In-depth reviews of classic or neglected albums, mainly from the 1960s and 70s, plus a weekly newsletter featuring all the latest news, views and music. Artists covered include Beach Boys, Beatles, Belle and Sebastian, Buffalo Springfield, Byrds, Crosby Stills and Nash, Dire Straits, Grateful Dead, Hollies, Jefferson Airplane/Starship, Kinks, Nils Lofgren, Monkees, Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Searchers, Simon and Garfunkel, Small Faces, 10cc, The Who and Neil Young.
Friday, 4 July 2008
Review 89) The Searchers "Play The System" (1988)
"Classic compilation of B-sides and flop singles from the psychedelic era, a hundred times more vital than yet more 'greatest hits' packages and desperately in need of a re-issue!"
Track Listing: It’s All Been A Dream/ Saturday Night Out/ I Pretend I’m With You/No One Else Could Love Me/ I’ll Be Missing You/ This Feeling Inside/ Til’ I Met You/ So Far Away/ I’m Never Coming Back/ Don’t Hide It Away// It’s Just The Way (Love Will Come And Go)/ Popcorn Double Feature/ Lovers/ Western Union/ I’ll Cry Tomorrow/ Second-Hand Dealer/ Crazy Dreams/ The System (UK and US tracklisting)
ALAN’S ALBUM ARCHIVES
For The Record:
Ones to watch out for:Don’t Hide It Away, Never Coming Back, It’s Just The Way (Love Will Come And Go), Popcorn Double Feature, Western Union, I’ll Cry Tomorrow
Ones to skip: The sort-of title trackThe System is a horrible mess, an early misfire that sounds woefully out of place in amongst the more progressive Searchers sound of the later tracks. It was a huge mistake making this the last song on a near-perfect compilation and is best left on the soundtrack of a low budget film that no-one remembers nowadays.
The cover: An early shot of the Jackson-era line-up laughing their heads off over nothing, in a true Merseybeat photo-shoot manner. Perhaps they’ve just played back this compilation’s last song?!
Key lyrics: “Call me a fool for saying what’s going on inside me, I’ll never be content until your answers satisfy me” “I used to read about the world’s greatest poets and the artists too, and the world’s famous seven wonders that could belong to you, but I never knew about love till I met you” “Drink your coffee baby, drink it strong and drink it black, better not think of me baby ‘cos I’m never coming back” “Everybody’s going through changes, everybody’s got a bag of his own, everybody’s talking ‘bout places, that can only be found in the greater unknown” “Popcorn double feature, whole world’s a funny farm, popcorn double feature, no need to be alarmed…not much!”
Original UK chart position: DNC. This was, after all, a release intended for long-term fans rather than the world at large (although the top 10 status of yet another Searchers hits compilation, one released while writing this list, shows that the market is there if Pye want to have another go at sticking this album out again now the word has been spread).
Official out-takes: As this is a compilation, there aren’t any out-takes as such. However, its obvious that whoever designed this compilation had a high degree of taste, because the Searchers’ two singles recorded for Pye but released by Liberty are noticeable by their absence (Kinky Kathy Abernathy and Who Shot The Lollipop Man, both strong candidates for the worst recordings made by any of the artists on this list, although the other releases from the period aren’t quite this bad). You can hear both of these songs (plus more) on the 2CD Searchers compilation 40th Anniversary Collection (2003). Non-album semi-flop singles He’s Got No Love (classic!), When I Get Home (ordinary), Take It or Leave It (atrocious) and Have You Ever Loved Somebody? (middling; this song is a cover of a track written and first recorded by the Hollies, see review no 11) are also curious by their absence, although they do appear on the more comprehensive Searchers compilations so may not have been ‘rare’ enough for this set.
Availability: Sorry, friends, you’ve got your work cut out trying to track this rarity down – but you’ll be very grateful when you do! (I’ll keep you posted if this album gets a re-release one day).
This album came between: None as such because Play The System is a compilation, mopping up the rarest material from the whole of the Searchers’ Pye career between 1963 and 67 and covering the whole of their five progressively interesting albums.
