Monday, 14 August 2017
The Seachers “Hungry Hearts” (1989)
Forever In Love/Love Lies Bleeding/Lonely Weekend/Somebody Told Me/Every Little Tear/Sweets For My Sweet ‘88/No Other Love/This Boy’s In Love/Fooled Myself Once Again/Baby I Do/Push Push/Needles and Pins ‘88
Welcome, dear readers, to one of the most obscure albums on this website. First up the bad news: like many a Hollies album it was only ever released in Germany (a country where they seem to have particularly good music tastes it has to be said). It was only ever released once, back in 1989 which is – gulp – ever so nearly thirty years ago so your odds of finding it are (how can I put this?) slim at best. At the current time of writing it is currently priced at just under £40 on Amazon and costs even more on Ebay. And do you really want to be paying that price for an album that, as well as being one of our most obscure, is also one of the most 1980s, with not just one synthesiser playing on most tracks but about half-a-dozen of the little blighters all doing their own thing and drowning out the Searchers sound. Not that there is much of a ‘Searchers sound’ on this record – this is the only one the band have so far made after losing founding member, lead singer and guitar player Mike Pender who left the band to, ahh, ‘search’ for his own solo fame somewhere in the mid-1980s. That’s the bad news – the good news is that, if by chance you happen to somehow comes across a copy (or maybe if they re-release it one day?) what you are getting is just enough of that Searchers style to make your time worthwhile. And this is, after all, a band who never did release many records – the thought of owning one eighth of a band’s album releases is enough to make more than just obsessive monkeynuts anorak-wearing collectors want to search for it. And it all makes sense that The Searchers should make us search for their complete catalogue doesn’t it?
What you get on the weirdly titled ‘Hungry Hearts’ isn’t that far removed from the ‘other’ releases in the ‘Hearts’ trilogy – 1979’s ‘The Searchers’ (which has a lot of song about hearts on it) and 1981’s ‘Hearts In Their Eyes’. The Searchers have ignored most of their Chris Curtis-driven mid-1960s experimentation and gone straight back to being what they were in 1963: practitioners of contemporary pop with an emphasis on jingly-jangly guitars. There’s nothing that groundbreaking here and nothing as timeless as was heard in the 1960s. But The Searchers always had good taste and that never changes in any era: most of their cover songs are solid choices (shame they don’t write more of their own stuff though) and they instinctively understand what the period is all about (this time round everything sounds BIG, like the songs are wearing shoulder-pads) far more than many of their still-struggling 1960s contemporaries do. As with their new wave albums it’s not that much of a stretch to imagine The Searchers in this brave new world of synths and electronics and if you were a teenager back in 1989 and you heard this album on the radio (if you were German, perhaps, the only country that ever really heard it) then you would probably be hard pressed to guess that it was made by a bunch of musicians who were probably older than your own parents. If I have to listen to late 1980s pop by anyone for the rest of my life then – dear God – shoot me now, but failing that The Searchers would probably be my pick: they get the feel, the vibe, the tone, the air of arrogance and surfaceness that went along with everything in that era from Madonna to The Backstreet Boys. In a way thank goodness there was never a mid-1990s Searchers album because if there was then I can guarantee they’d all be doing a pretty good impression of The Spice Girls too!
