Classic Music Review: Herman’s Hermits Retrospective

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Warning! May adversely affect your workplace credibility!

I’m not much of a morning person.

Okay, I’m an impossible bitch in the morning and you don’t want to be anywhere near me until 10 a. m. I use the morning to organize self and thoughts for the day ahead and I do not appreciate distractions in the form of human contact. My partner avoids me at all costs, not an easy thing to do in a small apartment with a single bathroom. She’s learned to listen for my footsteps or the sound of my ass hitting a chair to know whether or not it’s safe to move to a particular location. I initiate the goodbye kiss-and-nipple-tweak when I’m ready to go, then I plug in the headphones to my iPod, do the walk-Metro-walk to work without acknowledging the existence of thousands of Parisians and walk straight into my office without validating the existence of my staff as I pass through their workspaces. My E. A. knows better than to do anything except bring me strong black coffee and get the hell out of my office, but sometimes, business interferes and she has to intrude on my boot-up process.

Ce sont les Americains à l’appareil,” she will say as gently and sweetly as possible, indicating the Americans are on the line.

“What the fuck do they want?” I will inevitably snap, in English. The French understand the operative word “fuck” and use it with increasing frequency in daily discourse. She’ll excuse herself, then I’ll pick up the phone, armed with the necessary attitude to do battle with the enemies from the corporate office.

A funny thing happened the week I started immersing myself in the music of Herman’s Hermits.

For a few days, my walk-Metro-walk was choreographed to the sound of Peter Noone and pals. I found myself humming along with their tunes and throwing in a little whistle now and then. As I walked to the Metro, I actually noticed there people on the streets, and even smiled and waved at them. I arrived at the office, disconnected the headphones, and then, with a light, lithe step, scampered up the stairs to our offices, eagerly anticipating the start of another work day.

“Bonjour, ça va?” I greeted each member of the staff, delighted to see their familiar faces, frozen in shock. I complimented my E. A. on her dress, her perfume; asked her about the family, the dog, the upcoming weekend, a restaurant. I thanked her effusively for the cup of coffee she had prepared for me, then stepped happily into my office and start the work day, humming away.

In a few minutes, the E. A. appeared at my door.

Ce sont les Americains à l’appareil,” she said with a touch of trepidation.

Ah, bon!” I said with genuine excitement, “C’est parfait! Je voulais discuter des estimations de coûts. J’ai quelques idées sur la façon dont nous pouvons réduire la voilure la proposition et toujours rendre le client heureux! C’est parfait!” (Perfect! I wanted to talk with them about the cost estimates. I have some ideas about how we can reduce the scope of the proposal and still make the client happy!)

After a couple of days of this, my E. A. came into my office one morning, closed the door, and mustered up her developing English skills.

“What is your FUCKING problem?” she said, with the word FUCKING bursting out with tremendous velocity. I had taught her that word and she found she really enjoyed it. She usually giggled with satisfaction when she said it, but not this time. She was as grim as the reaper.

I told her nothing was wrong, that I felt great and relaxed from a long vacation. “Alors, pourquoi êtes-vous tellement fucking heureuse tout le temps?” (So why are you so fucking happy all the time?). She then let loose a flood of accusations, telling me I was terrorizing the staff with my cheerful demeanor, that rumors had started that I was going to move back to the States or I had found another job, and the Americans would then send one of their own to manage the operation and they would all be fucked, fucked, fucked. She enunciated each “fucked” with rising volume.

I hope this little tale demonstrates the insidious danger of Herman’s Hermits. They can throw an entire business operation into chaos.

I met with everyone later that day and told them that really, I just happened to be in an unusually good mood, but I would try to get over it as soon as possible. I assured them I had no intention of leaving, reminded them that my contract made it impossible for me to leave before 2015, and that I was fully committed to returning to form as the tough-talking bitch who keeps the Americans off their backs. After work, I rushed home after work to finish this review so I would never have to listen to Herman’s Hermits again. I take my responsibilities as the bulwark against the American superpower very seriously!

