One thing I do occasionally, but rarely write about, is attend package shows of old 60s pop stars. These shows have a bad reputation, and not without reason, but at the same time they do provide a service. Very occasionally you’ll get someone on there who could hold down a full show by themselves — I saw the Zombies on a package tour last year, for example — but there are a lot of musicians who had one or two big hits, but who you wouldn’t particularly want to see do a full show. But put five or six of them on the same bill, and there’s no chance of getting bored.
They’re also a useful source of money for these older performers. Almost all the performers who end up doing these tours are non-writing performers, doing material written by others — and songwriting is where the long-term royalties are in music.
This is a review of last Monday’s Solid Silver Sixties Show at the Palace Theatre, but really it could double for any of them. While this show ended up almost accidentally organised by genre — Immediate Records pop-soul followed by Merseybeat — all these shows really have a hierarchy based on number of recognisable hits and, crucially, original members — with original members, it’s not just number that counts, though. A drummer counts least, the lead singer most. Non-original members who played keyboards with the band for two weeks in 1965 and rejoined in 2004 get half points.
All these shows start with the band with fewest original members, first doing their own set and then acting as backing band for the solo performers who aren’t big enough to have their own band. For this show, that was The New Amen Corner, who can be distinguished from Amen Corner by their not having any members of Amen Corner (the programme suggests that their sole connection to the original band is that their saxophone player is a friend of the original band’s sax player). They did, however, do a competent medley of Amen Corner’s hits, or at least the first verse and chorus of each of them, and they all looked very smart in their blazers.
Then on came P.P. Arnold, the main reason I came to this show, and she was utterly breathtaking. Her performance was slightly let down by The New Amen Corner’s drummer (who’s fine on the ballads, but on anything above mid-tempo just thrashes the hi-hat frantically, trying to keep on the beat). But her performance of Angel Of The Morning in particular (her opening song) sent literal shivers down my spine. She sounds as good as she did fifty years ago, and on If You Think You’re Groovy and The First Cut Is The Deepest she was almost indistinguishable from the records. I was in actual tears at points, and she was worth the ticket price on her own.
She rounded out her set with covers of the Bee Gees, Stevie Wonder, and River Deep Mountain High (the record she was promoting as an Ikette when she first came to Britain) before introducing Chris Farlowe.
I’d seen Farlowe before, about fifteen years ago, supporting Van Morrison, and remembered him as being a bit rubbish, but I really like a couple of his singles from the 60s, and I’d thought maybe I’d misremembered or had been a bit harsh. It turns out I *had* misremembered, in that he isn’t just a bit rubbish, he actually has magical anti-music powers.
Farlowe has a fantastic voice, even now, and Out Of Time and Handbags And Gladrags are great singles. Adding in a Small Faces cover, a version of Stand By Me, and a couple of other crowd-pleasers should mean that he’d be able to put on a great show.
But sadly, where on the record Farlowe sings, say “what’s become of you my love, when they have finally stripped you of, the handbags and the gladrags that your granddad had to sweat for you to buy?”, in performance he sings something like:
“Wha-a-a-a-at, I say what, what what what, I say what Manchester becomes, I say what becomes, what becom-om-om-om-omes oh yeah oh yeah, I say what becomes of you mamamamamamama ma luhhhhrve oh yeah what becomes of you Manchester, when they I say they lord oh lord when they have I say when they have I say what becomes of you Manchester when they have…”
On top of this he jumps between registers completely at random, going from a growl to a falsetto shriek to his normal voice with no thought whatsoever to musicality or the needs of the song. It was painfully, shockingly bad, the worst performance I’ve ever heard from a professional singer. Oddly, he went down quite well with the audience, but it was godawful.
Next up were The Merseybeats, closing the first half of the show in the pseudo-headliner spot always given to a band who still have their lead singer. In the case of the Merseybeats, they actually have both guitarist/vocalists, who’ve been performing together for nearly sixty years, and while neither has an exceptional voice, they harmonise beautifully together, in a very Everly Brothers manner. Their set included very strong versions of their major hits (including a FANTASTIC version of Sorrow, one of the best singles of the 60s), and cover versions of songs they would have played at the Cavern in the early days (Hey Baby, Let It Be Me). They’re not a band I’d want to see do a full show, but a half-hour set of hits left a big smile on my face.
For the second half, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Amen Corner came back on, this time in collarless Beatle suits, to back Mike Pender, former lead singer of The Searchers. A friend tweeted to me earlier that day calling Pender the epitome of chicken-in-a-basket performers, and there was certainly an element of that about him (in fact, his scouse banter and white quiff combined to remind me more than a little of Tom O’Connor), but there’s no doubt that some of the Searchers’ hits are among the best records of the early 60s, and he performed them competently enough. The best moment, though, came when he performed Four Strong Winds, a song he had apparently been encouraged to add to his normally-fixed repertoire on the recent US British Invasion package tour (I suspect Andrew Sandoval, who produced that tour, suggested it). At that point, the slick professionalism gave way entirely to a much more subtle performance — I suspect because he’d not played the song ten thousand times before.
The final act was Billy J Kramer, backed by his own band. Kramer (who was also on that package tour with Pender) is in many ways the anti-Farlowe. Kramer is well known for having had no singing voice or ability whatsoever, and for only being signed because Brian Epstein fancied him. His vocals on his hits were only barely competent, and that because George Martin got him to multitrack them to smooth out the errors, and then added a harpsichord line to show people where the melody was.
But over the last fifty years Kramer has clearly worked on his vocals a LOT. He’s someone with no natural ability who has managed through sheer effort to get a resonant voice, great projection, and good musical sensibilities. He’s still not a *great* singer, but he’s more than competent, and he’s managed to give himself a really quite impressive voice.
Unfortunately, the impressive voice he’s given himself is his chest voice, which is a resonant baritone somewhere in the general vicinity of Scott Walker or Johnny Cash, while his records were all sung in his head voice, a rather breathy tenor. He now sounds nothing like he did on his hit records, and his attempts to sing them in his new style clearly disappointed a LOT of people — a substantial chunk of the audience walked out. However, when he performed Jealous Guy and The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More, he was genuinely impressive. It’s sad that by becoming a much better singer, Kramer disappoints so much of his audience.
The show then finished, as these things always do, with a full-cast singalong, this time to Glad All Over.
Overall, these shows are generally more interesting anthropologically than as a musical entertainment — a lot of the interest is seeing the old showbiz patterns of fifty years ago, things that have become cliches and signifiers of schlockiness, preserved almost as in amber and still managing to appeal to crowds as much as they ever did. For someone who grew up in a time when there was a huge distinction between serious music and showbiz, seeing Mike Pender say “Oh, you don’t want to hear Sweets For My Sweet or When You Walk In The Room or any of that old stuff, do you?” and the crowd eating it up is quite bizarre but fascinating — this is a show for people who have a totally different set of expectations than any other musical performance I’ll attend this year.
But at the same time there *is* plenty of genuine musical value there. P.P. Arnold singing Angel Of The Morning (and if she ever tours doing full shows on her own, I’ll be there — she’s incredible). The Merseybeats doing Sorrow. These are things I’m very glad to have seen and heard, and the fact that they’re presented in a less-than-sophisticated context makes the performances all the sweeter — that these people weren’t performing for an audience of music snobs *but still managed to be that good* is impressive.
These shows aren’t for everyone, but it’s an experience I’d recommend to anyone who has any affection for the music of the pre-psychedelic 60s. Wait until you see one of these tours (there are three or four of this type every year) that has at least one act you actually want to see, and buy a ticket. It’s a trip back to the past in more ways than one.