Monday 9 July 2018

The Searchers: Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

You can now buy 'Once Upon A Time - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of The Searchers' in e-book form by clicking here 

I don't know about you, dear reader, but so far this book/website has seemed awfully studio-bound: yes there are the odd live albums dotted round in the discographies but a touring life was usually as important if not more so to our AAA artists. Even we can't go through every gig they ever played however, so what we've decided to do instead is bring you five particularly important gigs with a run-down of what was played, where and when and why we consider these gigs so important. Think of these as a sort of 'highlights' covering from first to last, to whet your appetite and to avoid ignoring a band's live work completely! The Searchers are one of our harder working bands, only now in the coming year about to enjoy a well earned retirement with news of a final tour ending in March 2019. Though it’s been thirty years since they last made a record, The Searchers have been touring regularly before and since then, with some two hundred odd shows a year adding up to several thousand concerts now. Here are a few of them – though we’ve kept this entry down to four parts this week so we can return and fill in the ‘last’ gig when we get the chance!

1)  Where: Litherland Town Hall, Liverpool When: February 10th 1960 Why: First Gig Setlist: Unknown

Though the 1960 date seems early enough anyway, The Searchers had been going in some form since 1957 when a teenage John McNally started a skiffle group at school before adding Mike Pender, Tony Jackson and Chris Curtis. The gig we’ve listed here is the first to be played under ‘The Searchers’ name and which featured all four ‘founding’ Searchers – along with their then lead vocalist Johnny Sandon, who back then took billing on all the early posters. It’s a sign, though, of how respected the just-named Searchers were and what a following they had that they were booked to play Litherland Town Hall on their first gig rather than a local club. Their setlist has been lost in the mists of time but was likely to include a similar setlist to what was recorded in 1963 as ‘The Iron Door Club Sessions’ : [8] ‘Let’s Stomp’ [9] ‘Ain’t That Just Like Me’ and [2] ‘Jambalaya’ were all early favourites, along with [44] ‘What’d I Say?’ and a Chris Curtis sung version of ‘I Who Have Nothing’. How did it go down? We don’t really know – nobody seems to have reviewed the gig and unlike some bands who still have clear memories of their first gig decades on The Searchers have never really talked about it.

