26 August 2011
John McNally – lead guitar, vocal (1962)
Frank Allen- bass, vocal (1964)
Spencer James – guitar, vocal, guitar syth (1986)
Scott Ottaway – drums (2010)
The Seachers website: http://www.the-searchers.co.uk/
For a couple of years people I know have been praising The Searchers live gigs extravagantly. People who saw them on Solid Gold Sixties Shows told me they wiped the floor with the other bands, and people who saw them on their own told me they did a great show. That’s why I went to see them, at a venue more used to an endless succession of tribute bands.
A bit of history. The dates they joined are above in brackets. Frank Allen, listed as their “front man” tells most of it between songs. When they started, as probably the “second* most successful Merseybeat band” (* corrected. See note below), their early LPs were picked up by most of the aspiring spotty teenage musicians I knew. They had a knack for unusual covers. Sweets For My Sweet was a Drifters song, Love Potion Number 9 was by The Clovers, Farmer John by Don & Dewey. The Searchers versions were more accesible for young Brits in church halls, i.e. easier to play. They covered the then recent Da Doo Ron Ron. They did Twist and Shout, even if every band in 1963 did it too. They also used to do the folkie All My Sorrows and Where Have All the Flowers Gone, which early beat groups liked to do, sitting on the edge of the stage, for a change of pace. I suspect The Searchers influence circa 1963 is greatly under-estimated. They did all of the above last night. These all date from the first hit incarnation, when Tony Jackson was lead singer and bass player.
Ain’t Gonna Kiss Ya (EP 1963): They did three of the four tracks.
Then The Searchers covered Needles and Pins, first recorded by Jackie DeShannon in 1963. They switched lead vocals to Mike Pender, but most importantly John McNally added the 12 string jangling guitar part. That guitar part was noticed by The Byrds, who credit it as the inspiration for their version of Mr Tambourine Man. (Though Roger McGuinn also said their sound was “21% Beatles, 11% Zombies, 8% Dillards, 18% Dylan, 14% Pete Seeger, 16% Searchers, and 12% trial and error/ignorance/accident/originality.” The jangling ringing guitar is also on Jackie DeShannon’s original recording, though perhaps The Searchers brought more emphasis to it. The sound is on her original of When You Walk In The Room too.
Last night, Mr Tambourine Man was done as the second song right after Sweets For My Sweet, and they did The Byrds arrangement, and performed it brilliantly. Then Frank Allen told the story of their influence on The Byrds. OK, maybe. From that point in their career, Pender took over as lead vocalist, and Tony Jackson, peeved at being supplanted, left. That’s where Frank Allen joined them from Cliff Bennett and The Rebel Rousers. It seems they’d originally heard Needles & Pins played by Cliff Bennett in Hamburg. Bennett’s band was reckoned to be one of the best on the circuit, and Frank Allen was a highly rated bass player.
Pender left in 1986, and Spencer James was recruited from First Class (whose hit, Beach Baby, is now a part of The Searchers repetoire). So the three front guys have been together a quarter of a century. McNally hits his 50th year as a Searcher next year, and Frank Allen will hit his 48th. There was considerable banter about McNally being 70 in four days time. Both McNally and Allen could pass as fifteen years younger.
So what of the show? The lighting and dynamics are economical but crisply done and superb. The clothes are right. Dark grey Italian suits and button down shirts as in 1964, with a change to black shirts and silver ties for part two. They look right. Of course James Brown would have fined Spencer James for his loosened tie, and fined him again when he removed his jacket.
Frank Allen is a voluble front man. He speaks a lot. Really a LOT. He’s a good stand-up guy. Funny, totally relaxed. Frank Allen and John McNally do a Little and Large Act. Frank does the talking, John plays the quiet guy, standing at the side as the butt of the jokes, adding the odd retort. It really is Little and Large, and I Googled Little and Large to check, and the first item that popped up was Little and Large with The Searchers on an ancient TV show on YouTube. That was an extremely influential evening!
The content was what you’d expect. All the hits, including lesser-known ones like The Rolling Stones cover Take It Or Leave It (#31 in 1966, Frank Allen told us) and Jackie DeShannon’s Each Time complementing her When You Walk In The Room. Needles and Pins and When You Walk In The Room were saved till the end, back to back. I’d guessed they would be. They also covered other stuff … Del Shannon’s Runaway, Roy Orbison’s Running Scared, Gary Puckett & The Union Gap’s Young Girl, which all fitted their style. Tantalisingly they started the riffs for Oh, Pretty Woman and Peggy Sue as Frank Allen mentioned Orbison and Holly, but never continued them. They followed the Needles & Pins / When You Walk In The Room ender with Status Quo’s Rockin’ All Over The World to get everyone on their feet.
The two biggest rounds of applause were the two later big ballads sung by Spencer James, both lovely songs, both beautifully performed. James is there for the big voice. He lacks charisma and lacks rockability, so stands sidelined until the voice fills the room.
Inevitably, most of the big songs can be found on the CD “The Pye Anthology 1963-1967” which is something they’re stuck with. It must be galling, because this is not a revived or reformed band. They just never stopped, and kept making good records after the hits dried up. As Frank Allen said, they’re very proud of their 80s work for Sire, and of the Hungry Hearts album, which brought Somebody Told Me You Were Crying to the fore.
OK, great show. A thoroughly enjoyable evening. What about the criticisms? For me, they resorted to Singalongasearchers too often. Not a bit too often, but much too often. OK, the hair colour of the audience lends itself to Solid SILVER sixties rather than solid gold, but there were uncomfortable echoes of tapping your cocoa cups while the pianist did It’s A Long Way to Tipperary in the old folk’s home. Singalong is ideal for well-known sixties favourites, but songs as good as When You Walk In The Room are either better without it, or you save it until right at the end. It happened in every one of the big hits. If you want to be very, very picky, that huge white scratch plate (well, plate … it’s too high to be a scratch plate) on a Telecaster bass makes it look HUGE, especially compared to McNally’s neat small blonde Rickenbacker. A better looking bass guitar would be a bonus!