The Searchers - interview with bassist Frank Allen

 

The Searchers, from Liverpool, were one of the major British beat groups to have success in North America, with 13 hits in 1964 -1966, including "Love Potion Number 9," "Needles and Pins," "Don’t Throw Your Love Away," "Sugar and Spice," "Some Day We’re Gonna Love Again," "What Have They Done to the Rain," and "When You Walk In the Room."

Frank Allen, from London, met the Searchers in Hamburg, Germany, while playing with Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers. He joined the Searchers in the summer of 1964 and still (as of 2014) plays in the band. The Searchers official website is here.

The interview took place in his room at the Hilton Hotel, Niagara Falls, before their performance at the Fallsview Casino, April 19, 2008.

The concert that night was very enjoyable, with many highlights : the obvious hits but also "Take Me For What I’m Worth, "Four Strong Winds" (lovely to hear Frank and John McNally trading off the lead and harmony, and a nice Canadian touch), "What Have They Done to the Rain" with drummer Eddie Rothe on conga drums, and a fantastic version of "Seven Nights to Rock" (a 1956 Moon Mullican song that I also perform). It was great to see John switching between the 12-string and 6-string guitars and to see what a fine, tasteful player he is, and he seems to have a charming personality. Frank was great on the bass and vocals, and played the frontman/ MC/ cheerleader role well. I was less enamoured with some of the repertoire choices, particularly "Young Girl" [a 1968 hit for Gary Puckett and the Union Gap] but some people seemed to like it. Spencer James’ voice was less to my taste but he sure has range and control. I thought he used his synth guitar a little too much. But overall it was a fine presentation with lots of variety. I had a terrific time, beaming with smiles through most of it, and singing along at times. A very professional band !

ROCK and ROLL, SKIFFLE

Craig Morrison : Was there someone in your life that you consider a mentor ?

Frank Allen : No, not really. The only mentors were the early rock and roll stars. It was Elvis and the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly and people like that, Little Richard, Fats Domino. In the main, Elvis changed everything for me. Lonnie Donegan of course in England. I suppose Lonnie to a very great extent because, although skiffle was a very short-lived fad and it was a very simple, very crude style of music, it allowed anyone who could play anything on a guitar at all to believe they can get up on stage and do something without any great amount of talent. Three chords and you were away, you could play with your friends and you could all hide each other’s faults. I think a lot of people would never have quite got started in the way they did had Lonnie Donegan had not been around. They would never have believed they were actually competent enough to play in front of the public. But you didn’t have to be good with it.

CM : So you started in skiffle ?

FA : Oh yeah. I liked rock and roll, I liked skiffle. I wanted to be a rock and roll player, but initially I could only play skiffle : the three chord wonder.

CM : Had you seen any of those people perform live ?

FA : I hadn’t seen Donegan live on stage and I hadn’t seen any of the American people. Eventually I did of course. By the time I’d joined Cliff Bennett I’d seen American stars that came over. None of those greats. Hadn’t seen Little Richard at that time and I certainly hadn’t seen Elvis. I got to play with the Everly Brothers at the Star Club in Hamburg when I was with Cliff Bennett. A lot of the skiffle people I saw when I went up to see one of the national skiffle concerts in London, people like Chas McDevitt, Johnny Duncan and the Bluegrass Boys, Dickie Bishop and the Sidekicks.

CM : Did your motivation to start playing come through radio, records, television, or live performances ?

FA : Records via radio. I didn’t own a record player when I first started being mad about pop music. I would always listen to pop music anyway on the radio, the kind of things that your parents listened to when you’re a kid. Frankie Laine and Johnny Ray were about the wildest it got. Johnny Ray was a bit off the wall, and Guy Mitchell was getting near the kind of rock and roll thing, although he was really just country. “Heartbreak Hotel” was the first record I ever bought and I bought it when I didn’t have a record player.

CM : That’s determination !

CLIFF BENNETT and the REBEL ROUSERS

CM : Please tell me about your time in Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers.