New fans who don’t know much about The Searchers are well catered for then. But what about older fans? This one is a harder sell, mostly for reasons outside the band’s control. They have for this new album a new lead singer in Spencer James. He was a new boy back in 1989 and he was in rather a unique position amongst 1960s acts, at least until Carl Wayne and then Peter Howarth took over lead singing duties for The Hollies in the 21st century: how do you replace a frontman whose been established for decades not just years and everyone expects to see? Odd to say it, but Spencer has now been a Searcher for a decade longer than Mike Pender ever was and about six times longer than Chris Curtis was in the band and yet this is the only studio album we have to judge his talents on, recorded back when he was still a youngster learning the ropes and settling into his Searchers duties. It’s a real shame this band haven’t given us an album since because you suspect he’d make a much better job of it now he has the confidence and his own sizeable fanbase to back him up – but back in 1989 he sounds a little unsure of himself and uncomfortable, somewhere between doing a Mike Pender parody and singing with his own excellent vocals. Sometimes he comes across as a little OTT and cod-operatic (‘Somebody Told Me’ is dreadful, like a combination of Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballe singing in the same body – it even sounds a bit like ‘Barcelona’). Sometimes he sounds like exactly what The Searchers need in 1989 – a singer of range and versatility who sounds utterly at home in the period setting (‘No Other Love’) and you sense he’s only just starting to get the hang of this recording lark as the album sessions were over. Overall though he does as good a job as anyone can of replacing an established twenty-two-year-career singer and still making the part his own (it doesn’t help that his higher-pitched vocals don’t sound anything like Mike’s).
I’m surprised in retrospect how few reminders there of the Searchers sound in here just to make the connection between old fans that bit more obvious. Frank Allen gets the odd voc al here and there (‘Every Little Tear’ and ‘Baby I Do’, which oddly enough are as retro as you’d expect…but for the ‘wrong’ decade, sounding very 1950s-ish again like a few songs from ‘Hearts In Their Eyes’. The ‘Grease’ ship that made that decade popular again had sailed long ago by 1989). But that’s about it: there are relatively few cases of those famous Searchers harmonies (a shame given that when Frank and Spencer do sing together it pretty much sounds terrific). There’s precious little of John McNally’s wonderful jingly-jangly guitar (and when you do hear it the sound is buried underneath an avalanche of synths). And there are no flashbacks or throwbacks to The Searchers’ illustrious past – well, with two exceptions. We’re used to hearing The Searchers updating their old hits for a new audience. They did it in the early 1970s, they still do this in concert today, but here in 1989 (with both recordings dubbed ’88 because that’s when they were made and released as a single before being added to this album) they sound particularly odd. Would the 1988 remake of ‘Needles and Pins’ have been as big a hit? Probably not – the song is as great as ever and the guitar riff is a classic, but all those synths are hard to take and Spencer sounds far less comfortable as a Mike Pender-clone than he does sounding like himself. And ‘Sweets For My Sweet ‘88’ is actually worse, The Searchers’ silliest hit now beefed up with quirky synths and fake drums that sounds more like a punishment for old fans for living into middle age than a genuine attempt to reinvent the wheel. Thankfully the Searchers continued to do both songs ‘properly’ live in this period, which would have made for a far more useful bonus feature. One wonder what they thought they were trying to do: these recordings sound too yesteryear to appeal to new fans and too hideously modern to please their old ones.
The real gems on the record come from the parts when The Searchers pick up on the best of their previous two albums and present an older, wiser face to us despite the continual rather desperately ‘yoof’ sound of the LP. There’s a neat theme here of being betrayed and abandoned and the narrator’s vows that they’re not going to let this happen to them again, ev-uh. The ‘secret theme’ of this record is that life is too short to settle for second-best, even if the ‘immediate sound’ of this album is ‘hey, we’re young, life’s great, let’s party!’ which makes for an interesting dichotomy that probably only the secretly trendy Searchers could have pulled off. ‘Forever In Love’ is about how you can never forget someone you fell in love with, even if circumstances mean things never quite work out. ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ is about how awful it can feel to lose the one you love after thinking it would last forever. Album highlight ‘Lonely Weekend’ tires of having to go through quite so many empty nights in a half-relationship that neither partner quite means. ‘Don’t waste my time’ sighs Spencer with the weariness of a singer twice his age. ‘Every Little Tear’ remembers every detail decades later as the narrator, now older and wiser, worries about how he behaved back in his youth when he didn’t know any better. ‘No Other Love’ worries that a past romance was the one that was meant to be in their life and that they’re now doomed to a life of loneliness. ‘This Boy’s In Love (For The First Time)’ is actually about finding love late in life – only after finding someone he can adore the way his peers did decades ago does a narrator finally admit that all his previous loves weren’t really ‘the ones’ and he was only keeping up appearances. ‘Fooled Myself Once Again’ though makes it clear how desperate the narrator is to believe that after so many years of living alone. ‘Baby I Do’ is another guilty song about missing someone that you treated badly and hoping that you will make it up one day. And ‘Push Push’ is about the rows and arguments that drive couples apart, but which can equally be pushed out the way if you really want to be together, rather than being used as an ‘excuse’ to part. This is, in terms of lyrics, the most grown-up set of songs The Searchers ever performed outside the ‘Take Me For What I’m Worth’ album fourteen years earlier, each one (the 1960s re-treads aside) concerned with older narrators looking back on their past and working out where it went wrong and vowing to do better next time. The sound, though, screams being young and youthful and teenage and living in the moment – it’s an interesting combination, with the songs for this record clearly chosen with care.
