(First of all, a quick apology for my absence for so long. My health has been appalling recently, and for most of the last week I also didn’t have a functioning computer…)
For someone as interested in the music of the 60s as I am, I’ve always had a bit of a blind spot* when it comes to Merseybeat.
I’m not totally ignorant of it, of course, but my knowledge of it is far less than of other comparable genres. I know and love the Beatles’ music, of course, but I have relatively little knowledge of the rest of the scene.
If you asked me to summarise what I thought of the other Merseybeat acts, I’d have said something like “The Searchers were one of the best singles acts ever, and one of the least-acknowledged but most influential bands ever — without them you have no Byrds, and thus no REM, no powerpop, no indie, no paisley pop. Every twelve-string jangler ever owes everything to them. The Swinging Blue Jeans and the Merseybeats both made one or two truly great singles, but didn’t do much more than that. Everything else was riding on the Beatles’ coattails, and not very good for the most part.”
However, George Martin’s recent death made me think it might be time for me to reevaluate some of the lesser lights of the Epstein/Martin Merseybeat stable, and handily about eighteen months ago a box set in the “Original Album Series” came out collecting five Merseybeat albums.
For those who don’t know, the Original Album Series is a set of budget CD releases, collecting five albums in reproduction vinyl sleeves for about £15. These usually feature a single artist and contain either five albums in chronological order or five more-or-less random albums, and are a very good way of getting a lot of good music very cheaply — I have dozens of them. Usually the quality within a set varies dramatically — they often contain at least one acknowledged classic and one dud that no-one would buy on its own — but for the price it’s always worth taking a chance on something if it sounds even vaguely interesting.
This set, however, features multiple artists, as most of the Merseybeat bands didn’t actually have five-album careers. Four of the five albums are of artists managed by Brian Epstein and produced by George Martin, and all five were originally released on Parlophone. Anyone who knows the Beatles’ albums on vinyl will immediately recognise the style of the packaging, right down to the liner notes by Tony Barrow on many of them (unfortunately almost unreadable due to the scaled-down size). But are they any good?
Listen… by Billy J Kramer reinforces every prejudice I may have against this music. I actually have a lot of respect for Kramer’s professionalism, and the way he’s managed to turn himself into a good singer — but he’s had to do that because he had almost no natural talent, and here you have him mooing, badly double-tracking himself, through a mixture of R&B covers and schlocky ballads (one written by George Martin and Cavern DJ Bob Wooler). A typical example is his version of Beautiful Dreamer, in the rewritten version Goffin and King wrote for Tony Orlando (“I used to dream of Jeannie with the light brown hair/Since I met you baby, that girl ain’t anywhere”), which the Beatles also covered in their BBC sessions — the very best you can say about it is that it exists and that it passes a couple of minutes.
There’s nothing worth listening to here, at all — it doesn’t even have any of the singles on, as the rule Martin followed with all the rock/pop albums he produced around this time was not to put anything already released on, so buyers wouldn’t have to pay for the same thing twice. This was an admirable rule at the time, but fifty years on it does mean that the album doesn’t have anything worth listening to.
George Martin himself dismissed Kramer’s singing ability as negligible, and talked about the massive amounts of work he had to do in the studio to get it to an acceptable level. Given the low priority given to albums rather than singles in the 60s, it sounds like he didn’t do as much work on this, sadly. Just poor.
First and Fourmost by The Fourmost is slightly — but only slightly — better. The Fourmost, for those who don’t know, were a third-tier Epstein/Martin act. When Lennon and McCartney had a song that wasn’t good enough for the Beatles, Billy J Kramer would get it. When they had a song that wasn’t good enough for Billy J Kramer, the Fourmost would get it. They still managed to have a few hits though — and indeed a version of the Fourmost, with no original members, still tours today.
Hearing this album, one can see why they never hit it big, and why they were successful enough to keep going for decades, *and* why a band with no members of the Fourmost can tour as the Fourmost without anyone complaining.
Because this is a band of very competent musicians with no character at all of their own, but who can adapt to almost every style of music that was popular at the time and do it adequately. Their version of The In Crowd is nearly identical to the original, but with some pretty good Lennonesque Scouse shouty vocals, while their version of Carl Perkins’ Sure To Fall, with country fiddle, is also surprisingly accurate. And when they can’t compete with the original, as with their version of Etta James’ Something’s Got A Hold On Me, they rearrange it into a very decent Merseybeat stomper. The playing is all solid, the harmonies are good, and one can easily imagine them being a very good live party band, although their Little Richard covers are far too polite.
