After what must be one of the longest ‘lives’ of any band, the Searchers are finally packing it in after 55 years (at least). I suspect many of you won’t care very much, but for me they are a very special group as they were one of the first loves of mine after The Beatles grabbed my attention in 1963. I never really took to Gerry and The Pacemakers, The Swinging Blue Jeans, Billy J. Kramer et al – not enough to invest in their records anyway – but this lot were different.
Their early records smacked of energy and urgency – Sweets For My Sweet, Sugar & Spice, Needles and Pins, Don’t Throw Your Love Away were the first four singles and they were number 1,2,1,1 respectively. Astonishingly, in a year spanning mid 1963 to mid 1964 they released those 4 singles plus 3 hit LPs – they were second only to the Beatles at this point.
Unfortunately for them, in retrospect it is easy to see that the reasons that this couldn’t last – most significantly, they didn’t have strong songwriters and relied largely on Chris Curtis to identify material. They did have a decent producer in Tony Hatch, but it doesn’t feel as though he brought much to the party (other than the song Sugar And Spice, his authorship of which he hid from the group), and the record label (Pye) gave them little studio time, some awful album artwork, and a ridiculous release schedule. However, all of the 5 Pye albums have aged pretty well – Sweets For My Sweet (a quick cash in after the single success) and Sugar And Spice (er…an even quicker cash in after the single success) are sheer Merseybeat energy – listen to most other groups of the time and their albums are frankly poor (despite George Martin producing) – and It’s The Searchers was a huge leap into new territory in early 1964. Shortly after this album, original lead singer Tony Jackson left to be replaced by Frank Allen, and we got the magnificent ‘When You Walk In The Room’.
Barely two years later and the writing was on the wall despite some big single success in 1965. Pye lost interest (they had the Kinks by this time) and things had moved on – you had to write your own material, and their image didn’t fit any more. The only real comparison would be the Hollies, who did manage to move with the times and emerge as decent writers, but they also had EMI behind them.
Most groups would have folded – Chris Curtis left, but the Searchers soldiered on in cabaret and the odd college date. Some records for Liberty and RCA did nothing. However, they did burnish a growing live reputation, and used to include Neil Young’s ‘Southern Man’ and the like amongst the hits. This led to a deal with Sire records and they made two albums at the end of the 70s which included some of their best efforts but, again, their label let them down with poor distribution and a confusing, botched, repackaging of the first release.
Another event could have scuppered them – despite doing well for gigs in the 80s, Mike Pender left acrimoniously in 1985 and there were protracted legal battles over the name. Again though, they came up trumps with Spencer James as a replacement.
Drummers have come and gone, but the frontline of John McNally (who started all this in the late 50s with Mike Pender), Frank and Spencer still perform several dates a week across the country to packed houses.
I have always contended that they are were one of the most influential groups of the 60s, with folk rock in 1963 and 12 string jangle in 1964 both over a year ahead of the Byrds. (Hillman has admitted their influence. If you want to compare ‘Needles and Pins’ with ‘Feel A Whole Lot Better’, you will get my drift).
I will be catching one of their last solo shows (they are working until 31st March 2019) and I highly recommend them for a great night out. I will shed a little tear…
An…er… an afterword… you may not believe this, but as I was writing I had an email offering me an interview with Frank Allen! Icing…cake…