Since the passing of time has largely discarded the unattractive sorting-hat of credibility, we can now truly appreciate the Hermits’ chiming, catchy, bopping Brit Invasion rumble and their very real commitment to honoring American soul music and Brill Building songcraft.
And the Hermits didn’t “just” cover George Formby numbers and ‘Ello Guv’nor songs from the West End; Herman’s Hermits also introduced mouth-agape teenagers to Sam Cooke, Chess doo-wop, and Ray Davies (and lest we forget, in 1971 Peter Noone covered David Bowie’s “Oh You Pretty Things,” even before Bowie released the original.)
A listener, casual or intensive, will be rewarded by time spent re-friending Herman’s Hermits, this essential, quirky, and charming Northern English hit machine that sometimes sound like the Troggs imitating Gary Lewis and the Playboys, or the Hollies mimicking the Monks impersonating Huey Piano Smith. Which is all to say they sound like a very young but talented teenage garage band covering Face to Face-era Kinks. Got it?
55 years after he joined Herman’s Hermits, Peter Noone remains almost preternaturally cuddly, hard working, hard touring, deeply enthralled by music, and deeply appreciative that he can still go out there and make people happy. Noone is also a smart, sly, and perceptive interview subject who is long on memory, short on bitterness (with one slight exception), and seemingly as happy to be on stage as he was in 1963, when the 15-year old child actor became, for all intents and purposes, “Herman.”
Derek LECKENBY and HERMAN’S HERMITS and Keith HOPWOOD and Barry WHITWAM and Peter NOONE, L-R: Keith Hopwood, Barry Whitwam, Peter Noone, Derek Leckenby – performing at Wembley Studios (Photo by Ivan Keeman/Redferns)
Noone even has a new record that’s making a considerable amount of noise. That’s something at which he excels:
Tim Sommer: No one in the music business has a bad word to say about you. That is extremely rare.
Peter Noone: I try my hardest. You want as many people to like you as possible — it’s like a sickness, wanting to be liked. When I was 14 and playing at this club called The Oasis (a legendary Manchester venue in the 1960s), I was standing with this guy and we were watching Mick Green of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. He said, “Wow look at that great guitar player.” I suddenly realized, you know what, I don’t ever want to be liked by other musicians; I don’t want to live my life by whether other musicians think I’m good. Forget them, musicians are not the people that I’m interested in. At that moment I thought, “If I can just concentrate on making people who might like me like me and I don’t try to be Jimmy Page, well….” That was kind of a turning point. See, I’m very comfortable being Peter Noone. And there’s always been that thing, is Peter Noone “Herman” or is Peter Noone a different person? Well, I don’t walk on stage and become another character. I enjoy Herman and I enjoy Herman’s songs.
You mention Jimmy Page, and even though you may never have wanted to be him, you actually worked very closely with both Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones. Each of them played on many Herman’s Hermits’ hits.
Noone: John Paul Jones was very, very big in the Herman’s Hermits story. He tried to join the band, and he played a few gigs with us — that’s why when Led Zeppelin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Robert Plant made that comment about having to wait for John Paul Jones until after Herman’s Hermits. See, we were trying to get him into Herman’s Hermits at the same time that they were trying to get him into Led Zeppelin! He came on one tour with us in Germany, and really, I’m pretty sure he would have joined — it was actually the Hermits who made the decision, they didn’t really want anyone else in the band, and they didn’t want to move to that next level musically. He and I got on like a house on fire, because he was a great musician and I was just an entertainer.
It was a pretty magical time because of the idea that you could get Jimmy Page at a session, and he would offer up his ideas, for free. There was enormous camaraderie. He knew I was going to get more money than he was, but he’d still throw in his idea. We all shared. People did that. John Paul Jones would get paid a hundred pounds for an arrangement, and it would be an absolutely magical arrangement – he did “There’s a Kind of Hush,” he did “No Milk Today,” he did “Dandy,” and the records he worked on were the best Herman’s Hermits records of all. We recorded a couple of songs he wrote, too. He was like a part of the team. He walked in and became part of Herman’s Hermits, without ever being officially named.
Was there a lot of competition amongst the groups at the time, or a London vs. the North kind of thing?
