Legendary British group The Searchers have been wowing audiences for the past five decades, starting with their very first hit, Sweets for My Sweet, in 1963.
The group will present their 50th anniversary show at the Glasshouse in Port Macquarie this month, and bassist Frank Allen tells us why we shouldn’t miss the experience …
In the past fifty years, the band must have witnessed some massive changes in terms of visiting Australia and also in the music industry. What do you think has changed the most?
Australia has very much grown up as a country. We first came over in ’64, and it was early days for television, the pubs still shut early, the Opera House was still being built – but we still loved it. I’ve seen the country grow so much, and Australia is one of our international centres now. It’s amazing how Australia’s come of age!
The music business has changed a lot, because it’s much more professional now. Every generation of musicians learns from the generation before – we learn from the music, the mannerisms … we take our knowledge from the idols of the time, and each generation takes it one step further.
The kids coming through these days perform so incredibly well and are so professional … we didn’t really have an ‘act’ back in those early days, or a concept; we didn’t really push ourselves too much. We see the new kids these days, and they do all this; they have the moves – like Beyoncé – and have great voices too. I don’t approve of the miming on stage these days … our shows have to be live – but all credit to the kids these days, because they can certainly perform.
Over the years, The Searchers have had a few line up changes. When did you actually join, and how did that actually come about?
I was the first line up change actually, for the professional band. The band turned professional in ’62, which is why this is our 50th anniversary year. In ’63 the band started with John, Chris, Mike and Tony; I’d met them at the beginning of ’63 in Hamburg before The Searchers ever started recording. I’d been with a band that had been recording – we’d had about 6 singles out at that time – a very well respected band called Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers, which was a serious R&B band.
The Searchers had just stopped being a semi-pro outfit and were taking their first steps. I loved the band and got on really well with them, and 6 months later they had the chance to record for themselves and their first record, Sweets for my Sweet, shot to number one. They went on with Sugar and Spice, Needles and Pins, Don’t Throw your Love Away and all the other hits.
By mid-1964, the band members hadn’t been getting on with Tony Jackson. I’d been hanging around with the band and enjoying their reflected glory, going to see their shows and watching in awe, and suddenly Tony was leaving to be a solo act. They needed a bass player, and they asked me. So on August 3, 1964, I joined The Searchers, and about one month later I came out to Australia for the very first time.
By the time we came out to Australia, we had our new record, When You Walk in the Room released, which was the first one I played on – and I was lucky to share a lead vocal on that one as well. It was the biggest hit we ever had in Australia – it went to number one!
When You Walk in the Room is definitely my favourite hit …
That’s fantastic. It’s actually mine too, and not just because I was involved with it. I also loved Sweets for My Sweet, which I had nothing to do with. But, When You Walk in the Room is such a classic, direct Pop song; it’s got an incredibly catchy tune, it has great lyrics, and it has that incredible guitar sound – which makes the song really shine.
The whole ‘Liverpool phenomenon’ – what’s your take on that? Why have so many great bands, including The Searchers, had their origins in Liverpool? Is there something in the water over there?
Well … it may have something to do with the water, because Liverpool is a sea port. It’s a very, very rough town full of character, as sea ports do tend to be. There was a lot of influence from America, as there were a lot of American records and instruments imported there that were impossible to get in the rest of the UK.
I don’t know how Liverpool got to become such an insular place, but it’s a big town that’s also like a village. As far as the people of Liverpool are concerned, no one outside of Liverpool really counts for much. Liverpool is everything! The town has a character that’s not like any place else in the UK – in that way, I guess it was a bit of a closed community. They had their own musical community as well.
When I travelled to Hamburg for the first time, it was the first time I realised there were all these bands doing the clubs – and there was nothing like it in the south. They all knew each other, they shared the same stage, they had their own chart list of favourite bands. It was really a kind of weird thing to see from the outside – an also to be a part of.
What do you think was the band’s best decade musically – or do you think the best is still yet to come?
My best time is on stage, whenever that is. I certainly think one of the best times is now, because we’ve grown up as people and we know how to conduct a show and get the best out of an audience.
I would love to go back and experience those hit days again, because to be quite honest, I was far too young to really appreciate what was happening and to realise how important it was. And also to enjoy myself … (laughs). I was a teetotaller until I was in my 40s, and I wasn’t loose enough to take full advantage and really enjoy all the mad things that young people used to do. So, that probably could have been the best time of my life – it was certainly the most exciting, travelling to other countries and producing hit records.
But, we’ve had great times and bigger shows since. In 1989 at Wembley Stadium with Cliff Richard, we had two days with 80,000 people each day – we never had that in the ‘60s. It was fantastic!
In 1990-91, we did the Royal Variety Show and were introduced to the Queen. This was when we thought our career was probably almost over. And when we really thought we were out of chances in 2009, we had a number 11 chart album, just out of nowhere! So, things happen all the time.
The show you’re touring at the moment is about singing, a bit of reminiscing and a whole lot of entertaining …
It’s more a history of the band in music and stories, in the main. We play the hits, but we also realise our fans know everything we recorded, so we try to fit in a lot of the album tracks, the ‘B’ sides, tell short stories about who wrote the song or about our first tour of Australia. This may often lead into another song … for instance, when we first toured Australia in ’64, we were headlining a show where the main support was Del Shannon, so we often throw a Del Shannon song in to reminisce about those glorious days.
In ’66 we toured with the Rolling Stones, and we got the song Take It Or Leave It from them on that tour. There are stories about most of the songs in our repertoire.
Has the travelling you’ve done and the experiences you’ve had helped you to develop new material as well?
We don’t overload the show with new material, because we’ve seen too many shows where bands indulge themselves and play their new album in its entirety, without engaging their audience. This makes the audience kind of yawn and wait for the oldies to come along. But we’ve grabbed some great songs along the way, and we very carefully intersperse them into the show where they are going to be accepted, because the audience knows we aren’t going to leave them without their old favourites for too long. We know that if they’re instantly loveable songs, if we like them, the audience will like them – so it’s not a self-indulgent thing.
How many times have you been to Australia now? Are you looking forward to visiting again?
Far too many times to count! And yes – very much. Oh gosh … it’s our chance to get out of the cold (laughs). Australia is a country we’ve all grown to love very much over the years … I know everyone tries to justify the fact that their country is the greatest, but seriously, we love Australia very, very much indeed. We have lots of great friends there too.
Final question, and it’s a double one … why do you think you guys have managed to stick around for 50 years, despite the fact that you’ve thought a few times yourselves that your career was probably at an end – and what keeps you ticking?
What keeps us going is our health, the enjoyment of what we’re doing and our audiences. Why we’ve been so successful is because we were part of a period that was incredibly important – it was a time of political importance, with the Kennedys and the White House; a time of economic change, with teenagers earning money for the first time; a time of social change, when sex was becoming freer; and certainly a time of musical change, because the Beatles came along and knocked all the doors down and gave everyone else their chance. Without them, it would have been a different story entirely; every band owes an incredible debt to the Beatles.
We learned how to put on a show; when we stopped being teenage idols to an audience who would scream when we came on stage, we had to start treating them in a different way. We’ve learned that over a long period, and I think we’re very successful at it.
Thanks Frank. All the best with the tour – and happy anniversary.
Interview by Jo Atkins.