Interview: Frank Allen of The Searchers

IN THIS WEEKS LETTER FROM ENGLAND...Bay City Rollers loved by The Ramones...(true!)...Village Green Machine start filming video...Margaret Thatcher blasts 80s pop... Mark Lemon's new interview with Frank Allen from The Searchers...Link to youtube video of brilliant lost Searchers song 'Umbrella Man'...


I think, pungent smells are things which cannot be bottled. Which is why, I am not going to try to rein in my wildest ramblings, control my outpourings, behave myself in any rational or reasonable way, or put a bung in my bottle. If I want to prance around outside medieval stately homes dressed in a 1966 corduroy pea coat and breton cap, to my new video for Psychodrama, then I shall do so. If I want to scour the shelves of HMV in search of the Bay City Rollers greatest hits, I shall do so. I should have bought it on original vinyl when Reddington's closed down. And if I want to thumb my nose at all narrow conformity while growing old disgracefully, I shall do so, while blowing a vulgar raspberry at HMV's manager for not stocking the 70's bubblegum groups greatest. OK I must confess to a little embarrassment at liking the tartan clad 70's terrors. However, it is well known to serious pop historians that the Rollers were a primary influence upon US Kings of Punk Cool The Ramones, and if it was good enough for them its good enough for me. Described by Pete Waterman as beautiful records, I sincerely feel their best sides should be dusted down and allowed critical acclaim. And that starts right here...




Bay City Rollers





Ramones


In Village Green Machine land, where I have just received the answers to the questions I recently put to Frank Allen, original bass player with 1960s Pop Kings The Searchers. My interview with him will be printed in full later in this blogzine.

But first, I will tell you what I have been up to with Village Green Machine. We have started the video, it looks like Psychodrama will be the single. We filmed outside the church doors and the stately home, its going ok and coming together in a ramshackle somewhat chaotic way, but we are learning on the job, as Mrs Thatcher once said live on television, she was always at her best when she was on the job. Yeah I know I've said that before as well. Apparently quite a few of the cabinet ministers found her quite sexy, its a power thing, you know. Notorious Tory rogue Alan Clarke, who once allegedly bedded a judge's wife and BOTH his daughters, thought she had pretty ankles. I heard former Labour Chancellor Dennis Healey on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs the other day, talking about her and he said she was a terrible Prime Minister because she never listened to anyone, but that he saw her a while ago at a garden party and gave her a hug. He gets on with her now. How old is he, over 90. And she? He said he feels sorry for her now because no one listens to her. I saw her interviewed on an 80s TV pop show the other day, passing comment on the latest releases. They played her one particularly appalling piece of 80's doggum, to which she responded that they hadn't got beyond the rehearsal stage, with a cynical turn of phrase which would impress the most hardened NME hack. She got that right at least. I would love to interview her.



Margaret Thatcher





Denis Healey




I hate talking about Village Green Machine cos its me, but I will tell you we've been recording a 3 part harmony today to 'My Decision', a kind of Art Garfunkel 3 tiered harmony with the multi tracking. Also pleased with the vocals to Tomgirl which I did today. And so the music continues to gradually build in quantity.

Now, I first interviewed The Searchers in the reception of BBC Pebble Mill about 10 years ago. I had just turned down a record deal and at that stage was an aspiring music writer, with a fascination for guess which decade. What I did not disclose to my heroes was that it was only the second interview I had ever done. It was a thrill to see Frank and John Mcnally blast through the doors, dressed in a tasteful fashionable way and looking youthful. Their records have always been a very important part of my point of pop reference, I have maintained a fascination with their place in pop history. I have always tried to work out exactly how influential they were, and are. For instance, was the intro to When you Walk In The Room an influence on the intro to The Beatles Ticket To Ride intro? And didn't that Searchers side come before The Byrds Tambourine Man, with its very similar introduction? The Searchers Needles and Pins has a slow/medium 4/4 rhythm, like the later Tambourine Man. And doesn't the high harmony singing of The Byrds David Crosby sound a lot like the earlier Searchers records? Anyway, their records were part of a glorious explosion of melody, rhyme, and tambourines played in time from around 1964-6. They were intrinsically involved in pop/folk rock, and actually were and still are one of the best bands in the world, despite the unfortunate departure of lead singer Mike Pender. Frank is the original singer on their seminal 45 When You Walk In The Room, and has played bass with the band since '65. He plays bass with a whole lot of feel and soul, and now handles lead vocals excellently. I asked him.