The ‘problem’ is that this record is one that would only have worked at the time – to everyone else whose come to this album since 1989 it sounds painful. That period doesn’t scream ‘contemporary trendy pop’ to us anymore, it screams ‘mistakes we shouldn’t have made from our past’ which means that ‘Hungry Hearts’ is never going to be quite as successful as it would have sounded at the time. Instead of slipping older words of advice to a young audience it now sounds like The Searchers were mutton dressed as lamb who should have known better than to swamp everything with quite so many synthesisers. It sounds now as if The Searchers were part of the problem, not the solution: that they were just falling in the same trap as everyone else of trying desperately to look young and trendy and coming out of it looking a bit stupid – especially now that the youngsters of the day are no longer young and trendy themselves (and are, worryingly, older now than The Searchers would have been at the time). Somehow you can’t imagine the Backstreet Boys and Bros of this world re-uniting and adding a hip hop backbeat to their music, which makes The Searchers’ a particularly unique experiment, matched only by their attempts at new wave.
Another contradiction in this album is that the songs seem to have been chosen with care (all of them fitting the album ‘theme’, whether consciously or not) but at the same time seem to have been arranged and recorded in something of a rush. There are four producers credited for this album who all worked on their own three or four songs at different dates snatched between Searchers tourdates in Germany that year – never a good sign of a cohesive LP. My ‘favourites’ are produced by Tony Hendrik, best known for co-writing Haddaway hit single ‘What Is Love?’ and his own 1970 hit single ‘The Grooviest Girl In Town’. A relative contemporary of The Searchers, he ‘gets’ their need to sound young without losing their middle-aged-ness much more than the others who struggle slightly and overcook the synthesisers. Other producers include Theo Werdin from German heavy metal band ‘Vatra’, Hans Steignen who ended up a German film composer in later life and the singer ‘Levy’ (who has only recently found big fame now he’s the age The Searchers were then, with the album ‘Rotten Love’ starting a string of hits from 2005 onwards). What’s interesting is that The Searchers worked with such a range of producers – big names, little names, trendy names, not-yet-famous names, all of them German. However none of their producers ever meddle with their sound – there are no German-language songs on this album, no local hip and trendy German bands stuck randomly over the top and very little sense that this album has been made effectively a long way from home. Which is a good move I think: the German market wanted another Searchers album sounding the way they always did, just a little bit more contemporary if possible, and they got it.
