Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Long Cool Woman

What I learned about The Hollies in the last two days, while shirking my adult responsibilities:

"Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" is a staple of oldies radio, and over the years it has made an impression on me as a song with a really good sound, only partially counteracted by really stupid lyrics. Recently some friends and I have been brainstorming a list of songs of the genus "Good Sound, Stupid Lyrics," which put me in mind of LCWIABD and sent me on a quest to the library in search of a Hollies disc.

I was surprised to discover that the Hollies rate this 3-disc retrospective. I didn't know much about the band beyond the fact that they gave Graham Nash his start, but they were responsible for a number of familiar hits in the 60s: "On A Carousel," "Bus Stop," "Carrie-Anne," "Look Through Any Window," and the unforgettable period piece "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother," to name just a few.

I read up on the Hollies a little bit, on Wikipedia and in the liner notes to this 3-disc box, and got caught up. They were a work-a-day pop band who had some successes but also their share of trials: personnel changes, struggles with labels and management (particularly a lazy unimaginative producer named Ron Richards), competition over songs and songwriting credits. They had a bruising encounter with the Beatles; they did a cover of "If I Needed Someone" only to have George Harrison badmouth their version in public. They tried to evolve from moptops into hippies, the related frustrations driving Graham Nash from the band and toward a California dream. In the interims between bass players, they had future notables John Paul Jones, Jack Bruce, and Klaus Voormann play on their records. Elton John played piano on "He Ain't Heavy." The liner notes are too flattering to the band, the way liner notes tend to be, but the lads come off as down to earth and realistic about their status as relatively lowly conscripts in the British Invasion. (One of the band's singles was blocked from the top of the UK charts by The Archies's "Sugar Sugar." The drummer remarks, "We needed that Number One hit more than they did. They were drawings, after all, we were real!")

"Long Cool Woman" has a somewhat complicated backstory, as befits a long cool woman. From Wikipedia:

[Allan] Clarke, devastated by the departure of his friend of more than 20 years [i.e. Nash], had been locked into the group identity for nearly all of his adult life, and now felt the urge to step out on his own. The group was beginning work on a new album, which Clarke would do with them, after which he would begin work on his own career and his own recordings, independent of the band. Ironically, the new album was to benefit from Clarke's plans for a solo career, but the group's ability to take advantage of its unexpected success was to be sorely tested. While recording the album, titled Distant Light, Clarke turned up with a song that was to be added to the record: a throwaway, co-authored by Clarke, Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway, titled Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress (Eder, 1996[1]).

Recorded on a day when producer Ron Richards was absent [emphasis mine], the album gave Clarke a rare chance to show off his guitar skills. The problem was that Clarke had not intended it to be released on a Hollies album, but as a record of his own. However, a couple of members of the group did play on it and he was forced to include it on Distant Light. This, in turn, led to an open breach between Clarke and the rest of the group, once they learned that he intended to do a solo recording. Clarke was issued an ultimatum, that he either remain with The Hollies or pursue a solo career, but not both.

In a 1973 interview with Melody Maker, Clarke states (Eder, 1996[2])

They thought that when I became successful, I'd leave them anyway, so they just shortened the agony by forcing me to do one thing or the other. It was silly, really, because I wouldn't have left the group.

Long Cool Woman came out as a single after a modest slide in the early '70s. The song was a Creedence Clearwater Revival style million record selling rocker that made #2 in the States in 1972; suddenly, this became the group's new signature tune, saturating the airwaves in the United States. However, Clarke was already gone, being strangely replaced by Swedish star Mikael Rickfors, who attempted to overcome language barriers. The new Hollies yielded the minor hit The Baby; however, Rickfors could sing in English but not speak it fluently, which created problems that were never fully resolved (Biography, 2002).

Much to Clarke's disappointment The Hollies were offered their first major US tour due to the success of Long Cool Woman, a song which Clarke considered to be his. The new Hollies line-up toured the US and for the first time received a major push in that country, appearing on the major music TV shows of the day. The personnel changes meant that the band had to re-invent their style somewhat, switching instruments and lead vocals on various songs. While a very interesting period for the band, the overall cohesive nature of The Hollies sound was somewhat damaged and the tour was not a big success with audiences.


Clarke rejoined after just a couple of years away; eventually even Nash re-upped for a reunion tour and album.

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