Saturday 26 March 2011

The Searchers 'Live in Ossett'

The Searchers Live at ‘Woburn House’
Ossett, West Yorkshire, 1988

(August 1963, Pye NPL18086)

‘See HER, down there’ finger-pointing at a dancer in the dry-ice tide, her low-low-neckline in gravity-defying strapless suspension, ‘that’s the kind of dress that always makes me want to…’, with a lurid theatrical mime of seizing with both hands and tugging sharply DOWNWARDS! Audience reaction is negligible. Mike Pender grins anyway. ‘Now – one of our biggest hits. And that’s H-I-T-S’ he spells lasciviously, a double entendre so singular it has all the subtlety of a falling JCB. THIS is the Searchers!?!?!? The Panther ‘Encyclopedia Of Rock Volume 2’ writes off the Searchers’ chart career in 1969 as then ‘establishing themselves on the cabaret circuit’. Perhaps what we’re witnessing tonight is the end product of twenty years on the scampi circuit?

(November 1963, Pye NPL18089)

But close your eyes for a second and pretend… pretend it’s 1964. ‘Rave’ magazine, the Mod Bible, asks the Searchers ‘what are you searching for?’ Mike Pender (formerly Prendergast) says ‘an au-pair’. The Searchers were always a band of modest pretensions ‘This is the one that started it all for us’ announces Pender from the ‘Woburn House’ stage, above the back-chat from Sean’s twenty-first birthday party on table number-fifteen, and they slip into vinyl memory – their timely revival of the Drifters “Sweets For My Sweet” which trounced Brian Epstein’s Mersey Sound competition to reach no.1 in the space somewhere between the Fabs “From Me To You” and Billy J Kramers’ “Bad To Me”. “Sweets For My Sweet”, spinning on the Dansette with its garish-pink Pye label was topping the chart on 8th August 1963, the day of the media-notorious ‘Great Train Robbery’, so it’s only fitting it should turn up many years later in ‘Buster’ (1988), the contentious Phil Collins / Julie Walters movie reconstructing the event. It features on the movie’s soundtrack album too – alongside other retro-fashionable sixties survivors the Hollies and Stevie Winwood. The package is charting even now, as this reconfigured line-up take the stage. The single’s follow-up, Tony Hatch (under the guise of Fred Nightingale)’s “Sugar And Spice”, reached no.2 and then makes the same LP chart as part of another movie soundtrack – from ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ (1987), complete with Robin Williams voice-over.

It seems the sixties is seldom out of favour for long. And the Searchers are indelibly sixties. They were regular must-sees on TV’s black-&-white ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’, upswitching into the colour ‘Top Of The Pops’. As any Pub Pop Quiz-Night regular will tell you, their first quartet of iconic hits were lead vocalised by Tony Jackson, who then attempted to grab the Beat Group’s momentum by quitting – or, as it has been suggested, was eased out by sinister ego-machinations within the line-up? Despite being the closest the Searchers ever got to a charismatic Rocking front-man, Tony’s subsequent pursuit of solo fame scarcely scratched the Top 30. Maybe the break was necessary to wrench the Searchers away from the raw Mersey edge of, say, ‘B’-side “Saturday Night Out”, towards the smoother more durably enduring sound already there on its chiming menthol-clean flip, “Needles And Pins”. Written by struggling song-smith Sonny Bono with Jack Nitzsche, it later became a 1977 re-hit for Smokie, and an even later album-cut for the Ramones and Tom Petty. All versions hang pretty close to the Searchers’ template. But with no Jagger, Paul Jones or Eric Burdon for a bratty rebellious visual fix, fronted by Mike Pender, with his hair slicked back into a quiff, his plain-blue tie tightly knotted, seeming as smartly turned-out as an insurance salesman, with drummer Chris Curtis and youthfully baby-faced John McNally (rhythm guitar) – with replacement guitarist Frank Allen, the Searchers relied instead on a sure sense of song selection allied to their immaculately-groomed style. Blithely racking up a series of classics with achingly close harmonies and the distinctively rippling jingle-jangle guitar picked up by Roger McGuinn as inspiration for the Byrds. The old Orlons song “Don’t Throw Your Love Away” effortlessly provides the third Searchers no.1. A cover, sure, but compare and contrast with the endearingly ragged original. The Searchers slickly polite hallmark-harmonies are tighter and smoother, the urgent rhythmic propulsion also more focused. Pretty much as with their defining take on Jackie De Shannon’s “When You Walk In the Room” which Pender describes tonight as his own favourite from the set. Relating the agonies of inexpressible desire, ‘something pounding in my brain’ as thunder booms and guitars play lovely tunes…

(May 1964, Pye NPL18092)

The style’s still there, dapper tuxedos to a man – even though Pender’s bow-tie remains intact for no longer than the first two numbers. But perhaps it’s the very group facelessness he’s up against here in Wakefield’s up-market plushness of French cuisine, wall-mounted videos in series showing ‘Tom & Jerry’, and Bouncers built like towerblocks. The voices still interlock as sinuously smooth, as weightlessly fragile, over the same rippling Rickenbacker twelve-string guitar-runs – despite the personnel shifts. The sound is as clear as an identikit FM radio slot. But now he’s (mis)announcing their biggest U.S. hit, the Coasters’ comic opus “Love Potion Number Nine”, a mere EP track here that goes Top Three there in December 1964. ‘Love POSITION number nine’ he sniggers in scouse – nudge nudge. It’s probably a snotty Kama-Sutra joke-routine he’s used since they first charted the cunningly humorous tale about its luckless protagonist’s encounter with ‘the Gipsy with the gold tattoo’ which takes him all the way to ‘kissing a cop on 34th & Vine’. In fine irony Tony Jackson’s Vibrations did a kind of UK cover, which predictably bombed. With some vindication Jackson points out in print ‘but I sing on the Searchers record, so it’s not REALLY a cover version!’ – by which time the remaining Searchers had toured America as part of a ‘package’ including Big Dee Irwin, from whom they lift their next hit, “Goodbye My Love”. He was humming it backstage, they liked what they heard, they asked him what it was, history was made. I first heard it in the listening booth at Gough & Davy, on Savile Street in Hull. The eternally extending vowels stretched and elongated to encompass the curtailing of what sounds to be an illicit affair, because he ‘can’t go on sharing you, sharing you’. The Searchers were already just a little passé, but it was too good to miss. I bought it.

