Feelin' groovy

I went to the library after work today to pick up a few CDs I ordered: Abbey Road, the Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Yas Out and the Scissor Sisters

“Ah, you have good taste,” the clerk said as she retreived the CDs. “Abbey Road, Get Yer Ya-Yas Out. And what‘s this one?”

“Scissor Sisters?” I said.

“Nope. Don't know them.”

“They’re a newer rock band.”

“I know some 80s bands but then I know I grew up with the best music.”

I nodded and smiled. We had made a connection. She continued ...

“I saw an ad in the paper today for a guy who was looking for 33s. And I thought well, should I get rid of my records, but it’s like saying goodbye to a child,” she said shrugging her shoulders and raising her arms. “And then I see some of these people that put the records in frames and hang them on the wall ... ”

She was talking so fast I didn’t have a chance to tell her I’m one of those people.

“… and then I figure well maybe if I wear out the records, at least I can get rid of those and still hold on to the album covers.”

All the while, I’m thinking if only I could lean in and tell her I talked with Peter Noone today...

* * *

… so my phone rang at exactly 1 o’clock. I took a deep breath and answered it.

“Hello, may I speak to Mark, please?”

It was Peter Noone. His voice was still blaring with that same youthful energy that comes through on all those Herman’s Hermits records. And, oh, that British accent …

I’ve cherished Herman’s Hermits’ music for as long as I’ve been able to control a car radio. Their “Greatest Hits” disc was one of the first I bought after I’d saved enough money to buy my first CD player. “I’m Into Something Good” remains one of my favorite songs of all-time. I even named the first of our pet hermit crabs Herman. And here I was today, talking to the voice of those hits. And next weekend he's bringing his act to the Genessee in Waukegan.

So how have you been? I asked.

“Good, I’m doing extremely well. It’s been a fruitful day,” he says, telling me about his fan club and the joy he takes in responding to letters. “… I think in my business, you have to do that …”

He tells me about splitting his time between Santa Barbara and London. And I ask if he’s ever been to Wisconsin …

“For some reason Herman’s Hermits play more in Wisconsin than any other state,” he says. “That’s where we started out. That’s one of the places we worked really hard … They were one of the places to discover us really. On our early tours we played in Chicago and then we’d play all over Wisconsin and over the world.”

By the time the Hermits got into something good with their first hit single in 1964, Noone was already a household name in England, something I hadn’t realized until I started my research. He’d become a recognizable child actor in the long-running British soap opera “Coronation Street” and other television series like “Knight Errant,” “Family Solicitor” and “Monro’s Saki Stories.” As a child he studied at St. Bede’s College and the Manchester School of Music and Drama.

His passion always was the music, he told me.

“What happened was I was at the school of music and then one day this guy came around from a local TV station looking for a boy who could play piano and sing a song and I got that job. And then I was in the union and once you were in the union, every time they were looking for a young boy – and I could play younger then myself … I was into the music and I just got jobs as an actor. I never wanted to be an actor … I was on ‘As The World Turns’ and around people where I had no idea you had to be talented to be in a soap opera … I thought I could do that and tour. Then I’d realize I’ve got 30 pages of script I have to learn.”

Noone was just 15 when he became the lead singer of Herman’s Hermits, and in 1964, the band joined groups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Hollies and The Yardbirds as British rock bands who were invading the U.S. charts. Though the clean-cut Hermits never approached the status of The Beatles or The Stones, they managed to sell more than 60 million records, with 14 singles and seven albums reaching gold status.

Their hits included “I’m Into Something Good,” “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter,” “I’m Henry VIII, I Am,” “Silhouettes,” “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat,” “Just A Little Bit Better,” “Wonderful World,” “There’s A Kind of Hush,” “A Must To Avoid,” “Listen People,” “The End of the World” and “Dandy.”

So I asked Noone, what were some of your thoughts when Herman’s Hermits went big?

“What went through my mind is I think I was trying hard to impress the guys in the other bands and not to the point where I thought the most important thing was to have a hit … I was very young and I think probably in retrospect I was pretty arrogant. But I was also right. It all kind of worked for a long time … I didn’t need friends, I needed hit records … Consequently it all worked pretty well for 10 years until people lose focus and stuff like that …”

By now, I’m feeling really comfortable talking with Noone. The conversation is going as well as I could’ve imagined, and Noone seems genuinely interested in answering my questions.

