“So even though I’ll lose you, you’ll be better off by far”. Beatles or Stones – How About The Hollies?
We’re all familiar with the battle for supremacy between supporters of The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. This epic clash still permeates pop culture, serving as a lyrical motif within several modern songs (Low’s “Hatchet” and Metric’s “Gimme Sympathy” are just a few examples). Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot, the closest the US music press has to lettered academics, recently completed a dissertation on the subject. It continues today in a remastering tit-for-tat: Exile on Main Street – POW! Entire Beatles catalogue (including appropriate mono releases) – BAM! Some Girls – KABLOOEY! For fans of both bands, it’s been an absolute treat, although there’s always fear that the next Beatles-related riposte will be Red Rose Speedway (DIRTY LOOK!).
One of my favorite phenomena in pop culture involves the media’s clumsy attempts to recast this battle among contemporary acts. Here’s but a few examples of such comic journalistic malpractice:
Oasis vs. Blur. Since MTV and Lexington radio all but ignored Britpop in the mid-1990s, I was completely unaware of how heated this rivalry had grown, and the hyperbole attached to it (which was hilariously sent up in an episode of Father Ted). Anything outside of “Live Forever” or “Girls and Boys” needn’t apply until What’s the Story, Morning Glory? gave Americans the impression that there was no feud, just Oasis and a bunch of lesser acts that were deemed unsuitable for US radio (sadly, we were cheated out of Suede, Pulp, the Charlatans, Primal Scream, the Manic Street Preachers, James, you name it). Eventually, the US music press broke the story, where an interview with Noel Gallagher offered a pantheon quote: “People ask me about Oasis and Blur being like the ‘Beatles and the Stones’. Well, WE are the Beatles AND the Stones, and Blur are the fcuking Monkees.”
Green Day vs. The Offspring. Yes, this actually happened, thanks to a RollingStone article in the summer of 1995 (impossible to find currently, but the archive has to have it). Buoyed by the wild success of Dookie and Smash, the two west-coast pop-punk bands served as a break from the serious tone taken by the northwest rock scene that dominated 1994. Green Day eventually dropped the party songs for more weighty issues, but – and yes, it hurts to utter these words – they were far more entertaining when their songs focused on self-flagellation, taxpayer-funded reading rooms, streets named after girls, and (extremely) long-distance relationships. After Smash gave us a blast of fun (“Come Out and Play”), a rowdy Matt Shorr-approved scream-along (“Self-Esteem”), the funniest song to be enunciated by residents of Cincinneeati (“Bad Habit”, or, excuse me, “Beead Heeabit”), and an accessible gateway into the ska world invented by Madness (“What in the World Happened to You?”), The Offspring transformed into a boring post-grunge novelty act. Somehow, a six-month run of solid back-and-forth yielded this comparison. Thankfully, there were no wiseacres on hand to say “Green Day or Offspring? The correct answer is Hootie and the Blowfish.” Except there were – about 16 million wiseacres to date.
(Early) Wilco vs (early) Son Volt. While only evident to hard-core Uncle Tupelo fans, the year where Trace gained prominence while A.M. stalled, there was a small Farrar vs. Tweedy battle that some cited as a minor version of the Beatles vs. the Stones, but in reality, it was more of a battle of the Stones vs. Stones. For fans of tunes like “Angie”, “Sister Morphine”, “Tumbling Dice”, “Sway”, “Love in Vain”, “Waitin’ On a Friend”, and “Factory Girl”, you chose Trace and Straightaways; whereas lovers of “Honky Tonk Women”, “Brown Sugar”, “Rocks Off”, “Yesterday’s Papers”, “Shattered”, “Star Star”, “Mixed Emotions”, and “Rip This Joint”, you loved A.M. and really loved Being There.
Unfortunately, with most of the oxygen consumed by the forces of Beatlemania and Stones-henge, other great British-invasion acts are all but ignored in popular discussion. On two occasions, queries of “Who is better?” were met with “You ask about Beatles or Stones: I’ll take The Kinks” (John Barner @slowlearner), or “Beatles vs. Stones: For three years, The Easybeats were as awesome as both” (me). However, one will never hear “Beatles vs Stones: Give me The Hollies”, and that needs to change.
The Hollies made their name in mid-’60s Britain with their unique vocal approach to covering rhythm and blues tunes. Sometimes great (“Whatcha Gonna Do ‘Bout It”), sometimes completely pointless and bordering on desecration (a sped-up “Just One Look”), you knew a Hollies tune after the first lyric. Eventually, they managed to convince their label to allow more self-penned songs, giving us some magical music moments. Here are a few that deserve your attention:
“King Midas In Reverse” – With its triumphant horns and reverbing-across-the-continent drum fills, this would make an incredible anthem, albeit in, um, reverse (sample lyric: “everything he touches turns to dust”). Outside of Dwight Yoakam’s “Dangerous Man” (I hear you: Does this video feature wildly out-of-context line-dancing? Enough to drive Jean Baudrillard into an apoplectic primal-scream!) from the undeniable If There Was A Way, I’m hard-pressed to identify a better tune to have served as the soundtrack to a 2004 commercial for John Kerry’s failed presidential bid. With nothing more than short videos of Dubya laughing in that snickering manner that he does, over and over again.
“I’ve Been Wrong Before” – I lauded a Hollies/Everly Brothers collab of this song a few months ago, and either way, it bears a kick-ass intro and verse in the style of the Easybeats’ bad-ass stomper “Mandy”, which I consider to be the best song of the 1960s. The chorus can’t maintain the momentum, but 2/3 of an awesome song is still reason for celebration.
“Look Through Any Window” – Where the Hollies take the proto-jangle of Rubber Soul and perfect the template. Peter Buck was definitely taking notes here. And the lyrics – perhaps the most joyful celebration of urbanity and the bustle of city life outside of “Silver Bells”.
“Tell Me To My Face” – A style in which the Hollies became quite adept: the up-tempo minor-key rocker. This one features the contrast of wonderfully-clangy percussion with tasteful ringing guitars, and an request for courage from an AWOL lover. Similar musical territory is explored in the Graham Gouldman-penned “Bus Stop”, although without the unique percussion. No fear – it’s been replaced with one of the very few post-second chorus musical breaks to feature two dueling guitar solos. Each employing a different rhythmic approach and melodic arc, the solos’ seventh and eighth measures employ some of the most clashing musical dissonance you’ll ever hear on any pop record, let alone its many appearances on easy-listening(!) stations.
“Stop! Stop! Stop!” The wild percussion and clever instrumentation returns for this epochal jolt through the musical styles of central Asia. Far more adventurous than nearly everything on the radio in 2011 as well as 1966, it is hard to believe this same act was only a few years away from unchallenging pap like “He Ain’t Heavy (He’s My Brother)”. And those harmonies! Damn…
“What Went Wrong” – A note-perfect pastiche of big-production music-hall pop, with booming tympani, crackling glockenspiels, exploding cymbals, blasts of horns, and lyrics held out for what seems to be an eternity. If Phil Spector and a Meat Loaf-era Jim Steinman were forced at gunpoint (don’t worry, Spector had to walk through a metal detector) to write the Most Important Two-Minute Song Ever – which is what I presume they believe about everything they’ve ever written, so we’re not exactly pressing the issue here – it would not result in something unlike this. (Big Music requires Big double-negatives).