Monday, February 6, 2012

Play It Again: Herman's Hermits: "My Sentimental Friend"

By the late 60s there were two categories bands found themselves in; one the auteur-led wayward geniuses of what would in retrospect be called Classic Rock (The Big Four being the most obvious ones) and the more-or-less bubblegum contingent, whose claim to any greatness was that nothing they did could smack of pretension or profundity, mainly because their producers were mainly intent not on albums but on singles. Big important bands, whether they were famous or just well-known amongst the cognoscenti, did albums, all the better to fit in new concepts, new instruments, and virtuosic solos. The Bubblegum kids had hooks, heart-tugging or not, songs that were easily hummable and understandable, and a blink-and-you-miss-it sophistication.

I count Herman’s Hermits – whom some of you may have been expecting at this here blog – as bubblegum, because that is where their core audience (and Mickie Most, their producer) liked them to be; they were much more successful as purveyors of what No Hard Chords’ Sally O’Rourke calls “pop junk” on the charts in the US than in the UK, where they paved the way for The Monkees just as much as The Beatles did. The Hermits were an actual band that could write songs and everything, but Most knew what they could do best and that was interpret songs by others (leaving their own compositions to album tracks & b-sides).

And so here we are, dear readers, with a song that John Carter and Geoff Stephens wrote, rubberstamped by Most as he knew that the yearning in Peter Noone’s voice (surprising to hear him with such emotion in his voice, but then bubblegum thrives on naked emotion as much as opera does) would do it justice. Not that this is a profound song, but it walks a very thin line indeed between being about powerful emotions in and around music and then mysteriously becoming what it is already talking (or rather, singing) about.

It is a song about the manipulative power of music, a man wanting his old “friend” to be moved by a song to tears. Because he wants her back, he wants to see her cry? Perhaps, but mainly he wants her to realize what they had together, via the postively Casablanca-style ploy of requesting that old song of theirs which will bring back those old feelings. That she is “over there” implies a huge gulf that he is scared to physically cross, as if he knows that would already be useless; only music has the power to bring her back now, and his song is secondary heart-tugging – he wants the DJ to play something, or perhaps the bandleader – whoever is in charge here has to help him.

So this song has us as a witness, as the DJ/bandleader ourselves, roped into this moment where he sees her and wants her to want him back via the sentimental song…which is clearly in and of itself sentimental. He knows she likes sad songs, and since this is a plea the song itself is sad, as there is no way of finding out whether the ploy works or not. (“Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter” works on kind of the same lines, with Noone aw-shucksing his way into Mrs. Brown’s heart if not ours.) The song thus doubles up on itself (I don’t know if this was Carter/Stephens’ intention*) and this brought the Hermits’ their biggest hit in the UK. I’m not sure if this was even released as a US single; it’s on the reissue of their US-only album Blaze, and I imagine it's on greatest hits compilations in the UK. In any case I don’t remember hearing it on North American radio – not surprising, as it breaks down that bubblegum wall Most had carefully built, even as Most approved of the song in the first place. It seems no one could escape the positively tidal emotions of 1969, where music itself was the one, the only thing that could possibly bring hearts together.

*There is a unique intensity in John Carter’s work that is hard to describe; hearing him sing the demo for this song is even more affecting than the Hermits’ version, as if he knows already his question is doomed but he has to ask anyway.

No comments: