Search This Blog

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Hollies: Butterfly


1) Dear Eloise; 2) Away Away Away; 3) Maker; 4) Pegasus; 5) Would You Believe?; 6) Wishyouawish; 7) Postcard; 8) Charlie And Fred; 9) Try It; 10) Elevated Observations?; 11) Step Inside; 12) Butterfly.

The Hollies' second attempt at integrating into the psychedelic age was far more convincing than their first one — but more like, in retrospect. By the time the album came out, in late 1967, the world of popular music had completed the revolution, and Butterfly was their first album since 1964 to not chart at all, though, admittedly, this may have had more to do with the lack of a solid accompanying single. It was preceded by ʽKing Midas In Reverseʼ, one of Graham Nash's most ambitious compositions, very clearly influenced by The Beatles' work with orchestration and, in a way, perhaps also back-influencing The Beatles themselves (for instance, the use of cello here is very similar to ʽI Am The Walrusʼ, though the latter song postdated ʽKing Midasʼ). However, despite the complexity of the psychedelic arrangement, the chorus of the song is rather bland and repetitive, essentially a one-liner, and certainly lacks the incendiary capacity of their classic singles — somehow, in between the psychedelic overtones and the elements of social critique, the song missed its chance to become an anthem in either of the two styles.

Regardless, it did mark a brief period of Nash's ascension as the primary creative force for The Hollies — an artistic test of sorts, which he ultimately failed on the commercial level, but pro­bably not on the critical one. Later, as part of Crosby, Stills, & Nash, he would be contented with the role of the «whimsical pop figure» among the three, but in those Butterfly days, he was the king of experimentation, bringing in baroque, Indian, and psychedelic influences a-plenty; still in a rather whimsical manner, of course, but the «innocent childishness» of the approach could be actually seen as reverse maturity in 1967, and he was certainly not alone in that (Donovan, any­body?). In any case, compared to Evolution, this album actually does represent a fairly strong pattern of evolution: catchier hooks and more ambitious and diverse arrangements. By all means, this is the band's direct answer to Sgt. Pepper, something that they were quite entitled to given their presence at the very same Abbey Road Studios, and it never ever bothered me that the final result, quite predictably, could at best pass for Sgt. Pepper's little brother, enviously peering into the treasure-filled drawers of the elder sibling. The little brother still has a good heart.

For all I know, all of the songs but two here could be written by Graham — he takes exclusive credits for four songs and is co-credited for another six. The only solo Clarke title is the lush orchestrated power ballad ʽWould You Believe?ʼ, possibly an earlier outtake (since, after all, the album Would You Believe came out almost two years prior to this); meanwhile, the Hicks-written-and-sung kiddie lullaby ʽPegasusʼ is even more trite than the worst of Graham's stuff, culminating in a single-line chorus ("I'm Pegasus, the flying horse") that probably would not make it past the Sesame Street filter — and is more fit for a garden bunny than a flying horse, anyway. This is a strong contrast with the way it used to be, when all the credits were equally distributed between the three principal songwriters, indicative of the rift that had already begun to pull them apart — but it does make me happy that it saved Nash the trouble of sharing the credits for ʽPegasusʼ, one of the donwright silliest things in the band's catalog.

But apart from the occasional Hicks blunder, Butterfly starts and ends equally strong. ʽDear Eloiseʼ, in particular, is an excellent showcase of the band's dual nature: the intro / outro section, delivered by Nash in a slow, reflective, Paul Simonesque manner, surprisingly contrasts with the far more traditionally upbeat, 100%-Hollies main body of the song, but the two sections are masterfully seamed together in the form of a half-manipulative, half-triumphant letter to an ima­ginary potential love interest. While this is probably as far as they are capable of going in terms of compositional complexity, the quantum jump from the trippy sonic-splitting "could be the best thing that's happened to me" to the lively "writing a letter to make you feel better" is, I think, one of the band's most exciting musical moments on tape.

From there on, the sound is always pleasing, almost always tasteful, and almost always humbly targeted at cautious heart-warming rather than energetic jolting. The obligatory detour into the world of sitars and coffee table mysticism (ʽMakerʼ) is really just a gentle, monotonous folk ballad masquerading as an epiphany, but at least Nash handles his fantasy worlds with less crude­ness than Hicks, not being as eager to mistake his audiences for 5-year old kids. ʽWishyouawishʼ is, stylistically, the illegitimate offspring of Simon & Garfunkel's ʽ59th Street Bridge Songʼ (there are even lyrical influences, from "I got no deeds to do, no promises to keep" to "I got no cares in my mind, got no place to go"), but with a barely detectable British musical twist to it, making it a nice intellectual puzzle to compare the two.

And that's the way it works on the whole: Butterfly makes a series of light hops between the trains of psychedelic temptation and British homely coziness — you may be invited to ʽTry Itʼ (because "it's beautiful, seeing all the colors of the rainbow"), and then, soon afterwards, to ʽStep Insideʼ so that "we'll have tea and crumpets toasted by the fireside". ʽCharlie And Fredʼ are a local ragman and his horse, living in a hovel (on the other side of Penny Lane?), but both of them probably merge into cosmic soup whenever "I'm so high up I touch the sky" (ʽElevated Observations?ʼ). The two sides are hardly mutually exclusive, no more than a nice crumpet would be incompatible with an LSD tablet; and since at the heart of this music they preserve the usual strong sides of The Hollies — melodic hooks and powerhouse vocal harmonies — there are very few causes for annoyance about inept intrusions onto somebody else's turf.

I could, in fact, build up a pretty strong case for Butterfly representing the peak of Graham Nash's artistic potential. Later on, his collaboration with Crosby and Stills challenged him to up the ante when it came to songwriting, leading to elements of uncomfortable preachiness and insincere psychological depth, when in fact the man was always at his best working in a «fluffy» environment — without any offensive or condescending connotations. His control of Butterfly could signify a new beginning for The Hollies, where they could retain their mastery of old school harmony-based pop hooks while at the same time combining them with new musical ideas and imbuing them with watered-down, but childishly seductive psychedelic or social content. Unfortunately, this was not to be, and while the band's future story would still have its moments of brilliance, they would never again make another record of such quality. Thumbs up.


  1. I think King Midas is a magnificent, grand record! I think deserves a bit more praise.

    Supposedly, Step Inside is the only real joint Clarke - Hicks - Nash effort. With Dear Eloise, Elevated Observations and Try It and Would You Believe at least mostly Clarke songs. The rest are mostly Nash.

    There are a lot of B-sides and unreleased tracks from the aborted follow up album that are worth a mention too.

  2. I'm glad that George likes this album so much because it gives me hope that maybe someday I will like it more than I do. For me, the last couple records were a little bit better, partly due to the lack of truly slow songs as we find here, and a general sense of unpredictability that I don't get from this record. I really like Dear Eloise, Postcard, Wish you a Wish, though.

    P.S. I BET that the original arrangement for Would You Believe was about x2 this speed.

    1. Sorry, I had to come back and say that I also really like Away Away Away and Step Inside. Jeeze, such a good band.