Herman And His
Hermits: An Appreciation
By Jeffrey Round
They were the first boy band, preceding the Monkees, the Osmonds and the Jackson 5. When they were discovered in 1964 by pop music impresario Mickie Most, the group's average age was 17. At 16, singer Peter Noone was the youngest.
At the time, Most's other acts included the Animals, Donovan and Lulu. He liked to discover raw talent, shape it and create stars. When he first saw the Hermits perform, he knew he was "Into Something Good," to quote the title of the group's number one debut single.
The band's gangly young lead-vocalist had a charismatic appeal rarely equalled in a world of pert young talent. (Though today, Herman look-a-like Justin Bieber might come a close second.) At the time, Noone was also an actor with an on-going role on Coronation Street. While his vocal abilities were limited, his strength was an instantly identifiable honey-and-gravel chipmunk sound. In addition, he had an infectious smile that could rival global warming for melting icebergs.
Most soon had the Hermits at the top of the charts, where they competed with the Beatles for record sales throughout 1964 and '65. His formula was to choose one or two potential hits and make them the basis of an album, assembling filler material around the hits-to-be. Generally speaking, this meant one ultra-catchy tune per LP side, coupled with eight lesser numbers. It also often entailed mimicking the current hits of other groups. In 1965, the Beatles scored with both the title song and film Help! The following year, the Hermits repeated the feat with Hold On!
While financially sound in the early-60s, Most's approach became artistic suicide in the latter half of the decade when concept albums like Sergeant Peppers ruled. Worse, this heavy-handed "hits first" formula cramped any true artistic expression his acts might develop. Where the Beatles evolved rapidly from their mop-haired "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah" appeal into a group with serious musical intentions, the Hermits were confined by their clean-cut adolescent image.
To his credit, Most had a sure sense for hits. He convinced the Hermits to record two songs they disdained, but which proved two of their biggest singles: I'm Henry VIII, I Am, and Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter. Most's feel for pop music changed rapidly. As a result, the group careened from one sound to another, but without straying far from what was in vogue. In one number the Hermits might sound like the Doors, while in the next it might be the Everly Brothers, the Beach Boys or even the Mamas and Papas. It's Alright Now, a Hermits B-side from 1969, could pass for vintage Rolling Stones. It's not that they didn't get better so much as that they got vaguer.
Still, in '64 and '65, when everybody was still scrambling to define the new sound, the Hermits recorded some of their most distinctive and successful tunes: I'm Into Something Good, A Must To Avoid, Where Were You When I Needed You and Listen People, to name but a few. More than anything, it was Noone's distinctive treble that made the songs easy to pick out and enjoyably infectious. The music in the Hermits' mid-period was even stronger. Tunes like There's A Kind Of Hush and No Milk Today, from 1966 and '67, still stand the pop music test of time. The songs are indelible and Noone's voice is what stands out most.
As early as 1968, however, either Most lost interest in his group or he'd lost his way, musically speaking. The Hermits were going through a "psychedelic" phase while trying to maintain their clean-cut kids appeal—a difficult balancing act at the best of times. They were also growing up. "Insider" headlines from the time attest to Noone's weariness with the group's image, and possibly his lack of confidence in Most's abilities to keep them on top of the charts.
Whatever the reason, the hits slowed and the Hermits came to seem a bit twee by the time Woodstock rolled around. By then, of course, pop music was being eclipsed by heavy metal. Ironically, it was former Hermits studio musicians like Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones who were now leading the pack.
Noone left the group in 1971 to pursue a solo career. With a hit song penned by newcomer David Bowie, he sounds more mature on his first solo album; he also sounds less distinctive, less like Herman. His voice had shed its honey-and-gravel tones. Not surprising, perhaps, because he was no longer an adolescent. This wasn't the end of Peter Noone, however: as of 2011, he still keeps up a very active international concert schedule. Sadly, it was the end of Herman and, consequently, of his Hermits. Later Hermits records without Noone just weren't the same.
The Jacksons evolved from Motown to disco before Michael Jackson eventually became crowned King of Pop. Even the Monkees, vilified through the '70s as all that was false about the music industry, have become celebrated again in absentia. But in official pop music circles, Herman's Hermits have stayed somewhat déclassé even now. Given the quality of their best work, it's hard to say why.
In Chronicles, Bob Dylan wrote about a sound that defined the 1960s. To anyone who grew up then, there are a handful of songs that can bring back that sound instantly, a kaleidoscope of infectious pop tunes blaring from tinny transistor radios—songs made famous by acts like the Beatles, Pet Clark, the Supremes, the Hollies and, yes, Herman's Hermits.
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