This remains, however, the weakest Searchers album of the eight for all sorts of understandable reasons. Spencer James if a fine vocalist and is, if you see him in concert today, a fine Searchers vocalist who makes those old songs his own – but that wasn’t true back in 1989 when he made this record as the first new member of the band in two decades or so. The two re-treads especially sound like a horrid drunken pub tribute act rather than a true Searchers recording. All Searchers albums cling proudly to the year in which they were made and the fact that this one was made in such a God-awful period for music makes listening to it in any year after around 1990 painful to swallow. The songs are good for progressing the album theme of ‘I wish I knew what I know now when I was younger’ (to quote fellow AAA star Ronnie Lane) but aren’t really that distinctive and song by song are easily the weakest selection the band ever did (even though there are lots of highlights, particularly ‘Lonely Weekend’ which is impressively ahead of its times and ‘Baby I Do’, which is impressively behind them). This album lacks the sheer pizzaz and energy of the band’s new wave records from 1979 and 1981 which did, I think, supplement The Searchers’ more natural attack that much better. Given the ridiculous price this album currently costs to buy, you’re probably better off saving your money for something else – like eight books from the AAA series we’re still vaguely hoping to print next year, the Searchers box set ‘Hearts In Their Eyes’ or enough money to pay for the air miles to travel to both Donald Trump and Theresa May to slap them round the back of the head and say ‘what the hell do you think you’re doing? The people have spoken – go now, do not pass go, do not collect £20000, go fade into obscurity the way you deserve!’
‘Hungry Hearts’ remains, however, simultaneously a deeply under-rated album. Nobody paid much attention to it when it came out, even in Germany. No one seems to have even considered re-releasing it even though The Searchers have a whole new growing fanbase in this day and age who’d love to hear it at a price they can actually afford. Due, I suspect, mostly because of licensing rights, this album gets ignored almost every single time The Searchers release one of their quadruple-yearly ‘greatest hit’ sets (the opening track ‘Forever In Love’ and the horrific ‘Needles and Pins ‘88’ are the only two songs you have any chances of hearing). ‘Hungry Hearts’ isn’t a classic, no, but it deserves one hell of a lot better than the obscurity and limbo it currently walks in. The Searchers remain a terrific under-rated band and if this is as low as they fall then, well, that’s still pretty high – unlike most of their contemporaries they really do ‘get’ how to make this music and have the songs to back them up. I just wish there had been a tiny bit more of the ‘old’ Searchers sound on here too in order to make it easier for us fans to navigate as well.
‘Forever In Love’ is perhaps not the best place to start. Imagine the most 1980s sound you’ve ever heard in your life. Maybe Guns and Roses backing Madonna on a Stock-Aitken-Waterman production with Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan dancing. Quadruple it. That still isn’t enough warning for how 1980s this soppy synth-fest is going to be. Clearly The Searchers are being ‘relevant’ here and yet what’s odd is that there’s not one note on this opening track that sounds anything like the Searchers of old – along with the new vocalist (and Spencer James tried hard but really isn’t this sort of a vocalist) there’s nothing here that remotely sounds the way the band did on their last recordings in 1981, never mind the 1960s. That’s a shame because, in another parallel universe, this could have been quite a fun Searchers song – it’s about undying devotion which was always a big Searchers theme and could have sounded good with some Rickenbacker guitars. Performed like this though the song is just too soppy, too synth-based that you need to cut through eleven pairs of shoulder-pads and endless synth work to work out whether the song is worth your while paying attention to – and, really, it isn’t. What’s more the song isn’t even that original but seems to have been ripped off Chris De Burgh’s ‘Lady In Red’ – and when a song you write is ripped off one of the worst songs in history and yet doesn’t even sound that good, you know you’ve got problems. One of the worst horrors on the album and indeed in this book. Horrid.
Good luck if you managed to get through that last song without choking. Luckily ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ is your reward and as anonymous as it is, at least it sounds like a song that The Searchers should be doing. The muscly backing kinda sounds like Merseybeat if you shut your eyes, there’s a fun descending riff that’s kinda creepy (though typically for the period it loses a lot of its impact played on a synth on the ‘twinkly’ setting’ and there’s a typically Searcher-esque lyric about how love has gone wrong and lies bleeding on the floor. There are even some harmonies on this one and it’s just so good to hear Frank in the vocals again, as proof that The Searchers are in there somewhere. It’s a shame that Frank didn’t sing lead on this song though because this is one of those tracks that needs to strike a bit of a sour note, it’s a dark dangerous creepy journey through love and Spencer, good as he is on straightforward love songs, is less sure of himself on songs like this one. Still there’s a shouty chorus that makes everything (temporarily) sound alright and Billy Adamson celebrates his twentieth anniversary with the band by playing one of his better, boomier drum parts too. Add a few Rickebackers to this lot and I’d be happy.