And, living up to my responsibilities as a critic, I will take Herman’s Hermits very seriously as well.

They were one of the most successful bands of the invasion years (the #1 pop act in the U. S. in 1965), in large part because of their uncanny ability to make people smile. Peter Noone was the terminally cute boy that every girl’s mother wanted as a son-in-law, and the band seemed much less rough around the edges than the other invaders, including The Fab Four. They were the safe, make-your-parents-happy choice of Top 40 radio fans of the period, completely inoffensive and always keeping their music firmly grounded within the strictures of pop music. Though some of their songs had rock trappings, like electric guitars and screams, they were never really rockers in the truest sense of the word.

Once they faded from the scene, they apparently became something of a joke, a group of lightweights who made it because of exquisite timing and Herman’s irresistible sweetness: the British version of The Monkees, another band whose reputation suffered after they departed from the scene. I’m not here to argue with you that Herman’s Hermits should be elevated to artistes, but I do think the criticism is over the top. At their worst, they could suck the life out of a song through excessive homogenization. At their best, they performed with sincere and unrestrained joy and made people feel good about everyday life. Their scope was limited, their influence nonexistent, but even though they were “poppy,” they did pop songs as well as anyone before or since.

I refuse to apologize for liking Herman’s Hermits!

Of course, I must qualify that statement. I actually like fewer than half of the songs on this collection. Most of the time the problem is that Herman gets way too cute, in large part because Mickie Most wanted to squeeze every penny out of that cuteness for as long as he could. They absolutely ruined some songs by removing the slightest hint of a rough edge, and studiously avoided anything that smacked of spontaneity. Though they wrote some of their own songs, all of their major hits were covers, which diminishes their status in music history. As was true of The Dave Clark Five, their song selection weakened as time went on and passed them by. But when they were on, enjoying themselves and the music, they had the ability to express the sweet and honest emotions of youth in a way that reminded people how sweet those innocent feelings were. Compare and contrast that to the celebration of suicidal tendencies in 90’s teen rock and I’ll take Herman’s Hermits every time, as uncool as that may be.

So, yes, this dominant, leather-clad, sadistic, cigarette-smoking, vodka-guzzling, martial-arts-trained, whip-wielding terror of a woman has absolutely no guilt about expressing her appreciation for Herman’s Hermits, any more than I feel hoity-toity for admiring the work of Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. I have the right to feel happy, people!

Rather than go through the tracks one-by-one, I’m going to break the set down into three categories: Good Herman, Meh Herman and Bad Herman.

Good Herman

“I’m into Something Good”: Their cover of Earl-Jean McCrea’s bubbly soul hit captures Herman’s Hermits at their absolute best. Over a nice, solid beat and supported by background vocals so appealing that you simply have to try them out yourself, Peter Noone delivers a vocal that expresses the joy, innocence and tingling sensation that accompanies the hope attached to teenage love. Given his musical and theatrical training and his starring role in the British TV series Coronation Street, it’s no surprise he performs like a trouper. While I’m sure there are misanthropes in the world who despise this song, and snobs who dismiss it as pap, I would put them in the same category as Grinches and Blue Meanies and urge them to get laid and get over it. This is a fabulous song, fabulously performed.

“Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat”:  One of my Guilty Pleasures, this is another wonderful piece with a teeny-weeny hint of blues roots with the seventh chord on the fifth line of each verse that gives it a little snap. The sad thing about the song is that the original artists, Goldie and the Gingerbreads—the first all-woman rock group—released their version in the U. S. just as Herman’s Hermits released theirs. With the power of Invasion promotional dollars behind them, Herman and company sent the Gingerbreads into U. S. pop chart oblivion. The Hermits’ version is more upbeat and joyful; the Gingerbread’s version more girl-group and faintly R&B-ish. While Goldie and the girls did wind up touring with The Beatles, Stones and Kinks, it’s kind of sad that they had their big chance snatched away at the last minute.

“Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter”: Recorded and released exclusively for the U. S. market after a grand total of two takes, this heavily-accented piece couldn’t help but top the charts in a country where the populace had become manic Anglophiles overnight. My father confessed to me that after The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, he and his friends spoke in British accents for months and started calling french fries chips and girls birds. The Invasion was huge, my friends! D-Day pales in comparison! The muted Gretsch sounds marvelously clear and clean even today, and Herman plays his role as romantic loser perfectly. I was surprised to learn that the original was sung by Tom Courtenay, one of my absolute all-time favorite actors. I love research!

“I’m Henry the VIII, I Am”: This song has been savagely attacked by some critics as the ultimate in frivolity and silliness. Well, it is frivolous and silly, but what the fuck is wrong with that? Some times you have to let your inner silliness go and have some fun! I also think the attackers fail to realize the true value of this song: anyone can join in, no matter how vocally challenged they may be. I mentioned in my review of Past Masters, Volume Two how my Irish half of the family would get together on New Year’s Eve and devote the evening to drunken revelry and raising our voices in song. Those who could carry a tune spent hours perfecting harmonies on “Paperback Writer,” “Bus Stop,” “In My Room” and old Irish ballads while the others sat on their hands looking uncomfortable and envious (and getting drunker by the minute). The hams detected this alienation and we’d stop (yes, I was a ham) and play some songs that required no musical talent whatsoever. “I’m Henry the VIII, I Am” was perfect for such an occasion! Anyone could do the “Hen-er-y” call-and-response, and if they weren’t too bombed, could manage to spell and shout out the letters, “H! E! N-R-Y!” We had way more fun with this silly and frivolous song than our more ambitious efforts, and since one purpose of music is to chase your blues away, I hereby pronounce “I’m Henry the VIII, I Am” a fucking masterpiece.

“Hold On”: Herman’s Hermits adhered to the formula for success established by The Fab Four and ventured into film. Really! With Shelley Fabares, no less! Wow! I’ll never forgive Shelley for “Johnny Angel” and for the five minutes of truly terrible acting I saw on a truncated version of an episode of The Donna Reed Show. I haven’t seen the movie but one 21st century critic did and described Herman’s Hermits as “a Backstreet Boys for their time.” Ouch! The song itself is as close to a rocker as they would ever get, one of four P. F. Sloan-Steve Barri compositions from the movie. That pair would go on to write songs for several bands, including The Grass Roots, an execrable American band they invented to market their wares.

“Just a Little Bit Better”: This one is borderline, but it’s the only song in their catalog where Peter Noone comes close to belting out lines with some feel for the groove. So what if he’s parroting Buddy Holly and coming up short? I’ll take it. The chord structure is also more interesting than the typical HH number.

“Listen People”: A Graham Gouldman number that The Hollies might have had some fun with, the combination of the dreamy lead guitar opening (I hope it was Derek Leckenby and not a Mickie Most temp) and Peter Noone’s alternating vocal approach make it a keeper. It probably made many a teenage girl swoon with desire without possibility of release, for back then the belief was that if you jacked off, hair would grow on your hands, and that simply wouldn’t do for a young lady programmed from birth to catch a man. Anyway, here’s a clip from another film they did, When the Boys Meet the Girls, starring the truly wonderful Connie Francis:

“No Milk Today”: Graham Gouldman penned quite a few hits for Invasion bands: “For Your Love,” “Heart Full of Soul,” “Bus Stop,” “Look Through Any Window” and this flawed gem. The defect in this song irritates the shit out of me. This is a sad song about a man whose woman has left him, and appropriately begins in a minor key. For some unknown reason (boredom, probably), Gouldman shifts to a major key in the bridge, leading the listener to expect a happy resolution. She’s coming back! Not! Read these lyrics and tell me if these are suitable for a major key:

But all that’s left is a place dark and lonely
A terraced house in a mean street back of town
Becomes a shrine when I think of you only
Just two up two down

The arrangement does get a bit busy as the song proceeds; the opening acoustic guitar should have remained the dominant instrument throughout the song. Still, it’s a very pretty melody and one of Peter’s more mature vocal performances.

