CLASSIC TRACKS: The Hollies The Air That I Breathe

Producer: Ron Richards, The Hollies; Engineer: Alan Parsons

Published in SOS October 2005
Bookmark and Share

Technique : Classic Tracks

The Hollies were the third artist in as many years to cut Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood's pop ballad, yet it was their version that became a worldwide top 10 hit. Alan Parsons was behind the controls at Abbey Road for their recording of 'The Air That I Breathe'.

Richard Buskin

classic header.s

A pop/rock band they might have been, but the Hollies had far more going for them than most of the British Invasion outfits that prospered in the wake of the Beatles. The band was notable among other reasons for the three-part Everly Brothers-inspired harmonies of lead singer Allan Clarke, guitarist Graham Nash and lead guitarist Tony Hicks, all of whom penned some of the group's material, not to mention Hick's ringing, often innovative licks, the superb drumming of Bobby Elliott, and the hit song contributions of outside composers such as Graham Gouldman.

Between 1963 and 1968, the Mancunian band that took its name from Buddy Holly scored time and again with the likes of 'Here I Go Again', 'I'm Alive', 'Look Through Any Window', 'Bus Stop' (the group's American breakthrough), 'Stop! Stop! Stop!', 'Carrie-Ann' and 'Jennifer Eccles'. When Graham Nash, feeling constrained by the Hollies' commerciality, departed to form Crosby, Stills & Nash, guitarist/vocalist Terry Sylvester filled his shoes and the band had further hits courtesy of 'Sorry Suzanne', 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother' and 'Long Cool Woman (In A Black Dress)'.

classic 1 TOTP.s
Photo: Ron Howard / Redferns
The 'Air That I Breathe' incarnation of the Hollies appears on Top Of The Pops. From left: Tony Hicks (electric guitar), Terry Sylvester (acoustic guitar), Allan Clarke (vocals), Bobby Elliot (drums) and Bernie Calvert (bass).
The 'Air That I Breathe' incarnation of the Hollies appears on Top Of The Pops. From left: Tony Hicks (electric guitar), Terry Sylvester (acoustic guitar), Allan Clarke (vocals), Bobby Elliot (drums) and Bernie Calvert (bass).
The 'Air That I Breathe' incarnation of the Hollies appears on Top Of The Pops. From left: Tony Hicks (electric guitar), Terry Sylvester (acoustic guitar), Allan Clarke (vocals), Bobby Elliot (drums) and Bernie Calvert (bass).

By 1973, however, the Hollies' best days were firmly behind them... save for one remarkable exception. 'The Air That I Breathe', written by the team of Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood, was one of pop's all-time finest ballads. Hammond, who before Hazelwood's death in 2001, co-wrote with him for artists like Johnny Cash and Olivia Newton-John, recorded 'The Air That I Breathe' for his 1972 album It Never Rains In Southern California, and the following year Phil Everly covered it for his Star Spangled Banner long-player. It was the Everly version that producer Ron Richards, the man who'd signed the Hollies to EMI back in 1963, then brought into EMI Studios at Abbey Road for the band to work from.

"Ron heard Phil Everly's version and he said 'That is a huge hit,'" says Alan Parsons, who engineered the Hollies' recording. "That was his special skill, and I remember him doing the same with 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother'. He said it there and then: 'That's going to be one of the biggest hits you've ever had.' He just knew.

"Phil Everly's version was quite different. It was very sombre, and without harmonies on the chorus it was very introverted and kind of a very personal statement. Ron loved it, but when it came to adapting it for the Hollies he didn't arrange the song — he never did. He just said 'I want to do this, I want to get this result.' He wasn't particularly good at describing exactly what he wanted so much as describing the mood he wanted. And the Hollies were so experienced in terms of working together vocally that they could just go and pick the parts themselves. They knew exactly what they were doing. They knew that Tony would hit the lower part, that Terry would hit the upper part and that Allan would have the melody. They could work out a harmony in two minutes flat. It wasn't a problem for them."

