198. The Hollies – I’m Alive (1965)

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After 15 months behind bars, Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs escaped from Wandsworth Prison on 8 July. He scaled a wall with a rope ladder and dropped into a waiting removal van. The canny criminal then fled to Brussels. Four days later, Secretary of State for Education and Science Tony Crosland issued Circular 10/65, which set into motion the abolition of grammar schools and secondary moderns. One of the best actions Labour took during the Wilson government.

Mancunian beat outfit the Hollies were one of the most popular acts of the era, ratcheting up many weeks in the top ten from 1963 onwards, but they only had one number 1 in the 1960s, toppling Elvis Presley a few weeks before these events took place.

The nucleus of the group, Allan Clarke and Graham Nash, were friends from primary school who, like so many others, were keen skiffle fans. They were also admirers of the Everly Brothers and began modelling themselves on them, becoming known as Ricky and Dane Young. Soon after they joined up with a local band called the Fourtones. In 1962 their guitarist Derek Quinn quit to join Freddie and the Dreamers, so Clarke and Nash also jumped ship. They teamed up with another Manchester band called the Deltas, who had just lost a member to the Mindbenders. The Deltas consisted of guitarist Vic Steele, bassist Eric Haydock and Don Rathbone on drums.

That December, they changed their name to the Hollies. Exactly why is unclear. It used to be said that Haydock came up with the name in relation to the festive season, but in 2009 Nash said it was a group decision and was influenced by Christmas and their mutual love of Buddy Holly.

The Hollies performed at the Cavern Club in Liverpool in January 1963, where they came to the attention of Parlophone assistant producer Ron Richards. He offered the band an audition, but Steele chose to quit as he didn’t want to turn professional. They replaced him with Tony Hicks, and they passed the audition, with Richards becoming their producer until well into the 70s. One of the songs they performed, a cover of the Coasters’ (Ain’t That) Just Like Me, became their debut single in May 1963. It did well, reaching number 25. After second single Searchin’, Rathbone chose to leave, and Hicks’ old bandmate Bobby Elliott became their new drummer.

In 1964 the Hollies went from strength to strength. Debut album Stay with the Hollies reached number two in the charts. And they scored hit after hit, most impressive of which was Just One Look. They stood out mainly due to the great harmonies of Clarke and Nash, and a tendency to pick strong songs to cover.  By September Clarke, Nash and Hicks were penning their own tunes and Richards agreed to let them record and release We’re Through as a single, which was another smash.

Some time in late 1964 or early 1965, Clint Ballard Jr approached the Hollies with a song he’d written especially for them. Ballard was a US songwriter who had discovered and managed the Kalin Twins, who had a UK number 1 with When in 1958. He had written Good Timin’ for Jimmy Jones, which went to the top in 1960. His timing with the Hollies was bad initially, as they passed on I’m Alive and it ended up in the hands of fellow Mancunians the Toggery Five. Perhaps they didn’t want to rely too much on covers, but they relented and recorded their own version in May and released it ASAP. And on 24 June the number 1 spot was finally theirs.

It’s all about the uplifting, anthemic chorus really, otherwise I’m not sure there’s much of a song there. But the harmonies are strong as ever and there’s some impressive drum fills too, so the group do the best they can with somewhat average material. I’ve already forgotten the verses but ‘I’m alive!’ is a nice earworm.

The Hollies battled with Presley for a few weeks, with Crying in the Chapel returning to number 1 after a week, but I’m Alive won the war and went back to the top for a further fortnight. It would be 23 years before an advertising campaign helped get the Hollies back to number 1 in 1988.

Written by: Clint Ballard Jr

Producer: Ron Richards

Weeks at number 1: 3 (24-30 June, 8-21 July)

Births:

Footballer Gary Pallister – 30 June
Footballer – 11 July
Politician David Miliband – 15 July
Dinah Rose, QC – 16 July
Academic Steve Webb – 18 July

155. The Searchers – Sweets for My Sweet (1963)

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At around 3am on 8 August, a Royal Mail train heading from Glasgow to London was attacked by a gang of 15 robbers. The gang, led by Bruce Reynolds, beat the train driver, Jack Mills, over the head with an iron bar and made off with £2.6million. This crime became known as the Great Train Robbery, and made several of the gang infamous, including Ronnie Biggs, Buster Edwards and Charlie Wilson. Buster Edwards later suffered the indignity of being portrayed by Phil Collins in the 1988 movie Buster. In a strange twist, he later found himself on the other side of theft. He had been released from prison in 1975 and since then had ran a flower stall outside Waterloo station. In 1991, actor Dexter Fletcher scooped up two bunches of flowers from the stall and ran off. Edwards recognised him from the film The Rachel Papers, which he had only seen a few days before. Fletcher was arrested and charged with theft, given a conditional discharge for a year and ordered to pay £30 costs. Fletcher apologised to one of the country’s most famous robbers and claimed the flowers were for his girlfriend, Press Gang co-star Julia Sawalha, but he’d lost his cash card. Silly Dexter.

On the day of the Great Train Robbery, the Searchers became the third Merseybeat group to go to number 1, with their cover of Elvis collaborators Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman’s Sweets for My Sweet, which had previously been a hit for US soul group the Drifters in 1961.

The Searchers had been formed from the ashes of an earlier skiffle group by guitarists John McNally and Mike Pender in 1959, taking their name from the 1956 John Ford western movie. They recruited further members, including Tony Jackson on bass, but he didn’t have a bass, so he built one himself. By 1962, Jackson was also the lead singer and Chris Curtis was the band’s drummer. Like the Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers, they were regularly performing at Liverpool clubs like the Cavern, and would head over to perform in Hamburg, Germany. After a successful audition they found themselves signed to Pye Records, with Tony Hatch as their producer. Hatch had assisted on the production of Petula Clark’s first number 1, Sailor, in 1961.

Coming from such a strong songwriting team (Pomus and Shuman had co-written two Elvis number 1 singles, Surrender and (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame/Little Sister), Sweets for My Sweet was a superior track to some of the other fluffy pop that came out under the Merseybeat banner. I prefer it to the original, with the chiming guitars and chugging drums pushing the song along, whereas the Drifters version swung in a more laidback manner. They misheard one of the lyrics in the chorus, changing ‘Your tasty kiss thrilled me so’ to ‘Your fair sweet kiss thrilled me so’, but I prefer it like that. While it’s all about the chorus, as usual, the backing vocals in the verses are also pretty strong.

With their first single spending a fortnight at the top, the Searchers were quickly established as one of the top groups from Liverpool. Mike Pender became known for his 12-string guitar, with the group later cited as an influence on the sound of the Byrds. Two further number 1s were to follow. Sweets for My Sweet was a number three hit for reggae singer CJ Lewis thirty years later.

Written by: Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman

Producer: Tony Hatch

Weeks at number 1: 2 (8-21 August)

Deaths:

Painter Joan Eardley – 16 August