Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"Yes I Will" / The Hollies

I'd completely forgotten about this song -- I didn't even remember that I'd put it on my iTunes. When I think of the Hollies, I think mostly of "Bus Stop" and "Carrie Anne," those fresh-sounding mid-60s hits, and maybe "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother," their 1970 single that proved they were still relevant. By then, though, I was starting to mix them up with Bread, who came along with the same kind of soft-edged vocal harmonies (remember "Make It With You"? How about "It Don't Matter to Me" and the truly awful "Baby I'm-A Want You"? Yeah, I know, I wanted to erase those from my mental hard drive too.) Honestly, by the time the Hollies came out with "The Air That I Breathe," it was easy to confuse them with Bread.

But back when backbeat pop was still bright and brisk and clean, before everything got sludged up with pomposity and overblown emotions, there were their 1965 hits "Yes I Will" and the folky "Look Through Any Window." Man, this was good stuff. Was it Graham Nash jumping ship in 1968 that sent the Hollies south? Was it just standard-issue 70s excess? Or was it the desperation of a singles band trying to survive in the new world of album-oriented rock?

The Hollies website tells me that this song was written by Gerry Goffin and Russ Titelman, one of the few songs Goffin wrote with someone besides his then-wife and songwriting partner, my homegirl Carole King (for Tapestry alone I'll always love her). This is not one of Gerry's brightest efforts; the lyrics are, I hate to say it, borderline inane. Take that first verse: "I'll be true to you, yes I will / I'll be true to you, yes I will / I won't look twice / When / The other girls go by / I'll be true to you, yes I will." Okay, okay, we get the point.

Still, though I say I forgot about this song, I certainly didn't forget this song. The minute it shuffled up on my player, I knew every word, every harmony, every glorious mushy chord shift. In a world that was speedily going cynical, the Hollies were still offering earnestness, ardently sustaining those long rhyming notes in the third line of each verse: "My heart is sure / You're / The girl I've waited for." It's breathtakingly simple, and dead sincere.

The bridge gets a little more complex: "I used to be the kind / Who said that every girl's the same, and / Love was just a game for having fun." I perk up here; I know that guy. And schmaltzy as the next lines are -- "But when I looked at you / I knew that I was wrong, and that I / Really could belong / To only one" -- I have to admit I fall for it. Notice how the lines spill over (technical term: enjambment) to link a long complex thought, then resolve in short-line simplicity. (Note the same-game and wrong-belong internal rhyme, too.) I'm guessing the tune suggested this to Goffin, but give him credit for having the chops to do something with it.

We know now that it's totally unrealistic, all this love-at-first-sight and true-love-forever nonsense. This is the bill of goods pop music sold us for years -- how many thousands of disastrous marriages have Top 40 radio to blame? But in 1965, the Hollies could still deliver it without a trace of irony -- that faithful drumbeat, the spangly guitar strums, and above all the gorgeous harmonies. You only have to hear the Monkees' cover to marvel at the perfection the Hollies brought to this (and hey, I like the Monkees). For 2:57 I believe in it all over again.

Yes I Will sample


wwolfe said...

Most longtime popular music lovers probably have a few acts they would put in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, if they were granted the power to do so. My best friend has the Hollies at the top of his list, and they're not far behind on mine. (The Shangri-La's rank first for me.)

I think the Hollies declined for a combination of reasons. Nash was probably the one whose ambition drove the band to try more adventurous work. (I'd say his work declined more than the band's after his departure, ironically enough, although that's probably a minority opinion.) His departure coincided with a fading away of the songwriting factories in both England and the States that the Hollies relied on for their hits. Carole King and Graham Gouldman were both becoming live performers at roughly this time, for example. Lastly, Monterey Pop in late summer 1967 is a pretty good watershed marking the moment when Pop was eclipsed by Hippy; while Pop had shown it could fold in revolutionary acts like the Beatles and even Dylan, the rise of Hippy as the defining cultural standard of the day was contradictory to just about every essential element of Pop: economical, bright, melodic, unassuming, optimistic. Obviously these are broad generalities, and exceptions can be cited, but in general music from, or inspired by, Haight-Ashbury bands can't really be described as economical, bright, melodic, unassuming, and optimistic. So Pop was not only eclipsed, but it became suspect.

As was true with all too many things, Vietnam really messed things up.

Holly A Hughes said...

Great nutshell summary of a complicated time. I guess we threw out the baby with the bathwater -- a lot of fine music came with that hippie movement, but it sure sounded the death knell for effervescent tracks like this one. Funny to think that the Hollies are still in business, though!

wwolfe said...

Thanks. I honestly like a fair amount of San Fran style bands of the period - especially the early Airplane and the "American Beauty" era Dead. But I'll take two-and-a-half minutes of bright, catchy pop almost any day.

Betty C. said...

Do you mean that "The Air That I Breathe" was NOT by Bread?

I'm a little less stupid today thanks to your blog.

44 said...

We're all a little less stoopud thanks to St. Holly's shiny light, Betty C.

"Yes I Will" was recorded and released in late 1964, I think, hollyh - and you're right; its all about their instrumentation and (glorious) harmonies, not the lyrics. It did nothing in the US but was a solid and deserving hit in England. As I understand it, Graham Nash wrote a lot of their material but the credit and royalties were shared by the band, under the name ... (?) - similar to The Stones' "Nanker Phelge". I recall an interview with him stating that situation as being one of the reasons for his leaving the band.

The Hollies were also an organic band who practiced in their bed and livingrooms; Bread, on the other hand, were LA studio musicians. I was dragged to see them once and, despite my antagonism, came away impressed with their letter and note-perfect "professionalism". I never had the honor or pleasure of seeing The Hollies, although not for lack of trying. They'd booked a US tour in early 1966 but cancelled, mysteriously, without any explanation either in the local press or from local AM radio. My sister, my best friend Pete and I sent through the mail for tickets. 43 years later, they're still inside the same little manila envelope they arrived in; as bright and crisp as if they'd been printed only yesterday.

Anonymous said...

"Air That I breathe" was written by Albert Hammond. Great song that Albert sang on his debut, "It Never Rains In Southern California". Laugh if you want, but it's a great record and I must say I love most everything Bread did too. At least the stuff David Gates wrote..

sandy said...

i have to argue with your comparison of later hollies and bread.

first off, you seem to be forgetting 'long cool woman' which was nothing like brea (although something like ccr).

they also put out other singles, like 'long hard road' that were very contemporary.

and lastly, 'the air that i breathe' is a gorgeous song that sounds NOTHING like bread, who were insipid. the hollies were all about harmonies...bread were not. i don't get the comparison at all...was every band that did ballads bread?