Line-up: Frank Allen (tracks recorded from mid-1964 onwards), Chris Curtis, Tony Jackson (tracks recorded before mid-1964), John McNally and Mike Pender (produced by Shel Talmy/ The Searchers)
Putting The Album In Context:
JUST like I do with The Hollies, every time I hear that there’s going to be yet another new Searchers compilation coming out onto the market, I groan. Not because the evergreen tracks that are trotted out yet again are in anyway bad – both bands seemed to be onto a winner seemingly every other week for most of the 60s, releasing tonnes of material even compared to everyone else in that decade – but because the true brilliance at the heart of both bands’ output just gets forgotten the more these old evergreens get played over and over again. You see, although Searchers Play The System is a compilation (of sorts), its not your usual best-of album; it’s more of a mop-up job for all of the tracks that came out in-between the band’s long-playing records and for the most part are still missing from the band’s other releases. This collection of oddities includes classic B-sides from the band’s mid-60s heyday, some flop ‘A’ sides from the band’s last gasp during ‘66-‘67 and a rather weird song rescued from an obscure film soundtrack. Usually only the most passionate collectors get jumpy over a band’s B-sides, which tend to be quickly recorded throwaways in the hands of most groups, but in the Searchers’ case in particular these flip-sides are stunning. These tracks are also incredibly important in the development of the band’s sound because, as well as being well respected cover merchants, The Searchers were all pretty fine songwriters in their own right and the group members all used these releases as opportunities to experiment with styles and ideas for their later albums.
Ah yes, a word of explanation seems called for here. How do you explain B-sides to a modern audience who only know CDs, a format that plays on one side only? Yes B-sides are still around, but most CD single B-sides you get nowadays tend to be a popular album track you’ve already bought 18 times over or a re-mix of the A-side that sounds near identical to the track you’ve just played – only the artists that lived through the 60s and to an extent the 70s still value flip-sides as a useful commodity, a chance to prove all of the talents that the restrictive money-earning, radio play-securing A-sides won’t let you show. Like The Hollies again, The Searchers are a case in point. The sheer number of singles and albums being released at speed in the 60s and the mind-boggling competition meant that artists had to ‘play safe’ to a degree, building on past hits instead of shedding them entirely (only the Beatles and – to some extent – The Rolling Stones had a big enough fan-base to make the need to appeal to ‘general public’ rather than fans unnecessary and even they struggle to do this in their early days). By contrast, the B-sides were usually time off for good behaviour, with these tracks more a ‘bonus’ for collectors and a nice extra for fans once you’d got your single home and played the A-side to death, rather than an ‘important’ release in their own right. Today, these B-sides are a valuable idea of what music was like in a period away from narrow local radio playlists and one-off fashion trends and despite being more likely to have been rushed, these flips-ides often sound far less self-conscious and far more like the ‘heart’ of a band’s style as a result.
Both the Hollies and the Searchers used their B-sides as early experiments with their own songwriting styles (it helped that the writer of a B-side got exactly the same royalty figures as the writer of an A-side in those days, dependent on how many copies got sold rather than a standard fee, so in those days of million-selling discs no wonder so many groups suddenly started writing songs). These two groups usually knocked off their B-sides in quick bursts either side of recording their painstaking arrangements for their A-sides and – certainly in the 19565-66 era – these one or two-take flip sides have a spark and an energy missing from their better known 20-take-plus cousins. Both the Hollies and the Searchers are often accused of ‘playing it safe’ by modern ears, critics who fail to understand that bands who started in the immediate wake of the Beatles when pop music was still seen as a ’fringe’ and a flash-in-the-pan trend and who didn’t have the record company clout to experiment like their better-selling counterparts. All too often their singles had to keep ‘in’ with the rather more mainstream tastes of the general public and had no chance to develop an agenda of their own. However, these lesser heard B-sides are a great opportunity for showing off just how talented both bands were when they were finally left to progress naturally. (** see note).