‘Lonely Weekend’ is by far the album highlight. The Searchers were always good at ballads, but this one gains from having the muscle and might of their Merseybeat days over the top of everything and John McNally’s guitars front and centre where they should be, drowning out the synths for once. Loneliness and despair features in many a Searchers ditty and this one particularly suits the band, as Spencer sounds really good singing about another lonely evening spent on his own with no one to see. He sensibly plays this song cool and light, making out that it’s no biggie, I mean he’s spent every other night alone as well so why not this one too? But oh that backing really offers up a sense of the real despair behind that façade: McNally’s wailing guitar is desperate, angry, snarling, unable to hide the passion at its centre. Even the synth backing works quite well here, with only two of them on this track – one that plays some really sad minor chords a la Rick Wright’s work with Pink Floyd and one that sounds, aptly enough, like a doorbell, as if offering the hope that the narrator’s luck is going to change and he’s going to be surrounded by visitors any minute. But no, this isn’t that clichéd a song and instead this song is full of lots of drawn out sounds, with ‘ro-o-o-o-om’ now the antithesis of the excitement of ‘When You Walk In The Room’, now turned into a life where no one is going to walk into that room and where the room is in fact trapping the narrator and confining him to a lonely grave. An exquisite song expertly played, this should have been the template for the rest of the record. Good as the song is, see how much better things are when The Searchers get their guitars out of their cases?!
‘Somebody Told Me’ is, alas, the sound of Englebert Humperdinck singing an Andrew Lloyd Webber entry for the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s so cheesy all the supermarkets in France wouldn’t contain as much dairy as this and everybody in the band seems to be going the extra mile to make all this torturous. Spencer is the worst victim, assuming that this slow dramatic weepie is best sung in an OTT slow dramatic voice that borders on the operatic. I’m really not so sure I agree and that goes triple for my ears which are still ringing from playing this song yesterday. However he’s not the only one – the synths are so plodding, the bass work so generic, the drums so tinny, the guitars so weak, that everything adds up to what surely must be the second most depressingly poor song in The Searchers’ catalogue – only next to ‘Forever In Love’ does this song sound good as at least it isn’t obviously ripped off something icky (instead it feels like lots of yukky songs thrown together into a pot and melted into a grey-brown stew). As for the song itself, I’m not sure what it’s trying to say. Not that I play this song very often, but the first few times I thought it was a ‘Please Please Me’ song – a third party song where the narrator was trying to get two friends hitched. But the more I play it and attempt to untangle the words (this is one of the few AAA albums so obscure there isn’t a lyric page dedicated to it on the internet) the more I figure that it’s set a bit after that and is about somebody telling the narrator what the love of his life has been up to since they parted. That might explain why Spencer sounds so miserable singing this song, but it still doesn’t give him a right to frighten all pets within a ten mile radius every time you play this song. Once again horrific, but at least that will be it now for the album’s lesser moments and things get very much better from here.
‘Every Little Tear’ is a fun quirky little song that’s much like Frank’s material from the last two Searchers albums, as he figures – mostly rightly – that the 1980s music scene is just a more elaborate version of the simple pop songs he grew up on in the 1950s. This odd but catchy little song is like two Searchers templates stuck together: we’ve got the bouncy can’t-sit-still rock and roll sort, which sounds mighty good even if for the most part the riffs have been given over to the synths again and not the guitars or bass. And then over the top we’ve got a sad little lyric about how the narrator remembers every little hurt he’s ever been sent which recalls such previous weepies as ‘A Tear Fell’. The two never quite meet up in the middle as well as they should, but it is at least a clever idea with Frank seemingly the only person whose even noticed the hurts and the insults thrown his way as he weeps sadly on one of his two lead vocals on the album in the middle of this song while everyone else parties. This song also makes the single best use of synthesiser on the album as the many quick-flowing notes really do sound like little tear-drops. Though Spencer has the more obvious ‘lead singer’ voice (and is, I suspect, understandably nervous on his first trip inside a recording studio here) Frank is a much more instinctive vocalist and adds a great deal of extra passion and feeling into his work. It’s a real shame the Searchers didn’t give him more space for quirky songs like this after Mike Pender left because this song and ‘Baby I Do’ sound much more obviously Searchers-ish.
