Reminiscences of a Searchers' Fan

Reminiscences of a Searchers' Fan

One of the exciting things about growing up in Liverpool during the sixties was the number of people who seemed to know the pop stars of the day. Coming from Bootle, home of three quarters of The Searchers, I had friends who had friends who had relations who had once spoken to Mike Pender or who went to St. George of England School with Billy J. Kramer. Chris Curtis seemed to be everyone's second cousin. Whilst I was a little young to participate in the first exciting wave of Merseybeat, the atmosphere was inescapable. Bands were being formed everywhere; record shops expanded and the old multi-purpose dealers who sold plugs, kettle elements, light bulbs and Cliff Richard's latest hit found themselves having to specialise in records, so vast was the market becoming.
I remember one particular store on Stanley Road in Bootle, just round the comer from where Chris Curtis used to live off Strand Road, a shop called 'The Pop Inn'. At a time when Woolworths used to sell, on their own Embassy label, versions of the hits of the day recorded by artists other than the original (they were hardly cover versions, making no attempt to sound like the originals), the Pop Inn sold the actual singles for about half price. The only catch was that the records had been played half to death on juke boxes and you had to buy a plastic insert to replace the bit in the middle which had been punched out to accommodate the juke box turntable.

Pye started their own budget price albums with the launch of the Marble Arch label in the mid sixties and, with its misplaced apostrophe, 'The Searcher's Smash Hits' became the first of the band's LPs I actually owned. This must have been around 1967, by which time the band was considered, particularly by my schoolfriends, as a spent force - an impression reinforced by the movement towards heavier psychedelic music and the rise of the 'concept album', a la Sergeant Pepper.

"The Searcher's Smash Hits" was quickly followed by "The Searchers' Smash Hits Volume 2" (apostrophe correctly placed this time) and I was by now hooked on the tight harmonies and the jingle-jangle guitar sounds. Marble Arch also put out shorter versions of the "Sugar And Spice" and "It's The Searchers" LPs, though my best find, and still one of my favourite LPs, was "Take Me For What I'm Worth". I always preferred the sound of the band once Tony Jackson had left, since Mike moved into the role of lead singer and his distinctive voice together with the twelve string guitar and soaring harmonies characterised the Searchers' highly distinctive style. I managed to 'sell' the band to one or two friends, yet as we hadn't heard of The Searchers for some years, we feared that, like so many Liverpool groups of the day, the lads had disbanded - a misconception which was feared true when we heard that Chris Curtis was working as a Tax Officer back in his native Bootle.

However, news came of sightings in places like Anglesey, the Isle Of Man and then, at last, the programme for Allinsons (a cinema which had been converted into a chicken in the basket cabaret club, situated just round the comer from Litherland Town Hall, where The Beatles performed their famous early gig) revealed the name we'd been waiting for. Under-age at the time, we nevertheless persuaded the management that we were 19 and were allowed in.

The Northern cabaret clubs at the time featured about four acts during the evening, so we sat through another band, a comedian and a female vocalist in eager anticipation of the moment (at around 11 pm) when our heroes would strike up. Though we knew by now that Chris had left and that Tony Jackson had gone some years earlier, we were still unsure whether John, Mike and Frank were still with the band. At about 10.45, the remainder of the cabaret over, amplifiers and drums began to appear on stage. I remember distinctly the red and green neon indicators of the Vox amps as the lights dimmed and four shadowy figures stepped into position. 'Ladies and Gentlemen, will you welcome THE SEARCHERS': lights, and suddenly, there they were, singing "Sweets For My Sweet", looking smaller in stature than I'd imagined, but - most importantly - the same band: reading, left to right, Mike, John Blunt (wearing his hair much longer than on "Smash Hits Vol. 2") Frank and John.

The act, it goes without saying, was superb. Apart from the songs, impressions I remember were John's white Telecaster sending out blinding flashes as it caught the stage lights in its chrome pickup plate, John Blunt's 5 minute drum solo, Frank's jokes and Mike's soaring lead vocals. I was surprised to see John, who was always billed on the album covers as the rhythm guitarist, playing the lead guitar throughout (Mike handling 12-string riffs), whilst the development of the songs from the original arrangements were wonderful. THE highlight for me in this show, however, was a highly original and powerful arrangement of Sonny Bono's "Bang Bang" (the hit for Cher in '66).