But it’s when they try to add some character, wit, and charm to the songs that they fail, because they simply don’t have any. Their Coasters covers are particularly poor, especially Girls Girls Girls. That had never been one of the better Leiber/Stoller songs anyway — it’s rather witless and uninspired — but doing it in a Jerry Lewis “comedy” voice (no, not Jerry Lee Lewis. That might have worked. The “hey lady” one) makes one embarrassed for everyone involved, not least George Martin, who we know had better taste in comedy than that.
The result is like an album of very high-quality karaoke remakes of classic singles, with decent Scouse bar-band singers doing the vocals.
(And that brings up one good thing about all these albums — no-one is trying to hide their Liverpool accents. These people all sound like members of my own family, but ones with pretty good singing voices. This is what “normal people” have always sounded like to me since I was a very small child, and there’s a comfort in that which one doesn’t get from many singers since then — as rock music became more professionalised, everyone has converged on a handful of acceptable accents to sing in. I’d be quite interested to hear how these voices sound to people who didn’t grow up with Liverpool accents as the default…)
Blue Jeans A’Swinging by The Swinging Blue Jeans is cut from similar cloth, although without the embarrassing comedy tracks. The Swinging Blue Jeans were widely regarded as one of the best live acts of the Merseybeat scene (and when I saw them live in 2002 they seemed to confirm that reputation), and here they run through a set of covers of Little Richard, Lloyd Price, the Everly Brothers and the Shadows. It’s all very like the Beatles’ BBC covers of similar material, though none of the Blue Jeans’ vocalists are anything like as distinctive as Lennon or McCartney. Once again they fall down somewhat on the Little Richard covers — their version of Tutti Frutti in particular is too slow and sounds more like a Chuck Berry cover — but this is the first of these albums with nothing embarrassing, and the first one I could imagine listening to all the way through for pleasure occasionally.
Everything to this point has, though, been fundamentally inessential, though the Swinging Blue Jeans’ album is perfectly pleasant. These are all less-good covers of records which were often not impressive for the song but for their sound. In a world where you can hear Little Richard singing Heebie Jeebies, why would you want to hear the Fourmost doing it?
It’s when we get to Gerry and the Pacemakers that things start to change. I’ve often dismissed the Pacemakers, possibly unfairly — their first two hits, How Do You Do It and I Like It, are catchy bits of Mitch
Miller Murray nothing which don’t display any great level of talent or musicality, and I’d been put off from investigating them further in 1995, when I watched a repeat run of Ready, Steady, Go! (and incidentally, I think it’s one of the great cultural crimes that Dave Clarke refuses to allow any DVD release of that series, one of the great TV series of all time). On one episode, they performed a cover of Little Walter’s My Babe, which I remember as being the least bluesy blues cover of all time, and I dismissed them without any further thought.
But I’ve just looked for a YouTube video of that performance, and while I’ve not found one, I *have* found them doing it on Beat Club:
With twenty-one years’ more experience, and twenty-one years’ less blues snobbery, that’s actually rather good. It’s not as good as Little Walter’s original, of course, but it’s at least up to the standard of more credible British blues bands of the same time like the Animals.
And listening to How Do You Like It? you hear a band that’s head-and-shoulders above any of these other albums. Marsden has a distinctive voice, with something of the same character as Paul McCartney’s, and the arrangements have more air in them, thanks to the Pacemakers having a piano player rather than a rhythm guitarist. But there’s also a sense of a distinctive aesthetic here — a band with a personality and an idea of what they exist for that’s more than just performing competent covers of chart hits for lunchtime dancers at the Cavern.
Partly this is because of a very intelligent selection of material. Like the other albums, this one is made up almost entirely of cover versions, but where the others concentrated on covers of very popular acts like the Coasters or Little Richard, the Pacemakers here cover three separate tracks (A Shot Of Rhythm & Blues, Where Have You Been All My Life?, and You’re The Reason) by the obscure soul singer Arthur Alexander. And while they don’t *better* the originals (no shame in that — Arthur Alexander is one of the greats, up there with James Carr) they’re not trying to do carbon copies, but putting their own personalities on the material — the humorous Elvis-like shake Gerry Marsden puts on the word “baby” in You’re The Reason has more wit in two syllables than the Fourmost managed in two whole comedy songs.
Marsden was also a genuinely versatile singer — listen to his keening, almost yodelling, falsetto on Chills (a song Gerry Goffin and Jack Keller wrote for Tony Orlando) and then compare it to his comparatively sensitive reading of You’ll Never Walk Alone (the most familiar track on this album, as it was released as a single and went to number one in the UK). Marsden, like Lennon and McCartney, has integrated a lot of different vocal influences (especially Buddy Holly) into his own distinctive style. Where the other bands here are regurgitating other people’s records, he has integrated them.