The biggest difference in vocals can be heard on ‘Sweets For My Sweet ‘88’, the first of two recycled recordings from the previous year included on this record. Like many a re-recording it’s pointless, bordering on blasphemous, and seems to be here more as a way of conning fans into buying this album to hear a song they might recognise or as an advert for the fact that the touring band still sounds surprisingly close to the real thing, even if most of the new album doesn’t. I do however prefer this version to the re-recording the band made of the song back in 1972. Back then, with only the rhythm section not there for the original recording, it seemed even more pointless, especially slowed down for no apparent reason. This recording is closer to what would have happened if The Searchers had really been a new band in 1988, young and hungry for the current pop dynamics and if nothing else this new arrangement proves how well they understand the pop market of 1988: instead of being direct this version is sly, instead of being pure and innocent it’s slightly knowing, instead of being pure joy it’s all slightly sour, but those harmonies (missing for much of the record) still sound great and the song is still played with bags of energy, unusual for a band who must have been truly sick of playing this song after a quarter century of doing it most shows they ever played. I still don’t get why it’s on this album though where it only shows up how poor most of the band’s material now is (and let’s face it, ‘Sweets For My Sweet’ may have been one of the most successful Searchers songs, but it was never the greatest or deepest track the band ever did. We’ve had three versions of this song now and still Tony Jackson’s breathlessly exciting original is the best by sheer character alone, even if Mike and Spencer may well technically be better vocalists. Though only John McNally played on all three he has less to do on this version than ever before, with a very perfunctory guitar solo, which is a shame. Sweeter than some other recordings perhaps, but not as much of a treat as you suspect it should have been.
‘No Other Love’ finds us back in more familiar 1989 territory and shows off both sides of Spencer’s singing. The verses are genuinely good as he sings with the control of Mike Pender and builds up to a crescendo…it’s that climax that’s awful, OTT and unbelievable as he seems to take The Searchers’ histrionic recording of ‘Solitaire’ as his template for how to sing with this band. Still, those few seconds of every chorus aside, this is one of the better songs on the album that’s genuinely sweet as Spencer becomes the perfect boyfriend, promising to always be there for his girl, to always stand beside her, to forever dry her eyes. Not since ‘Til I Met You’ have The Searchers been quite this openly romantic and it’s good to hear, love songs being one of their better suits down the years. There’s a restless riff that works quite well too, although it’s slightly edgy paranoid feeling is ever so slightly wrong for this track I feel: this song should bounce with the loved-up happy-go-luckyness of ‘When You Walk In The Room’, not glower in the corner like ‘Goodbye My Love’. This is also one of the songs on the album I would love to remix on the album the most because this is a timeless song that would work well in any era – it’s just such a shame that it happened to be made in 1989 when it works the least well, with all those synths set on what seem to be the setting ‘ugly’ just get in the way. Still, even with that problem, this is a cracking tune that sounds as if The Searchers are the right band to be singing it.
