Monday 14 March 2016

"It's The Searchers" (1964)

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"It's The Searchers"

It's In Her Kiss/Glad All Over/Sea Of Heartbreak/Livin' Lovin' Wreck/Where Have You Been?/Shimmy Shimmy/Needles and Pins//This Empty Place/Gonna Send You Back To Georgia?/I Count The Tears/Hi-Heeled Sneakers/Can't Help Forgiving You/Sho' Know A Lot About Love/Don't Throw Your Love Away

It's The Searchers, dear readers, but not as we knew them. For Searchers album number three - released to the world at approximately the same time as 'A Hard Day's Night' and the debuts by bands like The Rolling Stones, The Hollies and The Kinks - finds The Searchers already re-inventing the sound that's made them famous. Gone are the simply silly pop songs - the 'Sweets For My Sweet' and 'Sugar and Spice' for which the band were still best known in 1964 (however unrepresentative those songs were of the band's average setlist). Gone are the harder-edged, slightly manic American cover songs recorded in the sort of time it takes modern bands to warm their recording equipment up. Most controversially too, gone for the most part is bassist Tony Jackson who till now has been the band's leading figure in front of the cameras and lead singer of their biggest hits in mysterious circumstances who now gets a single cover to strut his stuff. The Searchers, the band who summed up the sound of 1963 like no other (an intriguing mix of tough and twee), are at the forefront of trying to work out the signature sound of 1964.

The trouble is The Searchers don't quite know what the sound of 1964 is going to be yet - they're a bit early, to be honest, in kicking out the pure pop that's been their biggest money-spinner for the past twelve months and which will hang around for much of the year. They also miss completely the emergence of a new tougher, more emotionally turbulent and frustrated sound about to arrive across the year as evidenced by the big hits for The Kinks, The Who and The Animals in this period. Worse yet, The Searchers completely miss the way the (four) winds have been blowing across the past few months and stubbornly remain a covers act with no original songs on the record at all, despite the fact that the band's B-sides in the past few months have been littered with unfairly forgotten minor classics. Given that The Beatles are already hard at work on their first all-original LP, this probably wasn't too smart a move. This is, ultimately, one of the costliest moves of The Searcher's career and responsible for seeing them lumped in with the 'also-ran bands' who couldn't get a hit past 1965 - and a strange one too given that even though it was the practice not to include any singles on albums in this era The Searchers were brave enough to break that rule with their A sides and - on other albums - sometimes the flipsides too.

That's the trouble with trying to predict the future though when your band's not in a strong enough position to shape it and the fact makes 'It's The Searchers' both the most forgettable and yet somehow also the most timeless of their five original records. It just doesn't sound like anything else being made in the first half of 1964 with a gentler, more sophisticated take on sillier, simpler sounds and it's a record with almost no consistency at all. This epitome of a 'difficult third album' features a band in a form of transition from a past they're most certain to get away from into a most uncertain future and The Searchers sound like a completely different band on every one of the fourteen tracks. Sometimes the band get lucky and really do luck onto what 1964 and even 1965 will be all about (they get into folk-rock a full year before The Byrds record 'Mr Tambourine Man' complete with Rickenbackers - and typically never get the credit they deserve for it). Sometimes The Searchers get things hopelessly wrong ('Livin' Lovin' Wreck' especially, while the bluesier 'Gonna Send You Back To Georgia' only really makes sense if Georgia has somehow been re-located to The Wirral). Sometimes The Searchers revert back to simply being a great covers band tackling standard songs that have already been around a half decade or more and are somewhat tried and tested (Burt Bacharach and Hal David - weirdly not on the same song for once - Jackie De Shannon a year before writing 'When You Walk In The Room' and a pre-Sonny and Cher Sonny Bono all appear). The Searchers remain, however, in the front row of the pop and rock world for a little bit longer and come as close as any band did to out-selling The Beatles in 1964, whatever people have thought about them since; though nobody ever seems to mention it these days they actually got in with their third album a few months before The Beatles (though admittedly the fab four were off doing a film at the same time as the soundtrack album released in July 1964 - and no site out there ever quite agrees when 'It's The Searchers' was released anyway - 'Spring 1964' is as close to a clue as we've got).

