While Herman's Hermits will undoubtedly never get the critical respect afforded other British Invasion groups like the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones, or the Kinks, as a group they weren't as silly as most people remember them. OK, maybe they were -- certainly when on camera -- but they and their producer Mickie Most had the good sense to pick solid songs to cover (the Goffin & King nugget "I'm into Something Good," "Silhouettes," originally done by the Rays, and Sam Cooke's great "Wonderful World"), which allowed them to sustain a hit-making career long past the end of chart action for such rival pop-oriented British Invasion acts as Gerry & the Pacemakers and Billy J. Kramer. This four-disc set covers the Hermits' years with Most (1964 to 1972) about as well as one could in terms of content, representing everything the group did with him, including a brace of rarities, unreleased tracks, and sides that singer Peter Noone recorded with Most as a solo artist on the producer's RAK label. For most Hermits fans, it will seem like too much of a good thing, as all of the group's hits have reappeared numerous times in compilations too ubiquitous to list -- but they would be making a terrible mistake to pass up this set. Indeed, if anything, this quadruple-disc set is too much of a great thing, if such a thing is possible (though with one important flaw). And that makes it well worth saving up for.
One has to say at the outset that anyone who seriously loves the familiar hits will find a huge amount to enjoy and then some in the surrounding LP and EP tracks that comprise most of this set. As one quickly discovers, the Hermits work was an embarrassment of pop/rock riches second only to the Beatles in consistency, if not ambition. One of the secrets behind the Hermits' extraordinary sales success under Most's musical direction was that they never challenged their listenership too much, even on most of their albums; they understood their audience and never outran its expectations. In that regard, anyone who loves the group's hits can feel confident that they'll end up playing this set to death, and get to know a lot more than those hits; and they'll even find revelations such as the Blaze album. Indeed, from the middle of disc two onward, those who only know the group's 1964-1966 AM radio hits may be delighted with the more advanced sounds that start issuing forth, in the form of more ambitious songs, lyrics, and arrangements, all of it still eminently accessible but just a little more demanding of both the group and the listener -- but still fun listening, if that's all the latter desired. Disc four contains most of the rarities and the last of the group's work, plus the Noone solo releases, and it's as enjoyable as the first disc, just more suited to the late '60s and early '70s -- the suite-like "Lady Barbara," for example, shows how this group might well have competed in the era of psychedelic and progressive pop/rock, if only they could have lured that audience. And the sound is fine as well, although some people have criticized the lack of stereo versions of various songs. Mickie Most was a firm believer in mono as the definitive format for a pop single; stereo mixes may have existed on many of the songs, but they were done for expediency's sake -- the mono masters were the ones that counted.
Much more of a problem is the threadbare annotation, which makes this set a study in unnecessary frustration. Just because the music is unassuming pop/rock doesn't mean that a lot of work didn't go into making it, or that this isn't worth discussing or analyzing -- and one wonders how any release as thorough as this one is musically could also be treated so superficially? Yes, one recognizes that Peter Noone was, for recording purposes, the entire show, so far as their producer Mickie Most was concerned; the other group members barely (if at all) played on their singles, and likely not on the album tracks either; and, in fairness, annotator Spencer Leigh does mention Keith Hopwood, Derek Leckenby, Karl Green, and Barry Whitwam (i.e., the "Hermits") once in his essay. He never directly addresses the matter of the session musicians who played on their records (which, itself, would be an entertaining subject today) -- Noone brings up the matter of Jimmy Page making a revelatory contribution to "Silhouettes," and that's as far as it goes. Otherwise, there is no real account of the craftsmanship that went into the records, or the efforts at advancing their sound that took place within the group, on the Blaze album and various related matters; or even of Noone's thoughts on the movies in which they appeared, the soundtracks of which are represented here. Additionally, Hopwood and Leckenby (and, to a lesser degree, Green) were composers in their own right, and all had songs recorded by the group; and at one point Barry Whitwam was the sole active member of the group as a performing unit. All of the survivors might well have thoughts and memories to share, especially given that -- as those who saw them in concert can attest -- these guys could and did play and sing really well live, and threw everything into it. This set is a keeper, and it is a wonder, in terms of the listening, but it could have been a lot more, like the ultimate resource on the group's work. That would have been a sign of respect for the music, and perhaps also have begun a process of getting this group the respect it deserves.