2)  Where: Royal Aquarium Theatre, Great Yarmouth When: August 2nd 1964 Why: Last Gig With Tony Setlist: [53] Needles and Pins [13] Love Potion no 9 [23] Sugar and Spice [59] Don’t Throw Your Love Away [11] Sweets For My Sweet (sample setlist from July)
The year 1963 saw a breakthrough for The Searchers. By now the ‘house band’ at Dingle’s ‘Iron Door Club’, the band had lost Johnny Sandon but gained a real following, a record contract and two number one hit singles. Touring Britain a number of times that year, it looked as if 1964 was going to be another big year, but disagreements and discontent in the band hurt The Searchers in 1964 and by the Summer Tony Jackson was on his way out, singing just one lead vocal on third LP ‘It’s The Searchers’ and packing up his bass for good after this otherwise non-descript gig in Greater Yarmouth. Speculation still flies around as to why Tony quit when he did (or was he pushed?) Curtis was always adamant that he never liked Tony and wanted ‘Black Jake’ out of the band from the first, but he’d been a favourite with labelmasters Pye and as lead singer on their two number one hit singles his spot in the band seemed secure. It was only once ‘Needles’ became a hit with Pender on lead that the Searchers’ driving force of a drummer realised that there could be a future without him. Jackson’s drinking was also getting out of hand, as were his wild rages and it may be that the rest of the band were trying to ‘shock’ him back to normality with the threat of kicking him out the band – which he then took up, forming his own band ‘The Vibrations’ soon afterwards. It may be too that Jackson’s high pop falsetto was such a popular sound of 1963 that in the quickly changing world of popular music it was deeply out of fashion by 1964. What’s interesting is that this setlist (technically from two weeks earlier as nobody seems to know what was really played at that final gig with Tony) is still quite heavy on Jackson songs, as if both sides are still in denial about the split. Tony would have sang lead on three songs out of five as part of this concert package tour and the setlist changed a great deal by the time Frank Allen officially joined the band for the start of another tour (note: Frank's first gig as a Searcher came just a day later at a show in Coventry, with thanks to drummer Scott Ottoway and reader Nigel Dean for adding this info). For this show onwards the ‘Tony’ songs removed and replaced by two tracks that never appeared on album, [83] ‘Red Sails In The Sunset’ and [84] ‘Memphis Tennessee’ plus the latest Searcher single [74] ‘Someday We’re Gonna Love Again’).
3)  Where: Perth, Australia When: March 3rd 1966 Why: Last Gig With Chris Setlist: Unknown
It’s less of a mystery, though just as controversial, why Chris in turn got pushed out of the band that he had become almost single-handedly in charge of by 1966. Chris suffered something of a nervous breakdown in this period, playing with an unhappy band who were sliding down the charts on a weary tour down under that lasted weeks and found the band physically as far away from ‘home’ as it’s possible to get. It didn’t help that the band were on a support bill again, having dropped from their position at the top of the bill, and underneath another ‘failed’ act too in P J Proby (the two acts have met up since and in a role reversal Proby got his part in the recent ‘Solid Silver Sixties’ tour partly on the back of Frank Allen’s nomination). Taking an increasing number of pills to get him through the gigs Chris was ‘unstable’, having manic episodes that led to the rest of the band flushing his pills down a hotel loo to try to shake him out of it – this only made Curtis more defensive and bitter. From his point of view he thought The Searchers were dead – they had released their fifth and last album for Pye at the end of 1965 (delayed from the Summer to appeal to the ‘festive market’) and their singles had been noble failures for much of the past year. The music world had moved on from the ‘Merseybeat’ sound so identified with The Searchers and yet wouldn’t ‘allow’ them to push into folk-rock (their dominant sound of 1965) or a growing interest in psychedelia. Curtis, feeling that he’d let the band down with his choice of singles ([101] ‘When I Get Home’, his first original A-side especially) and desperate to keep having hits with someone, anyone, was torn between letting the band he’d done so much for down and having a last gasp of a chance doing something else. In the end his health rather decided for him and many people assumed that this would spell the end for The Searchers, given that Chris was a focal point of the band in terms of material and direction. Instead they bounced back with a new, much heavier-sounding drummer John Blunt as early as early as nine days later with a performance at Birmingham’s Town Hall. From this point on its Frank who will end up being the ‘showman Searcher’ making most of the announcements and being the band’s biggest cheerleader, a role he still plays to this day.
4)  Where: London When: December 1985 Why: Last Gig With Mike Setlist: Unknown
Almost as big a shock came nineteen years later when Mike decided that the clock was ticking and he wanted to try and make it as a solo artist (his band’s response? ‘A solo artist? He was forty-sodding-three!’) By now Mike had become the band’s lead singer following his ‘breakthrough’ on [53] ‘Needles and Pins’ and had sung the main part on a good 80% of the band’s material. The loss of the band’s record contract with Sire (when they were booked to make a third album before the label got swallowed up during a takeover) really hit him hard; he’d held on for years in the hope that The Searchers would get to make more records one day and the loss of this chance and the prospect of another lengthy wait was too much. With so many Searchers gigs booked across 1984 and 1985 he agreed to see out the end of the tour and then agree to go their separate ways. He also came back for a final special show in London three months after his last ‘regular’ gig with the band. Unfortunately no label was interested in Mike as a solo singer and the only job he could get was putting his own version of The Searchers together, effectively competing in an already shrinking market with his old band which left more bad blood than the last two splits combined. The other Searchers were having too much fun to stop and after a lot of deliberation chose Spencer James as their new lead vocalist, with his first gig coming nine months later as part of the aptly named gig ‘The Greatest Blues, Soul and Rock and Roll Revival Ever!’ Revival is, it seems, the word for The Searchers who have survived four major upheavals in their lifetime (including Johnny Sandon’s) and yet still come out fighting. Alas the stroke suffered by final founding member John McNally in 2017 looks as if it will spell the start of a final chapter for the band, with one final lengthy ‘farewell’ gig due for the end of 2018 into 2019.
*Note that entry number five will be added in due course when the very final Searchers gig takes place*

That passing on of the musical baton works the other way too. Back in the mid 1960s everybody was covering Beatle songs, but more than a few hip bands began to cover their rivals instead including some fascinating versions of Searcher songs./ Then The Searchers became an even bigger cult for the new wave crowd, in the era of chiming ringing guitars and they became darlings to a whole new generation. For this section we’ve stuck to original songs that The Searchers wrote, plus one song that became a big hit only after they had done it (reclaimed by the song’s authors!), although by far the two most covered songs ‘originated’ by The Searchers remain, of course, ‘Sweets For My Sweet’ and ‘Sugar and Spice’.

