50 years and counting

TRACEY COOPER
Last updated 10:31 01/12/2012
The Hollies
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STILL ROCKING: The Hollies are on a world tour to mark half a century in the music industry.

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Tracey Cooper travels time with Hollies drummer Bobby Elliott.

When Bobby Elliott started playing drums, the world he lived in was a very different place.

Elliott, 70, grew up in the north England town of Burnley, about 30 kilometres north of Manchester, in the years immediately following World War II.

Times were tough.

The town, at one time the world's largest producer of cotton cloth, was struggling to find its place. The textiles industry had collapsed following World War I, unemployment was high and the future looked anything but bright.

"Burnley's a cotton-weaving town," Elliott says. "The cotton used to come across from the Southern States on the ships and it would come right up the canals, right to the factories for our ancestors, who used to weave the cotton in the mills. We were just coming out of that. We'd come through the second world war. We had rationing over here."

Music provided an unlikely way out.

"Bill Haley and Elvis and Little Richard hit and this is like something happening and we wanted to make that music as well," he says.

"As kids, we used to listen to American music, like Little Richard and the Everly Brothers, and they were big influences, you know, so we modelled ourselves on them. We all liked American music as kids and that had a great influence on us."

The self-taught drummer first played in Johnny Theakstone and The Tremolos in the late 1950s, a band that became Shane Fenton and The Fentones. It was fronted by Bernard Jewry, who went on to become Alvin Stardust.

He also played in Manchester band Ricky Shaw and the Dolphins, where he met guitarist Tony Hicks.

Hicks soon left to join a new band named The Hollies, Elliott followed The Hollies would become one of the few bands of that era - along with the Rolling Stones - to never split up and to continue to record and perform.

The dreary 1950s became the 1960s and they were the start, Elliott says, of "happy days".

"We started getting better as musicians and it was like the teenager with a bit of money in his pocket, it was like coming out of black and white into technicolour. The '60s started and we kind of went, Wow. It was a dream come true and Christ, it's 50 years, but it's gone scarily quickly."

The 1960s were arguably the best decade for The Hollies. They had more hit singles than The Beatles and created some of their most famous tracks, including He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother, Just One Look and their first British No 1, I'm Alive.

During those years, Elliott says the music flowed in one direction only: east from the United States.

"Up to then, it was American music coming across to the UK. It was all one way traffic. Then we started mastering our instruments. The Beatles hit, they had their first hit just a few months before The Hollies did, and then we had what the Americans called the British Invasion. We turned the tables and we were exporting British music and that was really a big thing.

"We used to tour the States three months at a time. It was very exciting, pioneering stuff."

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Their fame continued to grow and The Hollies became one of the best-known bands in the world.

Now, 50 years later, they're on the back end of a world tour to mark half a century in the music industry and Elliott says the thrill of performing live is still as strong as it ever was.

"Performance is an important word with The Hollies because that's how we started out when we were kids, you know, and playing live on stage is still really a thrill for us, we really enjoy it, it's the lifeblood for us. It has been a joy and we're still enjoying it. It's a great feeling to go do a show and hopefully get people standing and you get off, it's a wonderful feeling."

He says the band's longevity is tied to its string of hits. "We've got a heck of a back catalogue, haven't we? We've got quite an extensive catalogue of great songs, whether we wrote them ourselves or things like He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother or The Air That I Breathe that we were lucky to find. We've got the hits, but we've got an even more extensive armoury, you know, and performance is still something we take great pride in. We do like to perform in-depth."

The Hollies have been regular visitors to New Zealand, last here in 2011, the year after they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Elliott says he clearly remembers his first time touring here in the 1970s.

"We played places like New Plymouth. We actually recorded a live album, which was a big hit in England, in Christchurch, I think in 1976. It was called Hollies Live Hits. I think we'd done about five nights at the Town Hall in Christchurch and we brought the multitracks back to Abbey Road Studios in London and remixed them and it was like a No 2 album over here, so we owe a lot to New Zealand, it's been good to us."

He's enjoyed seeing the changes in the country on subsequent visits.

"From those early '70s, when there was very little wine, you've now got the best wines in the world. It was different, then. What I noted then was you had so many of those old cars, like Ford Prefects, and I was really interested in them because I had a lot of old MGBs and E-types. They were happy days, really, we didn't even bother with seatbelts, then. It was always very memorable touring New Zealand."

Like the country, the music industry has seen massive change.

"When we started, it was a couple of guitars, two amplifiers, a drum kit and a van and off we went. It was a very simple way of life compared to now, where we've got glossy videos and X-Factor and celebrities just appearing out of nowhere. There was actually a lot of work to being a good performer or musician.

"Now, if you've got the talent and you use your nous a bit. They can whack it on YouTube and communicate with millions of people and that's terrific. That's another revolution, isn't it?

"I'm happy the way it has developed because that's given access to the girl and bloke in the street."

But the industry still keeps Elliott busy, as he and Hicks retain most of the rights to The Hollies' songs.

"It's like an industry, there're always inquiries about can we use this song for a film or something. Fortunately, Tony [Hicks] and I have writing rights to most of our back catalogue, so it's like a little cottage industry in itself and that's quite satisfying."

He also finds it satisfying keeping up to date with the music industry and he spends plenty of time talking to musicians near where he lives.

"It is very difficult for them to comprehend.

"As I look back, I see milestones and I can sort of work out where I was, that sort of thing. Like when people listen to the records when they first come out and remember where they were, I can remember the studios we recorded them in. Mostly it was Abbey Road. It's very scary. Once you've done it, it's very hard to picture how it happened because it just happened in a flash. I think, wow, did I really go through that? Bloody hell, it was quite something when I think about it and it's only discussing it that makes you realise."

And with 50 years under the belt already, Elliott says he hopes he'll know when it's time to stop. "When I start to get aches and pains, I suppose. So far so good, but you never know. I feel great at the moment. Playing, I think, just drives you along, the music keeps you young. We're all raring to go, we'll be down there and kicking. We had a great time last time and we're hoping to do that again."

The Hollies play at Claudelands on February 4. They also play at Palmerston North on January 30, Dunedin on February 1, Napier on February 3 and Auckland on February 5.

THE HOLLIES

The Hollies first took the stage in December, 1962 ,at Manchester's Oasis Club. A cover version of the Coasters' 1961 single, (Ain't That) Just Like Me, was released as their debut single in May 1963, and hit No 25 on the UK Singles Chart. Their debut album, Stay With The Hollies, was released on January 1, 1964, and made it to No 2 on the UK album chart. The single I'm Alive, from 1965, was their first No 1 single. In 2010, the Hollies were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.The Hollies first took the stage in December, 1962 ,at Manchester's Oasis Club. A cover version of the Coasters' 1961 single, (Ain't That) Just Like Me, was released as their debut single in May 1963, and hit No 25 on the UK Singles Chart. Their debut album, Stay With The Hollies, was released on January 1, 1964, and made it to No 2 on the UK album chart. The single I'm Alive, from 1965, was their first No 1 single. In 2010, the Hollies were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

- Waikato

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