The Hollies, Words And Music By Bob Dylan, 1969

Pure rock’n’roll in the original teeny style which takes some of the best rock lyrics of all time and turns them into meaningless doo-wop pop. No wonder it sold so well in the year it came out. The critics panned it; the public loved it. Where does Alan Bumstead stand? Ah, theory time.

There’s a Dylan covers album from 1970 called Dawn Of Dylan by Hugh Montenegro which also takes classic Dylan songs and turns them into insanely catchy trite pop ditties but there’s a huge difference. The Montenegro album is done firmly with its tongue in its cheek. This on the other hand is so earnest you could append a Hemingway to it and call it an important writer of the twentieth century.

So how can you tell the difference? What makes Dawn Of Dylan acceptable (in my eyes) and this so shameful? How do I know this is not ironic? That’s a good question and the answer is not blowing in the wind. It’s in the music and the voices, in the sense of urgency, the speed, but mainly it’s in how far from Dylan you move into jokey cabaret territory. The Hollies don’t move anywhere far enough, thus the result is an album that rips the heart right out of Dylan’s chest and makes no apologies for it.

So the critics rightly panned it but might have missed something. Because once we move within its own genre—that is, inside the genre of trite pop music—we discover there’s a few things to love here. The best songs here are the ones where The Hollies do move as far from Dylan as possible; the ones where they treat the lyrics and tune as elastic plastic bubblegum that can be modified in any direction that takes their fancy. It’s the songs that they try to inject a sense of sincerity into, or simply play them straight, that fail on their own terms. So yes, there are a few things in here worth hollering about. As for how this fits into the Hollies canon, I don’t know. I’ve never listened to the Hollies before.

Oh yeah, quote-from-the-back-sleeve time: “The Hollies make real rock and roll. … Few groups would dare to tackle an album of Bob Dylan’s songs, let alone be able to pull it off.” Hm. So why does John Gabree fail to mention that Hollies lead guitarist Graham Nash quit when this project was announced, apparently in disgust? Because he didn’t dare; instead he went off to form Crosby, Stills & Nash and kept his credibility intact. Nevetheless, I can see why this sold so well; a few spins of this baby and the earworms start burrowing in deep. As a consequence it’s very easy to find copies of this LP on the likes of eBay. Which songs work and which songs fail? Jump in and take a ride with Alan  Bumstead on the black circle…

When The Ship Comes In…is super bouncy mandolin-driven neo-comedy rock. Except that tenor Allan Clarke sings it completely straight. The tempo is very up, the ‘ooohs’ in the background and support on the chorus are provided by Tony Hicks and Terry Sylvester. The instrumentation makes this sound like banjo-folk-at-the-hop on ecstasy. It’s not bad for an opening track and it would be churlish to slag it off, because I’m kind of enjoying it. Very fast. Over in two minutes forty.

I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight…is really one of the better songs here. Plays it straight for the most part, with a great harmonica sound. The chorus is great. “I’ll be yoooo—ooour baby tonight.”  “You won’t regret / You won’t forget to get your shoes on / Do not fear / Bring that bottle over here” is done brilliantly the way they slide from line to line with that trio-of-tenors effect.

I Want You…and again, this song has such a great tune that it works quite well in the sped-up pop vein. The singing trio provides great support for the chorus: “Well baby, I want you / I want you / I want you / So baaaad.” Okay, so it’s not great, in fact it’s pretty ordinary, but I’m so hooked on the melody I can’t not enjoy it. Bastards.

This Wheel’s On Fire…is loud, intense and tinny – a minor gripe with the production here—everything’s recorded in the treble, virtually no bass at all, which is a crime for 1969. I never thought of this song as a pop song at all until I heard this. I guess it’s about here the Dylan fan with any sense of integrity has to admit to him or herself that something’s not right. The words are just any words. Even Allan Clarke has said that he was merely ‘reading’ the words, not singing them (from the heart). That aside, this is certainly a long way removed from The Basement Tapes version.

I Shall Be Released…has a much better sound after that last one. A nice strong acoustic guitar strum, a decent bass, and a strong vocal. But I’ve heard enough versions of this song (which I’m a huge fan of) to know when I’m being duped, and this is a dull toss off. Though it does have a cute little vibes section in the middle.