Close To The Orchestra
The orchestral arrangement for 'The Air That I Breathe', comprising brass and strings, was done by Chris Gunning, perhaps best known for the Martini commercial — "Try a taste of Martini..." Like the rest of the track, this was recorded in Abbey Road Studio Three, the 40-piece setup creating quite a squeeze.
"Two was a good studio for that size of orchestra, but that was probably booked," Alan Parsons surmises, "and pop engineers didn't favour Studio One particularly for overdubbing orchestras because of the reverb. If you wanted a dry sound, it was hard to get. I mean, in later years I adored it, but at that time everything really needed to be very tight and separate.
"Right from my earliest days with orchestra, I used close-miking. I miked to each pair of instruments, using [Neumann] 86s for the violins, 84s for the violas, 87s for the cellos, and 87s as well on the basses, if any, although I would mic them individually, and that was just because there's not much of them. They don't make as much noise as the rest of the instruments, so they benefit from having their own mic, for separation reasons more than anything else.
"In terms of miking orchestras, I'd had the best training in the world, working with people like Geoff Emerick and Peter Bown. In fact, Peter Bown had been the Hollies' main engineer, and I'd got to know them through working with him as his assistant. Abbey Road was an ideal place to grow up in the business, amd I wouldn't have changed that for anything. I learned all styles of music and all styles of production, as well."
Track Laying

Alan Parsons had been on staff at EMI for several years, and assisted and engineered on projects such as the Beatles' Let It Be and Abbey Road, Paul McCartney's earliest albums with Wings and, most famously, Pink Floyd's legendary Dark Side Of The Moon, not to mention a number of previous Hollies albums dating back to 1969's curious Hollies Sing Dylan venture, which had convinced Graham Nash to quit rather than get involved. 'The Air That I Breathe' was the sole standout on 1974's Hollies, among tracks like 'Rubber Lucy', 'Transatlantic West Bound Jet' and 'The Day That Curly Billy Shot Down Crazy Sam McGee', but the album was important to Parsons, at least, as the first to be engineered solely by him.

classic 2 AP 70s.s
Photo: Glenn A Baker / Redferns
Alan Parsons in the studio in the early '70s.
Alan Parsons in the studio in the early '70s.

"I was perfectly content with the rate of my progress through the ranks," says Parsons, who graduated to production in 1975 on records by Al Stewart, John Miles and Cockney Rebel, before founding the Alan Parsons Project with songwriter Eric Woolfson and utilising vocalists such as Steve Harley, Colin Blunstone, Arthur Brown and, yes, Allan Clarke. "I was actually one of the quicker ones."

While the Hollies album was recorded in all three of EMI Studios' facilities — "At that time, nobody seemed to mind chopping and changing," Parsons remarks — the bulk of 'The Air That I Breathe' was tracked in Studio Three, whose control room at that time housed a 24-channel Neve console, Studer A80 tape machine and JBL 4320 monitors. The band was set up in the live area.

"I'd already established a fairly standard approach to drum miking back then," says Parsons. "There was an AKG D20 on the kick drum, a Neumann KM84 on the snare, two [STC] 4038 ribbons overhead, and if I miked the toms at all I'd probably use dynamics like AKG D19s, or maybe 414s. As it happens, in this case Bobby said 'I think I'd like to dub on some tom fills,' so I just got this huge delayed plate echo going on and it seemed to pretty much take over the track. I mean, it really brought the whole to life when we put those fills on, and I remember the guys teasing me, saying 'You mixed those toms a bit loud! You obviously like them.' They were a bit loud, but to my mind they were also an integral part of the atnmosphere of that record.

classic 4 Alan now.s
Photo courtesy of Alan Parsons Music
Alan Parsons today.
Alan Parsons today.

"Basically, I had a lot of luck with my drum setup and saw no good reason to change it unless I was looking for something quite different. And it also meant that I could get a drum sound in five minutes flat, which was kind of important. The Hollies were quick workers and didn't want to be bothered with hours of getting individual sounds. They just wanted to play and get it done. And they were not particularly experimental in terms of getting different sounds. You know, an acoustic guitar was an acoustic guitar, and the electric sound was what Tony produced, while the bass was usually pretty solid-sounding.

"One thing that I think the Hollies perhaps did better than anybody was incorporate acoustic rhythm with electric. They favoured acoustic guitar rhythms quite heavily on most of their stuff, and I think that rubbed off on me because I always did the same thing with the [Alan Parsons] Project later on. Both Tony and Terry would play acoustics — as I recall, Terry never touched an electric, although I could be mistaken. Generally speaking, Terry would play an acoustic and Tony would play an electric. My favourite acoustic mic was the 84 again, with a little bit of top end, and for the electric I generally used an 86 on the amps.