FA : That was quite a legendary band around the south of England, in fact right across the country, because it was simply one of the best bands around. A friend of mine took me to see them, and it must have been 1959. They were a little semi-professional band then and the first time I saw them I thought they were just absolutely magnificent, just loved his voice, loved the band. They were so streets ahead of everyone else. We got talking to them after the show, a tiny little place—the St. Giles Hall in Ickenham, just about couple of miles from where I lived in Harlington, right next to Heathrow Airport—and started hanging about with them. My little band used to do their intervals around the area and eventually one of the players in my band joined them. He stayed with them for quite awhile, then he wasn’t getting on with them. They’d turned professional by this time and he just decided to quit. He came ’round to see me and said, “Look, you’ve always wanted to join the band, why don’t you go and take the job ?” That was as a rhythm guitarist. So I went to see them, but they decided that they didn’t want a rhythm guitarist, they were just going to carry on without one. In fact, they didn’t even need one. I accepted that.

As luck would have it, a few weeks later Cliff Bennett rang me up and said, “we’re going to do our first radio show”—a show called Saturday Club, one of the most popular young radio shows—“and we need six people to do this. Will you be willing to just do the radio show ?” I said “fine.” So Cliff came and picked me up on the morning of the radio show and drove me into London, and between my house and London I talked him into believing that he needed a rhythm guitarist and in particular a harmony voice in the band. I knew that once I convinced him that was it, because he was the leader of the band. And so by the end of that day I was with Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers. It was great, an ambition achieved. I was rhythm guitarist only for a short while because we had three of the members leave very, very soon afterwards, and we couldn’t get the bass player we wanted. We decided it was more cost efficient and easier for me to switch over to bass. That was in the beginning of 1962, so one week I was a rhythm guitarist, the next week I was a bass player.

CM : Was that okay with you ?

FA : It was absolutely fine. First of all they didn’t really need a rhythm guitarist as I well knew, it was big band, a six-piece band, and being a bass player was a much more secure position, so no problem.

CM : Is there a recording that represents you from the Cliff Bennett period ?

FA : I wouldn’t say represents because we were never really recorded that way. It was difficult to translate that band from live into recorded music. It never quite worked too well, but there were a few I could think of : “You Really Got a Hold On Me” was a good one, “Got My Mojo Working,” and “Beautiful Dreamer” was a good one as well.

CM : The old Stephen Foster song.

FA : We’d bluesed it up, but it wasn’t our invention. There was a version in the style that we did that we copied and I can’t remember who did it at the time.

CM : You were on those recordings you mentioned ?

FA. Yeah, they had hits later on that of course that I wasn’t on. As soon as I left they had hit with “One Way Love” which is a much better record. I would have liked to have said I was on that one, and “Got To Get You Into My Life,” which was a huge hit.

THE SEARCHERS


CM : You came into the Searchers from “When You Walk In the Room.”

FA : Yeah, 1964. August the third, 1964, I joined. We went pretty much straight into the studio to record “When You Walk in the Room.” That came out in September. It was probably the best of the singles. It wasn’t the biggest hit, but it’s the most dynamic. It’s the most perfect pop song.

CM : I love it. I’ve performed it many times. Is there a recording that best represents your contribution to the Searchers ?

FA : That would be the one for me. I played the bass on it and also sang a dual lead on it, so that’s pretty important for me. For whatever reason we decided to try and give the vocals a different edge by having Mike Pender and myself do the lead in unison, and you can clearly hear my voice on the top. I can hear it quite plainly, and when someone did one of those copy medleys that were so popular for a while in England, whoever they got to do the “When You Walk In the Room” part sounds exactly like me. I can hear it and the others can hear it and they swear that I took the day off and did it.

CM : I know Brian Epstein was not the manager of your group and he was of many of the other groups, but I’m thinking more in terms of musical ideas right now. What is it that sets the Searchers apart ?

FA : They certainly had the finger on the pulse of choosing good pop songs and being able to adapt them from things that weren’t particularly commercial. They could take a song, and [do] what I would call “musically asset strip.” Asset stripping is where your take a company, you break it down to the bare bones and make a profit out of it. They would take a song like “Needles and Pins,” Jackie DeShannon’s original which is a good song but not a commercial record. We did that song when I was with Cliff Bennett, and they [The Searchers] copied it from us. A friend of ours had brought it over from America and we performed it on stage and it was really popular. The Searchers remembered it and when it came ’round to making a new record, they decided to give that song a try. Now, we’d copied the original Jackie DeShannon version, which goes on to a great tangent in the second part with all these rambling, very emotive words, but a bit complicated. They had the good sense to take the thing, and when it got to the complicated bit at the end, they just simply removed that and repeated the whole first verse again but in a different key : made it an incredibly pop commercial sound. That was a great knack that they had. Same for “Sweets for My Sweet,” an original Drifters song that didn’t really have it. There’s something brighter and more appealing about the Searchers’ version. Even taking into account the fact that the Searchers were from Liverpool and everyone wanted things from Liverpool and the Drifters were a bit out of fashion at that time, the Searchers record is still a better record. And you can very rarely say that about a white cover of a black blues song. They were just very good at that. Of course the harmonies were very important, although the harmonies were there and we were always known as an immaculate harmony band, they weren’t clever harmonies. They were mainly a melody and a third above that. We didn’t go into three and four part harmony very much. “Sweets For My Sweet” was three part harmony but very simple.

