The Searchers InterviewPosted on: 09 May 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves
Searcher Frank Allen tells 50connect the story behind the band's success, splits and sweet sixties sound.
The Searchers were one of the most influential groups to emerge from the heady days of the Mersey era. They notched up a run of over 18 hit records, including three number ones - Sweets For My Sweet, Needles & Pins and Don't Throw Your Love Away.
Named after the classic 1956 John Wayne movie, The Searchers came together in the early sixties and like their fellow Liverpudlians, the Beatles, they headed for the revered Star Club in Hamburg. There they developed their repertoire and unique sound, playing alongside such US greats as Ray Charles and Gene Vincent, and met bassist Frank Allen, who joined the band in 1964.
In a remarkable career now spanning five decades, The Searchers are still led by John McNally and Frank Allen from those glory days and now aided by Spencer James and Ed Rother. They have continued touring the world, thrilling audiences of all ages with some of the most memorable songs ever recorded. Frank told me why they keep going.
"Liking what you do is the main thing. Most people go to work to earn money, but we started out because it was what we were desperate to do, and somehow just kept going for 45 years. It can become a drain if you fall out of love with what you do, but luckily we never have. I enjoy it more now than ever - I'm just an old ham, I love getting on stage, playing music, and getting the applause. If you've got three things in place - an audience to make it pay, your health so you are able to do it, and enthusiasm, then why stop? The Rolling Stones are having a great time, they look so happy - good on them."
It seems like only yesterday that we were watching The Searchers on Tops of the Pops, so it's rather sobering to realise that they have their bus passes.
"I got my free travel at sixty so I use that all the time. It's a bit of a shock when people don't show any surprise when I tell them how old I am because I don't feel any older. I think your brain stays somewhere round about 25. I'll be a pensioner later this year but it doesn't frighten me in the slightest."
Of course The Searchers' fans have grown up too.
"When we first made it back in '64 and '65 there were young girls screaming so we just had to get on stage and play 20 minutes of hits. Over the years our audience changed from noisy teenagers with all those hormones, to adults who want to be entertained, so we have to plan our shows these days. We bother an awful lot about the structure and pace of the show and communication with the people out front. That's how we want it to be. The music is carefully thought out and it's lovely stuff, it should be listened to."
Although The Searchers have been recording new songs since the 1960s, which not all sixties groups do, the band still base their shows around their hits.
"It would be a real cheat if we tried to say, we're not interested in our old stuff, we just want to do new material. We don't indulge ourselves and play a new album in its entirety - people don't have to sit through things before they get to what they want. Anything new is introduced carefully into the show, and picked because we quite honestly know they'll like it before they've even heard it."
While The Searchers are in demand again now, they were forced to learn how to put on a good show when they fell out of fashion.
"In those late '60s and early '70s years we were untouchable. We'd stopped having hits and weren't flavour of the month any more. We went into cabaret, which was a dirty word for a lot of people, but the great thing about that period from our point of view was learning how to control audiences, involve them and make sure they have a good night out. We had to, because that was our livelihood. It stood us in good stead and I think we've taken notice of that more than most of our contemporaries."
The band came close to giving up after a decade in the pop wilderness.
"We coped as best we could. Money was scarce so we had to cut our bills down enormously. We were no longer staying in 5 star hotels, we switched to bed and breakfasts. Though we never travelled in limousines because in those days there wasn't that kind of money about, during the 1970s we were travelling in the back of the old Ford Transit with the gear. We were really just existing and making sure we could get through the whole thing, thinking that the money would carry on going down and at some point we'd have to call a halt to it because it wasn't worth doing any more."
Thankfully the situation improved, enabling the band to turn the corner and be still going strong today.
"Once we'd got most of the '70s out of the way the nostalgia boom started, then in the mid '80s it took off in a pretty big way. I'm not talking about compared to major acts now who are recognised everywhere they go and draw arena size crowds - we draw theatre size crowds in the main, but we never thought we'd be there 45 years on. That's pretty good going."
It was in 1985 when the band were beginning to taste success again that lead singer Mike Pender left.
"It was such a shock. I can't tell you what a shock it was. It was an incredibly depressing and frightening time. There's no disguising that there's a lot of bitterness, we can't pretend there isn't. I don't think John can bear to be in the same room as Mike, and they were boyhood friends. I'm a bit more philosophical about it. It was planned behind our backs, things were going on that we didn't know about and it was actually revealed to me first by an agent."
Frank might have understood Mike trying to make it on his own, but feels that his plan to leave did not involve this.
"It wasn't going solo at all, it was going out with a group of people who had no history with the band, using a version of the name of The Searchers, trying to set up a rival and take the lion's share of the work. Luckily it didn't work like that. John and I dug our heels in, invested thought, time and money into the show and fought two court cases to retain the name, which we did. We had to fight tooth and nail to make sure that we emerged victorious. It was scary, it could have gone the other way. Neither John nor I were lead singer, but I think we cared more about the band and the music. Mike would probably have a different opinion about that."
The issue never really goes away, according to Frank.
"It was always a bit of a toothache hanging around to know that there was a rival outfit going around competing for the same work. We're often having to warn clubs because they're mis-advertising and so on, but it's just something we have to deal with in the end. Some things in life you have to go along with and get over."
After all the anxiety, life turned out well for the remaining Searchers.
"Mike leaving coincided with the year that things really took off. Up to the beginning of '86 it was going well but as soon as '86 kicked in it spurted forward. We went on a great big tour of the States which was phenomenal, and started the Solid Silver Sixties tour the year after which was sold out everywhere from beginning to end, and is still going now 20 odd years later.
"We did Wembley Stadium with Cliff Richard, in front of 80,000 people, and the Millennium New Years Eve with Cliff, then he sang with us the year before last at the show we did at Wentworth. All these special things just keep happening to us. We've been lucky to a great extent and clever in another way."