It’s also no surprise that this compilation came out when it did. 1987 is music collector’s ‘year zero’ in many ways, just as 1977 was punk’s intended ‘year zero’; the first year ‘proper’ of the compact disc and the first real chance for record companies to dig out dusty master-tapes for re-release, a phenomenon that hadn’t really happened in the years of vinyl when it was assumed you could beg, borrow or steal a second-hand copy of anything you were missing. It’s also exactly 20 years since the summer of love, a long enough period of time for the decade to be intriguing to newer collectors already cheesed off with music released in their own era and not too long ago for those who lived through the 60s to have thrown all of their period clobber and battered collections away. The cult of the 60s as being the greatest decade in the history of modern times – as opposed to just being a great one that bore the fruits of the 50s and the roots of the 70s – also largely starts here, thanks to programmes of the day looking back at such things as the recording of Sgt Peppers, Haight Ashbury, the Monterey Pop Festival and Merseybeat which—let’s face it—sound so much better compared to anything out at the time that its amazing the whole population didn’t move en masse to San Francisco that year. This trend will be developed in the nostalgic 1990s, but for now this is the first time the 60s seem ‘new’ again, instead of being ‘what came before now’. For these reasons compilations of anything other than hit material is unusual pre the mid-80s to say the least, but they become dead common from now on (thank goodness all this stuff did become easier to find or arguably this list wouldn’t be being made at all).
Back to the Searchers and a study of how all the group seem to be stretching their wings a bit on this set. Drummer Chris Curtis is, as ever, the biggest and brightest star here, with his under-used baritone and his witty to-the-point songs veering from making The Searchers sound like a rocky Little Richard band to making them sound like a Phil Spector orchestra. The others back him up admirably though – from John McNally’s pretty guitar licks, Mike Pender’s dependable vocals, Tony Jackson’s under-rated and unfairly maligned falsetto and Frank Allen’s master-of-all-trades, the band have a lot of reliable foundations to build on. The later singles from 1966-67 also show a lot of maturity that earlier and better known Searchers songs just don’t have and are a fascinating glimpse into an alternative universe of what the late 60s might have been like had Pye renewed the Searchers’ contract and allowed them to keep releasing albums just as they were becoming the class of the field. Given that Pye wanted to bury the group and get their contract over with as quickly as possible, you could forgive these later songs for being diabolical. In fact, the Searchers seem to do everything in their power to re-capture their earlier magic but in a much more mid-60s rounded way than their raw and powerful early songs. Indeed, their last batch of Pye material - songs like Popcorn Double Feature, Western Union and Secondhand Dealer- might well be the best Searchers singles of all time – so its criminal that only a handful of passionate collectors currently know about these songs.
Not every track included here is a gem, but back in the recording-sessions-sandwiched-between-gigs, quickly-before-the-fame-wears-off early 60s and the darn-it’s-waned-already-mid-60s it’s a wonder anybody made B-sides of any quality, never mind gems like these. A lot of the songs featured here probably hadn’t been heard by most fans since the band’s 60s peak until this fine record came out and this album is itself now a bit of a rarity, but if you’re a fellow Searchers nut or just interested in the mid-60s in general, get hold of a copy of this album somehow – you won’t regret it.4000 cheers to Pye for having the sense to release this great set to what has always been a bit of a minority group of passionate Searchers collectors – and 4000 boos for the fact its since been deleted!!
Play The System starts off by taking us back to those very beaty, meaty and energetic days of Merseybeat, with the falsetto of original lead singer Tony Jackson very much to the fore. Indeed, so far removed are these earlier tracks from the closing ones of side two that its hard to believe this is the same band at all, never mind the fact that there is only a three-year gap between the songs (which is nothing in today’s terms). This is partly because Merseybeat was at its selling-peak back then and this song is pure Merseybeat from start to finish – the daft and simple rhymes, the punchy stop-start tempo and the tight energetic harmonies. It’s also because Tony Jackson so dominates the sound here. Like the Hollies (yep, them again), the group is being very much led by their falsetto-voiced member (its Graham Nash in the Hollies), which might sound odd given how aggressive and matcho Merseybeat sounds to modern ears (although less so after the out and out aggression of the 1950s, perhaps). Tony Jackson is nearly as high as his Mancunian counterpart and his elevated vocals take the lead on most Searchers songs of the period (by comparison it’s usually Pender’s deep-ish baritone on later Searchers songs). For those that don’t know, Jackson was cruelly booted out of the band he helped found in 1965, ostensibly because he never fitted in and the others had been trying to oust him for some time (less generally, it could be said that Jackson’s vocals were just so tied up with Merseybeat that by the more progressive days of 1965 his sound was holding the band back).
