David A Ellis writes~ The Searchers started their recording career back in 1963. Their first big hit was Sweets for my Sweet, followed by catchy songs such as Sugar and Spice and Needles and Pins.
The line up back then was John McNally, Mike Pender, Chris Curtis and Tony Jackson. Jackson left the group in 1964 followed by drummer Chris Curtis in 1966. Frank Allen, who is still with the band, replaced Jackson. John Blunt took the drumsticks after Curtis’s departure. In 1969 it was Billy Adamson that was banging the drums. Eddie Roth took over in 1998 and was beating the drums until his departure in 2010. Mike Pender left in 1985 to set up Mike Pender’s Searchers, which is also still going today. He was replaced by Spencer James. So we have two groups knocking out all the hits. Sadly, Tony Jackson passed away in 2003, followed by Chris Curtis in 2005.
The present line-up is John McNally, Frank Allen, Spencer James and Scott Ottaway on drums. This interview with McNally, who was born in 1941 in Liverpool, was conducted before an appearance at the Gladstone theatre, Port Sunlight in Cheshire. As a youth he suffered from TB and it was while recovering that he took up the guitar. He says if he hadn’t been ill he wouldn’t have bothered to learn it. He is the only original member of the original band. Despite Frank Allen being in his late sixties and McNally in his seventies, the enthusiasm is as strong as ever and the band tour extensively.
What got you interested in joining a group?
I started playing skiffle around the street corners in the 1950s. Tony West, a friend of mine suggested we start a band. Eventually Tony went into the motor trade and I got other people in. Later Tony ran Tony West Entertainments. Some didn’t stay long but in the end it was me, Mike Pender, Tony Jackson and Chris Curtis.
What type of music influenced you as a youngster?
I had an older brother who went to sea and brought American records back. First of all he brought Hank Williams stuff home followed by many others. All this music had a great influence.
When were the Searchers formed?
It was in the late fifties, the name came from the 1956 film The Searchers. We all had day jobs and we turned professional when The Star club in Hamburg, Germany came on the scene. First of all we took a month off work to allow us to go over. They asked us back again so we asked our parents if we could pack our jobs in, which they weren’t too happy about. They said we would never make a living playing music. I was working as a semi-skilled fitter. Mike was a floor layer, Chris worked in a pram shop and Tony was an electrician.
How did you get spotted for recording?
The Beatles had made it with Love me Do and Brian Epstein had signed others up. Epstein came to the cavern club when we were appearing. We were last on and before that we were in The Grapes public house and got a little worse for wear, so Brian said I’ll pass on you. We thought then that we were going to miss the boat. We decided to go to the Iron Door club in Liverpool and make a demonstration record. We sent it around and were approached by music man Tony Hatch. He said, “I like what is on it, can you come down to London and record.” We said, no problem, we are on our way to The Star club, Hamburg anyway, we will nip into the PYE recording studios at Marble Arch. That is what we did; recorded Sweets for my Sweet, then went over to Germany.
While we were away they said they were going to release Sweets for my Sweet. So it was quite an exciting period. Then it wasn’t selling and we thought we had definitely missed the boat. John Lennon was asked what was his favourite record at the moment. He said Sweets for my Sweet. The press in London thought ‘who are they,’ they thought we were American. Once Lennon had said that, it was in all the music papers, becoming number one in two weeks.
Who was the lead singer on that?
It was Tony Jackson; all the early stuff was Tony.
Was Needles and Pins Tony?
No, Needles and Pins was Mike Pender. Tony Hatch didn’t feel Tony was right for the lead vocal on that number. It was after this that Tony wasn’t happy and said he was leaving the group. Tony was the hard edge of the band. Suddenly we were led into a country rock field with Mike’s voice, my voice and Chris’s voice. Chris had one of those amazing voices that could mimic anyone. All his harmonies are beautiful and his rock and roll stuff is superb. From the time Tony left, Chris did all the hard stuff. Tony had that solid, rough Liverpool edge on it, a bit like Lennon. He was sadly missed when he left.
Did you ever think of leaving and going solo?
No, I’m not that egotistical. It doesn’t bother me; I run and own the band with Frank Allen – it’s just something I always wanted to do.
Did your songs require a number of takes in the studio?
Not in the early days. We recorded twelve songs for the first album in one night. It wasn’t until later that we started experimenting with over dubbing.
How long did it take to record a single?
The early singles only took a couple of takes to get them in the can. We did more recordings and releases than the Beatles in a period of three years. The Beatles were allowed to experiment, we weren’t. We were worked hard because at the time they thought we would only be around for a short time.
Finally, did you sometimes have session musicians to create extra sounds in the studio?
No, not in the early days. When we did the Liberty recordings abroad, which I don’t like one bit, they brought in extra people to finish them off. A band has got individuality, its like when the Beatles brought in Billy Preston and people like that doing stuff on recordings – it doesn’t work.
David A Ellischestercinemas.co.uk