"They would always routine a song with acoustic guitars to start with. The group generally didn't have keyboards on their basic rhythm tracks... unless Elton John happened to be around." (It was as a session pianist that, at a time when he could be anonymously heard on supermarket muzak, Elton played on 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother'. By 1974, he was no longer on call.)

Meanwhile, a DI was used for the bass of Bernie Calvert, who'd replaced original bassist Eric Haydock eight years earlier, in 1966. "I would only use the bass cabinet if requested to do so," Parsons comments. "Generally speaking, on everything I've done since the '70s, I've never had any luck miking a cabinet. I've always done better with a DI."

Well Balanced

"The Hollies worked very quickly," Alan Parsons continues. "We normally felt disappointed if we didn't start and finish a track the same day. There was a standard routine: arrive, decide what song they were going to do, routine it, get the rhythm track sorted out, record the rhythm track, rehearse the vocals and get the harmony vocals sorted out, and then record the vocals. We wouldn't mix the track the same day, but we would go the pub thinking 'Well, that's the job done.'

classic 3 Abbey Road Studio.s
Photo courtesy of Abbey Road
The control room at Abbey Road Studio Three in its '70s guise.
The control room at Abbey Road Studio Three in its '70s guise.

"The wonderful thing about the Hollies is that they were a great team and a joy to work with. They were very amenable, always friendly, always generous — if they went out for dinner somewhere, there was never a question that we would all go. And they were all terrific musicians. Allan Clarke had a very powerful voice — even if, God bless him, he did have a tendency to sing flat — Bobby Elliott was a first-class drummer and some people regarded Tony Hicks as one of the great guitar players. In fact, Eric Clapton once said that the first note of 'The Air That I Breathe' had more soul than anything he'd ever heard.

"Allan would usually record a guide vocal when the rhythm section was being laid down, and when it came to the proper vocal he would occasionally say 'I would like to do mine on my own first,' but usually he, Tony and Terry would do them in the studio together, standing side by side as if on stage, maybe slightly angled inwards so that they could look at one another, and each in front of an 87. Ron did do the balancing of that — he would have the three faders in front of him and balance the harmonies, although we would always record them to a single track and then double them. You see, the decision was made there and then, there was no doubt about the right balance, and that left room for more stuff to be recorded to the other tracks. Otherwise, we'd have used six tracks alone for the vocals."

The mix took place in Studio Three, and again this was a formal process. "We'd sit down and go 'Right, we're going to mix this song today,'" says Parsons. "However, we probably wouldn't spend more than three hours on it. I remember in the case of 'The Air That I Breathe', the master machine that we mixed to had some kind of speed fluctuation problem. It might have been slipping on the capstan or something, but I actually took the master to a second generation and did a bit of pitch correction on it, which was quite daring, I suppose."

Released in early 1974, 'The Air That I Breathe' was a worldwide smash, peaking at number two in Britain and number six in the States. It would be the Hollies' last major hit single.

Pet Shop Boys 'It's A Sin'

Classic Tracks

Thumbnail for article: Pet Shop Boys 'It's A Sin'

Protests against Catholicism have taken many forms, Martin Luther nailing his objections to the cathedral door, but the Pet Shop Boys chose to make theirs in disco...• Producer: Julian Mendelsohn • Engineers: Julian Mendelsohn, Stephen Hague

Talking Heads 'Road To Nowhere'

Classic Tracks

Thumbnail for article: Talking Heads 'Road To Nowhere'

As the first issue of SOS hit the shops in October 1985, Talking Heads were already climbing towards their highest UK chart position. The song was 'Road To Nowhere'. Engineer Eric Thorngren tells the story of its recording. • Producer: Talking Heads • Engineer: Eric Thorngren

The Eagles ‘Hotel California’

Classic Tracks

Thumbnail for article: The Eagles ‘Hotel California’

1977's Hotel California saw The Eagles abandon their country origins in favour of full-blown rock & roll, and made them one of the biggest-selling groups in the world. Producer Bill Szymczyk tells SOS how it happened.

Crosby, Stills & Nash ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ | Classic Tracks

Producers: David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash • Engineer: Bill Halverson

Thumbnail for article: Crosby, Stills & Nash ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ | Classic Tracks

As the '60s drew to a close, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash came together to form a new group, the unique sound of which was perfectly demonstrated by their first recording, 'Suite: Judy Blue Eyes'.