CM : But a beautiful blend.

FA : Yeah, it worked. Certainly the sound worked. There was a nave simplicity and an enthusiasm about it that translated itself on the record.

CM : The Searchers is a band that I’ve cherished right from the beginning because I’m just old enough : the British invasion hit North America when I was 11, 12 years old.

FA : Good time for it to happen.

CM : I had been aware of what went before because I had been listening to the radio for a couple of years earlier so I could hear the difference, but at that time I wasn’t a musician and I wasn’t able to make any ideas about musical characteristics. We could just hear this bright, bubbly energy. Where do you think that energy comes from ?

FA : Being young and determined to make it in music. I think all of the bands were enthusiastic and bubbly at that time. I think we all had about the same enthusiasm. We all had different sounds and the sounds appealed in different ways. Another good thing about the Searchers was that it wasn’t a lead singer and a band. The styles were spread through the band. Tony Jackson did lead voices and he did the first two successes in the UK and the biggest hit we ever had in States : “Love Potion #9.” He sang on “Sweets For My Sweet,” “Sugar and Spice,” “Farmer John,” “Ain’t Going to Kiss You,” things like that. Then it changed over to Mike [Pender] singing lead with Chris Curtis doing harmony. But then on stage Chris Curtis would sing songs like “What’d I Say” and “Stand By Me.” And even John [McNally] would. John was a bit like the Ringo of the band at that time ; they would always give him one song or two songs on an album. John does a lot more lead now in the show. On the Iron Door recordings he sang “Rosalie.”

HAMBURG

CM : What did the experience in Hamburg do for you ? You were in Cliff
Bennett at the time.

FA : Forced us to learn songs and to improve and just get in there a do a show, because we had to play long hours so you had to fill it with music and you would learn songs constantly to change the thing. It was a constant rehearsal because you had to change the music. You rehearsed all the time to get new songs, and there’s nothing like rehearsal for motivating you.

CM : Were they requests from the audience, somebody said “Do you guys know this ?” and you said “Gosh, we’ll have it for you by tomorrow” ?

FA : No the audience tended to request the songs that you were playing on stage, the ones of yours that they liked. No, the songs that you rehearsed were either things you picked up over the airwaves or songs that you heard other bands do. A lot of the other bands stole—I say stole, there were songs that we stole—and they picked the brains of Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers and ended up going back to Liverpool and playing the songs that we had in our act. Likewise there were songs that I remember that we stole from the Liverpool bands : “Tricky Dicky” and “Some Other Guy” [both by Richard Barrett] we hadn’t heard until we went out there. But then when we went out there we were doing things like “Watch Your Step” [by Bobby Parker], and “Alright” which was an early Searchers album track. I don’t know any other band that had been doing that apart from Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers at the time, because we heard it by a very obscure group called the Grandisons who had appeared on Lonnie Donegan’s TV show in England. I don’t know anyone who sussed that out. Cliff Bennett saw it as a great song, we put it in our show and the Liverpool bands saw that one.

CM : So there was a constant “antennas out”- “we could do that.”

FA : Yeah, you were listening to everyone and picking each other’s brains all the time.

BASS PLAYING


At that time I was playing the bass with my fingers, because I used to lose plectrums and I couldn’t afford to buy new ones, so I ended up playing finger style. This was when I took over bass in early 1962. Now I don’t know anyone in England who was playing finger style at that time. There would have been people but I can’t recall them, certainly not in the bands I knew.

CM : They were all playing pick style ?

FA : And I started off for the first couple of months playing like that. I’d seen people from America playing with their fingers. When I went to the Star Club I was playing finger style and I remember King Size Taylor being very amazed by it, very complimentary, and saying “For goodness sake, how many fingers are you using ?” because he thought I was using all of them. In fact it was just two. Pretty soon a lot of the bass players from Liverpool were using finger style, including Tony Jackson. He ended up playing finger style and slapping the bass, which is how I kept myself in time. It happened with quite a few of the people, and I got tagged as a follower on. It was assumed that I’d followed the Liverpool bands, which I didn’t. I was there before. But they used to wear their guitars up very high up around their chest.