The biggest change though has to be the loss of Tony Jackson. Though he appears as large as the others on the album sleeve and seems to have played on a majority of the album, the rest of the band kept him mute and he gets only one lead vocal on the whole record (usually he gets twelve). The decision to silence the member who till now had been the Searchers' most commercial voice is, as usual, a complex one and the motives for it change depending who you ask. Drummer Chris Curtis - who was the 'real' (if self-appointed) leader of the band backstage in this period choosing most of the material and making most of the on-stage patter - commented later that as the latest member to join the band Tony was always the odd one out and a tough man to spend endless hours with cooped up backstage to boot (Jackson's nickname, one he actually seemed to like, was 'Black Jake' after his 'dark moods'). The deal-breaker seems to have been a US tour in late 1963 - The Searchers' first outside Europe - where American journalists, still unused to democratic groups and dismissive of drummers, seemed to assume that Tony was the 'star', a fact that the others resented and allegedly went to the bassist's head. There's also been a long-standing rumour, which the other Searchers have neither confirmed or denied, that Tony decided to wangle a bit of extra money by 'blackmailing' the band and threatening to reveal Curtis as a homosexual back in the days when this was still a pretty dangerous thing for a star to be (which seems daft if Tony gets dragged down with the Searchers ship, but that's showbusiness for you; legend has it this powerplay actually happened and the others sided with Curtis, calling Tony's bluff and he never actually went through with it). At the same time The Searchers were becoming aware that another 'Sugar and Spice' or 'Love Potion no Nine' wasn't going to cut it with a record buying public now used to 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' and decided to change from their original hard-rocking club sound into something a bit more middle of the road. Tony, despite his image as the 'pop' one, was arguably more rock than the other three and thought it a disaster as - against his wishes - the band decided to change tack with their fourth single, the Mike Pinder-sung 'Needles and Pins', a single on which so much rested. Had it been a failure and proved Tony 'right' he might well have been with the band until his death in 2003, with The Searchers forever rooted in the twin sounds of pure pop and pure rock. Instead the song, which doesn't feature Tony's voice at all and only some very rudimentary bass playing far below his normal standard, was of course the biggest hit the Searchers had ever had (and, it's probably not too much of a spoiler to admit, will ever have) and gave the band a new lease of life, apparently proving the 'Curtis' axis of the band 'right'.

Tony, more at odds with the band than ever, was 'punished' by the band for his disloyalty by keeping him quiet throughout the album sessions with his old 'Iron Door Club' powerhouse 'Sho' Know A Lot About Love' his only lead vocal for a band who only a year before and featured him singing lead on everything. Realising that the band might never let him sing on anything again, Jackson finally quit in July disgusted and angry at the way he'd been treated, releasing his first single 'Bye Baby' (in the harder rock edge he preferred) a few weeks later. For years afterwards Tony did his best not to talk about the events of this unhappy year, at best giving music journalists a scowl or moaning about his ungrateful bandmates (to be fair the others don't sound that easy to get on with either - except perhaps for John); for the most part Chris and Mike seemed to accept they'd made the right decision, with only John trying to heal the biggest band rift in Merseyside since Pete Best had got his marching papers. Tony was probably right to be angry - he had a right to an opinion about the band's direction and had contributed as much if not more as everyone else to the band's successful strike rate. many predicted disaster amongst The Searchers without Tony's instinctive commercial ear and expected the solo star to do better than the band - the fact people were wrong says more about the speed at which the music scene changed back in 1964 (and an ill-advised nose job that hurt his voice- Tony had a real complex about his looks, to the confusion of the many teenage girls who swooned over him) than any reflection on Jackson's own recordings, many of which eclipse his old band's.

Amazingly this tsunami of a line-up change seems to have been largely ignored by both the press and music fans, which seems unthinkable in retrospect for a band who'd just scored such a big hit (and followed it up with 'Don't Throw Your Love Away' which almost did as well). Imagine John Lennon, very much the boss in early 1964, being ousted from The Beatles or The Pacemakers coping without Gerry Marsden. Effectively reduced to a trio plus a bassist trying to do as little as possible, The Searchers have to completely renovate their sound and do it in a hurry in the public eye (the mid-1960s was a difficult time for most bands, with The Searchers contracted to come up with four singles and two albums a year for record label Pye). Mike, who'd only really done harmony vocals before this, is suddenly promoted to lead singer while Chris, only really known for a cameo per album on the first two LPs, is all over the record too, filling in the famous Searchers falsetto with his own very different, richer folkier blend. John, meanwhile, gets his first vocal on a Searchers recording, promoted to the Curtis-style cameos on 'Hi-Heeled Sneakers'. Together with the sudden change in material, from 50s rock to 60s Tin Pan Alley songwriting, it could - perhaps should - have been a disaster.

