When was the last time you helped change the course of popular music? Or even awoke from a dream where, 50 years previously, you had shared an evening bill with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Animals. When was the last time you kept a touring group together as long as the Rolling Stones? If your answer to these questions was “never” it is because they are questions that are usually only pondered by half-awake music writers who sit upon their unkempt porch looking out at overcast days while listening to The Searchers – a band who always encourage the sun to shine and who – incidentally – have achieved all of these things and more.
Mysterion Art Factory asked The Searchers legendary bass player and vocalist Frank Allen a few questions about 50 years of achieving while he prepared for his bands’ 2014 national tour of Australia.
Firstly, what are the top five 45rpm singles that influenced your playing and sound when you first started out?
Heartbreak Hotel, Bye Bye Love, That’ll Be The Day, Good Golly Miss Molly, Be Bop A Lula. But ask me again tomorrow and it will be completely different!
Like their Northern beat group contemporaries The Hollies, Gerry & the Pacemakers, and some other group called The Beatles, The Searchers were born out of the home-grown skiffle craze that swept over the English youth in the 1950’s. The bands’ founding members John McNally and Mike Pender soon turned their attentions to American Rock and Roll – a journey which would send them, like many of the Liverpool beat groups, to the clubs of Hamburg and the famous Liverpool-band testing ground of the Cavern. The blend of beat and harmony was perfected on stage and then, in 1963, The Searchers were signed by producer Tony Hatch for a deal with Pye Records. Their first two massive UK hit singles “Sweets for my Sweet” and “Sugar and Spice” were then followed by their first hit in the US with “Needles and Pins” in March 1964. Within the following month The Beatles were to take all top 5 positions on the US chart – heralding the flood of the greatest harmonies and songs the world has ever seen. It was amongst this hurricane of pop history that Frank Allen joined The Searchers, leaving Cliff Bennett and The Rebel Rousers for a journey that has continued for half a century.
Was there a defining moment when you realized the impact that Liverpool was going to have on the world stage musically?
I first thought The Beatles were really going to hit the charts on the 1st Jan 1963 when Horst Fascher, the Star Club manager, played the acetate pressing of Please Please Me over the club system just after they left for the U.K. (I was there with Cliff Bennett & the Rebel Rousers then). But I suppose it wasn’t until She Loves You came out I really thought things had changed forever.
A look at the Searchers mid-sixties back catalogue is a look at some of the greatest pop writers of all time. Are there any songs that you or John look back on and wish the band had recorded during the Pye years?
Apparently we had been offered "You’ve Got Your Troubles" and turned it down. We don’t recall doing that and we would have been mad to refuse it. But then I can’t see that we or anyone would have done as good a job as The Fortunes did. A wonderful performance and harmonies that were much better than ours.
As modern pop generations come and go in the blink of an eye it becomes increasingly harder to picture a time when the Beatles had contemporaries – least of all rivals. But in the years of 1963-1965 the Searchers poured out hit pop songs and albums at a rate that would make most bands of today cringe with envy. The perfect Everly Brother-esque harmonies of “When You Walk In The Room”, “What Have They Done to the Rain” and “Love Potion no.9” were matched with an onstage beat ferocity spearheaded by the bands stick-waving drummer and high harmony vocalist Chris Curtis. One only has to see footage of the Searchers perform “What’d I Say” at their first NME Poll Winners Concert in 1964 to see a drummer (and band featuring original bass player Tony Jackson in one of his last acts with the group) seemingly hell-bent on upstaging everyone else on the bill. By April 1964 The Beatles live act had already been reduced to a circus of screams and raw nerves. Chris Curtis and The Searchers however, took the energy being howled at them and turned it into something completely different – a collective of mass hysteria for both fan and performer alike. At points there seemed to be no-one in either the audience or band – outside of Chris Curtis himself – who knew where and when the song would end. Whether Chris Curtis was conscious of upstaging the most famous band of all time will have to remain a mystery. Maybe it was just that Liverpool soul – that ability to “Mach Shau” – that made (and will forever make) The Searchers and the collective of groups unknown as the Mersey Beat sound so important to the history of Western music.