I continued to watch the lads whenever they appeared locally and by this stage, I was in a band myself. We covered several Searchers' tracks and, although we worked for an agent called Billy Uke Scott (who handled Tom O'Connor), we occasionally received bookings through ex-Searcher Tony West, who sadly died last year. You could always tell Tony's bookings: the pay was either small or non-existent! He was, however, great fun and charming - one of those larger than life characters increasingly rare in today's music scene.

Because they had moved on from the heady days of chart success, The Searchers received less publicity and new singles enjoyed far less airplay. In some cases this was probably a blessing, since the songs for the Liberty label produced by Kenny Young ('Kinky Kathy Abernathy' and 'Umbrella Man') were not exactly pop classics. It is rumoured that the band were so unhappy about one song that they refused to issue it under their own name, instead calling themselves 'Pasha' after Kenny Young's cat! Songs recorded for their next label, RCA, were of a higher class. I was sure that 'Desdemona' would be a hit but it didn't chart, then the Neil Sedaka composition 'Solitaire' (the song murdered by Andy Williams who, unlike the Searchers, did chart with it). The Searchers' version was far more classy, Mike hitting an almost impossible note in the climactic final bar of the song. On their live sets, Frank played the piano, John taking the bass. This change in instrumentation was also used in live sets in the beautiful version of Carol King's 'You've got a Friend' which suited Mike's voice perfectly. I can only hope that someone might still have a recording of this lovely version illicitly copied on a hidden cassette recorder (Do let me know if you have!)

The live sets continued to be fantastic. With Billy now on drums, I remember "Sandman", an arrangement of the America song which used to last about 10 Minutes. Unusually John sang lead on this one with Mike coming in with backing harmonies; it was a great shame that disharmony between the two was to break out later. Mike's solo singing spot at this time was either Roy Orbison's "Running Scared" or Gene Pitney's "Take Me Tonight".

Like all Searchers' fans I was delighted when, in the early eighties, they recorded two fantastic new albums for Sire and started to appear again in places where the big bands now played. I caught them at the Venue, Victoria, where they seemed slightly ill-at-ease and Frank's jokes, honed on the cabaret circuit, a little out of place for the new audience, though the music was as good as ever and they went down well. Then at Dingwalls in Camden Lock where they were received rapturously. Those two Sire Albums ('Searchers' and 'Play for Today') which won widespread critical acclaim remain among my favourites and I later played in a band with Nick Garvey from 'The Motors' whose Andy Macmaster wrote 'Love's Melody' - the title track of the Sire album in America.

Following this all-too brief return to the limelight, the band returned to the club circuit sounding better than ever now with a wider repertoire to draw on. We fans reverted to our long-practised routine of combing through the small print of the music press for any news of our heroes. One fateful day in 1985 I was doing just that - leafing through the back pages of the NME when my eye caught the tiniest news story that Mike Pender was to play his last gig with The Searchers at what was then called the Albany Empire, a smallish venue in New Cross. Although I was living in Wiltshire at the time, it was an occasion I felt I should be at. When I arrived at the club, Mike was standing by himself at the door, obviously not the most popular person with the other band members. The set was, as always, brilliant, though we all felt slightly subdued and no mention was made by Frank of Mike's imminent departure. As the last chord of "Needles and Pins" faded away, we knew that we had reached the end of an era and nothing has ever been quite the same since.

Since the split I have seen - and enjoyed - both Searchers bands but always with this slight feeling of regret. New pleasures, however, have come from listening to long lost tracks and videos meticulously put together by the remarkable Roy Clough (Rcpinsa on You Tube. Particularly striking is a song I hadn't heard before but was bowled over by - 'You got me to hold on to'. Here is Mike's voice at its best, backed by lush harmonies with a slightly melancholy air. Also worth listening to is Mike's version of 'It might as well rain until September'.

In my opinion, Mike Pender has one of the finest voices in pop music - for purity of tone listen to 'Four Strong Winds'; for raw energy 'Sick and Tired', 'One of these days'; for sheer vocal range ('New Day', 'September Girls') and for originality try his slow version of 'Needles and Pins'. Can we persuade Mike to take some time out and put together an album of his favourite songs outside the Searchers' playlists? I hope so (and please include ' You've got a Friend'!)

Mike has given us more than sheer pleasure over the years; he has inspired so many musicians both famous and unknown both with his guitar sounds and that remarkable voice. Thanks for everything, Mike. Can't wait to read the autobiography!

Keith Durham 2014