It’s All Been A Dream (B-side to first single Sweets For My Sweet) doesn’t rise to the height of later tracks and like much of the band’s first three albums is caught halfway between moments of ensemble magic and a generic and rather boring song that’s a bit of a throwaway. An early inoffensive cover, it still features what was for 1963 quite an inventive use of harmony between Jackson and Mike Pender, with lots of shades of their close musical cousins Lennon/McCartney, naturally, given what was out-selling everything else that month.
Saturday Night Out (B-side to Needles and Pinzzzaaaaaaa) is just as basic but a lot more fun, making for a nice balance with its impressively pioneering but rather dour A-side. This energetic no-holds-barred rocker marks just about the last lead vocal for the group by Tony Jackson (who went on to record a great handful of psychedelic singles when he was sacked from the band in 1964, all of which are well worth seeking out) and the track is really revving up a storm when it abruptly fades. Indeed, this song is even moretypical of Merseybeat than its predecessor, with lashings of close-knit harmony the only escape from that relentless basic beat-worthy sound. Already, however, the Searchers are forced to play Beatles copycats in their desperation to sell records and their deadpanned Twist And Shout-ish ‘woohs’ sound terribly grafted on.You can almost smell the atmosphere of the Cavern on this track (or at least The Iron Door, which was The Searchers’ equivalent Liverpudlian concert venue, although they too were Cavern favourites in this period).
Next up comes the band’s earliest writing credit, Chris Curtis’ I Pretend I’m With You (B-side to Don’t Throw Your Love Away). Already Curtis’ work is superior to many of the band’s covers (though not quite up to the exquisite A-side this time around) and sounds tailor made for Pender’s deep expressive vocals and John McNally’s distinctive jangly guitar which adds a bit of a staccato Shadows kick to the song. Even this early on (mid-1964) the band are doing their utmost to leave their Merseybeat past behind them, although this song is more of an experiment to see what will work rather than a fully-fledged song in its own right. Curtis has already got to grips with the band’s strengths however: tight-knit harmonies, jangly guitar, Pender’s baritone up front – this is more or less the template the Searchers will always use from now up until Curtis’ departure in late 1965.
Curtis has a good run of songs from here-on in, also penning the next track No One Else Could Love Me (B-side to probably the poorest 60s Searcher single Someday We’re Gonna Love Again, a track mercifully missing from all original albums and all but the most comprehensive compilations). The flip certainly makes up for any defects on the A-side, however, by being a classic Searchersballad. While the words might not add much to the song, the tune is very special indeed, being one of those long unwinding cyclical ones with a well-above octave range – which is ridiculously complex for the era (Paul McCartney songs aside) and something almost unheard of for beat groups in 1964 in terms of covers, never mind originals. With added chiming castanets at the punctuation of each chorus, a slurping bass and the first use of new member Frank Allen’s gorgeous harmonies, it’s a hidden winner that’s long been denied classic status. Very 1964 (just check out the ‘hold you’ and ‘told you’ chorus rhyme) and yet very progressive at the same time, this is an early winner.
I’ll Be Missing You (B-side to Jackie De Shannon’s powerhouse of a love song When You Walk In The Room) is the first of a handful of songs credited to all four group members, but in truth it has Curtis’ fingerprints all over it – from the way the song effortlessly moves between its verse and chorus structure to its use of three-part counterpoint harmony. Like many a song on this site, this one would be nothing without its middle eight, which breaks up the song by adding in a passage where the narrator can’t get to sleep because he’s worried his new and hard-found love will leave him if he’s not around, which puts this song’s nervous bundle of love-lorn romantic energy into quite a different context. If only the writers had come up with another verse instead of repeating the first two twice over, this might have been a worthy A-side, but as breezy light pop songs with jangly guitar go this song too is pretty special. Those castanets also seem to be back too, even though they’re mixed really low on this song and don’t really add anything to it – put those things back in the box Mr Curtis!