Instead the band get lucky, both in the choice of many of their songs and the sudden growth in confidence of Mike Pender who rises to the challenge of taking the lion's share of the vocal work. Pender shines like never before, delivering a softer folkier and more vulnerable tone that successfully moves the Searchers sound away from teenage pop to thoughtful early adulthood. The band aren't quite as lucky in their song choices as with 'Needles and Pins', sounding occasionally insincere or hollow as they grapple with outside songs that they've clearly only started rehearsing that morning (in strict contrast to their first two albums which, hit singles aside, they'd been playing together for years). However the 'Needles' soundalikes they choose occasionally get lucky: 'Sea Of Heartbreak' is a lovely Hal David song with a world-weary tone deeply unusual for a band all still in their early twenties, Burt Bacharach's 'This Empty Place' is pretty full-on miserable for a 1964 pop song  and 'Don't Throw Your Love Away' is an overlooked hit single, too tough to be pop even if it's not quite full-on rock. If anything it's the reversions back to Tony's formula that don't quite work: John and Tony both sound uncomfortable on 'Hi Heeled Sneaker' and 'Sho' Know A Lot About Love', two songs that need to get by on personality and swing and instead sound as if the lead singers want to get this awful experience over and done with. Even Chris sounds unusually OTT covering the Carl Perkins standard 'Glad All Over', while the less said about the attempts to return to a hard rock sound on Iron Door standard 'Shimmy Shimmy' (a Liverpudlian favourite - you can hear The Beatles do it on Hamburg bootlegs) and the Ray Charles inspired 'Gonna Send You Back To Georgia' the better.
There's a case to be made that if The Searchers weren't quite outright the best band the 1960s ever produced then they were at least one of the more consistent: their run of classic singles runs way past the point when fans stopped buying them en masse and until things start getting desperate around the time of 'Kinky Kathy Abernathy' in 1969 the band don't put many feet wrong on their career journey.

The trouble with 'It's The Searchers' is that the mistakes they do make almost all appear on this middle record, which falls between the two stools of the cheery innocence of the Tony Jackson years and the sophisticated grown-up cool of the Frank Allen ones. There are probably more weak song choices than good ones across this album and the ones that do sound good almost all sound rushed too (the singles being an obvious exception as more time was always devoted to those). However, for all this album's many weak points, I can't really say I dislike this record either. The ingredients, you see, are generally good ideas: strong sturdy songs that only the band's inexperience and the tension in the room mucks up. Even the songs that The Searchers should never have gone anywhere near sound like the band are trying to over rather than under-reach themselves and as so often happens on this website a band that's trying tends to be worth buying, however trying some of the individual tracks may be. Though the band often sound silly rather than the sophisticated style and grace they think they're bringing to the songs (and the front cover, which mimics the trend for posh signed autographs with full on colour photographs of the band looking 'cool' clearly designed for girls to hang on walls and kiss goodnight), even these mistakes have a certain charm. The Searchers have just been given the chance to sound grown-up for the first time in their careers (they are, after all, a band who had their most childish songs 'Sweets For My Sweet' and 'Sugar and Spice' foisted upon them and have been trying to rebel ever since) and by golly they're going to sound like it, even if ironically enough it's their youth and inexperience that gives them away. It's a shame that, hit singles aside, the songs on this album didn't stay in the band's set lists for longer: it would have been interesting to know what the genuinely adult, knowing, weary Searchers of 1965 might have made of 'Livin' Lovin' Wreck' (here rather thrownaway) or the desperate last-chance-saloon of 'Where Have You Been?' turned here into a gentle singalong. Given the circumstances it's amazing the record isn't worse - or simply full of Sonny Bono 'Needles and Pins' clones, which would have been the obvious and safest thing to do (a one-off such as, say, Bono's hit with Sam Cooke 'Things You Do For Me' would have been fun, though).

Though in a way I suppose it is. You wouldn't notice on first hearing but most of the songs on this album follow a similar formula (and one that The Beatles may well have nicked for their own single riff-filled most Searchersy single 'I Feel Fine' later in the year). Several songs on this album follow the pattern of 'I'm in love - and I feel great!' Needles and Pins, the 'warm embrace' of 'It's In her Kiss', the hot-dang dilly silliness the band feel on 'Glad All Over' and the deeply questionable clichés of 'Livin' Lovin' Wreck' all point to similar ideas. However it's probably fair to say that The Searchers have been looking at the bigger picture instead of the detail: none of the tracks here share the same glorious sense of gloom, powerful ringing guitars and instantly recognisable hooks of the hit single. Love isn't something that hurts either but something that makes the narrator go a bit loopy. It's almost as if The Searchers gave a one-line description of 'Needles and Pins' to a song publisher who'd never actually heard the record and said 'find me another one of these!'

Reception amongst fans to the album, then and now, seems to be heavily mixed. Surprisingly this third album is reckoned by many leading music sites (Allmusic, Virgin's Encyclopaedia of Rock) to be The Searchers' best (which makes you question if they know the poor-selling finale 'Take Me For What I'm Worth', but there you go), but even they make the comment that The Searchers are better heard through one of their many compilations anyway - almost all of which relegate this album to the two hit singles (and very occasionally 'Sea Of heartbreak'; only the 'Hearts In Their Eyes' box set contains more and that's almost as hard to find as the actual album these days I'm afraid). 'It's' is certainly the band's most ambitious and in many ways their most easy-going record, with only McNally's rather gruff take on 'Hi Heeled Sneakers' a song you can't really imagine the band releasing as a single in some parallel universe. The production, too, has really come a long way since the mad rock thrash of the first two albums, which to my ears is a shame (The Searchers always sounded better on the edge than stuck in the middle of the road) but it's a sound that clearly has its own fanbase (saleswise this album slightly peaked above 'Sugar and Spice' without quite re-creating the mania and height of 'Sweets For My Sweet', which suggests that the success of 'Needles and Pins' had something to do with that). However it does seem telling that this album is almost impossible to find today, even compared to the (originally) worse-selling fourth and fifth albums 'Sounds Like' and 'Worth'. The CD re-issue is currently selling for £22 on Amazon ('Sounds Like' is going for a tenner, the first two records around a fiver). 'It's The Searchers' then, for better and worse, with a little bit of everything next to a whole lot of (thankfully sweet) nuthin's.

