Graded on a Curve:
Herman’s Hermits,
Their Greatest Hits

Amongst the insults lobbed at Herman’s Hermits over the decades: fabricated, shallow, calculatedly commercial, utterly safe, disposable. At home they scored hits and in the US became one of the most popular imports of the mid-‘60s, though for many they are simply a Brit Invasion phenomenon connecting the Frankie Avalon/Fabian ‘50s scene and the eventual rise of bubblegum. Any folks curious as to what the fuss was all about might want to look into ABKCO’s LP reissue of Their Greatest Hits.

Herman’s Hermits can be considered the UK equivalent of and predecessor to The Monkees, though they had to fight longer for a redemption that is still in progress, as many persist in evaluating them as eternal inhabitants of Squaresville, damned to never ascend phoenix-like from the circumstances thrust upon them by their era.

The ever-growing legion of Pop scientists will chalk this up to plain Rockism, but it’s a little more complex than that. Prior to getting captured in the viselike clutches of Mickey Most, Herman’s Hermits were a highly amiable small-time gigging Manchester-based band, one initially shouldering the rather unimaginative moniker of the Heartbeats; it was subsequent to Peter Noone’s arrival that a name change, reportedly inspired by managers Harvey Lisberg and Charlie Silverman, occurred.

Herman’s Hermits is a sly appellation; unlike the Heartbeats, it stuck in the memory, and it straddled the lingering and soon to resurface pop idol angle while acknowledging if not fully succumbing to the post-Beatles vogue for leaderless units. Once in league with Most the only member of the act to unfailingly appear on their studio efforts was the gent some mistakenly thought was Herman; the front-man, or in the parlance of a certain UK group called the High Numbers, The Face.

It wasn’t unusual for studio professionals (including Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones) to occasionally sub for the Hermits, namely guitarists Keith Hopwood (rhythm) and Derek “Lek” Leckenby (lead), bassist Karl Green and drummer Barry Whitwam. Mickey Most was notorious for the activity, even demeaning Rock cornerstones The Yardbirds in the process, and he wasn’t the only producer guilty of audio perfectionism on a tight schedule in the service of teen music.

Some continue to reduce the worth of Herman’s Hermits to the pop construction of Most and the not insubstantial leadership capabilities of Noone, but that’s shortsighted. Those two qualities do dominate, but they also utilized a three-pronged operational attack, dishing out oldies-station prescient cover selections, well-mannered Merseybeat that would instantaneously command deeper respect if derived from another source, and most distinctively and in fact somewhat accidentally, the resurrection of songs approximating or nabbed from the Brit Music Hall tradition.

Americans gobbled that old-time stuff up like a plate of malt vinegar-soggy fish and chips, but it didn’t fly back home, where “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” wasn’t even a single, in part because the Trevor Peacock composition had been sung two years earlier by actor Tom Courtenay in the TV show The Lads and pressed up by Decca on 45. Their Greatest Hits opens with it, leading some, depending on where they stand on the map of course, to perhaps quibble with the LP’s title.

It was a #1 smash in the States, the lark of a tune apparently only issued on 7-inch in March of ‘65 after a US DJ convinced MGM to put it out. And “Mrs. Brown…” has surely caught guff for being affected and feeble (and a steal), but that’s nonsense. The brittle strumming links the insanely popular pre-WWII ukulele and banjolele-wielding English comedian/movie star George Formby to the emergence of a uniquely Brit strain of downtrodden/twee nostalgia. Not long thereafter Ray Davies put an inventive spin on this sort of backward-looking fragility to the pleasure and influence of hoards.

Likewise, to this very day the Hermits have provided entertainment to millions, but in terms of aesthetic impact, their story’s not so clear-cut; the liner notes for the ’73 issue of Their Greatest Hits, which ABKCO faithfully reproduces, were penned by the longtime Editor in Chief of 16 Magazine Gloria Stavers.

I’m not putting her down, for she was frankly better suited to the task (teen mags and rock journalism are historically connected, y’know?) than some of the jokers whose prose has sullied sleeves and booklets over the years, but her piece does reflect the sheer lack of artistic weight given to the group, concerned mainly with how hardworking and nice a guy Noone was/is. And not having met him, I’ve no reason to doubt her. To the late Stavers’ credit, her four paragraphs and concluding sentence employ the exclamation point exactly twice. What restraint!

But ‘66’s “No Milk Today,” the track here immediately following “Mrs. Brown…,” makes a great case for the Hermits as purveyors of pop both contemporary to the moment of its making and of enduring relevance. Their first use of a string section, it’s lushness and deft vocal harmonies don’t go overboard as they enhance a sturdy strum-pop core, the cut authored by Graham Gouldman, noted for the writing of “For Your Love,” “Bus Stop” (a song associated with The Hollies but additionally waxed by the Hermits), a ’68 solo LP, and in the ‘70s membership in 10cc.

