John McNally was back home in Crosby when I called this week, barely five miles from his Kirkdale roots. It seems like he’s rarely there though, thanks to a punishing tour schedule for his band, The Searchers, one of the leading lights of the 1960s’ Merseybeat scene and still busy all these years on. But for all his world travels, John’s remained loyal to his beloved Liverpool.
“As a kid I came down here on my bike, play in the sandhills, later playing gigs at venues in Crosby like those at St Luke’s and the Comrades Club, and Waterloo.”
Was moving that way later a sign of having made it?
“Sort of. A lot of the lads moved to London, and I did for a while, sharing an apartment belonging to Bill Kenwright, but I missed the five-a-side with the lads and decided to go home.”
Yes, he may have reached the grand age of 75, but apparently John’s still playing football when he can, and right now he’s also three-quarters of the way through a major UK tour that started in mid-March at Redditch Palace and resumes at Basildon’s Towngate venue this Saturday, June 3rd.
John and fellow Searchers survivor Frank Allen (bass, on board since 1964), plus Spencer James (vocals, guitar, since 1986) and Scott Ottaway (drums, since 2010) reach my patch for a show at Preston’s Charter Theatre (01772 80 44 44) on General Election day next Thursday, June 8, the tour ending at Bishops Cleeve’s Tithe Barn on Sunday, June 25th, but with plenty more summer dates already in the diary. And there’s rarely been a year to take stock since the band first burst on to the national scene in the summer of ’63 with debut hit Sweets for My Sweet.
We started by talking about John’s late-1950s skiffle roots and an early-’60s stint at the Star-Club, Hamburg, an apprenticeship familiar to those who know the story of a certain Fab Four from the same home city.
There’s a nice piece about the band in Paul Du Noyer’s excellent Liverpool: Wondrous Place. As the author puts it, ‘The Searchers are in many ways the connoisseur’s Merseyside band, and in their prime made music that sparkles like champagne’. But John’s wary of such praise for an outfit best known for saccharine early hits like Sugar and Spice and Sweets for my Sweet as well as far more influential songs like Needles and Pins and the wonderful When You Walk in the Room.
Discussing his roots in a 2008 Daily Telegraph interview with travel writer Christopher Somerville, John suggested, Liverpool music is ‘raw music, seamen’s music — I think that’s the special ingredient’. Can he enlarge on that?
“Yeah, the influx of all those American records was great for us and The Beatles. We had a great catalogue to nick from.”
John grew up near the docks, his older brother Frank, a seaman, bringing back records from US trips.
“First of all he’d bring country stuff like Eddy Arnold and Hank Williams, the next minute it was Johnny Cash, then Gene Vincent, Elvis, and Eddie Cochran … bloody hell – superb!”
It seems like you were in the right place at the right time.
“We all were, us post-war babies! All doing our own thing, playing skiffle in the area, but unknown to us on the northside of Liverpool, bands like The Beatles were doing it in the south end. We didn’t really know that was going on until we came on the Star-Club scene. The Beatles made such a good impression there that the bosses came to Liverpool and went round the clubs. There was Derry and the Seniors, Howard Casey, The Beatles, then us, The Undertakers, Gerry and the Pacemakers … and we all had a good time!”
Talking of Derry Wilkie, there’s a rumour mentioned by Paul Du Noyer that the Iron Door Club in Temple Street, where the band frequented, got its name after the previous wooden door was ‘smashed in by axe-wielders’ chasing him one night.
“Probably! Les Attley owned the Iron Door and was our manager, so all that was going on. But we didn’t really take that much notice of Les, other than one good thing he did for us, when Brian Epstein was signing up bands and we missed out. Brian later called us the ‘band that got away’. When he came to see us we were all ‘pizzicatoed’, having been in The Grapes all night when he came to see us at The Cavern. We were on last and weren’t very good, acting the goat with a few drinks down us. We didn’t make the impression he wanted, so he passed on us.