AAA readers must be getting sick of Rudy Clark's 'It's In Her Kiss' by now, a cheery pop song that used to be respectful when bands like The Searchers and The Hollies covered it but lost a lot of it's once stellar reputation when Cher insisted on renaming it 'The Shoop Shoop Song'. A simple tale of a boy offering advice to a friend 'She Loves You' style, it seems to imply that the only way you can tell if someone is in love with you is from their kiss rather than their 'arms' charms' or 'eyes' - which probably isn't a scientifically accurate survey just to offer you a warning. If this was a 'battle of the bands' The Hollies take (released on second album 'In The Hollies Style' somewhere around six months after this version) would probably win on points: The Hollies are better at getting a forced cheer in their voices that doesn't sound simply stupid and rock the song up a bit, turning it from a featherweight into a sort of medium-weight. The Searchers' version, though, isn't bad either with Pender and Curtis figuring out almost on the spot what to do with their newfound sound and matching harmonies, which sound rather good here on one of the few times they both sing together more or less throughout a song (even if Curtis sounds more like Mickey Mouse at times and is all too clearly covering up for the loss of Jackson). Pender and McNally also come up with a rather inventive guitar riff that helps propel the song along which doesn't feature on either the original (Merry Clayton's flop in 1963), the biggest hit version (Betty Everett at the very start of 1964) or The Hollies' take but sounds like Cher at least knew of this version and was trying something similar in 1990. McNally turns in a quick twirling guitar solo too, which is easily the highpoint of the recording - all five seconds of it. Cheery but rather bland and lacking the sheer power and charisma of the band's first two albums, it's a fair but rather forgettable effort.

'Glad All Over' is a little better, Curtis stepping up to the microphone to offer his best Carl Perkins impression which is snappier and sturdier (it's not, thank goodness, a cover of the wretched 'Glad All Over' the Dave Clark Five had a hit with). Compared to most of the rest of the record, Curtis sounds as if he doesn't care about pleasing the public or getting radio airplay and rattles off the song with a sort of dispassionate cool that somehow makes it stand out much more than the similarly commercial songs here. In what seems to be a running theme of the album, Curtis sings about what it feels like to be kissed and seems to be caught between being thrilled and trying to stay as cool as he can to keep the girl (never has the line 'Hot Dong Dilly it's silly but I'm glad all over' sounded more serious). It's similar in many ways of course to 'Needles and Pins' in describing the effects of love and may have been chosen deliberately to ape the band's recent hit. If so then clearly there's no contest - this is a bit of good time fun given an added bite from the band's committed performance but it lacks the thought and heart put into 'Needles and Pins' not to mention as strong a hook. McNally again turns in a terrific guitar solo though which channels a lot more of the hidden emotion of the song and hinting that Curtis' cool is simply a 'front'. Something of as Liverpool favourite, the track was also performed by The Beatles (you can hear a twenty-year-old George Harrison trying to pull off a similar amount of cool on both BBC  Sessions sets and largely failing, though he does have a certain cute charm instead) who may well have been thinking of including the song on an album themselves before finding The Searchers beat them to it. As with many songs from this period, The Searchers sound much more comfortable singing it live - there's a particularly fine version on the 'Swedish Radio Broadcasts' CD recorded at around this period where Curtis drops his cool altogether and goes for a screaming emotional take that's more in keeping with the chutzpah of the first two albums (McNally also seems to turn into Jimi Hendrix on the solo!) Even so, this is a relative album highlight.

Hal David's 'Sea Of Heartbreak' was always a popular song amongst band and fans and another clear success story of the album. Featuring an early version of the sense of acoustic melancholy that will be heard over the next few singles ('What Have They Done To The Rain?' especially), it's something of a breakthrough as the band go all serious and contemplative without any Rickenbacker riffs or added gimmicks to get them through. Indeed the lead instrument is a piano, something The Searchers have never really done before and since (player unknown, although Needles and Pins co-writer and future Neil Young collaborator Jack Nietzsche seems a good fit for the style - it could also be producer Tony Hatch who could also play piano). Though the central metaphor of the narrator being a ship lost at sea without his true love around could have been over-used, especially with such a slow and languid verse, thankfully there's enough of a kick in the sped-up garbled chorus ('Lost love and loneliness, memories of your caress...') that keeps the boat a-floating. With such an empty backing track (there's a barely hard acoustic guitar in the right channel and some muffled subtle drumming and that's about it) this is an arrangement that really lives and dies based on the charisma of the front man. Luckily Pender is on top form, his confidence no doubt boosted by the success of 'Needles and Pins' and he turns the usual Searchers optimism and cheer on its head for a vocal which sounds impressively depressed, Pender's deep voice sinking lower and lower at the end of each verse (before a sweet middle eight, yearning for better times, lifts his head up instead). Country star Don Gibson (better known as a writer - 'Oh! Lonesome Me' is one of his) had the first hit with it, but this charming song never seemed to do as well with any singer as it deserved to, being something of an undiscovered gem unless you really know your country music or your Searchers.