“No Milk Today” was a B-side in the US, as was their solid cover of “The End of the World,” a warhorse of disillusionment made famous by Skeeter Davis and later by those bastions of soft-pop The Carpenters. And interestingly, “This Door Swings Both Ways,” also from ’66, an energetic if not brawny Top 20 Hit, is more than slightly reminiscent of those Monkees.

It’s their take of Kenny Young’s “Just a Little Bit Better” that reveals the outfit’s perpetually undersung strong suit; the sprightly Mersey-pop is thoroughly inoffensive, but it offers Noone as a likeable cribber of Buddy Holly, tosses in a nifty proto-fuzz guitar passage (from August of ’65, no less), and crisp delivery comparing well to The Turtles.

Two months previous they nailed a second #1 with a legit Music Hall gleaning, “I’m Henry VIII, I Am.” If “Mrs. Brown…” was inadvertent fortune, Most and crew wasted no time in repeating the formula, and this try is the more impressive of the two. While “Mrs. Brown…” is a good bit of brokenhearted banter, its main improvement on the original is that Noone is a greater actor turned pop singer (he was a child star on the soap opera Coronation Street) than Courtenay.

“I’m Henry…” though, is a true peach of rapid-fire pop assemblage, complete with Noone’s cockney brogue, Whitwam’s gloriously simple cracking of the traps and Leckenby’s solo (it’s him, I checked) a treat comparable to Carl Wilson’s Berry-rips from the same period. Some may complain the sub-two minute tune is too catchy, but in this instance that’s like criticizing a doughnut for being too delicious. And who’d want to do that? Not me!

On one hand, “There’s a Kind of Hush,” a song of truly lasting popularity, essays the intersection of the pop charts and the spirit of ’67 pretty well, though it’s also an interesting Bacharach-knockoff pointing directly into the breadbasket of Adult Contemporary; this was the second of the Hermits’ hits tackled by The Carpenters. Side one ends with “Silhouettes,” a well-executed version of the ’57 doo-wop killer by The Rays; it doesn’t eclipse the original, but by now it’s just maybe the most recognized of its numerous recordings.

The flip begins with Herman’s Hermits’ debut, ‘64’s “I’m Into Something Good.” While it’s not as strong as the minor hit Earl-Jean had with it shortly before (Most was indefatigable at spotting sales potential), they do take the Goffin-King ditty into a worthy proto-sunshine-pop/bubblegum direction, the track later done by Donny Osmond.

I’m quite fond of ‘65’s “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat,” which engages that Mersey sound as it displays the influence of the Everly Brothers. It remains one of their most popular tunes. By contrast, their cover of Ray Davies’ “Dandy,” which attained #5 in the US in September ’66, has possibly fallen off the radar over time (I can’t recall ever hearing it on the radio).

Then again, the Hermits’ “Dandy” isn’t as strong as its recording by The Kinks or for that matter the ’66 Shel Talmy-produced single by The Rockin’ Vickers, a band featuring Lemmy Kilminster in its ranks. Noone and crew do have the right idea, though. More polished and fueled by baroque strings, the strumming at the song’s heart isn’t neglected.

A recurring theme here is the inferiority of covers to their sources, and that circumstance certainly doesn’t change with their take of Sam Cooke’s “What a Wonderful World.” But conversely, they continue to find success in the maneuver, this time injecting just enough Mersey into the proceedings to infuse them with their own personality.

The jangle of “Hold On,” another US-only B-side and the first of two entries here co-written by P.F. Sloan, increases the liveliness a bit. Coming next is the one entry on the LP to not land on 45 in the States, “Listen People.” The album’s second Gouldman piece, a ’66 UK B-side, it blends a foofy good-vibes arrangement with jabs of sophisto AM radio pop in the chorus.

“Leaning on a Lamp Post” goes to the old-time well once again in a number actually put on shellac by Formby in 1937. However, it’s the least of the three examples on Their Greatest Hits (and like the others, unreleased at home on 7-inch), its minor pleasantries setting the table for a very fine closer, the vigorous guitar-pop of late-’65’s “A Must to Avoid,” this disc’s other Sloan tune. It’s been suggested as a slight forerunner to The Monkees, and that’s a fair assessment, but it tickles my ear a tad like prime early Hollies.

It makes one wonder what these guys could’ve developed into minus Most’s involvement; no doubt less popular, but a more direct cultivation of that Beat group sound might’ve paid handsome dividends. Regarding non-comp LPs, ‘66’s Both Sides of Herman’s Hermits and the following year’s Blaze are the picks, but any vinyl fans desiring a tidy dose of the chart material from this imperfect but wholly legitimate mid-’60s pop band are given plumb pickings with the return of Their Greatest Hits.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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