As hair grew longer and riffs got wilder elsewhere in Pop, as other first-generation Beat Boom names were falling by the wayside, the Searchers were graduating into mild string-laden protest with a tenderly touching “What Have They Done To The Rain”. The song about the ‘little boy standing in the rain’ is actually from the articulate pen of Folkie Malvina Reynolds, with the ‘smoke in its eye’ a reference to the effects of nuclear testing, in much the same way that Captain Beefheart’s “Safe As Milk” comments on fall-out radiation entering the food-chain. Maybe the Searchers treatment is so subtle, and the yearning strings so lush, that audiences attuned to the full-on assault of, say, “Eve Of Destruction”, missed the full relevance of the haunting image where the ‘boy disappears’? It remains a powerful track, followed by another rougher-edged stab at Folk-Rock with “Take Me For What I’m Worth”. Since writing “Eve Of Destruction” PF Sloane was very much the guy to cover, with everyone from the Turtles to Herman’s Hermits rushing to do his songs. Although it’s difficult to envisage the Searchers in the role of the free-loving ‘don’t think twice, it’s alright’ bohemian vagabond the song portrays, their treatment stands up well. The two singles chart lower, at no.13 and no.20, but respectably so. Until eventually the Searchers slide out of the Top Forty with a row of goodish 1966 forty-fives – the Glimmer Twins’ “Take It Or Leave It”, a cover of the Five Americans “Western Union”, and one called “Popcorn Double Feature” which muses wistfully about how ‘music’s coming out of the woodwork, sounds so strange, nobody sleeps’. There’s a kind of amused bewilderment to its tone as if they’re surveying the increasing weirdness around them, the scene they’d once dominated…

(March 1965, Pye NPL18111)

For the Searchers, there was to be no acid phase. No beads or feedback. It was all over by then. Few original songs either, sure, they wrote their mid-period hit “He’s Got No Love” and some catchy ‘B’-sides, including perhaps their most ambitious composition “Till I Met You” (‘B’-side of “Goodbye My Love” in March 1965), but good new material was another problem. Ironically, in their first rush of success there were three albums in the space of ten months packed with songs by the Everly Brothers (“Since You Broke My Heart”), Buddy Holly (“Listen To Me”), Don Gibson (“Sea Of Heartbreak”) and even PJ Proby (“Ain’t Gonna Kiss Ya” written as by ‘James Marcus Smith’). But once they’d achieved some kind of stability and got control over their careers, there would be only two more albums across their remaining Pye years. A final credibility shot came with a 1ate-seventies contract to Sire concurrent with label-mates Ramones and Flamin’ Groovies. Tonight, Pender announces ‘a little Country-Rock’, and plays the Eagles “Heartache Tonight” from the same career-phase. He sings as though he means it. Then “Hearts In Her Eyes” – a 1979 single written for them by Will Birch of the Records, described on its release by John McNally as ‘like “Needles And Pins” played backwards’. Although they created critical ripples, the large-scale commercial failure of the album it came from, ‘Searchers’ (Sire SRK6082, 1979), and ‘Play For Today’ (retitled ‘Love’s Melodies’ for USA, Sire SRK3523, 1980), led to the inevitable final split, and today’s ludicrous position when John McNally now fronts his own rival Searchers. For long acrimonious months the two Searchers factions litigated for the name while both were touring the same clubs under the same name! As both line-ups are led by one of the two surviving founder group-members, neither can be considered to have a greater validity (although McNally retains second-generation Searchers Frank Allen and drummer Barry Adamson). Both coexist, neither seems to have won. Ask the lawyers. Or take them for what they’re worth.

Tonight, there’s bass-player Barry Cowell who looks passably enough like McNally and holds his guitar Mersey Beat chest-high. Rhythm guitarist Chris Black who, my lady of the evening informs me, resembles Timothy Dalton – the one-time screen James Bond, perhaps the tux reinforces this impression? Then there’s long-term drummer Steve Carlyle who shares harmonies. Collectively they close with a lack-lustre “Rock ‘n’ Roll Medley” built around a track originally released on a U.S.-only ‘live at the Star Club Hamburg’ LP (an album called ‘Hear Hear’ Mercury SR-60914) and subsequently salvaged onto various compilations. It was recorded at the very dawn of the group’s triple-decade career-arc – scarcely out of their residency at Liverpool’s famed ‘Iron Door’ club, soon after they’d ceased being known as Johnny Sandon & The Searchers. It’s called “Sick And Tired”. I know just how you feel.
On the way out I see guitarist Chris Black in the lounge signing a beer-mat autograph for the girl in the low-low gravity-defying neckline. Perhaps she thought she’d seen him as 007 in ‘Living Daylights’? Meanwhile, I try to act so nonchalant…

(Paragraph headings in capitals are the titles of the Searchers first four LP’s)

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