On A Carousel: Talking to Hollies’ drummer, Bobby Elliott
23rd February 2016
Celebrating the band’s 50th anniversary with a special compilation box set, Hollies’ drummer, Bobby Elliott, talks to Paul Rigby
Drummers, in general, have a certain reputation. You remember this breed from the Spinal Tap film? There was John ‘Stumpy’ Pepys who suffered his demise from a bizarre gardening accident then Eric ‘Stumpy Joe’ Childs who choked on someone else’s vomit and, of course, who could forget Mick Shrimpton who spontaneously combusted. Real life drummers are, arguably, more bizarre. We’ve had drummers who, for no particular reason, jump off hotel balconies in mid-conversation, narrowly missing the ground to splash into a swimming pool, one-armed drummers, another who created a video featuring WW2 Holocaust footage in a mind-bending effort to downplay global warming and one drummer who, recently, turned up late in court to face charges of drug possession and threatening to kill before drumming on the dock and leaping onto his bodyguard’s back.
And then there’s Bobby Elliott.
He drums, he sings, he writes songs and he inspires…
“For many Hollies’ tracks, the first thing you hear on our records are the drums: Just One Look, Here I Go Again, Stay and so on. Cozy Powell once said to me that the introductory drumming on Just One Luck inspired him to become a drummer. Cozy was one of my best friends. He used drum sticks like tree trunks. Great guy, lovely man and sadly missed,” said Elliott.
He remains relevant…
“We were in Australia on tour recently and got into Adelaide. After the show, Bruce Springsteen was staying at the InterContinental hotel. I was sitting drinking with Max Weinberg, Springsteen’s drummer at the time. Max said, ‘Oh, Bruce is always talking about you. The other week, we were rehearsing something and scratching our heads and Bruce turned to me and said ‘Do what the Hollies guy does’. That’s my latest dining out story. We know Bruce from way back because we recorded a song of his , Sandy (also known as 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)). What he was talking about referred to a song, Pay You Back With Interest. I go out, at the end, on a ride cymbal ‘Ding-a-ding, ding-a-ding’ a swing thing. It goes out on that. A jazz thing. Max was telling me that it was one of things they used.”
And he’s an innovator…
“I remember working in Abbey Road’s No.3 studio with The Hollies. We were doing the song, Stay. I wanted a bass sound like the old Woody Herman drummer, Don Lamond and I explained to Peter Barron the engineer, “Look Pete, there’s only one mic over the drums.” He replied, in his high voice, “We find that one microphone is quite sufficient here.” So we retreated to the Abbey Tavern, the local pub and I thought, because Pete was with us, that I would work on this, ‘Peter, let me get you a drink,’ I said. He said, ‘Thank you Bobby, I shall have a Whisky Mac.” That’s what he always had. So I gave him this Whisky Mac (Whisky and ginger wine, properly called a Whiskey Macdonald). By the second or third drink, he was agreeing to put an additional mic on my bass drum. So, I had two mics on my drum kit. Since then, I’ve had a few guys come up to me who’ve said, ‘You were the first guy to get more than one microphone put on the drums at Abbey Road.’ The last guy to tell me that was Steve Rushton, who plays with Imelda May’s band.”
So…a bit of a superhero then, eh?
Only if superheroes like jazz and come from Nelson in Lancashire, England. Elliott, whose earliest singing memories were listening to his Aunty Irene, singing I’ll Be Your Sweetheart and Bicycle Made For Two and singing hymns at his junior school near Burnley, was a great fan of the radio and the anarchic humour of The Goons but he would only hear the music that truly moved him at the time, outside of his home. Floating. From an open window, “I’d acquired a few friends in the area. There was a family called the Rushtons. On a Sunday morning, they’d have the windows open and they would play Nat King Cole but the younger lads in the family would be playing Gerry Mulligan and Dave Brubeck. That jazz really bit me.”
