"Herman is Peter Noone is Herman"
British Invasion song and dance man looks back on an incredible career
Of the top bands from the British Invasion, perhaps none are more symbolic of the high-energy vaudeville-style entertainment of the movement than Herman's Hermits. After forming in Manchester in 1964 with then 15-year-old frontman Peter Noone on vocals and occasional guitar, the band enjoyed a string of worldwide hits before going their separate ways in 1971. Their sunny, instantly recognizable pop sound harkens back to the carefree "cabaret" days of the gritty British dance halls.
Post-Herman, Noone enjoyed a wildly varied career that included solo recordings, a successful Broadway play, television roles and even a brief foray into the skinny-tie world of New Wave.
Today he leads a new generation of Hermits who've now been together for longer than the original line-up but the sound and act harken to the fresh-faced innocence of the early '60s. INsite caught up with Noone at his home in Santa Barbara.
Your daughter Natalie Noone played Eddies Attic a few months ago.
She's in London right now. She's just made a record and she's over there tryin' to make a deal with all her lawyers, publicists and all that stuff. It's not the business as I knew it anymore. You got in a van and you made enough money to pay for petrol to put in the van to be able to go play music. Eventually you got enough fans that some label said, "Well let's let them make a record." If you were lucky, you made a record that people heard. If you had a hit, then they asked if maybe you had another one in you. Then when you had two, they said, "Let's make an LP!" Then you recorded your repertoire. Now it's far more complicated.
In the '60s "social media" was actual face-to-face communication.
When we was comin' up, we didn't play too many bars because we were too young. So we played for groups of young people. They weren't drinkin' and they weren't noisy, they were fans of music. The event was for music, but now you've got to fight over people's conversations. Like in the folkie clubs, there'd be somebody with a guitar but the beat bands were entertainers, weren't they? We used to do lunchtime sessions at the Plaza in Manchester and girls would go with their sandwiches and dance with each other. Maybe a few boys would dare to talk to them.
Dance halls were also a big deal.
My parents would take us and they'd dance. People danced. Now it's been replaced by joggin' or something but back then it was dancin' and they'd have a big band with a girl singer. There must have been a dozen people on the stage. Then The Beatles came along. They could do all of that, and Paul could even sing like a girl and play the bass at the same time. You could get it all in one little band! And they had to be entertaining because the big bands were entertainers. They were high energy and enthusiastic. Now you have to get a hit single someway and play loads of gigs where people go, "Who is that?" And then stand there and be judged. Bein' a solo act isn't easy. The beauty of bein' in a band with lads is you're a team. You could fight for each other like Marines.
But bands also break up.
Yeah when Herman's Hermits broke up, we thought we'd all just sort of do our own projects. Everybody had been in that band since they were little boys and everybody wanted to do something different. I wanted to be on Broadway.
Was that an early goal for you?
During the time Herman's Hermits were really hot in America, people would offer me Broadway shows, but my manager would, on occasion, not even tell me about the offer. Because if I was working then the band couldn't work. We were getting 25-grand or something a night so it was ridiculous for me to even think about it. I thought they were offering the role to me because I was Herman of Herman's Hermits. I didn't realize you had to have talent to be on Broadway. It took me ten years to finally get Pirates of Penzance. It took me ten years to even get good enough to audition for it. Then when you do get the part, you're surrounded by people who work at it every day. They take the tap lessons and all that. It's like, shit, these people work harder than rock and roll people! We'd just rehearse the same song every day, but they had like five gigs going every day. I was always enthusiastic about working but I realized it wasn't all about natural ability. But eventually I did over a thousand performances of Pirates.
In the meantime, you made a really good new wave record with The Tremblers in 1980.
Yeah we were about to do the second one, which would have been the good one, but Pirates of Penzance came along. I signed on for six months and I was gone for three years with it! So by the time I could get back to it, it was a sort of conglomerate with Nigel Olsson on drums from the Elton John band and all that. So they were busy and everyone drifted on to the next dollar. It could have developed into something else, but we didn't give it long enough.
But you managed to do something that very few of your British Invasion peers were able to do, by participating in two very distinct musical movements. Did you like New Wave?
It's what Herman's Hermits would have become, I think. If we'd been 23 then. See, when we broke up in 1971, we were about the same age as the Stones when they first met each other. We were a boy band and we didn't even know it!
You mentioned 1971. You guys were working in the shadow of psychedelia, Woodstock and Vietnam. Music was changing so quickly. Did that impact the pop nature of the band?
What we'd become was a show. Like a Broadway show, but it was pop Top-40 records. We were too young to be an oldies act, so we became a cabaret act. I was the person at the front who tells the stories or a written joke. It was good for me personally but it was tough on the band. There just wasn't a place where we'd really be comfortable. Some of the guys wanted to get heavier but I thought that was kind of ludicrous. We brought John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) in for one tour, and the other Hermits didn't like that idea. So we became song and dance men. We didn't want to be Wishbone Ash or Procol Harum. We were a cabaret act even back at the Cavern. We did comedy and fun songs, sing-a-longs. We all knew there'd be Peter Noone solo recordings and then I got a television series in England. I was becoming more famous as Peter Noone than as Herman's Hermits and I liked that. But if you lose that enthusiasm for each other, it's like being married to someone you're not in love with. Because I'm the type who likes to put all the energy of driving like a villain to the stage door at the gig, focusing on that show and on the character for the stage.
Do you consider the onstage, cheery Herman persona to be a character?
Well I didn't use to, but people that don't know me have suggested that. You see, I know that Herman is Peter Noone is Herman, I know that. But perhaps when I'm onstage, there's some sort of unconscious, Stanislavski-type method that has created this person that I can become. I used to think, 'How can I possibly sing "Mrs. Brown You've Got A Lovely Daughter" if I don't believe it?' I have to get inside the songs and believe them.
Even after all this time?
Yeah because it's easy for me to be 17 again. Not physically, but I can go there in my head. Anybody can, but I have to because the songs only make sense if you can live in that moment. And that moment isn't now. So I go back to the moments. Sometimes when I sing "I'm Into Something Good," my brain transports to the kitchen where I actually first heard it on the radio. I'd made the record of it, but it wasn't like I'd really heard it because it was in bits and pieces. Then when you hear your record on the radio in its entirety, you realize that's the work. It's like seeing your painting in a gallery. I can remember exactly who was there and where it was and how I felt. So I go and find that moment. Sometimes people think I'm spacin' out onstage, but what I'm actually doin' is transporting back to those situations.
Herman's Hermits Starring Peter Noone play City Winery October 19. For more information, please visit citywinery.com/atlanta