The Searchers should perhaps have released an album of deeper emotional ballads like 'Heartbreak'. Instead, sadly, they decided to become a lightweight pop band without even the power of a 'Sugar and Spice' (even if the lyrics are rather better). 'Livin' Lovin' Wreck' is a good example of a song that other bands like The Beatles and even The Hollies would have laughed out of the room, an unusually daft novelty song by Otis Blackwell (better known for rock and roll classics 'Don't Be Cruel' and 'Great Balls Of Fire' - even the best writers can have off days you know). Once again it's a variation on 'Needles and Pins-za', but sadly one that copies the by now tired list of cliches about what the narrator's girl makes him feel rather than the guilt, depth or hooks. Pender sounds deeply uncomfortable on a song pitched a little too high for him (did they intend giving it to Jackson but he refused? He still sounds less comfortable than Jerry Lee Lewis on his cover version), while the guitar stabs are so Searchers by numbers they've used the sound at least twenty times before. It's the sheer lightness of the song that palls the most though: this is a Freddie and the Dreamers song, not a track a band with the pedigree of The Searchers should be doing in the wake of 'Needles and Pins' (it speaks volumes that the few people who know this song at all mainly know it from a Shakin' Stevens cover). Suddenly Tony sounds as if he has a point about their choice of material.

Curtis is back on lead for the cover of 'Where You Been?', a cute little song that's sadly rather thrown away by the band on all too obviously rushed recording. It's hard to know where things go wrong this time as all the ingredients are here: Curtis was a great and under-rated singer, all too often relegated to harmonies and his voice is loving and warm. The two guitarists quickly pick up on the charming riff rather hidden away in Arthur Alexander's (Lennon's great hero and writer of 'You Better Move On' and 'Anna Got To Him' among others) hit 1962 cover of this Mann and Weil song and make the most of it. The harmonies are really pretty when they arrive, as only The Searchers can be. The lyrics too make the best fist yet of the tired 'I feel different now I'm in love' vibe of the album, with the narrator wittily asking his lover why they weren't in his life earlier when he was 'feeling blue' (was this song an influence on Neil Diamond's similar 'I'm A Believer?') However the recording still falls slightly flat despite all these things going for the song. The band sound as if they're still in rehearsal mode, fluffing the odd note here and there and who patently don't know this song as back-to-front as their old Iron Door Club standards. The laboured attempt to turn this track into a bossa nova (the sort of thing The Hollies are doing a lot of in this era) are awful and mainly consist of someone overdubbing a too-loud castanet over the whole thing. Worst of all, though, there's no 'movement' here - the sad verse and upbeat cheery chorus should be perfect for The Searchers, a band who are so good at offering both extremes (though usually not in the same song) but they're both treated the same here. The song, which is so full of twists and turns, just sounds boring and slow here after a promising start with the band never quite so in need of a lunch-break and a re-take. The Beatles sang a rather better version during their Hamburg days as captured on the 'Star Club' tapes, although you have to sit through a lot of muffled cries for beer in order to hear it.

One of the more famous Beatles Hamburg tapes has the band, umm, mispronouncing 'Shimmy Shimmy' to the obvious confusion of their German audience. The Searchers' version of this frenetic dance number once again isn't anywhere frenetic enough despite the strong urgent guitar riff by McNally keeping it rattling right along and all far too 'polite'. Musically the band have simply adapted the arrangement and melody they once played for their cover of 'Farmer John' from their first LP, but if you play the two back to back you can tell what's gone wrong. That track was exciting, if messy - this song is perfect, but boring. Bobby Freeman had the first hit with the song in the early 1960s, when it already sounded somewhat anachronistic, with Pender too professional to really let go on a song that basically consists of the line 'shimmy shimmy to and fro' over and over and the narrator getting the 'creeps' as a song comes on the radio and he tries to stop dancing down the street. There's even that memorable and not-very-hip-given-it's-the-1960s verse 'The shimmy's for old folks too, you go backwards and forwards - then you're in the groove!' He'd have probably beaten up for singing those lines in Liverpool in 1964 with this song woefully out of step with the pop market despite a nicely gritty guitar sound that, believe it or not, sounds like the early DNA of heavy metal.