‘This Boy’s In Love’ is the closest track in feel to the new wave songs of the 1979-1981 ‘Sire’ period. It’s another 1950s sounding song updated to the slightly more fashionable sound of the early 1980s and actually all the better for it, as The Searchers get to play with the gusto and energy of old and sound very much like a youthful energetic band compared to most of their peers. This song isn’t quite as deep as perhaps it ought to be though. The song doesn’t really say much more than the title, but there is at least the feeling that this song comes as a ‘shock’. This is a middle-aged narrator whose spent his whole life, uhh, ‘searching’ for the one while all his peers were playing the field and he’s so overjoyed that this wonderful thing he’s been dreaming of for so many years has finally happened to him that he can’t contain his excitement anymore. I’d have liked to have heard more about why and what happened in the past, but I guess this narrator is too excited to think rationally so I’ll let him off that one! The Searchers sound mighty good here. Spencer sounds at his best on these straightforward gusts of energy like this song and he sounds better still when surrounded by Searchers harmonies, his straightforward voice sounding particularly good alongside Frank’s slightly more arch and sour harmonies. It’s all good fun this track and it’s good to hear the band so enthusiastic about their music again after so many years away from the studio – even if they’re effectively only doing this for their American audience.
The country-rock weepie ‘Fooled Myself Once Again’ is the best of this album’s slow songs, mostly thanks to some more excellent harmonies between the pair of singers, though it has to be said that’s a relative measure. The Searchers’ ballads can be divided in two – the songs like ‘Til I Met You’ and ‘Sea Of Heartbreak’ that are as gorgeous as any slow songs by anybody out there and the rather boring dull ones like ‘Too Many Miles’ and ‘A Tear Fell’ where not much is happening. This alas is one of the latter, where the chorus takes so many seconds to sing and is repeated so many times across the song that it feels like time is standing still, while you know where all the lyrics are going from the title alone. Basically the narrator is so desperate for love he’s fallen in love with the wrong chick, again! ‘Goodbye My Love’ this ain’t, as there’s no sense of anything ‘real’ in this song and it’s clearly written to appeal to as many teenage girls as possible, not stretch The Searchers or their sound. However a very strong band performance almost rescues this, with Spencer singing properly this time and the appearance – at long last – of some classic McNally Rickenbacker, which plays ‘across’ the song in a U2 type way rather than simply doubling what the synths are doing. You wouldn’t want to hear this track too many times, but in context it’s not bad at all.
‘Baby I Do’ is a fun second Frank vocal and an even more 1950s derivative song that in other circumstances would come surrounded in a bunch of ‘shooby-dooby-doos’. The tune sounds a little like Starship’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’, but don’t hold that against this track as the song is much more inventive, with a busy synth-bass riff that’s almost surely played by Frank and the first ‘woahs’ I’ve heard on an AAA album in some time. The lyric is as simple as it gets – Frank tries to pluck up the courage to get a girl’s number and when she asks if he loves him replies ‘Baby I do!’ But better simple and fitting than complicated and wrong; The Searchers know exactly what they’re doing and turn in their best band performance of the record, gathering round the central synth riff and everyone performing at their best. Billy’s drums, real this time, sound especially good on this song whilst Frank’s lead vocal is a delight, twinkling with mischief throughout as he tries to act pure and innocent even though by this point he’s come a long way from the young sheltered life he had before becoming a Searcher. The 1950s revival was just growing cold in 1989 as people realised just how dumb and misogynistic the story of ‘Grease’ was and how bad many of the songs actually were. This song should have inspired a whole new explosion of love for the other decade that taste forgot as it’s such infectious good fun. You sense even in 1964, though, The Searchers might have rejected this for being too ‘simple’!
‘Push Push’ is the album’s most groundbreaking song. Not necessarily good – it all sounds a bit awkward with its stop-start structure and McNally’s flamenco guitar and a cold-hearted synth and artificial drum beat are not natural bedfellows. But at least it’s a sign that The Searchers were still trying to expand their sound right up to the end of their life as a recording band (they still continue touring to this day, with everybody but Billy still in the band from this line-up). Spencer sings sweetly about needing to ‘push’ through a relationship. In the song it’s about a romance that’s grown a bit stale and where the couples have just stopped talking in quite the same billing and cooing way they did when they first met. In context, here at the end of the album The Searchers knew was going to be their last for a while, it sounds more like a message to fans that the band can’t sit still and want to push hard to break new ground the way they always used to. This is certainly a song that’s trying hard to ‘push’ boundaries, but alas it’s not that memorable, just weird. There’s also the odd aspect that as well as ‘pushing’ on, the narrator is ‘pushing’ down, keeping a lid on feelings that are rising to the surface because he doesn’t want to think about the faults in his relationship. That seems an even odder message to leave us with: while I can imagine Mike Pender writing this song based on what he thought about the band and their direction in the 1980s (there’s a lot of similarly snarky songs on his period album – or rather albums given how many times it was re-issued with ‘extra tracks down the years - which is around as good, no better or worse, than this album), this seems a very odd and troubling message for a band who should be trying to put on a united front. Maybe The Searchers pushed just a little too far with this oddly unlikeable song?