Hello Frank, tell us about your book.

The title is and was always going to be THE SEARCHERS AND ME for a few reasons. Firstly it's exactly what`s in the tin. It is my story and that of the Searchers. I was only going to undertake a project of this size once and so I decided to include every detail I thought interesting or relevant. And that included some of my early life, my time with Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers which was a vital learning curve and, as far as I could, the early days of the Searchers before I met them in Hamburg in `63.

Another important reason for the title was that if someone wants a book on the Searchers the first thing the will either look up or Google will be The Searchers. Clever titles full of witty puns and deep meanings are wonderful but only work if you are of a high enough profile to have your stuff out there and visible to begin with. Important as they were the Searchers never quite had the kind of public profile and individual identities that gave them this kind of image. Always make it as easy as possible to get the product is my motto.

The publisher, as was my previous book Travelling Man (still in print and available) is a small Welsh based company called Aureus. Why them? Well, getting a book published is a far from easy thing and for someone not in the current public eye to any degree publishers are not exactly trampling over competition to get to me. Aureus responded and responded with positivity and enthusiasm. The owner, Meuryn Hughes, had faith in me and it seemed right and proper to let him continue the association and I am flattered he still wanted to.

A decision we came to very quickly this time round was to make the book available on-line only through the publisher direct. We aren`t even releasing it through companies like Amazon. The reason for this was that low profile product never gets on the shelves anyway and the subsidiaries take amounts of commission that are so high as to be almost iniquitous. Someone who hears about the book and wants it will find it very easily. Computers are wonderful things for this. And if we sell less product then I and the publisher will still make a greater profit that vast amounts being siphoned off by others. And it is selling very well.

Travelling Man was in essence an anecdotal tome based around what I thought I could cope with to write a first book and was mainly based on my style of humour. And it worked very well. It was not a biography proper but it contained much biographical detail. Of course people then asked when I was going to write the full story. It was daunting task that I did not think I was equipped for and I put the task off for a long time before deciding that if I was really going to call myself a writer. Eventually I worked out a plan and dived in head first.

There was a lot of research in which I was helped by our 'website collator` and friend Wendy Burton. We trawled through acres of microfilm and hard copies of music mags to check on our tour schedule and items of news that I had long forgotten. I peered through old diaries to jog my memory. And I raided my memory banks for any and every story that would enhance the book. What I did not realise was that I was amassing an enormous amount of word space and ended up with a total of more than 220,000 words which eventually took up an enormous 433 pages. On top of that I included 167 photo images. I always feel cheated if a biography doesn`t have plenty of pictures.

Of course this meant that the end product was going to be expensive. Publishing, especially in hard cover, is far from cheap. But there was no getting away from it. I could not possibly whittle it down to the extent that the price would be significantly less and we had to accept that if afficionados of either The Searchers or that decade in general wanted it they would pay the price. And it seems they are. It is a truly beautiful object and, if I may say so, a must for lovers of this era and music in general.





The Searchers



ML- What was the experience of writing this book like emotionally?

Emotionally I was, as I mostly am, controlled, and any excitement for me was more to do with the realisation that I was really achieving with my writing than any sentimental stirrings brought on by early memories. It was certainly fascinating, especially when discovering the reality behind the myths that had grown up along the way. The truth about who really did write Saturday Night Out. And the facts behind the signing of The Searchers. The demo album did not land unsolicited on Tony Hatch`s desk one day as was generally believed. I revealed the clauses of the first contract and explained the outrageous terms that would be looked on as indenture to slavery today. I mapped out the details of the litigation during our troubles with Mike Pender and the abuses of our name which we fought desperately in court to protect. Quite surprisingly as I went on I enjoyed the read as much as I expected the eventual purchasers to.

ML- I recently showed a clothes designer friend of mine in Italy your video for Umbrella Man on Youtube. His name is Claudio, well known to modern mods he is a top designer running a label called DNA Groove who was impressed by the clothes the Searchers were wearing for this video. Clothes and presentation have obviously been important to the Searchers, could you please talk about the mod styles the band gravitated towards in the mid sixties. Who were your sartorial peers?

