Herman's Hermits were one of those odd 1960s groups who accumulated millions of fans, but precious little respect. Indeed, their status is remarkably similar to that of the Monkees, and it's not a coincidence that both groups' music was intended to appeal to younger teenagers. The difference is that as early as 1976, the Monkees began to be considered cool by people who really knew music; it took decades longer for Herman's Hermits to begin receiving higher regard for their work. Of course, that lack of respect had no relevance to their success: 20 singles lofted into the Top 40 in England and America between 1964 and 1970, 16 of them in the Top 20, and most of those Top Ten as well. Artistically, they were rated far lower than the Hollies, the Searchers, or Gerry & the Pacemakers, but commercially, the Hermits were only a couple of rungs below the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
The magnitude of their success seemed highly improbable, based on their modest beginnings. Guitarist/singer Keith Hopwood (born October 26, 1946), bassist/singer Karl Green (born July 31, 1947), guitarist/singer Derek "Lek" Leckenby (born May 14, 1945), and drummer Barry Whitwam (born July 21, 1946) were among the younger musicians on the Manchester band scene in 1963, when they started playing together as the Heartbeats. The city was home to many dozens of promising bands, most notable among them the Hollies, the Mockingbirds, and Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders. Later that year, the Heartbeats got a new member in 16-year-old Peter Noone (born November 5, 1947), who filled in one night when their regular vocalist failed to turn up for a gig. Noone was already a veteran actor, trained at the Manchester School of Music and Drama; he had been a child star on television in the late '50s, on the television series Coronation Street, but he also had musical aspirations. As a vocalist with the Heartbeats, he initially worked under the name Peter Novak. The quintet followed the same path that any other struggling band did, playing shows at youth clubs and local dances, hoping to get noticed, and they picked up a pair of managers, Harvey Lisberg and Charlie Silverman.
Accounts vary as to the origins of the name they ultimately adopted -- some say that their managers remarked on the facial resemblance between Noone and the character of Sherman in the Jay Ward cartoon show "Mr. Peabody & Sherman"; others credit Karl Green with mentioning it. In any case, "Sherman" became "Herman" and the group, in search of a more distinct name, became Herman & His Hermits and then Herman's Hermits. They played a pleasing, melodic brand of rock & roll, mostly standards of the late '50s and early '60s, with Noone's attractive vocals at the fore. Their big break came in 1964 when producer Mickie Most was invited by Lisberg and Silverman to a show in Manchester. He was impressed with their wholesome, clean-cut image, and with Noone's singing and pleasant, non-threatening stage presence, and he agreed to produce them, arranging a recording contract for the group with the EMI-Columbia label in England; their American releases were licensed to MGM Records.
Herman's Hermits' debut single, a Carole King/Gerry Goffin song called "I'm Into Something Good," released in the summer of 1964, hit number one in England and number 13 in America. Ironically, considering the direction of many of their future releases, the group displayed anything but an English sound on "I'm Into Something Good." Instead, it had a transatlantic feel, smooth and easy-going with a kind of vaguely identifiable California sound.
Of course, that statement assumed that the group had much to do with the record -- as it turned out, they didn't. In a manner typical of the majority of the acts that Most produced, the Hermits didn't play on most of their own records; Mickie Most, as was typical of producers in the era before the Beatles' emergence, saw no reason to make a less-than-perfect record, or spend expensive studio time working with a band to perfect its sound -- as long as Peter Noone's voice was on the record and the backing wasn't something that the group absolutely couldn't reproduce on stage, everyone seemed happy, including the fans. Conversely, the group didn't have too much control over the choice of material that they recorded or released. On their singles in particular, "Herman's Hermits" were mostly Peter Noone's vocals in front of whatever session musicians Most had engaged, which included such future luminaries as Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, with the other members relegated to background vocals, if that.
The group was grateful for the hit records that they chalked up, the revenue that those generated, and the gigs that resulted. They charted six Top 20 hits each in the years 1965 and 1966 and were a major attraction in concert, usually in a package tour situation, with the Hermits at or near the very top of whatever bill they were on. Their records were smooth, pleasant pop/rock, roughly the British invasion equivalent of easy listening, which set them apart from most of the rival acts of the period. Their cover of Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World" (which reached number four in America) and remake of the Rays' 1950s hit "Silhouettes" were good representations of the group's releases; on their EPs and early LPs, they also threw in covers of old rock & roll numbers like Frankie Ford's "Sea Cruise." They were purveyors of romantic pop/rock just at a time when the Beatles were starting to become influenced by Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, and the Who were redefining the British beat sound with higher volume, greater complexity, and harder sounds.