Human League ‘Don’t You Want Me’

Classic Tracks: Producer Martin Rushent; Engineer Martin Rushent

Thumbnail for article: Human League ‘Don’t You Want Me’

When producer Martin Rushent took the Human Leagues leaden new song and turned it into pop gold, the band hated it — but that didnt stop it from being a number one hit on both sides of the Atlantic...

Tommy James & The Shondells ‘Crimson & Clover’ | Classic Tracks

Producer: Tommy James • Engineer: Bruce Staple

Thumbnail for article: Tommy James & The Shondells ‘Crimson & Clover’ | Classic Tracks

In 1968, Tommy James made a dramatic stylistic turnaround, swapping bubblegum pop for full-blown psychedelic rock. The result was the superlative single Crimson & Clover.

Bob Dylan ‘Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’ | Classic Tracks

Producer: Bob Johnston

Thumbnail for article: Bob Dylan ‘Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’ | Classic Tracks

It took a while for Bob Dylan to hit his stride on his seventh studio album, but once he did there was no stopping him. Producer Bob Johnston recalls the difficult birth of Blonde On Blonde.

Miles Davis ‘Round Midnight’ | Classic Tracks

Producer: George Avakian • Engineer: Frank Laico

Thumbnail for article: Miles Davis ‘Round Midnight’ | Classic Tracks

In 1956, Miles Davis was at Columbia Studios to record an album with the musicians who subsequently became known as his First Great Quintet. Engineer Frank Laico was at the controls...

Bruce Springsteen ‘Born In The USA’ | Classic Tracks

Producers: Jon Landau, Chuck Plotkin, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Van Zandt • Engineers: Toby Scott, Bob Clearmountain

Thumbnail for article: Bruce Springsteen ‘Born In The USA’ | Classic Tracks

Seven top 10 singles isnt bad going for a career, let alone one album, yet thats precisely what Bruce Springsteen achieved with his smash hit 1984 LP, Born In The USA. This is the story of how it was made...

Joan Jett ‘I Love Rock & Roll’ | Classic Tracks

Producers: Ritchie Cordell, Kenny Laguna, Glen Kolotkin • Engineer: Glen Kolotkin

Thumbnail for article: Joan Jett ‘I Love Rock & Roll’ | Classic Tracks

Joan Jetts heartfelt reworking of the Arrows I Love Rock & Roll became an international hit in 1982 and turned her career around. Glen Kolotkin tells us how it happened.

Public Enemy ‘Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos’ | Classic Tracks

Producers: The Bomb Squad • Engineer: Nick Sansano

Thumbnail for article: Public Enemy ‘Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos’ | Classic Tracks

Hank Shocklees 1988 collaboration with Public Enemy brought a new aggression to hip-hop — both sonically and politically...

The Flamingos ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’

Classic Tracks: Producers George Goldner, Terry Johnson; Engineer: Allen Weintraub

Thumbnail for article: The Flamingos ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’

This is the story of how an inspired rearrangement of an old song created a track that, 50 years on, remains a genuine and enduring classic.

Rick Astley 'Never Gonna Give You Up'

Classic Tracks: Producers Stock, Aitken and Waterman

Thumbnail for article: Rick Astley 'Never Gonna Give You Up'

Producers Stock, Aitken and Waterman developed a massively successful formula for making pop records — and the story of Rick Astleys 1987 smash hit, Never Gonna Give You Up, is a perfect guide to the SAW assembly line...

Status Quo: 'Rockin' All Over The World'

Classic Tracks

Thumbnail for article: Status Quo: 'Rockin' All Over The World'

In 1977 Status Quo brought in producer Pip Williams to help them clean up their act. The result was a hit album and a best-selling single — 'Rockin' All Over The World'.

The Pogues 'Fairytale Of New York' | Classic Tracks

Producer: Steve Lillywhite • Engineers: Chris Dickie, Steve Lillywhite

Thumbnail for article: The Pogues 'Fairytale Of New York' | Classic Tracks

A Christmas song was an unexpected move from a group like the Pogues, but the story of heartbreak and pain that is 'Fairytale Of New York' eventually became the band's biggest commercial success.

Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force: 'Planet Rock'

Classic Tracks | Producer: Arthur Baker

Thumbnail for article: Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force: 'Planet Rock'

For mixing Kraftwerk's synthetic beats and simple melodies with New York rap, 'Planet Rock' and producer Arthur Baker can arguably be credited with creating an entirely new genre: hip-hop. This is how it happened...