His thirst for jazz was fuelled by his Uncle Terry, a flight engineer on WW2-vintage Lancaster bombers who would create wooden aircraft models for Elliott, also supplying him with Glenn Miller 78s. From there it was onto Spike Jones & His City Slickers with the irreverent and very amusing Cocktails For Two, “That really got me with the pots and the pans and so on. My playing with The Hollies sometimes gets a little bizarre during live shows…that’s my Spike Jones influence.”
His first memory of seeing live jazz began at the top with Count Basie who was appearing live at, of all the places in the world, Blackburn, in 1956, “I remember that myself and a friend had done something wrong at school, just before the concert. I was due to be kept back in detention but we managed to talk the teacher out of it, ‘You can’t give us detention, we’ve got tickets to go see Count Basie!’” The teacher must have been a jazz fan because Elliott got to see the Count after all.
That was soon followed by visits to a nearby venue, the Nelson Imperial Ballroom, locally known as the ‘Nelson Imp’ which was used by luminaries such as Ted Heath, Johnny Dankworth and, later, Gene Vincent. The same venue would also see the likes of The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Jimmy Hendrix before it burned down in 1975, “I used to sneak in there with my long pants on,” said Elliott. “To be there, in a packed house, listening to a jazz band and to hear a lonely trumpet echoing around was quite something. I was watching the drums of any band that came along.”
Yes but why? Why drums at all? Why not guitar or piano? Because, Elliott would naturally drum with anything. He wouldn’t even have to think about it, he just drummed. He never used brushes to paint in art class at school, for example, he would drum with them. He saved up his pocket money to buy a cheap snare drum from a local junk shop for £2, he drummed on food tins in his mother’s grocery shop…the boy was a born drummer “I’d play along with the radio using home-made brushes made from copper wire, wrapped with insulation tape. Hence, I would spend my time emulating the great jazz drummers of the time.”
For his innate rhythm, Elliott would later turn to his maternal grandfather Alfred Precious, a local plumber, with his son, Tommy Precious, Elliott’s Uncle Tommy, “Alf had rhythm himself. If he was sitting watching his TV and there was music player, he would sit drumming his hands on the armchair, tapping in time. My thumbs arch back and so do his. My uncle was also a clog dancer. He had rhythm too. Alf’s plumbing supplies also served as additions to my drum kit, as a kid.”
In the seat
Approaching 16 then 17 and just getting interested in girls and beer, he would frequent a venue in Colne called the Sefton Club featuring a bass playing friend, Bob Palmer, who was part of a six-piece jazz band.
“Bob convinced the resident drummer, an old boy named George Buckley, that I could play bit,” said Elliott. “On Saturdays, I didn’t go out with my mates, I’d just sit near to the stage and wait for George to shout, ‘Come on Bob!’ He would then leave the drums to stand at the mic and do the Breakaway Blues which were three Fats Waller songs. I would then sit and play the drums while he did that. I used to wait there all night to play Sunny Side Of The Street and Ain’t Misbehavin. After that, I’d walk or, rather, float, all the way home. I also sat near the band in a jazz club in Nelson. I didn’t have a proper drum kit but the jazz drummer let me play. I was a shy guy, at that time but I’d persevere because I knew that I could do it. What I’d do is to talk drums with him, during his break, so he knew that I knew a bit which gave him the confidence to allow me to sit in.”
It was out of character. This shy young man pushing himself forward to not only play someone else’s instruments but to do so in front of a crowd of people. It continued too, down at the Astoria with the Melody Maker award winning, Jimmy Heyworth Orchestra. Elliott’s experience grew and progressed from the occasional ‘sit in’ to occupying the Heyworth seat during holidays and then, during dates at the Queen’s Arms pub, with the Bob Price Quintet, aged 17 and 18, this time armed with his own drum kit, backing respected jazz names such as Don Rendell and Eddie Thompson.
“At the same time, my friend, Bob Palmer said ‘Hey, there’s a rock band in Nelson. They’re after a drummer. Why don’t you go talk to them?’ Well, I wasn’t really into rock at that time but I thought that it would be an easy gig, ABC stuff. So, from playing with a jazz band, in front of around 60-70 blokes, I was now playing for a band called The Falcons, at the Nelson Imp, in front of 300-400 girls. I thought to myself that this was a no-brainer…this is it!”