How Do You Like It? is a genuinely good album. Not a *great* one, mind, but very good. It doesn’t have the shock of the new that the Beatles had with their original compositions, but if you took the cover versions from the first two Beatles albums and compared them to this set, there’s not much to choose between them. Gerry Marsden has less rock and roll attitude than Lennon or McCartney, perhaps — he’s friendlier and less swaggering — but I’ve now reached an age where I don’t see rock and roll swagger as a wholly good thing.
Not everything works, of course — the version of Jambalaya is clearly being sung by a man who knows what none of the words mean — but it works often enough to be genuinely impressive.
Gerry and the Pacemakers were doomed to irrelevance because of the Beatles — after the Beatles’ success, bands were suddenly judged by a totally new set of criteria, as songwriters, not just as performers, and all the other Merseybeat bands were still trying to play by an old set of rules which had suddenly become obsolete. But *by those rules*, and on the evidence of How Do You Like It?, Gerry and the Pacemakers were worthy competitors to the Beatles. Not as good, but an honourable second.
And the final album, Ferry Cross the Mersey, sees the Pacemakers trying to compete on the Beatles’ new terms, and not completely failing. Ferry Cross The Mersey is the soundtrack to the Pacemakers’ film of the same name, their answer to A Hard Day’s Night (though by all accounts nowhere near as good — I’ve never seen it, as the film has been tied up in legal limbo for decades, and since one of the stars is the serial rapist Jimmy Savile, who is now best known for having been possibly the most active sex criminal in British history, it’s unlikely it will be released any time soon). It contains nine Marsden originals, along with one song each by the Fourmost (a standard, unoriginal bit of Merseybeat) and Cilla Black (some cod-Bacharach by Bobby Willis, who later became Black’s husband), and a Bond-theme style instrumental by George Martin.
Marsden’s songs are mostly fairly crude, especially lyrically — the liner notes talk about how he wrote all nine songs in eight days, and if anything they don’t sound like they took that long — but there’s an energy and melodic inventiveness to several of them, notably It’s Gonna Be All Right and I’ll Wait For You, that makes them surprisingly catchy. Several of the songs on the rockier first half of the album could easily now be regarded as garage-punk classics in the Nuggets mould had they been recorded by American bands. The acoustic stuff on the second side isn’t as good, but presages the folk-rock boom by several months — these are songs that Sloan and Barri could have written for the Turtles.
And that’s the thing about this album — it’s actually ahead of its time, but only by a few months. It’s a 1965 album, even though it was released in 1964 — it’s just that at more than fifty years’ remove, 1965 and 1964 sound pretty similar.
The album ends with the title track, which isn’t a song I’ve ever particularly cared for, but which is a rather more sophisticated, impressionistic, song than it really gets the credit for. It’s boosted by Martin’s orchestration, of course, but it’s genuinely a rather thoughtful piece.
So at the end of this, rather surprisingly, I’ve now got a lot of respect for Gerry & The Pacemakers. They weren’t a great band, but they were a band who had as much potential for greatness as any of their contemporaries. Had they come along a year or two later, I suspect they may actually have grown to be an interesting band that could have sustained a career. As it is, their career was over before they had a chance to grow, because they were associated with a fad, and once that fad was over the listening public moved on.
They might not have done any better, of course — there’s no evidence in Marsden’s songwriting of greatness — but his writing is no worse than that of many contemporaries who went on to do much better things, and there’s real talent in the performances.
Before buying this set of albums I would have dismissed Gerry & The Pacemakers as vapid third-raters who got where they did by hanging on the coattails of true talents. Now… now I’m actually half-considering buying the out-of-print box set of all their work, and I almost certainly *will* buy a singles compilation to complement these two albums.
So my initial evaluation of Merseybeat was half-right. My opinion of Billy J Kramer, the Swinging Blue Jeans, and the Fourmost has remained pretty much unchanged, even though I’ve radically reassessed Gerry & The Pacemakers in my own mind. For that alone, it was worth spending thirteen quid on these albums. At the same time, I suspect I won’t be delving much deeper into Merseybeat obscurities any time soon. Though if you see me in a year’s time saying “the best of Tommy Quickly is only twenty-five quid on Amazon! Bargain!”, you’ll know I’ve fallen down another rabbit hole…
*This is to acknowledge that “blind spot” in this sense is an ableist term, but I don’t know of any other term that would cover the same meaning. I can’t eliminate ableism from my language altogether, but I think if I acknowledge it like this where I can’t eliminate it, it’ll at least make me think about it and more likely to get it right when I can.
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