Bobby Elliott of The Hollies: ‘Playing live is a beautiful natural high, better than any drug in the world’

The Hollies at a festival in Hasselt in Belgium, 2012. Picture by Rob Haywood

The Hollies at a festival in Hasselt in Belgium, 2012. Picture by Rob Haywood

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If you mention Abbey Road Studios to most modern music fans they’ll think of The Beatles or maybe Pink Floyd.

But when The Hollies first walked in to the London studios, it had a rather different association.

Bobby Elliott, drummer with the Mancunian group since very near the start, recalls their first recording session there: ‘It’s been a while since the five of us jumped in to an old Ford Thames van with two amplifiers and a drum kit and travelled down to Abbey Road Studios to audition and make our first single in 1963.

‘We were in awe – it was like a cathedral, Thomas Elgar had been there before us, Thomas Beech, and all those classical guys, and Cliff and The Shadows, and then there were these five lads from the grimy north, setting up our two impoverished amplifiers – we couldn’t get three amps in the van.

‘Graham Nash just strutted around at the front with his acoustic guitar. So it was mainly Tony (Hicks) sort of playing two guitar parts – his style was like playing lead and rhythm at the same time.

‘The red light went on in studio three and off we went like five performing chimps.

People always say: “I didn’t realise you’d done all those songs”. People don’t associate them with us – they know we’ve had a few hits, but they hear us perform them and the penny drops

Bobby Elliott

‘Our first album was in fact pretty much our stage show – all recorded on quarter-inch tape in those days, no multitracking back then.

‘You had to get it done.

‘It had its payoffs though because you can hear the crackling atmosphere on those takes – there weren’t the overdubs and the messing about, you got the compensation of the spontaneity of the live act.’

Following that first session, The Hollies became renowned for their soaring harmonies and timeless melodies as they racked up the hits, including Just One Look, Look Through Any Window, Bus Stop, Carrie Anne, Jennifer Eccles, and later He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother, Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress and The Air That I Breathe.

But before being tempted into rock, jazz had been Bobby’s first love.

‘We’d had Elvis and some other stuff, but I was very much into Chet Baker, and Gerry Mulligan, Art Blakey, and Thelonious Monk and I did start playing in a jazz group, semi-pro. We’d have a guest player every Thursday, an international saxophonist or whatever.

‘I wanted to play jazz. We used to play at this jazz club in a town over the hill called Rawtenstall, and there’d be 50-80 people in smoking their cigarettes and tapping their fingers to the music, but one of my school friends said: “Hey, there’s this rock band that wants a drummer”, they were called The Falcons, so I went and played down our local ballroom, the Imperial.

‘I said I’d do this Saturday afternoon bop session, and there were about 3-400 girls all lining the front and looking enthusiastic. After that I thought it’s a no-brainer, this rock’n’roll thing

‘Jazz and rock and blues were all linked and I had a certain style of playing that fitted in with a contemporary rock thing. It’s quite fortuitous I had that background, as people tell me I was playing differently to other people around at the time.’

One of their best-loved hits has been 1969’s He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. Elton John played piano on the track, for the going session rate of £9. However, the song was kept off the top spot by a novelty record. It was number two the first time round, it was prevented from getting to number one by a cartoon band called The Archies, who had a hit record with Sugar Sugar, which stopped it.’

Nearly 20 years later the track was used in a beer commercial, prompting it rerelease when it finally took the top spot.

‘It wasn’t until 1988 that it got to number one – that was a wonderful surprise, and to be back on Top of The Pops after all those years.’

The song hit number one a second time, when it was the Christmas number one in 2012. Released under the banner of The Justice Collective, it featured numerous pop and rock stars in aid of charities related to the Hillsborough disaster – Bobby and Tony guested. As Bobby recalls: ‘It was for a great cause. Tony and I went down quite late on but they’d already done the drum track, so it’s not me on that version.

‘The producer Guy Chambers said he was having trouble with the harmonies so Tony went into the studio and sung the harmonies – the bottom end one which he sung on our record.

‘I think there’s a picture of me stood next to him, trying to look like I’m doing something intelligent.’

Although there has been a turnover in membership over the decades, the band has never split up. Bobby and fellow original member Tony are now joined by Ray Stiles, Peter Howarth, Steve Lauri and Ian Parker, and maintain a busy live schedule.

‘We’ve got the longevity and we’ve got quite a catalogue of hit records, and the album tracks – we get a couple of those each night.

‘People always say: “I didn’t realise you’d done all those songs”. People don’t associate them with us – they know we’ve had a few hits, but they hear us perform them and the penny drops. It amazes me sometimes.

‘We’ve got too much in a way – we could play all night quite happily.

‘But of course as you get older you need to make sure you’re up to it – I’m touching wood, so far so good.’

And it’s that rush of playing live that keeps them going after more than five decades.

‘That’s the drug,’ explains Bobby. ‘Often, after we’ve done the performance, we’ve come off and we’re sweating after a standing ovation, and Tony says: “It doesn’t get any better than this”, and he’s right, you’re just floating.

‘It’s a beautiful natural high, better than any drug in the world.

‘We’ve got a great band, but we’ve also got a great crew that we always try to got with us, it’s that camaraderie, we’re a family.

‘I use the word fun a lot, there’s a humour to the act – not on the more serious songs, obviously – but there’s an expectation throughout the band that each guy is going to come up with something special, whether playing or singing, and you’ll see their eyes light up.

‘There’s always a little bit of spontaneity there, sometimes the audience doesn’t even realise it, but there’s still that creativity there on stage, it’s a living thing. When it’s going really well, you’re floating.

‘That’s what keeps us going, as long as the body and mind is still willing. I’ll be thrashing around for a while.

‘I’ve got to realise it’s not going to last forever, and that’s quite sad.

‘There’s a few aches and pains, and arthritis in the fingers, but my ears have stood up pretty well, despite all the clattering and banging.

Touchingly, even after 53 years, Bobby seems a little surprised to have made a life out of this rock’n’roll game.

‘It’s crazy isn’t it? I’m actually writing my autobiography, because I’ve always kept diaries. I’m up to about 1972, and it’s 40-50,000 words so far.

‘Writing the book, I just need to open a diary at a certain date – in those early days I didn’t write a lot, but what is there it brings it all back to me, the picture shoots out.’

n The Hollies play Portsmouth Guildhall on Sunday, April 10. Doors 6.30pm, no support. Tickets from £27.50. Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk

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