'A conversation with Searchers' singer-guitarist, Mike Pender' by John Grochowski in Chicago


To be an American just awakening to music at the beginning of 1964 was to be swept away with the British Invasion. I was a Beatles fan first, of course, and did watch their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show that Feb 9. But soon I was an avid listener of WLS in Chicago, listening to the Silver Dollar Survey countdown and catching the latest by Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas, Peter and Gordon and the Searchers.

The Searchers’ first hit here was "Needles and Pins,” and its catchy guitar part was one of the first things I tried to learn once I knew a few chords. I still crank up the volume when I hear it today. For that matter, the volume goes up for other Searchers hits such as "When You Walk in the Room,” "Don’t Throw Your Love Away” and "Someday We’re Gonna Love Again.”

When I saw Searchers' singer-guitarist Mike Pender’s name on the guest list for this year’s Chicago Fest for Beatles' Fans, I knew I’d want to interview him for my annual Fest preview in the Chicago Sun-Times. As with other interviews in this blog, space limitations meant I could use only a couple of quotes from a longer interview. But Pender was a great interview, with a lifetime of musical experiences to talk about. Here’s the full interview:

John Grochowski: Mike, thanks for taking the time to talk. We’re looking forward to seeing you here.

Mike Pender: Actually, I’ll be back in America again in September with Mike Pender’s Searchers. We’re touring with some of the other ’60s bands.

JG: That’s great. When’s the last time you were in Chicago?

MP: My memory doesn’t go back that far!

JG: (Laughs) I figured it had probably been a long while …

MP: Early ’60s yeah. When we’ve been in America in the last 40 years, we would have gone to New York, and I was in Springfield, Massachusetts, last year. I did the Big E Festival, which is the typical sort of American festival they have with lots of musical people around, I was the ’60s segment. So it’s a long time since I’ve been in Chicago.

JG: Have you done other Beatle fests? Were you in New York?

MP: To be honest I’ve not done a lot with Beatles' shows or Beatles' festivals. The only time I’ve done a gig with the Beatles was in the ’60s. It would have been very early, about 1964, and it would have been put on by Brian Epstein down in London at one of the theaters there. I cannot remember a lot of gigs with the Beatles. Maybe two.

JG: But in the early days, you were playing the same venues in Liverpool, the Cavern and the other clubs

MP: We all played the Cavern, the Iron Door, lots of other gigs like St John’s Hall Bootle, which is where I come from, Litherland Town Hall. Yeah, we did all the gigs because nobody was famous then, we were all just hanging around playing for beer money if you like, enjoying ourselves.

In fact the first time I ever saw the Beatles was at St John’s Hall Bootle. I still had my job, and I got home from work and washed and changed to go along to the gig, and when I got to the gig and went to the dressing room, or what we called a dressing room, there were no chairs in those days. There were five guys sitting around on the floor in leather gear and cowboy boots, and they were called the Silver Beatles then. That was the first time I ever saw them. It was their second gig in England after getting back from Hamburg, Germany. And the Searchers were top of the bill that night. When I got to the gig at St John’s Hall, they had a poster, the Searchers, and underneath, from Hamburg, the Silver Beatles. That’s the first time I’d ever seen them.

JG: Tell me about what you were playing in those days. I know as American fans, we heard "Some Other Guy” as an album track from you long before we saw the clip of the Beatles playing it at the Cavern. What were you playing in the clubs?

MP: Nearly all American music from Chuck Berry to Little Richard to Jerry Lee Lewis. Hardly any of the groups played English stuff in those days. They only time they did was some of the groups played instrumentals by the Shadows and later by the American group, the Ventures. But yeah, "Johnny B. Goode,” "Rock and Roll Music.” Most groups did all the same songs. We started off like that, and then we tried to be a little bit different. We actually got a lead singer, a guy called Johnny Sandon, and we brought him into the band. We were prompted to do that by a guy called Bob Wooler. Do you remember Bob Wooler?

JG: Yes, I actually met Bob Wooler in Liverpool.

MP: Bob was they guy at all the venues in Liverpool in those days, and he said "Mike, you guys would be better with a lead vocalist,” and we got this guy Johnny Sandon. And he sounded a bit like Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash. And so we were a little bit different from the other groups we when went to Cavern and the Iron Door, where the Beatles and Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and whoever were doing out and out rock and roll things. We were a little bit further afield and did those types of songs. We used to do lunchtime sessions at the Cavern. Everybody did. And I used to find that a lot of people from the local offices would come in their shirts and ties, and they’d come because we were a little bit different, and they could hear something different like maybe a Jim Reeves song. So we were a little bit different in those days.