“This Door Swings Both Ways”: I’ll admit this is a curious choice for my HH A-list, but once we get past the corny intro, the mix of loose-string acoustic guitar and deadened drum skin grabs me every time I hear it. The song is an unusual mix of styles; sometimes it’s a folk-rock song, sometimes pop and sometimes almost reggae in feel. Peter Noone really seemed to perk up for the songs with denser lyrics, and this is one of his most enthusiastic vocal performances.

Meh Herman

“(What A) Wonderful World”: This cheery Sam Cooke number should have been a perfect fit for Peter Noone, but the problem is in the comparison. Even when Sam Cooke forced himself to do pop numbers to pay the bills, he always added a touch of soul to his performances that gave light numbers a feel of something more substantial. Nice try, Peter, but you can’t compete with Sam Cooke. No one can.

“A Must to Avoid”: The title should have earned it a spot in the Bad Herman list, but I resisted the pun and raised its status to mediocrity. It was the closer to the film soundtrack for Hold On! and after seeing the clip below, I hereby renounce any intention of watching the entire movie.

“There’s a Kind of Hush”: Originally recorded by The New Vaudeville Band (I love “Winchester Cathedral,” she said, fully aware of the irony in her statement), the arrangement is so Easy Listening that I can hardly hear the song through all those unnecessary layers. Just as they wiped out Goldie and the Gingerbreads, Herman’s Hermits would destroy a promising adolescent band from Cincinnati called Gary and the Hornets who were starting to gain traction with the song before the HH Music Machine went into high gear promoting the HH version.

“It’s Nice to Be Out in the Morning”: Graham Gouldman fucks up the major-minor thing again, and the strings define the word “superfluous,” but beneath that there’s a nice acoustic groove and Peter Noone again seems to enjoy the more challenging lyrical opportunity. 

“Museum”: Trying to cash in on the growing hipster-hippie scene, Herman’s Hermits simply had to cover a Donovan song. As regular readers know, I consider Donovan 90% water and 10% bullshit, so the song itself doesn’t impress me in the least. The arrangement is dreadful, with canned horns burying any trace of the band. The only reason it makes the “Meh” list is that it’s great to hear Peter Noone to sing the opening line, “I drink sweet wine for breakfast,” which allows the listener to imagine this ultimate vision of good clean fun as a down-and-out destitute drunk. “Museum” was the opening song to Blaze, an album that attempted to help them make the transition from Invasion heroes to post-Pepper relevance. It was praised by the critics at the time, all of who were stoned out of their minds.

“Here Comes the Star”: Released as a bonus track on the updated version of Blaze, this song about the horrible loneliness of stardom (yeah, right) gets a Meh Herman rating only because of Peter Noone’s convincing delivery of the spoken line, “Step aside,” which he delivers as if he were still a real star who had to shoo away the riff-raff at the time this song was recorded. He wasn’t, so the song has a certain hit-the-skids flavor that gives it more emotional credibility than some of the songs in the next section. It would have been even more interesting and might have made the Good Herman list had he written the lyrics, but alas, such is not the case.

Bad Herman

“Silhouettes”: This is the prime example of Herman’s Hermits taking something with substance and turning it into Wonder Bread. The original doo-wop version by The Rays emphasizes the tension arising from the narrator’s jealousy; you can feel his irrational side taking control as he mistakenly perceives his woman in the arms of another man. Herman’s Hermits’ version is a mechanical repetition of words and melody with no passion whatsoever. In retrospect, I’m surprised they didn’t use stop time to emphasize the punch line (the guy was on the wrong block seeing silhouettes in the window of a different apartment).