Side one ends with 'Needles and Pins', which somehow makes everything before it sound extra-poor. Given the tension in the studio and the amount of 'firsts' on this song (the new lead singer, the emotion in the lyrics, the unknown and untested pair of writers in Sonny Bono and Jack Nietzsche - Jack, usually a pianist, came up with the guitar lick and Sonny wrote the main melody and lyric to go along with it) the band and manager were no doubt feeling needles and pin-za at the thought of releasing this as a single. You can times that by ten given that, in the context of the pop market of early 1964, this is a step above anything even The Beatles are doing on 45rpm discs: the narrator admits to real emotions, real guilt and thoughtlessness and admits deep remorse. The effect has been rather dimmed by how many songs have tried similar lines since and other bands had done similar on album tracks before now, but releasing a single that made teenagers think and reflect rather than dance or feel happy is a huge step forward for popular music and one that's seriously overlooked (we're a few months away from 'A Hard Day's Night' remember, with 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' the last one outandH). I mean, the opening verse even has Pender 'running away' and praying and trying to hide the fact he's crying - three of the top ten most unlikely things to hear on a pop song in this era. What The Searchers manage to do so cleverly is to still make all of the above catchy and commercial without diluting the real grief inherent in what's surely Sonny Bono's greatest set of lyrics. The band owe a debt, too, to their new favourite writer Jackie De Shannon, who was the first to record the song and hers is pretty special too, with a much longer and emotional 'bridge' though that said it lacks the underlying charge and fizzle of the guitars (and only peaked at a disappointing #84 in the US, mainly so she says because her record company messed up the release dates and it got put out at different weeks in different states). Funnily enough future Searchers bass player Frank Allen also knew the song well, as his band Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rausers sang it often during their trips to Hamburg - which is where The Searchers later claimed to first hear it.

McNally's chiming Rickenbacker gives the song added toughness: this is a narrator not used to crying or feeling miserable, while Curtis' tougher-than-average drumming seems to have the narrator in a headlock, a cascade of drums musically showing him banging his head at the wall over and over. This is Pender's starring moment, though, his first prominent lead vocal and his first of any kind without Jackson right there with him and he comes up trumps with every line believable, audibly moved and broken-hearted but still trying to sound as if he hasn't really been affected. Curtis' harmony vocal, too, adds a sort of warm aural hug without detracting from the sheer loneliness of the lyric and situation. Throw in a catchy chorus that manages to rhyme 'begin-za' with 'pin-za' and somehow get away with it and you have a clear candidate for one of the best singles of 1964 (Pender later said that he's sung 'pinza' by accident and thought he'd better go along with it because the track was cooking and so sang 'begins-a' too). No wonder The Searchers had such a big hit (their breakthrough moment in America, really, swiftly followed by the runaway success of earlier album track 'Love Potion No 9' which caused some difficulties while promoting it given Tony Jackson's prominent role on that song). The only downside of the whole experience is a) a leaky bass drum pedal (the squeak can be heard particularly during the opening few seconds before Pender's vocal - and it seems to be getting clearer each time the band re-master it for CD) and b)that it didn't lead to more songs in a similar style and that The Searchers would never find as perfect a match between band and material again for the rest of the book. Other than that this is perfection and still fills me with needles and pin-za whenever I hear it.

'This Empty Place' begins side two in similarly pensive mood with what was arguably the most accurate guess The Searchers made at fortune-telling the sounds of 1964. A song recalling much of the early Kinks album tracks (the ones filled with nervy Ray Davies piano rather than flamboyant Dave Davies guitar) and The Beatles' later 'A Hard Day's Night' closer 'I'll Be Back', this Burt Bacharach song sounds edgy and distraught, full of the extra melancholy and confusion that will be heard so much across the year. Diane Warwick's version of this Burt Bacharach/Hal David song is probably better known, but The Searchers smash it out the water with a tense and edgy paranoid feel to the recording. The band's Rickebackers have never sounded more snarling and angry, the chopped piano chords add tension to the song by being unleashed at random moments and Chris' unusual deeper and scarier vocal is a triumph, perfectly mirroring the wrench the narrator feels when he walks down the street and remembers that his girl used to walk down it with him (Curtis copes better than most with the difficult art of double-tracking too, so close at times it sounds as if he's stalking himself). Curis peaks the song with a nicely underplayed sigh on the line 'If you don't come back to me I'll die'. Only a slightly clumsy bar-room piano solo and a lack of band harmonies let down an arrangement that sounds as if more time was spent on it than any of the others from this album. The result is a strong little number and one that's arguably the best track on the album that many people probably won't know (at least as sung by The Searchers).