CM : Like Gerry Marsden [of Gerry and the Pacemakers].

FA : I certainly copied them in doing that. I’m not ashamed to admit that. It was a good style. I thought, “That looks cool,” and then I did it. John McNally was playing like that. So I copied them. We just stole from wherever we could, really.

CM : I think the finger style comes from the bass players that started on upright. Your peer group didn’t start on upright, you started on guitar.

FA : That’s right, that’s why it was in America, because the Americans were playing upright basses. We have to remember that in the UK we were so poor that if you wanted to be a bass player you probably couldn’t afford an upright bass, and you didn’t have the transport to take it anywhere even if you did, although we did have an actual upright bass in my little skiffle band called the Skyways ; a guy called Allan did have the upright bass. We used to put it on top of the car, but he had a car as well, which of course was a very, very rare thing. So few people did.

CM : So it wasn’t the tea chest bass.

FA : You got in a band in those days if you either had the right instrument, the right amplifier, or if you had a vehicle. It didn’t matter how good you were, you were indispensable.

HARMONY SINGING

CM : I have a theory that the groups that played in Hamburg became more oriented to harmony singing because they had to have more singers. The nominal lead singer would say, “I can’t sing anymore, you’re the drummer, you have to sing.” Is it possible there’s more harmony because of that ?

FA : I don’t know. I never thought of it that way. I’d always been singing harmony. When I was with Cliff Bennett I sang harmony, because harmonies were needed to embellish, and I’ve always gravitated towards harmony and experimented, thought about it, what is the harmony and what sounds right. It was always an essential part of being a complete band, to me. How they learned or why they learned I have no idea.

CM : Was it through the Everly Brothers that harmony singing became the thing ?

FA : I suppose so. We listened to records that had good harmony. The Everly Brothers were a lead act singing in harmony, so they were the most important harmony act, everything else was a backup to a lead singer. The Everlys were like gods to me, and indeed they still are.

CM : I sing several of their songs also. I have a friend that I sing in harmony with and we call ourselves The Never-Be Brothers. One of our favorites to do is “So Sad.”

FA : Yeah, that’s a great song. That’s from my favorite Everly album, It’s Everly Time. There’s some other great songs on that. “Sleepless Nights” is one of the most beautiful harmony songs ever and that’s on that album.

LOOKING BACK, LOOKING FORWARD

CM : Is there something that you’re most proud of in your career ?

FA : Just surviving 45 years would be pretty good, but there are some shows that stand out. The Royal Variety Show in 1981 was particularly special. Not too many people get to meet the Queen. Whether you’re a royalist or not, it’s still a pretty big deal. In 1989, I did two shows at Wembley Stadium with Cliff Richard as his guest : 80,000 people in each of the two days. That was the place where Live Aid was, it was like Live Aid for two days over. That was fantastic. In the early days it was getting to go to America and meet all of those heroes of mine. The first show in New York, which was ourselves, Dusty Springfield, Millie, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, the Ronettes, the Contours, the Shangri-Las, the Dovells, Jay and the Americans, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Newbeats, all these people. That was one show, for a week ; six shows a day for a week.

The Searchers in a recent promo shot - left to right : John McNally (guitar, vocals - a founding member, since 1957), Scott Ottaway (drums, vocals - joined 2010), Frank Allen (bass, vocals - joined 1964), and Spencer James (guitar, vocals - joined 1986)

CM : I’m really looking forward to the show tonight.

FA : We had a great night last night, absolutely fantastic. It was brilliant.

CM : I’ve been listening to the records for years. I have my favorites.

FA : Who knows, are we doing them tonight ?

I have both of the books that Frank Allen wrote (pictured above) and recommend them. To order The Searchers and Me, click here.


comments or questions ? email me

I have posted interviews with members of the Doors, Electric Prunes, Iron Butterfly, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Music Machine, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe and the Fish, Strawberry Alarm Clock, and Davie Allan & the Arrows. To go to the index page, click here.

you may be interested to read Psychedelic Music in San Francisco : Style, Context, and Evolution by Craig Morrison, available as a download from lulu.com for less than $5

CRAIG MORRISON
is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006