The album ends with ‘Needles and Pins ’88. Slightly more together than ‘Sweets For My Sweet ‘88’ but still rather pointless, it seems very odd hearing Spencer singing where Mike once did and yet trying to follow his style to the letter. To be fair Spencer does a really good job in a difficult situation: Many fans hadn’t realised Mike had left the band when they heard this song on the radio so close are they are they. It’s all a little fast though, performed with the same breathless enthusiasm of ‘Sweets For My Sweets ‘88’, even though it’s not really that kind of a song. It should be slow, depressed and vulnerable but the production coating gives everything a surface sheen that coats everything in some sort of a fog and the performance isn’t so much guilty and sorrowful as bright eyed and bushy-tailed. What was, in 1964, one of the most daring and pioneering singles of its day, proving that there was more to Merseybeat groups than pure adrenalin and noise, has by 1989 become part of the furniture, just another pop song that nobody really means anymore designed to sell records. Even more than ‘Sweets’, this re-recording is a real shame. Even McNally’s guitar part – the major selling point of the Searchers’ original – is reduced to a cameo and swamped with synths. Whilst proving that The Searchers are still a good band, they’ll do this song much better in period concerts and this new arrangement is a farce, the Windows Ten of AAA updates offering things that nobody wanted in the first place without asking us and taking everything that made the original inventive and quirky.
Overall, then, ‘Hungry Hearts’ is the weakest Searchers album. It makes sense that this is the album recorded in Germany as the band’s career plummeted and bashed out as quickly as possible in four goes with four different producers – it sounds fragmented and a little desperate, as any band would after seven years without a record contract. However there are nuggets of greatness throughout as The Searchers prove occasionally that they still very much have what it takes to match any other band around in 1989. The bursts of enthusiasm on a song like ‘Baby I Do’, the new pioneering sound of ‘Push Push’, the shoulda-been-a-hit of ‘Lonely Weekend’, the cleverness of the happy-yet-sadness of ‘Every Little Tear’ – there’s enough here (just about) to satisfy old-timers while if you were the main demographic for this album on release in 1989 (young teenage Germans who had a respect and interest in ‘oldie’ music but also a deep intense knowledge of the current music scene) then you’d have gone home from the shops very happy indeed. It’s now in our modern age this album has become a bit of a problem: fans who adore The Searchers in concert (as they should) naturally look for the only album by the current line-up (drummer aside) and ‘Hungry Hearts’ comes as a shock, with Spencer sounding uncomfortable and over-singing. Plus 1989 is hardly an era most fans would want to revisit and yet this album is so of its time it pretty much comes with a rubber stamp, having dated far more in thirty years than the original Searchers quintet have in fifty. Not to mention the fact that, all these decades on, it seems likely now that The Searchers’ reputation and legacy will rest here, compilations aside, rather than on a more substantial and original work. There are many reasons to hate this album now, then (the current expensive price tag being another major point against this CD) but at the time, with this album a possible stepping stone to greater things, there was and is still much to admire. The Searchers are hungry desperate for attention and even if they don’t always go about getting that attention in the right way, it’s just good to hear them at all. It would have been nice if it had ‘Sounded Like Searchers’ just a little more, but even taken for what it’s worth, as one eighth of the output of one of Britain’s greatest ever bands, most of the time it’s enough.