'Gonna Send You Back To Georgia', the hardest hitting rocker on the album, has it's moments too. Curtis sings in his old 'wild manic' method that anyone who saw the band lie or heard 'Ain't That Just Like Me?' will know well, sounding almost unrecognisable from the soft scary crooning of the last song. Though not a patch on some past Searchers rockers (the band just aren't as light-footed as they once were and too nervous of each other in the new group dynamic to really let loose) it's still a good version that holds its own against the more famous Animals cover (sensibly re-made into the Geordie quoting 'Send You Back To Walker'; there's something rather odd about hearing such an 'American' song in a scouse accent, especially the line 'I brought you from the South'!) The song was initially the only hit for songwriter Timothy West, who'd only just released the song in January 1964 so The Searchers are very hot on this song, moulding it to their own strengths (barring perhaps a slightly histrionic guitar solo). To be fair, though, The Searchers have good enough been playing this song for years anyway under a variety of different names as it follows the same 12 bar blues chord sequence so many songs do, including the band's near enough identical cover of Ray Charles' 'What'd I Say?', a live highlight they sadly never record in the studio. Though the band as a whole sound tentative, Curtis is again on great form and shines on a vocal that's pitched just right between nagging anger and I-don't-really-mean-it good humour, especially an extended ending where Curtis gets carried away quite brilliantly ('So swinging hard!...So groovy hard!') Another half-winner for the album.

'I Count The Tears' was also around a lot in 1964 thanks to a version by The Drifters in 1962 (it's the flipside to 'Save The Last Dance For Me'), who'd also once had a hit with the same songwriting team of Pomus and Schuman's 'Sweets For My Sweet'. It's arguably a prettier and certainly a far more grown-up song than The Searchers' big hit was, but somehow the band aren't quite right for it without a chance to add the jangly power they gave to that song or impress with the harmonies. Pender is again on lead and sounds a little lost to be honest, while his and the band's cheery nature don't seem to match the song's actually quite bitter lyrics about the narrator being kept awake all night feeling sorry for himself after a row. The 'na na na na na late at night' hook is also one of the band's weirdest and seems to crop up randomly within the song - mid-line sometimes - with Curtis' backing vocal often sounding as if it belongs to a different recording entirely. Though not as bad as some tracks on this album, there's no real love or care going on here and The Searchers sound like they're trying to make the most out of a selection they have suddenly realised probably wasn't a good idea for them.

'Hi Heeled Sneakers' is something of a divisive song amongst the Searchers community, depending on whether you feel that nervy first-time vocalist John McNally is mangling a Carl Perkins rock classic or inventing punk twelve years early (and why not? The Searchers had a hand in developing pretty much everything else and their lo-fi aggressive style was particularly admired by the new wave acts that followed punk). Certainly John's not going to win any awards for 'vocalist in hiding of the year' the way that Pender did on 'Needles and Pins' and Curtis deserves on some of his better B-sides and the double-tracking is so far out at times it makes him sound unbelievably drunk, caught between a leer and a sneer and a sneeze. As you'd expect, though, John's choice of song for the album is really meant to be a guitar workout anyway and he comes close to matching Carl Perkins on the original with his complex, twisting guitar plucking (as a bit of trivia the song was once offered to Johnny Cash, who was working with Carl's brother Luther, before the singer told Carl it was too good to give away!)The rest of the band slightly let their guitarist down though: Mike's acoustic struggles to keep up, Chris strains at the leash to be given a chance to let fly (with some hi-hat cymbal 'sneezes' the best he can manage with such a heavy beat), while Tony is simply going through the motions and seems to be mixed even lower than usual on this record. The result is probably the strangest rendering of a rock and roll classic The Searchers ever came up with, not unlikeable and certainly not unlistenable but not altogether up to standard either.

After Hi-Heeled Sneakers is finally shoed away in comes 'Can't Help Forgiving You', the real debut of Jackie De Shannon as a writer after a few covers of songs she sang. Her association with the band goes back to that American tour when The Searchers met her and became good friends. It sort of sounds like De Shannon's later Searchers cover 'When You Walk In The Room' slowed down, with a melody that is perhaps a little too close to fellow album track 'Where You Been?' for comfort. Mike Pender for one though sounds right at home on this sweet little tale of getting frustrated at something his girl's done - right up to the point when she, err, walks back in the room. The band try out something a little different on this one, with a nice guitar part, more flamenco than The Searchers' usual twelve-string, while Curtis' drums veer from being unusually heavy on the cymbals to Ringo style 'backward fills' (the 'whallop whallop!' bits) that lead from each section of the song into another. As with so many songs on this album, it's unlike anything else being made in the first half of 1964 (exotic yet gentle) and as such gets rather lost in the crowd. It's a sweet song though that had the band spent a little more time on could well have been another hit single.

'Sho' Know A Lot About Love' would have been a guaranteed money spinner in 1963, but The Searchers were probably right to drop this style come 1964. This is the only vocal by Tony across the album and was a for a time his 'signature song', one of his most requested moments from down the Iron Door (you can hear the band play a rough early 1963 version on 'The Iron Door Club Sessions' CD in fact). You can't help but feel that the others are giving him this song to shut him up, though, and the difference between the two versions is palpable: where once The Searchers were a real 'band', driven by Curtis' singing but led front from the front by Jackson, this is now a band at war and all but sabotaging each other. Pender tries to drown Jackson out vocally and Curtis with his drum-kit (and some military rat-tat-tats not on the 1963 model), which only causes Tony to sing ever louder and off-key. What should be a really fun track (it's 'What A Wonderful World' - no not the Louis Armstrong but the Sam Cooke song as covered by Otis Redding and Simon and Garfunkel among others - with the same classroom humour as the narrator gives a long list of things he's not into before bragging that he's an expert in the ways of love) comes over as a lot of bragging and nagging quite frankly, with perhaps the worst set of vocals in Searchers history (everyone, not just Tony) and a backing track that falls heavily flat (with only McNally's sturdy 12-string keeping the song upright). Tony's last moment with a band he'd scored such success with seems designed to make him sound as unappealing to fans as possible - were the others already fearing the damage his solo career might cause? One of the band's worst moments, certainly during their time with Pye.