So next up, one of the questions I was dying to ask: I’ve heard and read the Herman’s Hermits might have been “the big thing” coming out of Europe, had the Beatles not beaten them to it. I ask him if there was any rivalry between them.

Noone scoffs at the notion there was any rivalry, but reassures me it’s a pertinent question and says he’s glad I asked it.

“That is purely an America idea, there was never any competition. Everybody tried their own style. If we had tried to compete with The Beatles, you know what would have happened? We would’ve been gone in a week. We were quite content to be Herman Hermit’s. It was really a camaraderie …We all chose to be Herman’s Hermits. We did ‘Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter.’ We probably could have done ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammeror ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la Da,’ but we didn’t … We let the kind be the kind that were the Stones … It wasn’t a rock ‘n roll league, and we were ranked No. 7 in the American League. Everybody liked each other. I tried to impress them and that’s what we did. We all recorded in the same studios, we heard their stuff, but if we were in the competition, they weren’t that interested …”

I was thrilled with his answer.

So what's your favorite Hermits song?

“ ‘There’s a Kind of Hush’ and ‘I’m Into Something Good.’ They both stood the test of time. When they were made nobody believed they would stay around …”

I was beyond thrilled to hear him say “Something Good” was his favorite. Mine too. Why, I asked.

“It’s just a perfect record to me. It was like a bunch of teenage boys made a record. It’s just absolutely a natural record. Not, let’s hope it’s a hit, that feeling … I can remember every minute of the recording session …”

What do you remember about the recording session, I asked.

“It was always extremely good fun. Everybody always said they liked Hermits sessions because they were always fun … We argued, but you’d have someone say idiot or something. We were all attempting to have hit records.”

Delving into some of the things I’d discovered in my research, I asked about “Mrs. Brown.” From what I’d read, it was another song the Hermits didn’t expect to be successful. And my editor wanted confirmation of a story he’d heard that about Hermits guitarist Derek Lekenby putting a handkerchief under the guitar strings to get the song’s signature banjo sound.

Not true, Noone said. It was an old touring tale (in fact, you can see a handkerchief under the strings if you watch this YouTube video closely), that got taller as years went by. The sound actually came from a Gretsch Country Gentleman with a damper on it. And Keith Hopwood played it.

“We threw it in because it was cute,” Noone said. “And Keith played it brilliantly …It was filler. We needed to fill up a long album … It was a song we learned from early on. And halfway through the recording session we were running out of songs. Mickey Most says ‘OK, we can hide it somewhere on the album.’ It was the same thing with ‘Silhouettes,’ we were just trying to come up with a song. Jimmy Page came up with that,” Noone says, singing the song's rolling guitar part.

I also was curious about “I’m Henry VIII.” I had read it too was a farce, a song some British crooner by the name of Harry Champion performed “with gusto” in 1910 or something. And the song apparently had a lot of verses, but the Hermits didn’t care to learn all the verses. So Noone spontaneously yelled out “Second verse same as the first …”

Noone answered: “It was an old Harry Champion song from 1911 or something. It was from all our grandfathers and it was one of those pop songs we had a reference to … There’s lot of verses and a whole story but we didn’t know all that and I just said second verse same as the first …”

He confirmed the story! Yes!

“ … It was just a laugh really, we were having a laugh. We thought this’ll be fun to stick on a record. Derek played the guitar solo and lifted the song into its Chuck Berry riff. It was his greatest moment in the music business … We were really singing the chorus but we didn’t know what the song was. It just sort of evolved and that was the best. All music should be like that and then it just evolved then. We thought it wasn’t really long enough, if we have thought ahead we could have found the second verse

So “Mrs. Brown” and “I’m Henry VIII,” were number ones in United States, and the songs weren’t released in Britain. Is it true you guys didn’t like either song?

Like the Beatles rivalry question, I get the sense I rubbed Noone wrong again, and he’s eager to dispel whatever I’ve heard.

“We thought ‘Mrs. Brown’ was a bad idea because we didn’t think it would represent Herman’s Hermits. We didn’t think it was a rock song and we thought of ourselves as a rock band at the time. But we liked it … That song was on a movie soundtrack. It gave it the opportunity to be played without being played on BBC. We knew how to manipulate the radio stations … One of Herman’s Hermits most played songs in Britain is ‘Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter.’ People begin to stand up and cheer because they‘ve heard those more than any other songs. It was a radio hit.”