Soon after, Elliott would meet a very nice girl named Maureen Hicks. One night, as the pair walked home, Hicks invited Elliott in for a coffee. As she trotted off to the kitchen to put the kettle on, Elliott sat on the sofa and waited. It was then that he noticed, resting easily on the right side of the fireplace, a Futurama guitar. When Maureen returned he asked, “‘Who’s is the guitar?’, ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘it belongs to my brother. He drives me bloody mad with it.’ This, of course, was Tony Hicks, future Hollies band member. He was only 14 but he had a band called The Dolphins, which I would soon join.”
But before we rush on ahead and career onwards towards ultimate stardom, fame and untold riches, let’s just pause a bit and take in the atmosphere of the times. Elliott had taken a rock gig but he was a brave man to do so for that moment in musical history and considering the circles he was moving within. As Elliott himself said above, rock drumming was seen as ‘easy’. After all, jazz was the height of musicianship. There was nothing more cerebral, in fact, which says a lot for Elliott’s skills and talent he had at such an early age. Quite apart from his skill set, though, rock was not only seen as a step down, rock was kid’s stuff. There was an incredible amount of snobbery around. Jazz players thought that rock was a joke, something that was beneath them, “They’d ask, ‘So, what you doing at the week-end.’ I’d tell them that I was playing with The Dolphins and they’d say, ‘What? A rock band?’ It was very much looked down on. They couldn’t understand how I could balance the two together. I now realise that the jazz experience really gave me a head start. I was brought up on the likes of Mingus and Thelonious Monk and it made rock sound very simple.”
Again, though, Elliott’s innate intelligence plays and has played, a significant part in how he has approached rock drumming. It has also had a significant effect on The Hollies rock output, “Playing rock…it’s actually more important to listen than to play. A lot of people don’t get that. I feel that I’m part of the front line when I play. I know I have to create the foundation and springboard. I was self-taught. I wasn’t a big practicer. I don’t know how I got away with it.”
In fact, during the early days of his time with The Hollies he was thought to have been a bit too ‘busy’ in his technique. To such an extent the a producer did officially request that he tone it down a bit.
But back to the plot and coffee on Maureen Hicks’ sofa. Elliott expressed a wish to meet the younger Hicks and soon found out that his young slip of a lad was, “…very opinionated. He was really the band leader. He was an amazing kid, very confident when he ran The Dolphins. In the Hollies, he was there with the arrangements. Very focused. I remember, in those early days when Tony was at home and very young, if Tony had forgotten to do his chores or hadn’t done an errand that his family had asked of him then, his dad, Alan, a very good diesel mechanic, would exclaim, ‘Take that guitar out of his hands and he’s buggered!’”
Elliott obviously admires Hicks and values his friendship with the man. He relished telling me a brief, innocent, story from the mid-‘60s, when, apparently, the singer and now established TV personality, Lulu, used to like the cut of Hick’s gib, as it where, “She would phone Tony’s parent’s house, thinking that was where Tony was staying but he’d moved south by then,” said Elliott. “She’d call and say, ‘Hello, can I speak to Tony please?’ Alan would say, ‘No, he’s not here, he’s moved away.’ A few days later, she’d be on the phone again, ‘Is Tony there?’ she’d ask. Alan would say the same thing. A few days after that, she’d be on the phone again asking the same question, ‘Who was that?’, shouted Alan’s wife from another room. It was interesting and slightly bizarre that there’s this ordinary working man, this mechanic from Nelson, living in a working man’s home, that he should even be shouting back, ‘It’s that bloody Lulu again!’” Maureen and Elliott, meanwhile would soon marry.
Alan Brook, ex-Four Pennies drummer, was in The Dolphins seat at the time but Tony Hicks had seen Elliott drum for The Falcons and was impressed, “I was doing a crescendo press roll into a certain piece of music. Tony was impressed with that. I was soon moved into the Dolphin’s drum chair.”