This Feeling Inside (B-side to everyone’s favourite ecological ballad What Have They Done To The Rain?) is McNally’s first solo song for the group and naturally, John being the band’s lead guitarist, the track centres around a very intricate guitar part. Interestingly, this might well be the first ever Searchers song not to feature much in the way of harmonies (Pender is double-tracked in the middle, but his secondary vocal is mixed so low it’s just an unidentifiable murmur), which suggests that vocals are a Curtis rather than a McNally hang-up. Unsurprisingly, it’s that tricky guitar part you remember most, working alternately in tandem and then in counterpoint with the vocal line. The structure is interesting too, as rather than separating the chorus and verse into two separate and easily identifiable factions, here the two run into each other pretty well seamlessly. However, for all its virtues, Inside seems to be missing something as a song and isn’t as involving as the others on the record, but it’s a brief, enjoyable and for 1964 virtuoso distraction nonetheless.
Till I Met You (B-side to the wonderfully dramatic Goodbye My Love) is more like it – just as the A-side’s impressive high tension and poise marked a big breakthrough for the group’s recordings, so was this pretty little B-side a huge leap forward in the songwriting stakes. All acoustic, with tapped drumsticks from Curtis and a Spanish guitar part from McNally, it’s a very romantic and expressive song, with Curtis wrapping his new-found falsetto around Pender’s bass vocal until getting the chance to shine on his own for the delicate and atmospheric middle-eight. Even the lyrics, often the weakest link of a Searchers song, are impressive. The narrator of the song seems to think he has access to everything great in life, from the stars to the moon to the world’s greatest poets, but even he has to admit he knew nothing about love ‘until I met you’, offering a humble vulnerability that would have been unheard of for most Merseybeat bands even a year earlier (and sounding not unlike an early Lennon ballad in the process). The harmonies are back for this song too and they’re the class of the field, with Frank Allen now firmly ensconced in the mix.
So Far Away (B-side to He’s Got No Love) is another Curtis song, but this time it can’t compare to its stupendous A-side – He’s Got No Love might not be the best known Searchers single and this gorgeous echoey drama isn’t on this album so I really shouldn’t mention it, but its so good I just have to plug it. There. I’ve said it. Back to the B-side. So Far Away finds The Searchers back in the production special effects box, sounding like a Phil Spector record trapped in a revolving door full of echoing chiming guitars. Whilst I agree with the Searchers’ decision to add echo to most of the backing tracks of their later recordings (McNally’s jangly Rickenbacker sounds even more vibrant and yet somehow ghostly with this technique), why on earth did the group ruin their polished harmonies by adding echo on their vocals too, making them so muddy and messy? As for the song, there are worse Searchers tracks around but it’s unusual to hear a group original sound this poor and uninspired – maybe Chris Curtis’ last solo song for the group is an early indication of the exhaustion and mental problems that would see him leave the band later on in 1965.
I’m Never Coming Back is more classic beaty Searchers, a rocker played with the growing finesse rockers were beginning to be played with back in 1965, together with some wry witty lyrics and a chiming guitar lick that’s really starting to growl nicely by the fade. It’s also more evidence of the great interplay developing between Pender, Curtis and Allen, with Pender’s lead interrupted or embellished by the full three-part Searchers chorus at key moments in the song. These lyrics are even dafter than the last track’s words (better brew yourself some strong coffee, honey, because I’ve got bad news for you), but this time around the group seem to realise that and perform this song with a chuckle in their voices. This rare joint collaboration between Pender and Curtis sounds as if it started out as a joke (even McNally’s typically tricky guitar part sounds just so uncharacteristically over the top here in its brief burst), but take away the lyrics and slouching guitar riff and this could have been a ferocious snarling rocker - the band are certainly playing ‘tightly’ enough for it to be one of their best uptempo numbers without the words).