Noone: No, just the opposite. There was a massive amount of camaraderie amongst all those bands, whether you were from Birmingham or Manchester or London or Leeds, we all kind of knew each other because when we were all working, we’d meet each other on roadside cafes. People would work, and then pack up the gear and get on the road and stop on the way home at the transport café and have a cup of tea or a meat pie or a sausage, egg, and chips. These were the only places that were open. You’d run into other bands at these places and everybody knew each other. I was walking around New York once with Jack Bruce — whom I’d known since 1963 from different bands he was in — and he remembered, strangely enough, that he always thought that Herman’s Hermits were “the hard men.” Because if there was a fight in a transport café, Herman’s Hermits had a reputation for being able to take care of ourselves (“Hard Men” is an English expression roughly equivalent to “tough guys”). Those big truck drivers, the lorry drivers, wouldn’t necessarily pick on Herman’s Hermits. Now, I explained to Jack that we really couldn’t take care of ourselves; but my mother had a coffee table with legs that unscrewed, and would take these legs off the table before we went to a gig, and then we would take these legs into the transport café. Jack tells me that back then I explained to him, “No, you have to hit them first, because otherwise they’ll take the chair leg and hit you with it!”
You were incredibly young when the band started.
Noone: True, but I had some history of being able to take care of myself. I came from a family that had given me a massive amount of independence. I’d been on a TV series, and the reason I wasn’t one of those typical child stars was because I didn’t have some manager or mother or father taking care of every part of my life. And I still am like that: I still go on the road on my own, I don’t have a roadie, or a personal assistant –I want to keep away from all that. And at the beginning, sometimes I was the only person who could drive the van because I was the only person who was too young to drink!
Remember I said Peter Noone was back on the radio?
Peter Noone is the vocalist on “Ooh Girl,” a new/old – well, both new and old – single by the California based Neo-Mersey shiny-jangly/clever-sweet pop band, The Red Button. “Ooh Girl,” a frothy and charming piece of Carnaby Street chime and hum that will delight fans of the Hollies, Jellyfish, the Barracudas, 10CC and the Flamin’ Groovies, was originally released in 2007 on the Red Button’s debut album. But due to a series of fortunate events, the track has just been rebooted, with absolutely Union Jacktastic vocals by Peter Noone.
Seth Swirsky, who is both the songwriter and co-producer of “Ooh Girl” (and one-half of The Red Button, along with Mike Ruekberg), explained how the collaboration came about:
“The guy who signed us, the President of Jem Records, Marty Scott, said ‘I have been listening to your record, and that song ‘Ooh Girl’ – Peter Noone would sing that so great.’ He came up with that out of the blue, I’d say that was February of this year. And I said great, but I don’t know Peter, and he said he didn’t know Peter, either; but I said, great, if you can make it happen, that’s fantastic. Cut to April and I’m in the studio cutting Peter doing the song.”
“What happened was, I listened to the song,” Noone explains, “and that’s easy to do, these days you can go anywhere and listen to anybody’s stuff, you don’t have to wait for the demo to show up in the mail. I listened to the song and I said, I’m in, when can we record?”
“Peter was in the vocal booth, warming up, “Seth Swirsky adds, “and we were hanging out at the board getting levels on Peter, and out of nowhere he starts singing the Beatles’, ‘When I’m 64.’ The room just got quiet as we listened to this unexpected treat! Peter then does a good first take of ‘Ooh Girl.’ Then, an even better second take. Suddenly, I just blurted out: ‘Hey, Pete—can you sing the song full-on ‘Herman’ on the next take?”
Or as Noone describes the scene: “They said, ‘Use your accent and sing it more like Herman.’ And I said, Yeh, I think I know how to do that! “
For all his readily visible joy, there is one significant issue that irritates Noone.
“I treasure the heritage of my band, and try to protect it from all the bullshit that comes down – I’ve got the old drummer going around the world calling himself Herman’s Hermits, and he actually owns the name! And of course I have massive resentment that the drummer owns my name! But I have been able to protect the trademark in America, but that’s the only place I own it. He hijacked it, he took it without anyone else in the band knowing he did it, he went and got a lawyer and just took the name. The whole Herman’s Hermits thing outside of America is ruined. When I do a tour in England, the promoter will say, ‘I don’t want to mention Herman’s Hermits when you tour here because people will think it’s them, those fake guys.’”
Noone’s love for the music, on the other hand, is clearly genuine.
In 1963, 15 year-old Peter Noone gave up acting to join a rock band. He was getting some decent roles before he switched careers — he even appeared in the second-ever season (1961) of the legendary English nighttime soap, Coronation Street, the longest running soap opera in English history.
Has he ever regretted that choice?
“What I do really well is Herman’s Hermits. I get up there, I love the songs, and I try to sing them better every time I sing them. It’s back to that Panglossian thing of naively believing that this can go on. The theme in the band is ‘Ten more years’ – and every day, it’s ‘Ten More Years’ – and I say to my agent, oh great, another date, only another ten more years! And I keep that theme going.”