So everything settled down for a time until Tony Hicks received a call from The Hollies. Despite his young age, Hicks had a burgeoning reputation in the northern parts of England as a hotshot guitarist and knowledgable musician. Hicks was invited to audition for the band at Abbey Road, “Tony agreed after a lot of convincing from the band. In fact, Tony asked his dad for advice. His dad, Alan, said, ‘How much are they offering you?’ Tony replied, ‘I don’t know.’ His dad said, ‘If it’s £18 a week, say, you’ll join.’ Well, The Hollies weren’t even earning that figure themselves. Typical Tony, the rest of The Hollies were scratching around to find his money so that Tony would join their band. Fortunately, the hits started to come soon after. I’d joined by then.”
Which was all fine and dandy for Tony Hicks but, for now, there was Bobby Elliott, poached to join a new band by the same guy who had now jumped ship and effectively abandoned him. Understandably, the Dolphins we were upset and annoyed. As Elliott was so highly regarded by Hicks, would Hicks recommend Elliott to The Hollies? It didn’t really matter at that moment because, “…their then drummer also drove the van. Apart from that, they had no money to pay me because Tony was getting it all!”
With Hicks on the move, Elliott felt unsettled until Hicks’ mother rang him up with the news that auditions were upcoming to join
Shane Fenton & the Fentones (Shane Fenton would later evolve into chart-topping, brooding, leather glove wearing, post-rockabilly legend, Alvin Stardust who sadly died 23 October of this year after combatting cancer)
Upon hearing about the audition, Elliott was dubious about the proposed music style. He wondered if it was for him. Nevertheless, his father ran him down to the audition venue, at the King’s Hall in Stoke On Trent, “They saw me, ran me through a few songs and that was that. I thought that I’d got the gig but they said, no, not yet. They asked me to go to London. They said that they would be auditioning 10 other drummers!”
More driving practice for his father and losing their way meant that they arrived late to a little street off Tottenham Court Road, “I looked down this alleyway and saw these blokes in raincoats with drum sticks hanging out of their pockets. I thought that this must be the place. I stood there, at the back of the queue. I got the gig! In later years, though, I was talking to another drummer who was also in that same queue. A guy called Lloyd Ryan, who is still playing, a good drummer and he said, ‘Also standing in that same queue was Keith Moon! He was no 3 in the queue!’”
Elliott would spend three or four months with Fenton before being invited to join The Hollies, “Working with Shane was great, they were very kind to me and they were good blokes. It set me up to play with The Hollies because they were seasoned pros. It hardened my technique up and gave me a professional attitude. It was a piece of cake when joining The Hollies.”
With The Hollies
When they made their first record and money started to roll in, The Hollies paid lead singer, Allan Clarke’s brother to drive the van and be the roady. All of a sudden drummer, Don Rathbone, was sidelined, which opened the way for the entry of Elliott, “The Hollies’ management was the same as Shane Fenton & the Fentones. Don was moved sideways. Don was a nice bloke but wasn’t an out and out drummer so he was given a desk top. The guys had all seen me play and they, especially Tony and Graham (Nash), wanted me in.”
Elliott saw The Hollies play live, at a BBC session rehearsal at The Playhouse, just before he joined and was immediately impressed with their 3-part harmony vocals. The three-way harmony, “I sat in the empty seats and it just hit me. It sounded like a horn section. I couldn’t wait to get hold of that. It was the power of the harmonies. It was like competition, they went at it hammer and tongs, sheer gorgeous enthusiasm. There was an Everly influence but The Hollies’ voices were more penetrating.”
So Elliott had arrived. Truly arrived. Playing drums in a major band, and already signed to Parlophone, the same label as The Beatles.
Elliott stepped on the fast moving conveyor belt of success and hung on for dear life, “We were young and eager and everything was done at a 100 miles and hour. As soon as we entered the stage, we were going to kill them kids, we were going to go for them. The band was like a steam engine. Clarkey was often dragged off stage and then thrown back on with no shoes on. One time, in 1964, he was thrown back without his wedding ring!”