The first side (for those of you who own a pre-CD copy of this compilation like me) ends with Don’t Hide It Away, the three non-Curtis members of the band’s response to their drummer’s sophisticated line in romantic ballads. The B-side of Take It or Leave It, it’s the equal of Curtis’ best songs (and far better than the weak Stones cover on the A-side), with a particularly impressive piano solo in the middle pushing the song towards jazz. Pender’s vocal positively reeks of heartbreak and the recording’s low-key detached manner makes the song sound even more powerful than if the band were playing their normal beat-group backing. Indeed, this song sounds a world away from the tracks we’ve just heard, as if the band are consciously using this B-side to step away from their usual sound and see what else they can do (the answer: just about anything on this basis!) Even the lyrics are good this time around, with Pender’s straight-faced narrator urging the listener to give into their emotions if the love of their life leaves them – even though he’s pretty detached about his own experience as far as doomed lover’s vocals go. We know though, both from the carefully-paced minor key backward track and the soul-searching lyrics, that this narrator is really crying his eyes out, he just doesn’t want anyone to know that.
By side two and 1967, The Searchers were in free-fall, dismissed by critics for copying The Beatles (wrong! Unlike most 60s groups they were contemporaries not successors and no more influenced than anyone else was in ‘the Beatles’ decade’ ™ The History Channel), still only doing cover versions (wrong! See the above and below B-sides!), sticking to one style (Hopelessly wrong! See above!) and sounding more than a little out of date by 1967 (not really – the band had come on leaps and bounds in ‘65/’66, just not at the 3000mph charge of The Beatles). Oblivious of their contemporary backlash, 40 years on these A and B sides sound like winners, every bit the equal of more famous summer of love classics but from a selling point of view the band were ‘old hat’, destined to be forgotten. Till now anyway.
It’s Just The Way(Love Will Come And Go) (B-side to Hollies cover Have You Ever Loved Somebody, see Evolution, no 10 on the list) is light years ahead of McNally’s other songs for the band, a moody edgy song about the ebb and flow of a relationship with an updated, mature sounding guitar lick that still sounds obviously Searchers. Pender and Allen do a good job of the vocals too, with Frank’s moody bass/falsetto hybrid in contrast to Pender’s open and straightforward vocal. Chris Curtis is long gone by this period (indeed, the idea of doing the Hollies’ song on the A-side is his last influence on the group – and that was an idea the others nicked from his proposed first solo A-side rather than a group decision) but you wouldn’t tell from John Blunt’s drumming, which is typically eccentric but rock-steady. If only the band had been able to record albums in this period, they’d surely have been full of gems like this, songs that keep in touch with the Searchers’ old trademarks but take them somewhere deeper.
Flop A-side Popcorn Double Feature is in some ways a bit of a backward step. A ‘borrowed’ song, rather than an original, it contains a half-hearted worryingly racist line in the chorus but if you can get over that (the band don’t sound that convinced by it either) it’s a fantastic production that really shows off the band’s arranging prowess. Indeed, there isn’t much the band don’t throw into this last-gasp attempt at getting a hit: an ear-catching opening tack piano/Rickenbacker riff, clattering drums, polished restless harmonies, some swoopingly exciting violins and seemingly more chord changes than on the whole of The White Album make for a memorable aural experience. This is also the Searchers’ most ‘three-dimensional’ and least straightforward song, of this decade at least. Pender’s vocal on the verses about the excitement of the mid-60s and a changing society sounds genuine and yet his vocal on the chorus sounds uncharacteristically sarcastic, as if the world’s being duped about the wonders of modern life thanks to the media and films and his closing comment ‘no need to be alarmed…not much’ is about as sneering as the straightforward Searchers ever got. These lyrics, a less than happy glimpse at a modern ever-changing world throwing away its past traditions, seems like a fitting and rather postmodernist response to The Searchers’ feeling of abandonment by this point in the 60s. All in all, it’s a classic track that deserves to be better known, even if well known and popular 60s songwriters English and Weiss don’t do themselves any favours with their sneers at a modern multi-cultural society.
