I have to smile and giggle, by the way, because there’s barely an original player left in the band. I don’t even know who is in the Hollies these days. But I’m never going out on tour or anything like that… I did that for over forty years. And though I miss it… slightly, I wouldn’t want to go out and do the tours that I did with The Hollies. I wouldn’t want to be a part of that sort of circus again. I’m not really ready for that yet. But I’ve had lots of offers by lots of people, so who knows?’
Manchester was always a hub for new music. Was there any feeling of kinship with later Manchester bands – the Smiths, the Stone Roses, Oasis? ‘Don’t forget that by the time they came in, I was living in a different world’ he explains carefully. ‘But my son Toby did take me to see a Smiths gig, and it was very good. And afterwards, we went backstage to say ‘hello’. They were friendly and made us very welcome. Although they probably thought I was just some kind of old fogey. But my son was pleased. He was into the Happy Mondays too, and the Stone Roses.’
Resurgence? ‘It’s the start of a new day, I’m going to jump and hope to fly, I’d be a fool if I didn’t try.’ ‘Yes, it’s given me a new lease of life in doing something I thought I’d never do again.’ And he grins that same ‘Top Of The Pops’ smile from all those hit records.
‘R’N’R’ Vol.2 Issue 78’
(November/ December 2019)
(UK – November 2019)