JG: By the time "Needles and Pins” was a hit in the US, and other hits like "Love Potion No. 9,” Johnny Sandon was gone and you were singing. How did the change happen?

MP: It’s funny how it comes about. There were no meetings, no sort of thrashing out, "Mike you’re going to do this, Mike you’re going to do that.” It happened.

I didn’t sing "Love Potion No. 9” Tony Jackson did – the original band was Tony, Chris Curtis, John McNally and myself – Tony actually sang those types of songs. He had the Little Richard voice, he could get his voice way up high, and he sang "Love Potion No. 9,” and he sang our first record "Sweets for My Sweet.”

We had a bit of a confrontation with the record company after the first two big hits, which were "Sweets for My Sweet” and "Sugar and Spice.” And we felt that we had to change a little bit because the first two songs were very similar, if you recall those two songs.

JG: In Chicago, we heard covers of those first two. The Cryan Shames had a big hit here with "Sugar and Spice.”

MP: Right. The two ("Sweets for My Sweet” and "Sugar and Spice”) were in a very similar vein. And record companies do that, because when they have a big success with one record, they tend to want another record in a similar vein. So we did that in the first two, then we thought the next one has to be something different. We thought "Needles and Pins,” and the people at Pye records weren’t too keen. They said if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. You have to do another like the first two.

We got our way in the end, but we had to argue with the record company and they finally came around to our way of thinking and we did "Needles and Pins.” And it just so happened that I sang "Needles and Pins” on stage with the band. So it was just kind of Mike sings it on stage with the band, lets put it down and see what happens, and if it isn’t good we can change. But Tony Hatch, our recording manager said. "That’s it.” We even left my "pins-uh” in.

When we were recording that song, people from Liverpool have this knack of putting little things on the ends of words, and I just sang "pins-uh,” and Tony Hatch said, "Hey that sounds good, we’re going to leave it in.” So we left it in. That’s just one of those little quirks that you get now and then.

JG: Another distinctive part of your sound was that 12-string Rickenbacker. Was that you? How did that come about?

MP: That’s The Beatles connection there. We were in the TV studios in England for a show called "Thank Your Lucky Stars” in those early ’60s. "We were in the dressing room and we had the TV on, and the Beatles came on singing their latest No. 1 single, which was "A Hard Day’s Night,” because that movie that they made had just been released. They weren’t there in the studios, they recorded it somewhere else.

"I noticed that the guitar in that song, in the solo, it sounded a little bit different. And when I looked up, I looked at the screen, I thought, hey I’d seen Rickenbackers before because John Lennon had one in the early days in the Cavern, that he bought in Hamburg. And I looked and I thought, wow, it’s a 12-string Rickenbacker.

We had a new single coming up. We hadn’t recorded it, but we had it in the grapevine, if you like, we had it planned. That’s the sound for "When You Walk in the Room.” And I went out and got a Rickenbacker 12, it was a 360-12, and that’s the sound you hear on "When You Walk In the Room.”

JG: It’s a great sound. I love that sound.

MP: Yeah, it is, and probably if on that day I hadn’t walked in the dressing room and seen George Harrison play his, who knows, I may never have got one, and we’d have gone some other way like double-tracking or something like that.

JG: When did you first have an inkling that this was going to take off, that the Searchers were going to become something bigger than the club circuit?

MP: To be honest with you, I didn’t have that feeling until we recorded "Sweets for My Sweet.” When we went to the Star Club in Hamburg, I had a very good job in Liverpool with a big printing firm, and they actually gave me a month’s leave. Can you believe that? They said "Mike, you go do that, we know you want to do it, but your job’s still here when you come back.”

"I couldn’t; believe it really. I thought I was going to be working at Birchall’s for the rst of my life. I had a girlfriend and I thought, "I have a good job, we’re going to save up. And I’m going to earn money working and playing in a band.” I didn’t have any inkling that we were going to be recording stars or anything like that. We came back from the Star Club, and we signed up to go again. We were there for two months that time.