Lovers, Popcorn’s B-side, is a Rod McKuen song with more than a nod to Till I Met You. It’s taken at a much faster lick but is melodically almost the same song, being nicely atmospheric but not terribly groundbreaking (the band also sound more desperate to sound ‘contemporary’ with this song than earlier and lose the gentle naivety of the original as a result). There’s another nice lead vocal from Pender though, taken at a slightly higher pitch than normal (perhaps they speeded up the tape because the backing sounds un-naturally fast as well?!) and at least this song is never boring (just as you think its settled down, in come some kettle drums and we’re off again into the energetic chorus). Hyperactive would be the modern term for this song - downright bizarre would have been the contemporary view.
Western Union – another flop A-side – is an out and out commercial classic and even at The Searchers’ lowest ebb this song would surely have made at least the lower regions of the charts had the song not been banned from radio because of its nonsense morse code riff (This catchy phrase—with people singing ‘doo de doo de dum’ over the top of it - could have been interpreted as an SOS signal according to radio censors. Oh yes sure, as if a stranded seaman was really going to sing ‘western union beep beep beep beep beep’ over the top of a morse code and with a guitar accompaniment while they were drowning!) There’s every bit as much going on musically to hook the listener as with the last track, but this time things have been properly thought through. Witness the way the harmonies add a singer every line in the chorus, the way the drum pattern suddenly breaks into something new just before the vocals change tack and the way Pender alternates the way he sings the title just as the song’s getting boring on the fadeout. This is a mature group who know exactly what they’re doing after four years in the business – what a shame that its about the last time the Searchers ever have this much influence over what they’re able to record and its all downhill from here. The song’s witty lyrics are hard to decipher though and don’t seem to have much to do with the Western Union at all (a man from the company just happens to be the one delivering a bad-news telegram in person, although we never learn what the bad news is) – its morea chance for Pender to belt out some nonsense words into a microphone with an added ragged guitar solo from John McNally in the middle. Great fun and – altogether now – catchy, but deep.
Equally impressive is the song’s B-side I’ll Cry Tomorrow. With Curtis out of the picture, the other members of the band make a surprise return to writing their own songs and Pender and McNally seem to pick up where they left off, as if the past few ‘cover’ tracks have been a bad dream. Another moody dramatic ballad, it still has a very rock and roll edge to it to underneath Mike Pender’s best Tom Jones impression and McNally’s growling double-tracked guitar part is as far away from the ephemeral pop nonsense of the last few tracks as its able to get. For all of its adventurism, however, this is still a very catchy song with a singalong killer chorus and a killer guitar riff that sounds like a prototype for every Noel Gallagher electric guitar solo ever recorded. The song’s fade, with its chiming echoing Rickenbacker guitars and rumbling sound effects sounds at once very Searchers and as far away from the band’s early sound as its possible to get. List favourite Nils Lofgren nicks pretty much the whole of this song for his own I’ll Cry Tomorrow (I Ain’t Got Time Today) for his Nils Lofgren LPof 1979 (the second, later version – there are two with this name confusingly).
Pender and Allen’s Secondhand Dealer was the band’s last A-side for Pye and compared to their last two efforts it’s a very sombre and cold song, with studio effects making Pender sound as if he’s singing from the top of a hill a million miles away (a Leslie speaker maybe?!?). The theme for this cold-hearted song is, fittingly, loss of emotions, with an edgy lyric about a narrator who is surrounded by broken and rotting second-hand rubbish, with his goodies a metaphor for his love life no doubt. Uncharacteristically, this is a very ‘real’ lyric for the Searchers – just listen to the fine and rather gruesome detail in lines like ‘the whole of his life rushing by’ ‘he’s a heavy drinking whiskey man’ and ‘he’s eyes so dim they could be knives’.The rhyming of ‘pretty ‘ and ‘pity’, however, show the Searchers haven’t completely forgotten their hit single roots. Again, it’s McNally’s ominous guitar riff, plus one of the scariest xylophone riffs on record, that makes this song the little-known gem it is.
