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Sunday, 28 August 2011

~Nippy Sweeties~#9: No Milk Today

Okay, here's the script:
There's this band from Manchester who decide to go against the grain of the times and ditch any phoney American accents, and choose to sing in their own Mancunian voice, mixing lyrics that deal with everyday English life with the fabric of Rock'n'Roll. They're fronted by a lead singer who looks NOTHING like a conventional rock frontman but who exudes a strange charm, coupling an immediate charisma with the trappings of the dork or the nerd. Their music is a blend of pure Pop/Rock mixed with some old time English Music Hall; kind of Keef Richards backing George Formby. So who am I talking about?
Well, given that I've already written a fairly lengthy eulogy to The Smiths, we can safely conclude it's not them. No, we're going back two decades prior to the glory days of The Smiths to the mid 60s, and to the time of Herman's Hermits.
Now, these Nippy Sweeties affairs are written for two purposes; to shine a light on obscure or forgotten gems from the 1960s, or to re-assess and re-evaluate the careers of some of the more maligned bands from that era. And just as I banged the drum for the brilliance of The Monkees, it's time to don the whistles and bells and sing out the praises of another fine and under-appreciated band.
The history books are rather harsh on Herman's Hermits. The first book I ever read on the phenomenon of the 1960s, back in 1984, really tore them to shreds; mocking their cheeriness, lambasting their 'goofy' lead singer Peter Noone and, as with The Monkees, viewing them as an embarrassment not fit to stand along side The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks or The Who. Tish and pish to you Sir; what exactly is wrong with some good old fashioned pure Pop music? Something the Hermits delivered in spades.
While the Hermits were often viewed rather incredulously in Britain, they were absolutely MASSIVE in America. They arrived in the States just as America's love affair with The Beatles was starting to sour, following John Lennon's 'bigger than Jesus' remarks. Watch any footage of disgruntled teens angry at Lennon from the time, and when they are asked who they now favour, Herman's Hermits are the favourite answer. Another reason for the disdain!

But the music is quite wonderful.
After the toothachingly chirpy 'I'm Into Something Good' which broke them and gave them their only UK Number 1, they followed with a fine run of superb singles, all of which had that little bit of Britishness that the Yanks really went for in a big way.
The wistful 'Silhouettes' is a case in point. Like many of The Smiths' songs that had meant so much to me in my teenage years, here we have another song about being out and about on the streets at night. The protagonist is walking to his girlfriend's house when he sees her shadow embracing another boy, silhouetted against the blinds. Mad with heartbroken rage he pounds on the front door demanding answers, only to be confronted by two strangers! It turns out he's on the wrong street. If you live in Bannockburn (or any small town) you'll know that many streets all look the same.
The song is interesting because, as was the case with many records of the time, the producer had called in session musicians to ensure the playing was up to snuff, but the guitarist they had hired just couldn't cut the fiddly guitar intro, so the band's lead guitarist Derek 'Lek' Leckenby caught it in one take:

Next major single, 'A Must To Avoid'(now there's a Smiths-esque title!!) was another splendid slice of early 60s Beatpop, with a some nice descending minor chords on the chorus. The fact that the song deals with a girl who isn't all sweetness and light is another thing which set the Hermits apart from the others a little:

Detractors of Herman's Hermits often point to the asinine Musical Hall efforts that seem to blight their catalogue. In a recent interview, former members of the band pointed out that the massive Stateside success of their song 'Mrs. Brown, You've Got A Lovely Daughter' was responsible for the band's permanent 'Chirpy Cheeky Chappie' persona, yet the phenomenal success of the song guaranteed them a level of American support second only to The Beatles.
I think it's fair to say that the world didn't really need a Pop version of Kiddie's nonsense 'I'm 'Enry The Eighth, I Am', but the exaggerated English accents ensured another huge American hit:

One of the Hermits best songs, maybe even their finest of all, was the fantastic 'No Milk Today'. When I first got a decent computer and an MP3 player, this was the third song I ever downloaded, after Althea & Donna's 'Uptown Top Ranking' and Duran Duran's 'Save A Prayer'. It was a song that I had heard often on Simon Bate's Golden Hour radio show in the 1980s but had never really worked out what the sing was about. Again, over some melancholic minor chords, we learn that Peter's love has left him and the house that once rocked with laughter and wild times now stands quiet and forlorn. There's no need for the milkman to leave any milk as SHE was the only one who drank it.
Quite, quite splendid:

1967 was a weird old year for Pop music, as it was the year that even the most Conservative of our Pop Stars decided to release Acid soaked Psychedelic explorations of their inner mind. Most of this nonsense resulted in many bands releasing their worst records including The Beatles ('Sgt Pepper' and 'Magical Mystery Tour'....both stinkers compared to the rest of their oeuvre), and The Rolling Stones (whose 'Their Satanic Majesties Request' is considered by almost all their following as the real dog in their 60s output!)
Herman's Hermits were no different, releasing the little heard 'Blaze' album. I say 'little heard', it wasn't even released in the UK, securing only an American release. But it does stand up as a fine document of the times.

The Hermits had a couple of Movie projects in the 60s; they appeared in a couple of Various Artists showcase movies such as 'Pop Gear' and 'When The Boys Meet The Girls', before securing their own movie with 'Hold On!' in which the band are sent of into space(!?!). The film was made by the team who made the Beach Party movies and was a moderate hit.
Their next and last project, 'Mrs. Brown, You've Got A Lovely Daughter' wasn't a hit, but was a far better film. More gritty than their previous effort, the film is shot in authentic Mancunian backstreets with the titular 'Mrs. Brown' being a greyhound which the band somehow adopt. The film is notable for it's fine opening song 'It's Nice To Be Out In The Morning' (one of their best), and for a rather poignant scene in which all the grown-up characters in the film; parents etc, start singing a song called 'The World Is For The Young' in which they admit they've had their chance at life at blown it, and it's the young kids of the *cough* Swinging Sixties who run the world now. A rather strange and beautiful moment in a rather odd film.

Herman's Hermits never really survived beyond 1969. Again, in a recent interview, Peter Noone said he felt the band's name hampered them a great deal; "Nobody expects 12 minute guitar solos, or free-form Psychedelic Jazz workouts from a band called Herman's Hermits" he claims.
But they did give some of the finest Pure Pop from that decade.

Hermans Hermits personnel: Peter Noone - vocals, Keith Hopwood - guitar, Lek Leckenby - guitar, Karl Green - bass, Barry Whitwam - drums

In 1989, at his most 'English', Morrissey recorded a cover of the Hermit's most cynical song 'East West', a song which deals with being on tour but wanting to be back in the arms of your love; check and contrast:


You can download all of Herman's Hermits original American released Mono albums at this fine Blog

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