It is impossible to imagine a more daunting list of bands to share a bill with than the NME poll winner’s concerts of the mid-sixties. What was it like playing alongside peers in the caliber of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Donovan and The Animals? What was the electricity like backstage? Was the atmosphere more communal than competitive?
To be honest they were just other bands who were fortunate enough to be making it. I was in awe of almost everyone but didn’t realise quite how phenomenally important some of them were to be. If I had I would have spent a lot more time slimy creeping to The Beatles and The Stones.
The Searchers covered both “Da Doo Ron Ron” & “Be My Baby”, and also shared an early episode of “Ready, Steady, Go!” with Phil Spector. Did you get to meet him, and did anyone in the band ever hear what he thought of the Searchers versions of “his” songs?
We didn’t get to meet him. I wish I had. He was a ground breaking legend. Completely loopy perhaps so maybe it was good our paths didn’t cross but I would not have turned down the chance. By the way, we never shared RSG with him. I don’t know where that info came from. I would have remembered. (Ed. Ready Steady Go Episode listings state Episode 26 of Series One hosts The Searchers with a special guest appearance by Spector in January of 1964, months prior to Frank Allen joining the band. No bootleg in our collection has the episode. If Dave Clark would be so kind as to let us into his Ready Steady Go archive we would could clarify the issue – nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more….)
Popular culture attracts popular myth like a moth to a flame. We humans, for whatever reason, rely on genres and pigeon-holes to keep our lives in a seemingly ordered pile of facts and figures. And so popular history (and probably Wikipedia) tells us that in 1966 The Beatles went psychedelic, and in the process killed off Mersey Beat, and The Searchers, forever. Fortunately we have the music to prove “history” wrong. The Searchers studio ventures of 1965 created some of the most daring and brilliant breakthrough examples of stereo separation in recorded music. The Searchers only misfortune was that “He’s Got No Love” was released within weeks of The Stones’ “Satisfaction” and The Beatles “Help”. In an age where hit singles were raining from all angles The Searchers lost vital ground. Then, in 1966, another key turned when Chris Curtis left the group to follow his own visions of recording and producing. With a vital particle gone from the atom – the band as a major creative force (like the sixties itself) drifted into a dreamtime of “did that all really happen?” All one has to do is put the needle down on a Searchers record (or go and see them live!) to know that it really did.
“Goodbye My Love” and “Take Me For What I’m Worth” are marvels of early Stereo production – still a new thing in 1965. Did Tony Hatch ever converse with the band about the process of mixing and studio production – or was the band’s focus mainly on the arrangement and recording?
Tony was in charge of production but certainly Chris Curtis took a great interest in every aspect and was watching every move in the mixing process. Chris did of course go on to produce although alas unsuccessfully to the greater extent. He did manage some minor chart entries. Tony Hatch was very aware of the U.S. market so he always made sure he did a basic stereo mix, an advantage that many of our contemporaries did not have. By the time we made Goodbye My Love we had more tracks available by linking two 8 track machines and we were able to overdub much more. On that disc we doubled up the drums a la Spector and boosted the harmonies. We were very pleased with the end result. But it didn’t make the top spot and we had to settle for number three. Take Me For What I’m Worth was a record we liked but our popularity had begun to wane partly through some bad choice of singles like He’s Got No Love and When I Get Home. Not bad songs but not strong enough. We should have taken much more care.
The last words (or in this case melody) of any Searchers article should only belong to a Searcher – to a soul who sees and experiances life – to a musician who – even after 50 years of being the soundtrack to peoples lives still believes that he should have taken more care. But then again – not all dreams are meant to be analysed.
Listen and love – The Searchers……
Very Special thank you to Wendy for assistance in keeping contact with Frank Allen on tour.
For a detailed history of The Searchers and all upcoming tour dates to catch the band in full flight go