Life at 33 1/3: Hermania made Ramones tick

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Herman’s Hermits, 20 Greatest Hits (K-tel)

Talkin’ to Joey and Johnny when The Ramones visited Oslo in 1980, I was quite unprepared for their total lack of enthusiasm when questioned about punk rock and new wave.  They kept interrupting me, wanting to know if I ever saw Herman’s Hermits live.  At first I thought they were putting me on, but then it dawned on me that these guys were absolutely serious.  They were fans.  Hard core.  They didn’t care much for the Sex Pistols but they adored Peter Noone.

They bought Herman’s Hermits’ “20 Greatest Hits” in a record shop downtown, beaming like schoolboys when they passed it around to the other members of the band.  “All the hits are on it!”, Johnny said, cheeks blushing with excitement.

It does make sense.  The Ramones were the perfect power-pop band; they never wasted time but went straight for the chorus, sticking like glue to your brain.  They adopted Peter Noone’s hilarious link between verses one and two in the British music hall classic “I’m Henry VIII, I Am”: “Second verse, same as the first!”, turning it into their own proud battle cry.  Check out “Judy Is A Punk”.  The Ramones didn’t wanna be the snotty bad guys, they loved pop music, that’s what they were playing.  And remember, they had long hair.

“20 Greatest Hits” is a no brainer released by K-tel in 1977 and advertised on TV.  It didn’t exactly set the charts on fire, reaching no. 37 before it stalled.  It was the year of punk, true, but 1977 was also the year of The Shadows, Slim Whitman, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Diana Ross & The Supremes and Bread, who all topped the British charts with compilations, and The Beatles reached the summit with a “live” set recorded in 1964 and 1965.

Herman’s Hermits were probably too corny for British taste at the time, and it didn’t help that the sleeve was tacky and looked every bit as cheap as the record was.  Ramones didn’t care about such things when they found the album in a cut price rack in Oslo.  Then again, Herman’s Hermits were always bigger in America.

Armed with the hit producer Mickie Most, the youngsters from Manchester arrived on the scene in August 1964 with their insanely commercial version of The Cookies’ minor hit “I’m Into Something Good”.  Noone’s light and boyish voice, the band’s happy-go-lucky backing, the interplay between lead vocal and chorus, it was a winning formula, and they stuck to it for ever after.

Peter Noone looked good on TV, and the Americans adored him from day one.  With his shy little boy lost looks and huge toothy smile he could have been a young Kennedy, and he talked funny, how charming.  The girls screamed.  The parents nodded.  What a polite young man – nothing like that weird Lennon-guy, or horror of all horrors, The Rolling Stones.

In 1965 Herman’s Hermits were even challenging the mighty Beatles, spamming the US with seven Top 10 singles, two of them reaching no. 1, and three Top 10 albums.

Unlike other great bands of the area, they didn’t write their own hits, and that would eventually lead to their downfall.  But for a while they ruled the airwaves with quality arrangements of other people’s songs.  They were good at picking tunes, or rather, Mickie Most was.  His uncanny knack of creating three minute classics made him one of the most successful record producers of the 60’s and 70’s.  Among his clients were The Animals, The Yardbirds, Donovan, Lulu, Jeff Beck and The Nashville Teens.  In 1969 he launched RAK Records, a bona fide hit factory all though the 70’s.

What he did with Herman’s Hermits was to build on the Peter Noone-image and his Englishness, keeping the main ingredients from that first hit, an intro that catches your ear immediately, a hook line that you can’t escape, a friendly sound, a quality backing – sometimes beefed up by hired hands like Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones.

Herman’s Hermits’ sauntering version of doo wopers The Rays’ 1957 recording “Silhouettes” is a magnificent treat.  So is their warm and freewheeling take on Sam Cooke’s 1960-chestnut “Wonderful World”.  Eventually Most switched from cover versions to handpicking new songs from young and promising songwriters, like Tony Hazzard, P.F. Sloan and Graham Gouldman.  Some of those recordings are as close to the classics as Herman’s Hermits ever came: “Listen People”, “A Must To Avoid”, “You Won’t Be Leaving” and the delightful “No Milk Today”.

Most was also aware of the Americans’ taste for British music hall traditions, George Formby and all things cockney.  Herman’s Hermits was the perfect vehicle for this too, and scored enormously with aforementioned “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” and “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter” (neither of them released as singles in the UK but both no. 1’s in the US) and to a lesser degree with “Leaning On The Lamp Post” and Ray Davies’ “Dandy” (neither of these two nor “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” are included on “20 Greatest Hits”, unfortunately).

Entering 1967 Most started pushing the Hermits into sugary territory.  The quality of the songs were uneven, they stuck to your brain for all the wrong reasons, sounding like they were heading for the Eurovision Song Contest.  The Hermits kept clocking up hits, but I bet those were not the ones Ramones were raving about.

Noone left the band in 1971, and his solo-career got off to a good start with David Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things” (Bowie even plays on the record), a Top 20 hit in Britain.  But he never managed a follow-up.  So this is where the “20 Greatest Hits” ends.

Is the album relevant in 2015?  I’d say yes, absolutely.  Of their 22 British hits only three lesser ones are missing.  For a while, Herman’s Hermits (1965-1966) delivered inspired and colourful pop music, right up there with the best of them.  OK, so they went fishing after that, but there are one or two gems among these later releases too, like the gloriously sad “My Sentimental Friend” and that eccentric choice of Peter’s, “Oh! You Pretty Things”.

This is summery music, perfect for late afternoons with a cold beer as company.  The Ramones recommend it.  Or they would, if they were still around, bless ‘em.

Released: September 1977

Produced by: Mickie Most

Contents*: I’m Into Something Good (1-13), Silhouettes (3-5),Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat (-2), Wonderful World (7-4), Just A Little Bit Better (15-7), A Must To Avoid (6-8), You Won’t Be Leaving (20-), This Door Swings Both Ways (18-12), No Milk Today (7-35), There’s A Kind Of Hush (7-4), I Can Take Or Leave Your Loving (11-22), Sleepy Joe (12-61), Sunshine Girl (8-), Something’s Happening (6-), Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter (-1), My Sentimental Friend (2-), Years May Come, Years May Go (7-), Bet Yer Life I Do (22-), Lady Barbara (13-), Oh! You Pretty Things (12-)

*Highest position on the UK and US charts in brackets after each title, UK listed first.

Members:

Peter Noone – vocals

Karl Green – vocals, bass

Derek Leckenby – lead guitar

Keith Hopwood – rhythm guitar

Barry Whitwam – drums