But the evolution of Herman’s Hermits slowed toward the end of the1960s,and Noone split from the band in 1971. He quickly returned to acting and performed in some of Great Britain’s major theaters. In the 1980s, Noone also reached Broadway, performing in “The Pirates of Penzance.” His performance was so well received, he continued to play Frederic in touring productions of the show.

I asked him to talk about his decision to leave the group in 1971.

“The band was having a bad time with bad music,” Noone said. “It just wasn’t a good time to be in a ’60s band. I left thinking we could leave and one day come back, and I didn’t want to go from Madison Square Garden to the Holiday Inn and that’s what was being offered. So I thought let’s stop it here then like Simon & Garfunkel we can come back and play one tour a year or something … What I didn’t realize is the others didn’t have anything else they could do. I didn’t realize I selfishly stopped the band for my one and I was able to work, I was busier than everyone. All the things I couldn’t do when I was in Herman’s Hermits I can do … I needed to do all that stuff. I left the band because I wanted to go on and be on Broadway …but you need some more talent, being able to sing ‘Mrs. Brown’ and ‘Henry the Eighth’ wasn’t an instant ticket into a Broadway show.”

These days, Noone and the band stay active, playing about 120 dates a year and reeling off hits from a catalog that reaches nearly 300 songs — in addition to charming fans of all ages.

I’m one of those kids who grew up listening to my dad’s 45s and that’s how I started to like your music, I tell Noone. How does that make you feel when you hear stories like that? How do you feel about Herman’s Hermits’ legacy?

“In retrospect, the music was much better than we thought we were doing - it’s nice that you can enjoy it. I think probably, I stepped behind it for years and when I came back I was able to appreciate it more … I came back, I had to listen to the records and learn the words again. It’s kind of sad really, we kind of have to sit down and listen to the recordings and see if we can recreate that and it’s hard to do that, to play it with the same spirit as in those days. It requires constant attention. On the other side it becomes a hybrid, we don’t want to be a Herman’s Hermits tribute band, we want to be the real thing. It’s a constant challenge to do that and retain the joy of the music. It requires an hour before the concert …”

What do you think of today’s music? Is there anyone that stands out?

“We appreciate everything. I’ve got a 20-year-old daughter … now it’s all encompassing. It’s really like my childhood, like Julie Andrews in one room and Little Richard in the other -- like today’s country western and the rap being Little Richard. My parents never designed my music …whenever I played, I went …now I go into my daughter’s room and I say, ‘that’s great, turn it up!’ It’s good to be a musician, you don’t want to look a like a chump and not know everything …I even like hip hop, I turn it up in my car!”

I ask if he’s working on any new material.

“Right now I’m just really touring my ass off … It’s not like the world is saying I wonder what happened to the Herman’s Hermits … What I’m trying to do is be one of those entertainers who go out and do great shows and have people be interested in whatever I come up with.”

So tell me a little bit about your show? What can people expect on Friday night?

“It’s Herman’s Hermits and parodies of other musicians like Davy Jones, Johnny Cash and parodies,” Noone says. “People sometimes think I’m an impersonator, it’s parodies … We have 300 songs and we’ll play our 10 biggest hits. It depends on what the other bands do, and where what they do puts me. If they’re slow and dreary, I go out and do the fast show. If they’re fast, I go do the slow show. It’s based on the energy of the show … It’s different every night fortunately in the music business.”

I’m ready to wrap up the interview and say good-bye. I ask Noone if he has anything else he wants to say.

“Do you got a Starbucks there?” he asks.

Yeah, we have two of them. You like Starbucks? I say.

“I like the idea of them and I do all my fan mail there. I take a laptop …”

Do a lot of people recognize you? I ask.

“ … I’m like Paul McCartney, I like people,” Noone says. “People don’t disturb me, I like that energy. I mean, I don’t want people sitting down and telling me their life story … but that’s one of the pluses of the music industry … the people who know me, they’re adults …”

I was out of questions and glanced at the clock, realizing Noone and I had been talking for 40 minutes. I thanked him for talking with me, though the words hardly expressed how thankful I really was. He tells me to try keeping the weather from getting too cold, and we say good-bye.

I hung up the phone, as a wide smile spread across my face and I leaned back in my chair.

“Ok, Mark, who was that you were talking too?” asks a cohort sitting behind me.

“Peeeeeeeter Noone,” I say, still smiling.

“Ah, you sounded like you were having a lot of fun,” she said.

I was. I did.

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