Song: “I Can’t Let Go”
Album: I Can’t Let Go (single)
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Though the scene was heavily dominated by a handful of bands, the fact of the matter is, the mid-1960’s remains one of the most exciting and progressive periods in all of music history. As the new face of rock and roll was developing, it was the bands that fused together different sounds who made some of the finest recordings of the era, and it is also these bands that continue to shape and influence the modern music scene. While there were certainly a number of U.S. groups and performers that remain icons of the era, it was the rock-style bands from the U.K. that were pushing the envelope further for a time, and few groups blended sounds as beautifully as one finds within the music of The Hollies. Like most bands at the time, the group began by performing a range of r&b and rockabilly covers, but they quickly developed a distinctive sound, and soon started to release a seemingly endless string of hit songs. The way in which The Hollies fused together the psychedelic landscape, yet kept a foot firmly rooted in folk, is what separated them from a majority of their peers, and this blend would be further explored by the later musical projects of some of the band members. Deploying stunning harmonies over ringing guitars and some of the catchiest, and most uplifting musical and lyrical hooks in history, there are few songs that can compare to the musical mastery found on The Hollies’ classic 1966 single, “I Can’t Let Go.”
As “I Can’t Let Go” begins, it presents an edge and aggression that are rather similar to the tone found within modern hard rock songs, and this can surely throw the listener for a bit of a curve, though the group quickly moves away from this sound. While the energy of the guitars of Tony Hicks and Graham Nash retain their presence throughout the song, they shift to a far more stereotypical progression and swing. Both guitars stay in the upper octaves, making them impossible to mistake for any other group, and it is the way that they create such a fantastic sonic contrast with the bass from Eric Haydock that pushes the song to even greater heights. Truth be told, “I Can’t Let Go” would be Haydock’s final studio recording with the band, and yet he could not have left on a better note, as his performance is what gives the song its vertical depth. This incarnation of The Hollies were rounded out by drummer Bobby Elliot, and his cadence keeps “I Can’t Let Go” bounding forward with a tension and energy that is completely unique. It is the way in which the entire band leaves open spaces at certain points that lends a certain sense of drama to “I Can’t Let Go,” and one can easily picture the song setting off house parties all across the world. The distinctively “free” feeling that one gets from the musicians is in many ways the key to the appeal of “I Can’t Let Go,” and it remains one of the few songs that can never be forgotten once heard.
Perhaps moreso than their superb musical arrangements, it is the vocal stylings of The Hollies that remain their most distinctive element. This becomes less surprising when one takes into account the entire career of Graham Nash, and yet it was often Allen Clarke handling the lead vocal duties within the group. The way in which their voices blend all throughout “I Can’t Let Go” is absolutely spectacular, and in many ways, they achieve the harmonies that most other groups attempted, yet could not achieve. In terms of both the octaves, as well as the spirit behind the singing, one cannot deny the proximity in sound to some of the finest harmonies in history, and yet it is the fact that the song is still clearly “rock” that sets them so far apart from their peers. Along with their fantastic vocal work, the lyrics that they sing are as universal and straightforward as one will find anywhere, and it is this simplistic approach that surely made the song even more popular. There does seem to be a bit of a questionable situation occurring within the lyrics, as one must wonder exactly what the moral purity of the woman in question may be, but the love expressed by the protagonist is clear. When Clarke sings, “…though I'm just one of your lovers, and I know there are so many others, you do something strange to me…,” one can see just how far from most other lyrics of the era the song was, and yet it is likely that the “true” meaning of the song went rather unnoticed, allowing it far greater airplay.
As the decades have passed, “I Can’t Let Go” has been re-recorded on a number of occasions, including a rather successful version by Linda Ronstadt in 1980. However, the key element that came from the song was surely the way that The Hollies were able to perfectly balance the musical and vocal beauty of folk with the rising edge of the new sound of rock and roll. While there were certainly a number of bands exploring this same approach at the time, the method and sound found on “I Can’t Let Go” is unquestionably unique, and it remains perhaps the finest moment in the entire recorded catalog of the group. It is difficult to pick out a single aspect of “I Can’t Let Go” that stands apart from the rest, but one can hear the impact of Tony Hicks’ magnificent twelve-string performance here all across guitarists that followed, as he seems to simultaneously channel the early sound of The Beatles and the tone of The Byrds. Yet the vocal harmonies are just as astounding, and the building blocks for the later groups of Graham Nash are clearly on display throughout this song. The way that Nash, Clarke, and Hicks all combine their voices to create brilliant poly-rhythms, and there has rarely been a performance of equal merit from any point in history. Combining these two crucial elements with the upbeat mood and swinging rhythm section, and there is simply no denying the musical mastery found on The Hollies’ unforgettable 1966 single, “I Can’t Let Go.”