The Hollies, from Manchester, had their first hit records with cover versions of American R&B songs. Of the 14 tracks on their debut LP in 1965 only one was an original composition by friends from schooldays, Allan Clarke & Graham Nash. They established themselves as more than Beat Boom beneficiaries with a string of UK Top 10 hits, energetic, optimistic pure pop rooted in the rock & roll harmonies of the Everly Brothers & Buddy Holly, bright & shiny Sixties music. In October 1966 “Stop, Stop,Stop”, Top 10 both sides of the Atlantic, was the first 45 written by the songwriting unit of singer Clarke, guitarist Nash & lead guitar Tony Hicks.
In 1967 the Beatles raised the bar & moved the goalposts (uh ?) with “Sergeant Pepper’s…”. The Hollies, recording in the same Abbey Road studios, released 2 LPs that year, introducing pleasant though modest experimentation to their pop sound with Graham Nash to the forefront. Significantly a non-album single “King Midas In Reverse”, written solely by Nash though credited to the trio, was relatively unsuccessful & caused the group to be less receptive to his new songs. At a cabaret style performance in Croatia, the Hollies smart-suited & booted, Nash mutters “Thank God” when the last song is introduced. He could not accept the planned “Hollies Sing Dylan” LP & in 1968 he left his group planning to hang out with a bunch of new, interesting friends in Los Angeles.
The clincher for this move from Salford to SoCal was an evening in Laurel Canyon at the house of his girlfriend Joni Mitchell. Guests Stephen Stills & David Crosby played “You Don’t Have To Cry”, a new song & Graham, after a couple of listens, added his own third part to the harmonies. This natural, sweet sound made the formation of Crosby, Stills & Nash a done deal for the trio. The two Americans had big reputations with the Byrds & Buffalo Springfield respectively, the debut LP of this new “supergroup” was bound to be a thing. The Chairman of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun pulled strings & twisted arms to sign them to his label & in May 1969 CSN were in the fast lane to superstardom.
There was a lot of talent in the group, a fair amount of ego too. Instrumentally Stephen Stills was prolific & dominant but it was Graham’s song “Marrakesh Express”, one rejected by the Hollies, which was chosen as the lead 45 from the LP. CSN toured to support their record, “scared shitless” (Stills) at Woodstock, the second gig they played. A rhythm section was hired &, to take a load off Stephen, Neil Young made the trio a quartet. “Deja Vu”, released in 1970 was the result of many hours in the studio, each member taking care of their own songs.The crystal, organic harmonies tied the thing together & “Deja Vu” was everywhere. Around this time the MC 5 were kicking out the jams & the Stooges playing in their Fun House but it was the Californian soft-rockers whose LP went seven times platinum. Graham Nash contributed 2 songs to the record, “Teach Your Children” & “Our House”, you know them both, were Top 40 singles. His pop sensibility, a simple man singing simple songs, was a major factor in the group’s appeal to such a wide audience.
These records, musically & lyrically, are of their time. Led Zeppelin were taking care of the heavier Blues-based rock while Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young moved harmonious, melodic music into the Stoned Age. In the following year all 4 released solo LPs & every one of them earned a gold record. Crosby’s ethereal “If I Could Only Remember My Name” is almost perfect, Neil’s “After The Goldrush” caught the current singer-songwriter wave & became a massive hit while Stills released 2 LPs then had enough tunes for a soon-come double LP with a new band Manassas.
Graham Nash’s “Songs For Beginners”, marks his journey from Lancashire to LA & his split with Joni. The political songs can display a hippie “we can change the world” naivete (didn’t we all ?) but “Chicago” was angry, right, right-on & was played on the radio. Nash was concerned that his songs communicated to as wide an audience as possible, if that meant broad lyrical & musical strokes then that’s the way it is. He was never going to stray too far from the template that had served him so well & his introspective, personal lyrics are direct & affecting. New friends from California’s rock aristocracy assisted the record & these fresh influences are shown at their best on “I Used To Be A King”. Jerry Garcia’s high-lonesome pedal steel added value to many songs at this time & it sure does that here. The ex-pat’s move from Hollies to Hollywood had, in the catchphrase of an earlier Lancastrian entertainer, “turned out nice again”.
A live album of that 1970 tour was released but members of CSN&Y were busy with all sorts of craziness & it would be 1974 before the quartet toured again. Crosby & Nash had forged a friendship & musical empathy that became lifelong. They toured & recorded together & their LP “Graham Nash David Crosby” was a commercial success. Once again Garcia played the right notes in the right place on “Southbound Train”. A perfect soundtrack for a sunny morning way back when & still effective when played live with just an acoustic guitar. The balance between Crosby’s explorations & Nash’s clarity, both wrapped in perfect harmonies, makes the record a very worthwhile listen & a signal to why their connection has been so enduring.
Graham Nash continues to be creative, musically & with a camera. His success as a musician has given him a platform for his personal & political opinions. He tells his stories, takes his stand, simply, directly & with good humour. He was part of a generation of British teenagers whose love for & imaginative take on Rock & Roll took them into a world they could not have imagined back in their monochromatic 1950’s cities. It was a long, strange trip. He seem to have enjoyed it & to have understood it better than most. At least he’s still here.