Most recognized that those acts were leaving behind a huge number of listeners who would still buy songs resembling simple, relatively innocent sounds of 1964 or even earlier. Just how far back he and the group could reach was revealed to them by accident, following the release of Introducing Herman's Hermits on MGM Records in the United States during 1965, coinciding with their first U.S. tour. An American disc jockey heard the song "Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter" on that album and convinced the label to issue it as a single. The song had been done almost as a joke by the group, its guitar/banjo sound and Noone's vocal performance -- Mancunian accented and laced with a vulnerable, wide-eyed innocence -- deliberately reminiscent of George Formby, the immensely popular ukelele-strumming British music hall entertainer of the 1930s and 1940s. In England, that record would never have been considered for release by an image-conscious rock & roll group; the parents and grandparents of their audience would have loved it, but it would also have destroyed their credibility. In America, however, it was considered just another piece of British Invasion pop/rock and a pleasant, innocuous, and eminently hummable one at that -- and it shot to number one on the charts, earning a gold record in the process. It seemed to slot in with Americans' image of England's past in a comfortable, cheerful way, evoking a kind of "theme park" cockney image that easily adjoined the contemporary vision of "Swinging London." In the end, "Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter" sold 14 million copies around the world, making their first film appearance (in the movie When the Boys Meet the Girls), which came off of that same U.S. tour, seem almost an after-thought. In England, however, "Mrs. Brown" was never issued as a single.
After that, a formula was established. Mickie Most got the group to record more songs in the same vein, including the actual Edwardian-era music hall number "I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am," specifically for release as singles in America. The latter record reportedly made the group members cringe over what it would do to their image in England, but in America it hit number one and chalked up yet another gold record award. Amid all of this American chart action with novelty tunes and albums that easily rose into the Top 30 in the U.S.A., the group's British releases were a whole other story. The Hermits continued to issue current romantic pop/rock, which sold well and kept up their image as a respectable if somewhat soft rock group. At the same time, their British album sales were virtually negligible, only their debut LP ever charting (at number 16). This was unfortunate, as the British version of their second album, Both Sides of Herman's Hermits, was a perfectly respectable pop/rock LP with some very hard, loud sounds (and one "period" standard, "Leaning on a Lamp Post"), mostly solid Brit-beat numbers like "Little Boy Sad," "Story of My Life," and "My Reservation's Been Confirmed," as well as a stripped-down, straight-ahead version of Graham Gouldman's "Bus Stop." That album and its 1967 follow-ups, There's a Kind of Hush All Over the World and Blaze (which never even came out in England), were excellent representations of the full range of the group's sound, including hard rock, psychedelia, and pop/rock, featuring very respectable originals written by Green, Hopwood, and Leckenby.
While their record sales remained healthy in America well into 1966, their British singles gradually slackened in sales until the group recorded Graham Gouldman's "No Milk Today," which put them back in the U.K. Top 10; in America, the same song was also a hit paired off with "Dandy," a poppish cover of the Kinks song. The group made their second film appearance, this time in a starring role in the comedy Hold On! (1966), which mixed Herman's Hermits in a story about space flight. By the end of that year, however, the stage was set for the gradual decline in the group's fortunes, even in America. Producers Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, in conjunction with NBC and Columbia Pictures Television, had devised a television series that touched upon a formula for success very similar to what Mickie Most had found with Herman's Hermits: The Monkees -- all about a fun-loving pop/rock group created specifically for the series.
The program debuted in late 1966 and by that winter, the Monkees were selling millions of singles and LPs to the very same young teen audience that Herman's Hermits had cultivated. The presence of English actor/singer Davy Jones in their lineup, as the principal vocalist on their records and the romantic heartthrob of the group, only heightened the resemblance between the two acts. By 1967, Davy Jones and the Monkees were selling millions of copies of "Daydream Believer," a song that surely would have gone to the Hermits had it been written at any time earlier.
"There's a Kind of Hush (All Over the World)," a bright, upbeat pop number, put the Hermits back at number seven in England and number four in America; but an attempt at latching on to the folk-rock and psychedelic booms with a recording of Donovan's song "Museum" never charted in England and reached only number 37 in America before disappearing. They made the American Top 20 just once more with "Don't Go out Into the Rain," after which everyone seemed to recognize the inevitable. The group made one more feature film, entitled Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter -- the song, which had rocketed them to fame in America, served the group one last time, yielding a movie about dog racing that gave Noone a lead acting role and which was a decent box office success in 1968.
During this period, Noone co-produced a good LP for songwriter/singer Graham Gouldman (with whom he later went into partnership) that never sold well, despite some very interesting sounds. The Hermits, as a group, hewed closer to the pop market after "Museum" and enjoyed another two years worth of hits in England before Peter Noone decided to leave in 1970. The group soldiered on for another three years, cutting singles for RCA in America that were duly ignored and Noone returned briefly to the fold in 1973 to capitalize on the rock & roll revival boom and made an appearance hosting NBC's The Midnight Special, in an installment devoted to the sounds of the British Invasion, that became one of the most collectable shows in that program's run. Thereafter, Noone tried re-entering the rock & roll arena fronting a new band, the Tremblers, in 1980, without much success. He fared much better on stage in The Pirates of Penzance on London's West End, which was a huge hit in the mid-'80s. Both he and the latter-day Herman's Hermits have turned up on the oldies circuit at different times, usually working in the context of a revival of the British Invasion sound. Derek Leckerby passed away in 1994 at the age of 48, but drummer Barry Whitwam was leading a group of Herman's Hermits at the opening of the 21st century. Noone has resumed performing regularly and also became a star VJ on MTV's VH1 channel. In the year 2000, Repertoire Records began the long-overdue exhumation of Herman's Hermits album catalog, issuing state-of-the-art CD editions with bonus tracks that show off the full range of the group's music. Just as Rhino Records had previously done with the Monkees catalog, it seems like Herman's Hermits may finally be getting the recognition they deserved.
© Bruce Eder /TiVo