“It was Les who pointed out that everyone was being signed up and we didn’t want to miss the boat. He asked if we wanted to make a demo at the Iron Door, organising a company to nip in with all the gear. So we did 11 tracks and he sent them all around the companies, and luckily Tony Hatch at Pye Records picked up on it. We were on our way back to the Star-Club to do another stint when he asked us to come and record Sweets for my Sweet, which we did ahead of the ferry!”
It was a fortuitous move, that June ’63 single the first of The Searchers’ three UK No.1s – along with Needles and Pins and Don’t Throw You Love Away – and 10 top-20 singles between then and the autumn of 1966.
Going further back again, who taught John his first chords on the guitar?
“That was Georgie McGee, a mate of my brother, who played the Glendower pub, where I lived on St John’s Road, our Frank having brought over a few guitars from Japan. They were rubbish, really, but Georgie showed me some chords and I got the Bert Weedon play-in-a-day book. George is gone now, but his daughter came to say hello to us in New Zealand, not long back, which was nice.”
Meanwhile, John tells me his brother Frank, now in his late 70s, is still working as a rigger. They clearly breed them robust in that family.
John had a few jobs before turning pro, working for the Blue Funnel line at the India Buildings, before ‘sea school’ in Aberdovey and Birkenhead, trips to Glasgow, London, and other ports following.
“I was working for the same company as my brother, Alfred Holt’s Blue Funnel line, at the Gladstone dock, doing office work and going around the ships delivering mail. Then they sent me to Aberdovey, an outward-bound school, and the Odyssey Buildings, Birkenhead, to learn about seamanship, with my first ‘coastal’ trips before going ‘deep sea’. But before going ‘deep sea’ you took another medical, and fortunately – as it turned out – I had a lazy eye, so was ruled out. And a bit like Ringo (Starr) I also had TB and was off for another six months.
“I got a job in Bootle, but wasn’t there long because of the Star-Club, and in that time had learned guitar and improved. A lot of my friends played guitar and were far superior. I started as part of a nucleus of lads playing on a corner, but was the only one serious about starting a band, along with a fella called Tony West, who had a skiffle group in the Army, and went on to play bass with us. He was also in the motor trade so drove us all around to gigs.”
It seemed like it was all meant to happen.
“Yeah. That said, there are certain things you regret, and when we made it, all the lads changed, if you know what I mean – the normal thing with bands. Egos appear, mates become nasty and demanding, and you don’t notice until it’s too late.”
Accordingly, that initial late-’50s five-piece also involving Tony West made way for a 1960 line-up featuring McNally (rhythm guitar, vocals), Johnny Sandon (lead vocals), Mike Pender (lead guitar, vocals), Tony Jackson (bass, vocals) and Chris Curtis (drums, vocals), Sandon leaving in early ’62 and the band becoming a four-piece.
On the sleevenotes of the first LP, Meet the Searchers, I put it to John, he mentions a dislike of ‘conceited people’. It seems like the cracks were already appearing.
“I think so. When we first picked songs for albums it was a combined effort, but when the powers that be – the likes of Tony Hatch and Tito Burns, our manager at that time – started telling us who was most important, you’re not a band anymore.”
Does he regret not getting to sit down with Chris – like Lennon and McCartney – and writing their own songs? The Beatles moved away from covers fairly early, while The Searchers’ major hits were all penned by others.
“Totally! There are lots of regrets. Also, our management sold us to Tito Burns for God knows how much. All the management cared about was earning money, putting us on the road, with a certain amount of hours to record singles in between. We were soon exhausted. That’s when I decided I was going home. It was ridiculous.
“We didn’t have the time to put our own stuff down apart from the odd b-side, barely spending an hour on that. The Beatles might spend weeks on one song, giving them the chance to move on. Frustration kicks in and poor old Chris was very frustrated and left, going off to Wales in the end. The pressure was unbelievable.”
Chris Curtis was a key part of the band’s live act early on, not least with his stand-up drumming style.