Often under-rated, despite their success and beautiful songwriting coupled with a highly professional and effective harmonic delivery, The Hollies’ sound was innovative because it offered no rhythm guitar. Vocalist and songwriter, Graham Nash, held an acoustic guitar but it wasn’t plugged in, “So what you had was Tony, his style of playing, that was probably picked up from Johnny Kidd & The Pirates and people like that. He was playing rhythm and lead at the same time. For example on Just One Look there is only one guitar, one bass and a drum kit and harmony. We liked that open space that we had, there was no clutter. Later on we used other things. During the late 60s, we’d be in Abbey Road and, around the walls, there would be all kinds of different instruments that we could use to add. We were experimenting with different sounds by then.”
That wasn’t all. Despite the fact that the band featured accomplished song writers, The Hollies were not averse to looking outside of the group for material. Future 10cc star, Graham Gouldman, was one such provider, writing Look Through Any Window and Bus Stop, ”Graham (Gouldman) and I both drank in Manchester and I’d heard the demo of Bus Stop and I was telling him how nicely constructed it was. We still see him occasionally. We did turn one of his songs down, unfortunately, No Milk Today which was a hit for Herman’s Hermits in 1966. Although we had a clutch of our own stuff by then. Clark, Nash and Hicks were writing some excellent stuff.”
It was a busy time for Elliott and the band with a wide array of commitments including many appearances on TV. Many stars of the day disliked TV but Elliott loved it, “We did the very first Top Of The Pops, in 1964. We seemed to be on nearly every week. The great attraction of going to London and Television Centre was afterwards. Going to the BBC’s bar and see all the newsreaders, dancers, actors…people from Dad’s Army walking around. My head was spinning around all of the time. I didn’t care about Top Of The Pops, I wanted to be upstairs later on. It used to get so busy and a Commissionaire tried to block our entry. I’d try to get our producer to take us in.”
One of the most significant periods for The Hollies was during the mid- to late-60s as the outfit moved away from their highly successful pop template to the psychedelic style. One wonders if this was because the band wanted to prove that were capable of growing as artists and evolving away from the standard pop fare. Elliott has a simpler explanation, though, “Everybody was doing it, everyone was wearing a kaftan. Although Graham wore a kaftan so large, if was almost like a frock. I think that was the time to move on? We usually went for the strongest song. We came unstuck once or twice. King Midas In Reverse (1967) was around that time. We were criticised for that. The critics said, ‘Oh, The Hollies have flopped. But it was around No 15 in the charts. It’s all relative.”
The Hollies, nevertheless, seemed to have taken fright at that ‘relative’ low chart position of Midas which resulted in Clarke and Nash returning to the tried and trusted formula of catchy pop. In this case, Jennifer Eccles, “Jennifer being the first name of Clarkey’s name and Eccles being Rose Nash’s (Graham’s wife) maiden name. That was knocked off one afternoon. We could get out of anything. A supposed flop? We’ll write a hit, No 3 in the charts. Shallow? Yes. But we knew what we were doing. In those days, it seemed like a sausage machine, there was no end to it.”
Then it happened. The much discussed, much debated separation between The Hollies and Graham Nash who would move to the USA and become a founder member of Crosby, Stills & Nash (with Neil Young as a floating member). Some people see the production of 1969’s The Hollies Sing Dylan album as the trigger as Nash was not happy with the LP, others blame Nash’s creative claustrophobia. That he wanted to pursue the experimentalism of King Midas In Reverse and was firmly shunted towards Jennifer Eccles instead. Elliott has his own take on the split, “We were in the States a hell of a lot and we got to know a lot of artists over there: Buffalo Springfield, Mamas & Papas and so on. Running parallel to this, Graham had split with his wife, Rose. He’d met Joni Mitchell. I was there when he first met her. He was doing certain songs, Marrakesh Express, that our producer didn’t like. I’m a big steam fan so I loved it. In fact, we half-heartedly did a recording of the song but we didn’t finish it. I remember one night, in Stockholm, in a hotel there, Graham turned up with a reel-to-reel and said, ‘Hey, listen to this.’ It was a series of demos with David Crosby and Stephen Stills.
