Herman's Hermits - Biography
By Bob Fagan
Herman’s Hermits, from Manchester, England, came together as a band in 1963; they were seen as part of the second wave of British Invasion bands, and were still in their teens when they formed. Originally the Heartbeats, they became Herman & the Hermits (later shortened to Herman’s Hermits) following the departure of their original vocalist, who was replaced with former child television actor Peter Noone, only 15-years-old at the time. It’s been said that the band started out as an R&B unit similar in sound to The Rolling Stones or The Pretty Things. However, nothing from this early period seems to have been recorded. They did, on occasion and mostly in the early days, have the opportunity to record some harder material (“My Reservation’s Been Confirmed,” the flipside of their cover of the Kinks’ “Dandy,” could be a worthy stand-in for the Beatles “I Saw Her Standing There). These few tracks were relegated to a few early EPs, and evidence of their R&B influences had mostly vanished by the time they released their first album.
They came under the tutelage of producer Mickie Most, known for his management and production of such acts as Donovan, Terry Reid and The Animals. Most had worked with hard rock acts but his specialty was teen idols. The diminutive Noone, with his toothy good looks and eager-to-please persona, was a fine fit for Most’s methods.
Their first single release was a cover of the Carol King/Gerry Goffin song “I’m Into Something Good.” The song had originally been recorded by Ethel “Earl-Jean” McCrea of Brooklyn vocal group The Cookies (some of whom went on to become Ray Charles’ Raelettes), and was a top 40 US hit. The Hermits’ version reached number one in England (knocking the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” out of the top spot), and made the top 20 in the US.
Although the band members were fine musicians and competent songwriters, Most preferred to stick to his chart-tested method of bringing in session musicians for recordings and hiring outside songwriters for the bulk of the material. While this caused a good deal of friction between Most and the band (who did manage to play on some of the recordings and write some of the songs), it had the positive effect of giving the band a team of top-notch musicians (including Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones) and songwriters (particularly Graham Gouldman, later of 10cc). It was a formula that brought the band great fame - their popularity was such that they were reportedly the top-selling band in the US for 1965 - and a 6-year string of hits on both sides of the Atlantic. Between 1964 and their breakup in 1970, they achieve no less than 18 US hits, with 11 of those in the top ten. They had similar success in England, although their labels would often, and seemingly arbitrarily, release a song in the US, where it would chart, but not release it in England, and vice versa.
Their sound was somewhere between the softer side of the Kinks and Gerry & the Pacemakers. They also had an affection – shared by the Kinks – for English music hall-era material. Their recording of “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” although contemporary, was in that mold, and it earned them their first US number 1 (The 45 was not even released in England). It was to be their most successful song, reportedly selling something around 14 million worldwide, and inspiring a movie by the same name, in which the band members starred. Its success prompted Most to have them record several more songs in similar style, including “Leaning on a Lamppost” and “I’m Henry the VIII, I am,” a pre-WWI British music hall hit from 1910. The band reportedly hated these songs, which pegged them in America especially as a novelty act, albeit a very successful one. Guitarist Leckenby does deserve credit for coming up with a unique rhythm guitar sound for “Mrs. Brown.” Jamming a piece of cloth beneath his strings, he came up with a clickety-clacketly sound somewhere between an electric guitar and a four-string banjo.
They were at their finest as a band as interpreters of other songwriters’ material; their wistful take on Gouldman’s “East West,” while not a hit, is a particularly fine example of what the band could do with good material. Songs such as “She’s a Must to Avoid,” “There’s a kind of Hush,” and “No Milk Today” reveal a fine soft pop band mostly specializing in love songs. In some ways, they are antecedents to The Monkees. It is probably no coincidence that when casting for The Monkees in Hollywood in 1966, the show’s producers chose Davy Jones as the Monkees’ lead singer. Like Noone, Jones was a former child actor and singer from Manchester, with the requisite accent. He had, prior to becoming a Monkee, recorded an album of mostly show tunes and pre-rock and roll material, and he was small, good-looking and sang softly and sweetly. The two bands also both recorded songs by songwriting team Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, and both recorded versions of David Gates’ “Saturday’s Child.”
The Hermits’cover of Donovan’s psychedelically-tinged “Museum” showed them attempting to move beyond their teen idol image. The record charted but was not a huge seller in America. They soldiered on for a few more years, returning to their soft-pop style, with half a dozen top 20 hits in England, but with much less success in the much larger US market.
Noone left the band in 1970; they released two post-Noone albums, neither of which achieved any success. Several of the band members went on to form competing versions of Herman’s Hermits; drummer Whitwam leads his own version of the band to the present day; he is the only original Hermit in the band. Hopwood went into movie and TV soundtracks with great success. Karl Green works in live sound reinforcement in England. Guitarist Leckenby moved towards a country rock sound after leaving the band, recording one album for RCA. He died of cancer in 1994.
Noone resurfaced a few years after the breakup of the Hermits, with a cover of David Bowie’s “Oh, You Pretty Things,” which was a minor chart success. In the early 80s, he formed The Tremblers, originally the Knee Tremblers (A knee trembler is a British expression for stand-up back-alley sex). The music was guitar-heavy, pleasant if undistinguished new wave. They released one well-received but largely unsuccessful album and then disbanded. Noone returned to television acting, with occasional forays into recording and performing; he intermittently works the oldies circuit to the present day. He approaches the old material with a fine, self-deprecating wit and good humor.
It is temping to consider what the band might have achieved had they managed to escape the teen star straightjacket that Most had clad them in. Most never seemed to understand how to market more modern, hard rock acts – his attempts at marketing Terry “The Voice” Reid as a pop star, for example, did more to derail Reid’s career than advance it. Still, he made Herman and the Hermits hugely successful, and their enduring body of work – well-crafted, melodic and memorable pop songs – is finally getting some recognition and appreciation in critical circles for its consistently high quality.