“He was a great showman, absolutely superb, and I hate it when people come along who I know were influenced by him in those days. I’m tempted to have a go … but it’s all in the past now.”
If there was anything positive to come out of all that, it was the work ethic that never seems to have left the band.
“Most of the other ‘60s bands are quite jealous of the work we have now. It’s easy enough to play, but it’s the driving that’s the pain. But around 15 years ago we saw the club circuit dying, all those chicken-in-a-basket venues we hated, places liked Batley Varieties, and wondered about going into civic theatres.
“We had so much catalogue material, from the albums, so took a chance to book a few shows. For the first five or six we were about £10,000 down, but then did Bedford and somewhere else and it was fantastic. Now we always do a spring tour, and it does very well.”
For me, born in ’67, it was probably the Ramones covering Needles and Pins that made me look at The Searchers again. Then I got into The Byrds and realised over time how they were also influenced by this Liverpool outfit. I can also hear their sound in everyone from Tom Petty through to later Merseyside bands like The La’s then Cast, The Coral, and The Zutons.
“Yeah, but again I ignore all those compliments. We know what the Ramones said, and The Byrds, Marshall Crenshaw, even Bruce Springsteen, who invited me to his gig at Old Trafford a couple of years ago. We were a bit embarrassed really, being asked how we made Needles and Pins and got that sound on When You Walk in the Room, by people like Steven van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, in awe!”
I think that’s part of why we like John. He doesn’t appear to have been spoiled by fame and hasn’t forgotten his working-class roots. He’s still the lad next door.
“Well, I don’t like all that sort of pontification, and also find it embarrassing when you get lots of tribute bands who actually think they’re a band these days. That’s stupid. Okay, we were basically a tribute band in the early days, but did those songs in a different way, rather than copying them.”
Going back to that very first album there’s an early example of that, The Everly Brothers’ Since you Broke my Heart, a song I feel they made their own, and my favourite track on there.
“Well, we loved the Everlys then and worked with Don and Phil quite a lot. Luckily we’ve played with most of the acts we loved, other than Buddy Holly, who I never got to see. He was at the Philharmonic on the 29th of March, 1958, a Thursday night, but I was working until seven. Mike (Pender) went, but couldn’t remember much about it.”
Talking of iconic Liverpool venues, last week I saw From The Jam at the rebuilt Cavern Club, and can vouch for the fact that there’s still a special vibe about that place. Yet while The Searchers played there too, it seems that their own live HQ of sorts was the Iron Door.
“Well, that was all built up by Merseybeat magazine as a competition between the Iron Door and the Cavern. But we played there as much as the Iron Door and all the other venues. On an all-night session, we’d pass The Beatles up and down the stairs at venues, each carrying our gear.”
Did you stay in touch?
“Not really. Last time I saw Paul (McCartney) was when the Sgt. Pepper album was given the digital treatment. He invited the lads down to Abbey Road, and we had a chat. Linda was there as well.”
You mentioned early country influences, but I understand seeing Fats Domino at the Star-Club helped change the band’s direction. Were you on the same bill?
“Yeah, Fats Domino, and also Gene Vincent, Ray Charles, the Everly Brothers, Joey Dee and the Starlighters …“
Was that the moment you decided on a more r’n’b approach?
“Yeah, but that’s what I meant about a combined effort. Tony Jackson loved John Lennon and wanted to do all the stuff he did, and sounded like Lonnie Donegan as well, while Chris was into more melodic stuff like Ruby and the Romantics, The Coasters and Dionne Warwick. Then Mike was into Buddy Holly, and then there was me and country and western. You know those Beatles sessions where Paul’s showing George what to play? There was none of that. You played what you felt. And it worked.”
We talked about that early camaraderie, but there were later splits in the ranks, most notably a rift with Mike Pender that led to mid-‘80s litigation, the band splitting into two factions playing the same songs.
