One of the main reasons I can pick up songs pretty quickly is that in the 70’s there was no telling just how many chances one might get to listen to a track. The obvious exception was if you bought a single or LP, it was yours forever or at least until you wore it out with playing. The only other alternative was the radio and TV, some track made the playlist, some were banned and some would only get an occasional play by the likes of John Peel.
The effect was twofold. As you might not hear a track again anything good had to be listened to intently in the hope of sucking the content dry in the space of 3 three minutes. The opposite reaction was that sometime a track was always on play, there wasn’t a lot of choice apart from turning the radio or TV off if you didn’t want to listen. The trick with this was to find something to enjoy, a line of lyrics, a guitar line or drum fill, anything to make the time pass until the next track came along.
And sometimes, rarely, there would be a song that you heard a lot, but it never outstayed it’s welcome.
The Hollies, Manchester’s second-best band of all time, had a reputation for following in the footsteps of the Beatles. This served them well until their Strawberry Fields period which failed to be convincing when they came up with a relative flop ‘King Midas in Reverse’ and retreated back to cabaret and lost Graham Nash in the process. The Beatles splitting had left them without role models and singer Alan Clarke tried leaving the band for a while himself before regrouping for the best song Creedence Clearwater Revival never wrote ‘ Long Cool Woman In a Black Dress’.
As the 70’s progressed The Hollies were in a kind of limbo. Still young enough to think they had a role to play in contemporary music but not really sure what to do with that responsibility. The tendency was to go heavy, the band had Bobby Elliot on drums and Tony Hicks on guitar who were both up to the challenge but in their heart of hearts they were a beat group with great harmonies and a sizable fan base who weren’t ready for a huge amount of ‘progression’.
Unlike the Beatles, the Hollies were not prolific writers by any means and were fairly reliant on professional songwriters. ‘The Air that I Breath’ had been written by Albert Hammond, a bit of a singer songwriter in his own right who would go on to have his own hits. The version that had come to the Hollies was from a Phil Everly solo album.
Both Everly and Hammond had made sparser recordings, more sombre and personal, the Hollies would need a bit of fairy dust to make their version sparkle.
And so it did, thanks to EMI staff producer Alan Parsons and the Abbey Rd studios. Here was a bunch of professionals working together. Parsons had his standard studio set up, the band could reproduce harmonies without a huge amount of planning and discussion. Nash’s replacement, Terry Sylvester tends to get marginalised in the band’s history, not least by Clarke himself but the harmony trio of him with Sylvester and Hicks is pretty much as good as any three voices can be. The acoustic guitar bass and drums are all just right and Elliot chose to over dub his fills which means that the rhythm never let up and the fills are pretty loud.
Parsons production has a dreamy quality, Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat’ has a similar slightly disconnected feel to it as well it might do also having been produced by Parsons. There’s also a 40 piece orchestra onboard, it could seem overwrought but the production saves it.
The Hollies were a popular group with media professionals, they were friendly and got the job done with the minimum of fuss. The band might crop up for a three-minute slot whoever there was a space on whatever variety TV show was airing. They always seemed to be on performing ‘The Air that I Breath’. I didn’t get bored, there were mammoth drum fills, electric guitar breaks, layers of vocals and Clarke’s languid lead vocals. The Orchestra were an integral part of the song, and of course there’s the middle eight and fade out.
This also marked the appearance of Bobby Elliot’s wig.
The Hollies would go on to provide the same treatment for young Bruce Springsteen’s early works before the law of diminishing returns led to them fracturing and finally acknowledging they were now an oldies/legacy act. Every now and again Smooth or Radio 2 will give ‘The Air that I Breath’ and airing and for 3.45 I’m back in the family front room watching Clarke, Hicks, Sylvester, Elliot and Calvert performing their finest.