McNally’s B-side Crazy Dreams is a fine rocking way to go out and judging from its 1967 vintage The Beatles and The Stones’ return to basic rock in 1968 wasn’t as pioneering as people thought it was because the Searchers (and indeed The Hollies and The Beach Boys) got there first. The opening drum riff is a direct steal from the contemporaneous Mary Mary by The Monkees, however, with its tub-thumping primitivism although fittingly the slightly chaotic sound, the poorly double-tracked guitars and a spectacularly loose and raw Pender vocal makes this band sound even more like a garage group than their rivals! The song’s central riff is perfect, driving the song forward and taking the band as far out on a musical limb as they ever dared to go, even though McNally’s Rickenbacker is still present and correct. In many ways, this is the Searchers coming round in a full circle, returning to the Merseybeat rock of their past once more, but with much more of an idea of how to grab their listener’s attention and work on their arrangements than in the years previously.
Thank goodness the compilation doesn’t include the next lot of Searchers singles – Kinky Kathy Abernathy and Who Shot The Lollipop Man? are among this woeful collection of songs’ more serious titles – but it still should have ended there. As if it is an unwanted encore, Pye decided to include a 1963 film refugee called The System on the end of the album, which after hearing the ’66-’67 festival of sounds seems to be from another century, not just four years earlier and is the aural equivalent of spotting a Panda wearing a black-and-white t-shirt lost in a sea of psychedelic colour (or alternatively a Jon Pertwee-era colour Doctor Who story interrupted by a black-and-white episode because the colour one is missing from the archives; hopelessly wrong). Just listen to that crazy chorus ‘I’m telling you how (oh yeah), I’m telling you why (wo yeah), I’m telling you when (woo-ooh yeah), I’m telling you no (let’s go!)’ – light years away from the carefully-created lyrics of the last few tracks. The performance is sloppy too, as if its come at the end of an ultra-long recording session and the band just want to go home – even the usually reliable Chris Curtis seems to have forgotten how to play the drums and is all over the place. Frustratingly we never do learn how to ‘play the system’ by the way – in fact, more than that, we’re warned off ever playing the system or breaking any rule ever again (if you do you’re – memorably – ‘all alone’. Yeah, thanks for that advice guys). The film The System is as badly forgotten as its theme song which, judging by its Searchers-by-numbers throwaway recording, with none of the group’s usual invention or flair, means it should stay in mothballs a little while longer.
Even with this last track, however, this compilation is a fine reminder of just how great a little band The Searchers were. Especially in the mid 60s, when the band’s singles stopped selling as their records got better and better, there is too much good stuff here that’s been overlooked. If you liked the recent Searchers compilation The Collection (and somebody must have done – it wasn’t that far off outselling Madonna’s latest), you’ll love this one, the true reason why the Searchers appealed to so many people at the time.Don’t play the system like everyone else. Put the Searchers back on the top of the musical pile where they rightfully belong – this album is a fine place to start.
**Note: If only there was a decent round-up of the Hollies’ B-sides to go with this collection then it won’t surprise you to learn that that would be on this list too, especially the gems such as the harmony-laden piece of loveliness Baby That’s All, the bluesy, knowing Nobody, the angry social protest of I’vbe Got A Way Of My Own, the psychedelic masterpiece All The World Is Love and the sound-effect filled playground of Not That Way At All: tracks which are far more indicative of the band’s sound and interests during 1964, 65, 66, 67 and 68 respectively than the A-sides could ever hope to be. In the meantime, let’s just keep pestering EMI and hope they take note of this. A Beatles’ B-sides compilation would also make a fine addition to our collections too now that the Past Masters sets are so hard to get hold of- astonishingly its almost impossible to find gems like She’s A Woman, I’m Down, The Inner Light and the uptempo take of Revolution on CD, despite these being crucial landmarks in the career of perhaps the most important and popular group of all time. (STOP PRESS: OK so The Past Masters sets are out now as of 2009 and nice and easy to get hold of, but the B-side idea still holds – it would make a more interesting comp than the ‘themed’ rock and love sets of the 1970s!)