The Searchers have certainly been through a lot since Frank joined the band. He seems to have found the pressure of those early days easy compared to more recent times. He told me how he met the group.
"I'd known the band before they made it anyway. I was in a recording band and they were not a recording band. Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers was one of the most highly thought of bands in the British isles, it was a phenomenal band. Cliff Bennett was and still is one of the best rhythm and blues singers anywhere by a yard, and the big band with sax and keyboards was fantastic. I was in that band for three years and loved it, but then I'd met The Searchers at the end of 1962 at the Star Club in Hamburg and got on with them really well. They'd only just turned professional and were dreaming of a record contract whereas by that time we were an established recording band who'd already made about six singles."
Taking over from Tony Jackson six months later, after Needles & Pins hit the chart, didn't phase Frank.
"There they were, number one in the chart. They'd got their recording contract in the wake of the Beatles. These guys who I accidentally happened to pal up with because I liked them were suddenly international stars. I was just enjoying their company, hanging on to their coat-tails and getting invited to their soirees. I never thought anything was going to happen, then they asked me to join the band, so I said yes. I didn't feel frightened, you don't when you're young - I was 20. The music wasn't that complicated, I could play it after listening to the records without any great rehearsal. I don't know if that's brash of me but I didn't feel nervous at all. It was just great fun and a dream come true."
Despite being part of a Mersey group, Frank hails from Hayes, Middlesex. As the recent decapitation of Ringo Starr's topiary counterpart in Liverpool - after the Beatle said he missed nothing about the city - demonstrates, Liverpudlians believe their city's the best and don't take kindly to those who suggest otherwise. However they and Frank grew to appreciate each other.
"That was a bit of a bugbear for people from Merseyside. It's an insular city and they're very precious about their own, unlike any other city I've ever known. Whereas if I'd joined a Manchester band they would have sort of said, oh, you got a new member of the band, in Liverpool it was, what are you doing getting that southern jessie in the band? It was like that for a long time, only with a few, but there were times in Liverpool when some people were very vocal about it and it would upset me.
"Most of the people there took to me and I took to them very well indeed and it's never a problem now. Gradually over the years they got used to me and I would like to think they liked me as well. It's my second home really. Liverpool's a great city, full of character, full of great people, and I love going there."
One of the amazing aspects of the Mersey era was the amount of success British bands had in the USA, and for Frank and The Searchers it marked the beginning of a relationship that has lasted until today.
"The first time for me was back in '64 and that was my dream because I never ever thought I'd get to America. That's where our music started and I desperately wanted to be there."
He remembers being part of an astounding line-up one week at the Fox theatre in Brooklyn.
"It was a Murray the K show, with a bill like you'd never believe. We were the big cheese at that time, because if you were British you were gods, all the kids flocked there to see us. There was Dusty Springfield and Millie with My Boy Lollipop - we were the English contingent. Then there was Marvin Gaye, Martha & the Vandellas, the Supremes, the Miracles, the Contours, the Temptations, Little Anthony & the Imperials, Shangri Las, the Dovells, the Ronettes, the Newbeats, Jay & the Americans - I've probably forgotten some. This was six shows a day for a week with all these people, you couldn't imagine a show like that. I've still got photographs of me and Smokey Robinson. You don't ever dream you're going to meet your idols like that, it's probably one of the greatest memories ever."
Even when The Searchers were no longer the hot new act, the USA welcomed them.
"In the '80s we got taken seriously by an American record label, Fire Records, the label at the time of Madonna, Talking Heads, Flamin' Groovies and the Ramones. They put a lot of effort into promoting our album. We didn't get the hits but we got a lot of recognition. We were able to go to the States and do club tours and re-establish ourselves."
In the last six years their popularity has increased again in the USA, where their fanbase extends to punk stars.
"We've reached that stage in our career where the wheel has turned full circle. We were like teenage idols, then we became untouchable and fallen idols, then if you let it go round long enough you become living legends! It turns out we have these big fans, people like Marshall Crenshaw, Bruce Springsteen and the Ramones were all influenced by the band. Marky Ramone the surviving drummer came to see us in New York last year, and played Needles & Pins with us, because they recorded it on one of their albums and he was desperate to get on stage. It was great. Joey Ramone came to see us in the early '80s, so it's nice to know these people have been affected by our music."
This summer, after playing in a New York rock club, casinos in Canada, Las Vegas and Disneyworld, The Searchers are back in the UK, promoting their The Very Best Of album. This release is proving to be popular reaching number 11 in the UK album charts.
"I left choosing the tracks to John. It's difficult, especially over a wide ranging period. Everyone has their favourites, but there are none I wouldn't have on albums. It's a pretty good history of the band, it covers up to the Fire period at the beginning of the '80s."
There are also plenty of opportunities to see The Searchers live this year.
"We did a fraction under 200 shows last year. It's going to be a little easier this year, then next year we'll go out to Australia and New Zealand for six weeks then go straight into the three month Solid Silver tour."
Frank's not complaining about the workload, so it looks like The Searchers will be giving their fans 'needles and pins' for years yet.
"We're used to working hard. Not many people get to do this do they? You hear all these rock stars going on about how strenuous it is on the road, what a load of - it can be tiring but let's get things in proportion. The people to admire are those digging up a road at 6 o'clock on a winter's morning - that's hard work. If it was going to be a chore then we would stop doing it, I don't need to do it, but we like what we do and I would miss it badly."
By Cherry Butler
The Searchers are in Staffordshire on 10th August for the Burntwood Sixties Summer Festival.
You can purchase The Very Best Of The Searchers from all good record stores, or online at Amazon for £9.99.
The Searchers' official website: www.the-searchers.co.uk
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