“Leaning on a Lamp Post”: Reincarnating this George Formby hit from the 1930’s was clearly an act of exploiting the American obsession with anything British during the Invasion years. Peter Noone could have read excerpts from Churchill’s war speeches or recited Swinburne and it would have sold millions. In his hands, the double entendres of the Formby version vanish into very thin air. It also doesn’t help that I’m not a big fan of anything that smells remotely like a “show tune.”

“End of the World”: No, no, no, no and no! No one can ever duplicate the American girl teenage angst of Skeeter Davis! Her original is the ultimate early 60’s break-up song, solidifying the dominant myth that a girl could never amount to shit without a male companion. As disgusting as the mythos was, the pathetic sincerity of her performance expresses those cultural limitations better than any similar song of the era. “End of the World” is the expression of the cause that led to the effect of women setting bras on fire. A guy can’t sing this fucking song! Sheesh!

“East West”: We have Graham Gouldman again, this time longing for home for the holidays after traveling the world over bonking beautiful babes. The imagery of the home life is superficial Dickensian, sanitized by nostalgia. Too sweet for my tastes, and frankly, I rather like the idea traveling the world over bonking beautiful babes.

“Dandy”: Peter Noone delivers this Ray Davies’ number with all the excitement of reading the classifieds aloud. Gone are Ray’s rakish, wink-filled delivery and any signs of life. Double raspberry!

“Sleepy Joe”: Good title, because this cutesy-wootsy number puts you to sleep in eleven seconds. If you drink lots of espresso, you can stay awake long enough to hear Peter Noone deliver a too-obvious, chuckle-tinged vocal on a song so out of touch with 1968 that it screams “BAND IN DECLINE!”

“Don’t Go Out into the Rain, You’re Going to Melt”: The Brill Building was producing Brit-like songs by the dozens, and this Kenny Young number is one of the worst. Amazingly, this piece of shit was covered by the Swinging Blue Jeans a year or so later. So sweet you can feel your teeth rotting.

“Sunshine Girl”: Oh, jeez. Sunshine! Love! Happiness! Joy! Yuck! The choral intro is clearly Beach Boys-influenced, but oceans away from Smiley Smile.

“I Can Take or Leave Your Loving”: Oh, for fuck’s sake. Was this supposed to be a TV show theme song? It sure sounds like one, but had I accidentally tuned into the show and heard this, I would have changed the channel immediately. In truth, the song was a B-side from a curious multi-ethnic British group called The Foundations whose schtick was Motown imitation songs. Peter Noone simply lacks the feeling for soul music, even that which is twice-removed from the source.

“Something’s Happening”: Oh, wait, this must be the TV theme song. No? Well, that’s fortunate. No song better defines Herman’s Hermits’ late-period status as “stuck in amber.” Released in December 1968, it might have been relevant in December 1964 as a B-side or as a filler song on a generally crappy album.

“My Sentimental Friend”: The only sentiment I feel when listening to this song is, “Get ‘dese bums off da stage!” Maudlin doesn’t even begin to describe this loser.

The funny thing is that even some of the Bad Herman songs are mildly pleasant on the ear, and there’s no question that the entirety of the record just . . . well, I’ve said it before . . . it just makes you feel good. I really wish that their career hadn’t been so repressively managed, as they were more accomplished musicians than most, and with a little time and less pressure they might have done some interesting music. I don’t think they would have ever approached The Kinks or The Beatles in terms of songwriting excellence or the ability to rock, but they could have restructured the foundation in such a way to become a very strong melodic group without all the fuzzy, cuddly stuff. 

Preparing for this review was a delightful little period in my life, but truth be told, I wasn’t constructed out of sunshine and light. Once I switched from Herman’s Hermits to the next group on the list, I could feel my edge return, sense my human-resistant energy shield snap back into place and look at myself in the mirror and say, “The bitch is back.”

Now that felt good!

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Altrockchick

Independent music reviewer appearing on altrockchick.com and 50thirdand3rd.com. Originally from San Francisco, I am now a French/EU citizen living in Nice. And I look great in leather.

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