“I said, ‘Blimey, it just sounds like the Hollies.’ He was doing demos with them way before he left. It was pre-planned, in a way, but he was still hanging on as a Hollie. We did a song called Listen To Me. We didn’t write it. It charted as a single. Top of the Pops phoned up and asked for an appearance. We said ‘Yea!’ But then someone said, ‘Hang on, Graham’s in America.’ He used to commute to there, to see Crosby and Stills.
“We were told that, with a TV appearance, the song would be Top 4 or Top 3. That clinched it, Graham prevented us doing a major TV show. His final gig was on my birthday, at the Palladium, December 8th 1968. A charity show called The Save Rave.
“He was going more in his own direction, had his own friends. We did a couple of Dylan tracks with Graham. We wanted to do a whole album of Dylan songs. Graham then decided not to. He made out that it was all our fault but I think he had an agenda. It was just a matter of time.”
Despite the understandable problems with any split of a longstanding partnership and the emotional shrapnel that followed, friendship was rekindled. Nash even accompanied The Hollies, later, for reunion concerts.
“Graham continued to do the Hollies but in a different way,” added Elliott.
I asked Elliott about Graham Nash’s recently released book, Wild Tales and got this as a response, “I’ve read Graham Nash’s book. I can write the killer book, certainly, with accuracy and details and, hopefully, without shopping my chums like he did. I’m probably a cleaner living lad as well.”
In fact, Elliott is, and always has been an inveterate diary keeper. Diaries that would provide a fascinating book on his career, the Hollies and the culture of the times, “I’ve kept a diary all my life. I’m very much into history so it’ll be a cultural thing but music is inter-related to that.
So did Elliott regret Nash leaving the band? “We had hits after that,” was his reply.
Despite some marvellous and iconic single releases, The Air That I Breathe (1974 from The Hollies) being just one, the 70s were not particularly kind to The Hollies, “We went through a sticky time in the 70s. We were writing some good stuff but also, what I would consider to be, mediocre stuff interspersed in there. There was a certain staleness in the 70s. There were the odd good songs written by the guys. I wrote a song to act as a possible stimulus. To try and kick them up the arse. A sort of, ‘Hey, I’m going to write a song, write one better.’ In the old Clarke, Nash & Hicks days, you couldn’t get in there. They were prolific.”
So was the dip in form inevitable? Could the band have done anything differently? “With hindsight, although it might not have changed the outcome, I would have done a better job with Marrakesh Express and the other Nash songs of that era. They were pure Hollies. I regret not being involved in those songs. Things move on, though. It had to be.”
The 80s were a relatively quiet time although the reunion album with Graham Nash, What Goes Around… was a decent effort. Much later, in 2006, with only Elliott and Hicks remaining from the original group, they produced a fine album called Staying Power. Live work has occupied Elliot & co ever since, “We don’t need the money, it’s just for fun. That’s a glib word to use but that’s what it is. As for the guys who we work with: Pete’s (Howarth, vocals) the best I’ve ever come across, Ray (Stiles, bass) has been with us for 30 years or so and Ian (Parker, keyboards) is excellent. Performance is everything to me, there’s no better drug. I come off that stage, there’s no better feeling. You cannot buy it and we play to pretty much full houses. When that stops, when the fun goes, I might consider sitting down and writing my memories.”
This new, career-spanning, 3CD set features, as you can probably guess from the title, 50 tracks that covers the entire history of the group. This golden anniversary collection begins with oldies such as (Ain’t That) Just Like Me and Searchin’ but quickly moves into major hit territory with songs such as Carrie Anne and On a Carousel.
That’s not all, though, you also get a selection of rare live performances and a new song, Skylarks, recorded specially for this set, “I wrote the B-side of Just One Look, along with Tony, Keep Off That Friend Of Mine and now I’ve just just written the 50th song on this new album, called Skylark, my take on where the world’s going. It squares the circle,” said Elliott.
Don’t dismiss this new release as just another hit collection. See it more as succinct yet systematic overview of one of the best bands the UK ever produced.