Paul Simon 'You Can Call Me Al' | Classic Tracks

Producer: Paul Simon • Engineer: Roy Halee

Thumbnail for article: Paul Simon 'You Can Call Me Al' | Classic Tracks

Paul Simon's Graceland album combined a huge mixture of musical styles and was recorded in studios all over the world. The man responsible for putting it all together, both sonically and physically, was Simon's long-time engineer Roy Halee. This is how he did it...

DEVO 'Whip It' | Classic Tracks

Producers: Devo, Robert Margouleff • Engineers: Robert Margouleff, Howard Siegel

Thumbnail for article: DEVO 'Whip It' | Classic Tracks

Armed with a subversive view of society and a command of catchy synth-pop, Devo burst into the charts in 1980 with weird classic 'Whip It'. Producer Robert Margouleff talks de-evolution...

Blondie 'Hanging On The Telephone'

Classic Tracks - Producer Mike Chapman, Engineer Peter Coleman

Thumbnail for article: Blondie 'Hanging On The Telephone'

The partnership between Blondie and producer Mike Chapman created a perfect pop record - and catapulted the group from the underground to mainstream chart success.

Luciano Pavarotti 'Nessun Dorma' | Classic Tracks

Producers: Ray Minshull, Michael Woolcock • Engineers: James Lock, Kenneth Wilkinson

Thumbnail for article: Luciano Pavarotti 'Nessun Dorma' | Classic Tracks

Recording opera requires a completely different approach, environment and technique to pop or rock music — a fact that has seldom been better demonstrated than in Pavarotti's 1972 recording of 'Nessun Dorma'.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood 'Relax' | Classic Tracks

Producer: Trevor Horn • Engineers: Steve Lipson, Julian Mendelsohn

Thumbnail for article: Frankie Goes To Hollywood 'Relax' | Classic Tracks

The debut single from Liverpool's Frankie Goes To Hollywood was the result of adventurous production and enjoyed massive chart success - as well as creating a great deal of controversy.

The Ramones 'Pet Sematary' | Classic Tracks

Producer: Jean Beauvoir • Engineer: Fernando Kral

Thumbnail for article: The Ramones 'Pet Sematary' | Classic Tracks

Undisputed kings of the three-chord thrash and arguably responsible for punk rock, it took over 10 years and the theme song to a Stephen King film to secure serious US chart success for the Ramones...

The Four Tops: 'Reach Out I'll Be There' | Classic Tracks

Producers: Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Eddie Holland

Thumbnail for article: The Four Tops: 'Reach Out I'll Be There' | Classic Tracks

One of the most famous record labels of all time, Motown fostered a group of uniquely talented writers, engineers and musicians who often had to invent the equipment and techniques they used to keep their music at the cutting edge. Lamont Dozier explains how it was done...

Lynyrd Skynyrd 'Sweet Home Alabama' | Classic Tracks

Producer: Al Kooper • Engineers: Al Kooper, Rodney Mills

Thumbnail for article: Lynyrd Skynyrd 'Sweet Home Alabama' | Classic Tracks

In 1973, a band from Florida and California went to a studio in Georgia to record a song, provoked by a Canadian, about Alabama - and managed to define the sound of Southern rock while they were at it.

DAW Techniques


Home | Search | News | Current Issue | Tablet Mag | Articles | Forum | Blog | Subscribe | Shop | Readers Ads

Advertise | Information | Privacy Policy | Support | Login Help


Email: Contact SOS

Telephone: +44 (0)1954 789888

Fax: +44 (0)1954 789895

Registered Office: Media House, Trafalgar Way, Bar Hill, Cambridge, CB23 8SQ, United Kingdom.

Sound On Sound Ltd is registered in England and Wales.

Company number: 3015516 VAT number: GB 638 5307 26


We accept the following payment methods in our web Shop:

Pay by PayPal - fast and secure  VISA  MasterCard  Solo  Electron  Maestro (used to be Switch)  

All contents copyright © SOS Publications Group and/or its licensors, 1985-2016. All rights reserved.
The contents of this article are subject to worldwide copyright protection and reproduction in whole or part, whether mechanical or electronic, is expressly forbidden without the prior written consent of the Publishers. Great care has been taken to ensure accuracy in the preparation of this article but neither Sound On Sound Limited nor the publishers can be held responsible for its contents.
The views expressed are those of the contributors and not necessarily those of the publishers.

Web site designed & maintained by PB Associates | SOS | Relative Media