And when we were in the Star Club, our manager in Liverpool at the time, a guy called Ed Napoli, we’d done an acetate of maybe 10 or 12 songs in the Iron Door, and we left it to Ed to sort of hawk around, if you like, and see what he could do with it. And while we were at the Star Club, he got in touch with record companies that turned him down, all except one, and that was Pye Records.

Tony Hatch, their producer, came up to Liverpool when we got back to Hamburg, came to the Iron Door,. We did a session, he liked it, Bam! Bingo. He said "I want to record that song ‘Sweets for My Sweet,’ I want the boys to come to London,” and we did. And then I thought, wow, I can’t believe it, we just made a record. So you could say from about summer 1963 I thought, "It’s going to happen. I had an inkling we may hit the big time.”

JG: You had so many hits, then time passed, you faded from the charts. But you had that great comeback album in 1979 ("The Searchers”) that was so well reviewed. How did that happen? 

MP: The Sire Records thing? That was the early ‘80s wasn’t it? We’d been obviously in and around the music scene since about 1968 when really our popularity had dwindled and the big record hits had gone. So we kept going to the studio and we kept trying to make a good record, but it just didn’t happen.

Seymour Stein had had groups like the Ramones on his record label, and the Ramones seemed to like our kind of music. I think they recorded "Needles and Pins,” and Seymour Stein said, "I wonder what the original Searchers are doing.” He came to England, although we weren’t still the originals because Tony and  Chris had gone. It was just John and myself and a guy called Frank Allen and a guy called Billy Adamson.

We were still performing, we had lots of gigs on the continent. Seymour Stein came to see us. And he actually said, "Mike, your voice is still great, we’re going to put you guys back in the charts.” We did a couple of albums, one was released in America, and I think Rolling Stone magazine gave us a great review. Lots of people liked it. But it’s the old story. It doesn’t matter how good your product is, if nobody buys it, it’s no good. It’s a disappointment. After that of course, when they had success with the Pretenders and other groups, they more or less dropped us. We were left to go our own way again and we’ve been in and around music ever since.

In 1985 I decided, if I’m going to play Searchers' hits the rest of my life, I think I’ll form my own band. And I formed Mike Pender’s Searchers. And here I am today.

JG: When you tour, when you come back to America in September, what can we expect?

MP: Obviously we’re going to do all the early hits, because that’s what they booked us for. Nostalgia. Nostalgia is still pretty big around the world today. I find you go to all the continental countries, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, and there’s lots of people who still want to hear those sounds of the ’60s. Certain songs stick in people’s memories. "When you Walk in the Room” has that certain hook line, "dah-DAH-dah-da-da-da,” and people cotton onto those sorts of things. They remember them and they remember the riff in "Needles and Pins” as well.

So two great songs for us there, plus "Sweets for My Sweet” is always remembered, "Sugar and Spice” is sometimes remembered. One of the great songs I thought we recorded was "Goodbye My Love.” It’s not remembered by a lot of people but I thought it was a really good record.

And even songs that were on the Sire album, like "Hearts in Her Eyes,” I thought was a great single. I always thought, when we started in this business, we had a manager called Peter Burns and he was a guy, he took us to America, he could do it. When you have somebody like that, when you’re trying to make it in the charts, if you haven’t; got somebody like that at the helm, you’re pretty much going to miss out. With songs like "Hearts in Her Eyes,”  it was a great song released on the Sire label, it should have been a hit, but it wasn’t.

We still do that song, so it’s going to be a mix of the old hits with newer songs like "Hearts in Her Eyes,” "I Don’t Want to Be the One.” We had some great singles later on. I thought "I Don’t Want to Be the One” was a great song. But with no management, no publicity agent, you’re going to be up against it.

JG: At the Beatles' fest, will you be singing with the house band, Liverpool?

MP: For the first time in my life, I’m going to do a Beatles' song. Because the Beatles were there because they were superstars, a supergroup. I always concentrated on the Searchers and never got into (playing) the Beatles music at all. It was always there, and people would say "Hey Mike, are you going to play a Beatles' song?” And I always said no, because byu the time we’d done the Searchers' songs there’s no time left to do anyone else’s song. So really it’s going to be the first time doing a Beatles' song in my life, and it’s going to be because I got the connection from George Harrison’s Rickenbacker from seeing him play "A Hard Day’s Night.” That’s the song I’m going to do with the house band, because I think it’s a good story.

~ Courtesy of John Grochowski in Chicago