Blowin’ In The Wind…is possibly the best cover I’ve heard of this song yet. Except for one thing but we’ll come to that soon. This is almost comedy, and rightly it should be. It starts with violins supporting Clarke’s wailing vocal. A high-hat starts up and there it is: “The answer my friend / Is blo-woh-woh-woh-wohing in the wind.” Yes, and then a whole brass section joins in. The ‘oooh’ backing starts up on the next verse before everyone joins in for the doo-wop chorus which is just great. Hilarious and super melodic, and even better—they occasionally toy with the tune, changing chords or pushing the chorus into a different register. But then here it comes—this absolutely insane violin section at the end. It’s waaaay over the top and it doesn’t even match with the main rhythm of the song, so that suddenly the whole thing sounds completely out of whack and just horrible, just a horrible way to end what was otherwise quite the irreverent cover. And no, this is not so far out there as to be good, it’s too far, it’s idiotic.

Quit Your Lowdown Ways…best track here. I don’t think anyone else has covered this on a full Dylan covers album yet, and the Hollies do a great version. Well, for me they revive it because it hasn’t been revived and killed by anyone else yet. So kudos to the Hollies for getting there first. Even the instrumentation here is amazing—it starts off with a funk vibe, like Red Hot Chili Pepper hi-energy kind of funk, and then it turns into a full steam ahead doo-wop train thing. “You’re gonna neeeeeed / You’re gonna need my help some daaaaay.” The musicianship in the breakdown is amazing, like a totally free-for-all jamfest, all sorts of things. It’s the speed of this that makes it so exciting. “Well if you can’t quit your sinning / Please quit your lowdown ways.” Yes, sincerely, I love this version. The recording quality is crystal clear here too.

Just Like A Woman…and then a dreary organ opens this one up and Clarke tries to sing the whole thing like he’s Dylan, only he’s not, and it’s boring. Very disappointing after that last song. Perhaps the best thing about this is the out-of-sync backing on the chorus from Hicks and Sylvester. Okay, and there’s a tuba break in between chorus and verse that’s kinda cool. But otherwise nuttin’ special.

The Times They Are A-Changin’…is ugh awful. Crisp attack on the six-string guitar but the singing is awful for some reason. I don’t know—I don’t think I like anyone’s cover of this. This is the worst example of where the lyrics just don’t mean anything at all. The times are not changing given this sounds like 1962 Beatles. There’s a weird kind of noisy breakdown in the middle that makes no sense at all. This is rubbish. The tune does not work in the doo-wop pop mode at all.

All I Really Want To Do…is only nice on the chorus. As for the verses, which make up the bulk of the song, awful, truly awful. To be honest, as far as I’m concerned this is a Dylan-only song. No one should even bother trying. The lyrics and sentiment are so Dylanesque it makes no sense in any other context. The problem is that the chorus sounds like a huge pop anthem, but as soon as they go back to the verses, it slows down and sounds awful. Dylan’s phrasing is so awesome on the original that anything else sounds like Mickey Mouse tick tock.

My Back Pages…is strange. It sounds a little like Devo (!) at the start. A strange kind of keyboard line in the background, a clockwork beat. Then the sixties beat thing starts up. But again, this suffers from the same problem as their ‘The Times Are A-Changin’’—the lyrics are too poetic to be turned into a clockworkish pop song. The chorus line works, but that’s all that does work, which means again they find themselves trying to compensate for total lyrical destruction with an interesting instrumental break, but failing.

The Mighty Quinn…and we’re back to that banjo sound off the first track, which is great, and makes this sound pretty funny. “Ooow, come all without / Ooow, come all within.” This has brass too, interjecting hilarious little squirts of sound in between the vocal. The vocal too is done with a sense of sass and style that we haven’t heard since ‘Quit Your Lowdown Ways.’ I like this version, brass band marching rhythm and all. The see-sawing trumpets, the rat-a-tat drumming. Very funny, and very catchy. Nice way to end.

So, the upshot is this: If you’re gonna cover Dylan in a pop mode, go all out to take the mickey as much as possible, but not out of Dylan—no, out of pop music, otherwise you’re doomed to fail. This wavers, but ultimately falls on its face.

Notes

Click once to expand, again to magnify.

According to John Gabree, along with The Who, The Kinks and The Yardbirds, The Hollies were never big in America, apart from a few hit singles. They started in 1963, had a string of huge hits in mid-sixties Britain, but failed to develop beyond their basic sound and style in any significant way. Original member Graham Nash was busy experimenting with a psychedelic style around 1968 much to the other members’ horror which was another reason why he ditched the band and went to America. Thus, this was The Hollies’ first post-Nash album. It went to #3 on the UK charts.

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About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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