Luckily 'It's The Searchers' ends on a high with one of the band's most undeservingly overlooked singles 'Don't Throw Your Love Away'. Billy Jackson (no relation!)'s composition uses all the usual Searchers trademarks of guitar, harmony and hooks a plenty but more subtly than any of their other songs till now, so that this is a song that you ease slowly into rather than grabbing you by the ear. Given a second successive lead vocal on a single, Pender is growing in confidence by the day and turns in a smart double-tracked vocal that's as cute as the song, leaving the aggression to come from Curtis' bouncy drums and McNally's relentless guitar. Lyrically it's a fine song too, a variant on 'She Loves You' with the narrator offering advice not to fall in love with the wrong person because they might regret it in the future. Though nothing is said, there's just enough depth and melancholy in the song to suggest that this is advice given through personal experience, with Pender just sad and big brotherly enough to sound as if he 's speaking from experience. Curtis' sweet and golden harmonies though take the song in a quite different place and hint instead at the narrator being secretly in love with the person he's speaking to, cursing them for ending up with idiots who treat them badly when he's so full of love and tenderness he isn't courageous enough to admit. Fittingly the melody seems based around an unusual rhythm that dances around the song sideways like a crab, accentuated by McNally's guitar which darts this way and that as if playfully escaping just out of arms' reach (until the big finale of the song, which sounds like the narrator finally catching up with his intended and putting the chase to a premature end mid-note). The Searchers put in one of their better performances of the year, nailing the song's ambiguity while adding enough depth to make the musical audience at home (somewhat spoilt for choice over new singles in early 1964) prick their ears up too. A second straight UK number one (and a second straight top twenty hit in the US), this was a pretty darn good choice for a follow-up and the last in an unbroken run of four straight classics that had The Searchers riding toe to toe with The Beatles for the last time before the rather more forgettable 'Someday We're Gonna Love Again' arrives to spoil the party. Much under-rated.

Overall, though, 'It's The Searchers' isn't quite so well crafted or under-rated. The band's most difficult album to record (the atmosphere being so much better from the moment Frank Allen walks in the studio room), this record too often sounds like it was a tug of war between band members, aware that they had to change to doing something else though not quite sure what that something ought to be. Like many LPs made by a band going through a transition in line-up The Searchers nail some of the new ideas perfectly, clearly most successfully on the two spin-off singles but equally on some of the better album tracks like 'Sea Of Heartbreak' and 'This Empty Place'. Occasionally they get lucky with something that seems like an obvious mistake, revving up novelty song 'Glad All Over' into a harder-edged rocker or returning to their recent break-neck-speed past on 'Gonna Send You Back To Georgia'. However there are other times when the band seems to be running on empty, recording unsuitable songs and then wondering why what they've always done in the past suddenly isn't working. In terms of good to bad songs ratio 'It's The Searchers' is surely the worst of the original five Pye Searchers albums in the 1960s - it's certainly by far and away their most uneven. Considering that The Searchers are suddenly almost recognisable compared to what they were doing even six months before on the 'Sugar and Spice' LP though (a far happier and easier listen, but one that doesn't try quite so many brave things), 'It's The Searchers' really isn't that low a place to end up with though, thanks to Pender, Curtis and McNally all stepping up a gear and a clearly frustrated Jackson staying just professional enough not to rock the boat too much. We can only wonder how a third album with Jackson might have sounded like and whether it would have sold as well (you doubt he could have sang 'Needles and Pins' in quite the same way or that the band would have attempted it, though they might have found something else just as good); commercially this album is both a peak and the start of a surprisingly swift decline for a band who'd never scored a UK single hit that wasn't in the top two. Sadly the times they are a changin' and The Searchers won't be able to keep pace with the 1960s pack quite as well from now on (if only Curtis had included some of his fine B-sides on the album and kicked out the weaker songs, mind, it could have been a whole different story). Ultimately, though, 'It's The Searchers' is a curio with the band saying goodbye to one lead singer while breaking in another, with a new member already waiting in the wings. It may be The Searchers, but it's nothing like The Searchers that have been - or are yet to come. 

Don't go searching for other Searchers articles on this site - they're all right here:

‘Sounds Like Searchers’ (1964)

'Take Me For What I'm Worth' (1965)

'Play The System' (B sides and rarities) (1988)

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