1)  [89] Too Many Miles (The Steel Chords, B-side 1966)
The Steel Chords are a Norwegian group who began their career in 1961 covering Shadows instrumentals before switching their sound when The Beatles became big. The fab four, though, would have been proud of the way they always refused to cover the obvious songs the way their peers were doing and the way they always looked for obscure gems to re-work for their audience. One of their more successful covers is this sweet Searchers original, originally recorded for their last (and best) 1960s LP ‘Take Me For What I’m Worth’, which means that they must be about the only four people in the world to own a copy of this deeply rare but beautiful album except me! I always thought The Searchers’ version was a great song looking for a good home, with an ugly folk riff pasted in on top and a country-rockish lilt that didn’t suit them one bit. What they were really waiting for was psychedelia – and that’s what The Steel Chords have discovered a year on. Though the band struggle with the English pronunciation sometimes (‘Miles’ is not an easy word to sing), their backing is better, switching the flute riff to a mellotron and replacing the country tones with a lovely bass-drum interplay. Sadly this song was only ever released as a flipside; evidence that they really did own a copy of the Searchers’ fifth album comes in what the Aside was: a rollicking version of  Fats Domino’s  [85] ‘I’m Ready’, which owes a lot to the Searchers’ arrangement (but with a Farfisa Organ where the guitars should be!) It can be found on the various artists set ‘Beat and Piggtrad’, while The Steel Chords are themselves still going as of 2018 with a facebook group detailing their latest tour. 
2)  [98] Til’ I Met You (Samuel Hui, ‘Time Of The Season’ 1976)
Hong Kong star Sam Hui must have had an even bigger collection of rare Merseybeat records to know about this exquisite flipside, one of the best things The Searchers ever did. The originator of ‘Cantopop’, Hui was pretty much on his own mixing local influences with the 1960s Western records he loved and this song is one of his best ideas at uniting the two. The Searchers’ original was acoustic, gentle and soft, but this arrangement plays with power and panache, adding a thick heavy sound that suits it really well. This version of the song seems more hopeless and desperate somehow, each verse punctuated by a drum roll and a sense of claustrophobia despite the happy words. The usual ‘Cantonese’ echo on the voice, too, is an odd touch but a lovely one once you get used to it, making this piece sound the way it would have done with the ‘Spector’ wall of sound heard on that fifth Searchers LP.
3) [  ] Hearts In Her Eyes (The Records, A-Side 1980)
You don’t get much more cult than new wave favourites ‘The Records’ who released four very well regarded and loved records in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While they often spoke in period journals about their twin influences being The Beatles and The Kinks (what excellent taste!) I always felt that they owed much more to The Searchers: the jangling guitar, the stiff upper lip hiding real emotion, the harmonies…they could easily have come out of the 1960s had it not been for some of the production sound they used. They were certainly fans enough to provide this song to the band’s little-known reunion album in 1980. The Searchers fell in love with this little tune (did they hear a demo? Or is this the demo?) before the single inevitably became a flop and The Records ‘borrowed’ it back again. There aren’t that many differences: lead singer and co-author John Wicks sounds as if he’s on some hazy drug I guess (whereas Mike Pender sounds drunk!) so that The Records are more detached than The Searchers, that’s about all! The song became one of The Records’ biggest hits – indeed one of their only hits – proving that you can’t keep a good idea down.


'It's The Searchers' (1964)

‘Sounds Like Searchers’ (1965)

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

'The Searchers' (1979/1980)

'Play For Today' aka 'Love's Melodies' (1981)

‘Hungry Hearts’ (1988)

Surviving TV Clips  and The Best Unreleased Recordings

Solo Recordings 1964-1967 and 1984

Non-Album Recordings Part One 1963-1967  

Non-Album Recordings Part Two  1968-2012 

Live/Solo/Compilation/US LPs/'Re-Recordings In Stereo’ Part One: 1964-1987

Live/Solo/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part Two:  1990-2014

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