“Well, that was sad. I don’t think too much about it now, but the way he went about it was very odd. If he wanted to go solo, by all means, we’d have wished him well.”
Have you spoken since?
“No, last time was at Chris’ funeral. He came over but I felt it was wrong to shake hands. What he did wasn’t nice. He still goes on about it now. I just feel, ‘Forget it! It was your decision!’ He wanted to leave, but wanted to take the name with him. I started the band, I owned the name.”
One change in personnel that went down far better with John came in the summer of 1964, London-based Frank Allen joining from Cliff Bennett and The Rebel Rousers, replacing Tony Jackson, the two now in tow in the Searchers for 53 years.
“We’d known Frank for years, and Cliff appeared in our history quite a lot. We were sat watching them one night and one of the songs was Needles and Pins. We thought, ‘That’s unusual’. We didn’t like the arrangement, because they had a brass section, but they did that and There She Goes, again with a good sound. Cliff told us later that night Needles was a Jackie DeShannon song. We got home, got the record, then did our version.”
And I’d say that was the band’s first great single.
“Oh yeah! But the fight we had with the record company over that release was unbelievable. They didn’t see it at all. They wanted us to follow Sweets with another Drifters song. We said no and told them Needles was a great song. And then Jackie wrote When You Walk in the Room for us … which was like ‘bang!’
Ah, now you’re talking. All these years on, I still adore that single – just another love song maybe, yet one that encapsulates that thrill of getting to know that special someone. It doesn’t outstay its welcome either – we’re talking 139 seconds of uncomplicated pop perfection, complete with those trademark chiming, jangling guitars and rich harmonies. Besides, any song which uses the line, ‘Meanwhile I try to act so nonchalant’, is alright by me.
And talking of those guitars, did John feel his playing had improved by then?
“I think so. I was mostly playing rhythm, but occasionally live I’d play lead. But when Mike wasn’t interested I’d end up playing everything – the rhythm and the riffs.”
There have been so many highlights over the last five and a half decades. Any particular performances stand out?
“Well, playing with the likes of the Everlys, having studied them and grown up with their records, listening to Radio Luxembourg and so on. Gene Vincent was great, but a bit of an odd person, Fats Domino was great, Ray Charles was superb, and we were rehearsing once at the Star-Club and in walks Jerry Lee Lewis, who got on the piano and played with us. Great! Those things are more important to me. You get great nights and don’t really get duff nights. That’s very rare.”
John won’t need reminding, but he’s hit the grand age of 75 now. Yet he’s still on the road, and this tour seems particularly exhausting. Has the routine had to change in recent years?
“Frank and I discussed this over the last couple of days and when we got back from Australia. We were annoyed with the promoter there as we normally go for six weeks and do 26 shows, with two days off for travelling, But when we got over there, we had 31 shows, which was ridiculous. That schedule was madness. We were absolutely shattered when we got back, so Frank and I sat down and had a chat and agreed we should maybe pick and choose better, and not take our eyes off the ball.
“When we’ve finished this tour we’ll maybe slow down a bit. The market’s there, but you can overdo it, overcook the whole thing. But we’ve just had Scotland, which was superb, as was New Brighton the other day, playing to 700 people.”
And this is your 60th year making your way as a musician?
“Yeah, and Frank and I employ six lads now, and have had our soundman Phil for 30 years and young John – actually, he’s 40-odd now – as our backline lad for 25 years.”
Clearly you and Frank get on well. Do you finish each other’s sentences now?
“Yeah, we do that on stage! The good thing is I’m up north and he’s down South between times. I like playing five-a-side and he likes the shows and the theatre – that’s his bag, that and mixing with Pete Townshend and Bruce Welch. He likes all that, while I enjoy playing football.”
So you’re still playing after all these years?
“Yeah, although I haven’t played since getting back from Australia with pneumonia. I’m just getting over that. But hopefully I’ll be playing again within 10 days or so.”
Well, there you go – John McNally, an example to us all.
For full tour details head to The Searchers’ website via this link.
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