It`s nice that someone should admire our taste in those odd post psychedelic times but in retrospect it was possibly not the right thing for The Searchers. We were not fashion leaders in any way and mostly we were groping in the dark trying to keep up with the bands that had left us behind musically, sartorially and in the hearts of the record buying public. Some times we looked okay and at others downright stupid.

I did have some interesting items made for me by a young lady called Barbara Richter who lived in Parsons Green, Chelsea. She would translate my ideas into reality. The multicoloured velvet jerkin in the Umbrella Man advert was made by her along with the flamboyant Romaneque yolk collared shirt pictured in my book which was copied by Graham Nash of the Hollies and also a brown hand stitched leather shirt which made it into many of our early seventies shots. Some of these sartorial car crashes are to been in all their glory in the book`s illustrations.

There was no one I especially admired in the way of clothes back then. I just watched to see what everyone else was doing and copied. And in the end The Searchers quite rightly got back into our high buttoned black suits. We eventually started to realise our strengths and the preferred image of our loyal followers.

ML- You have expressed a disdain towards much modern music, how do you think pop music could progress now?

I don`t know and I don`t have much interest. My musical tastes veer from The Dixie Chicks and Alison Kraus through Van Morrison and Bryan Ferry and on to Broadway show tunes and the great American classics written by Jerome Kern and George Gershwin. I am a Stephen Sondheim fan and an admirer of Michael Feinstein. One of the greatest performances I have seen was by Eartha Kitt at the Carlyle Hotel in New York in 2008. She was eighty one years old and was magnificent. In my book I tell a story of asking Dionne Warwick what she thought of Eartha. "Well, she can`t sing, that`s for sure," was her reply. Who cares if her voice was not a perfect instrument. Neither is Bob Dylan`s. Eartha emoted like no one I had seen in many a year. There is a picture of me and her in the book. She died at the end of the year and we will never see the like again .

Young people like what they like. Who am I to judge or dictate? My parents didn`t like rock and roll which was my passion, and to a great extent still is. I am a child of the fifties. It was their right. It was not their kind of music and why should it be?

One thing I definitely would like to see more genuine live music, not just adding live embellishments on click tracks where the majority of what is being heard, including the lead voice I might add, was recorded in advance. I accept that this is done to ensure a brilliant sound and that the show will go on no matter how much an artiste`s voice is suffering. But live music should have the element of danger.

You can and should go wrong from time to time. Your tempos should vary although preferably not too much. Mistakes are all part of it. It`s okay for the sound quality to vary from night to night. That is real life. Real life is not just pressing a play button for the automatons to prance and pose about to. Much of the time these days you can`t even call it karaoke. Karaoke performers, to their credit, are actually singing. The public would be horrified if they knew how little live voice they were getting at a lot of big shows for their £60 ticket. And I desperately want less choreography and spectacle. But that`s me. I am from a different generation. Kids can call me an old fart and they are entitled to. Just as long as they realise that they are the next generation`s old farts too. No one gets away with it.

ML- What motivates the band to keep up such a punishing tour schedule after so many years? Is it still loads of fun to play live?

We love being musicians. We once did it just for fun and it became a profession. How many people can make their play their work? There were times when it was harder and times when it was depressing but mostly it has been somewhere between pleasant and brilliant. I love the challenge of getting a reaction out of an audience. I love the applause. In the new millennium I am in the happy position of not having to work for a living but we probably work harder than any musicians in any other band no matter how big or small. We do a phenomenal amount of shows each year. This year it is somewhere around 180-190. Retirement is an alien concept for me. I was brought up with the work ethic and I am daunted by the thought of not having the next show to look forward to. Maybe I`d like it to be a little more controlled, less shows. But when things are quiet I just start to worry about how our roadies are going to cope without the money coming in. They serve us well and will never be rich. They have to be looked after.

I don`t know when the end is. When we fall out of love with our kind of life. When our health fails and we can no longer do it. I suppose that comes to us all. Or when a jaded audience no longer turns up in enough numbers to keep the show on the road. That won`t be for a few years yet though. And when it does I hope to be still writing. Performing and writing are my passions.

________


A while back I was delighted to find an unearthed Searchers gem on Youtube called Umbrella Man. This really fine 60s pop record is an absolute favourite of mine. Italian mod style guru and design genius Claudio from DNA Groove was impressed by the suits, and so was I, despite Frank Allen's humble appraisal of his band's dress code. I'm sure Paolo Hewitt has said Mike Pender has been admired for his snappy suits, too.

The band's original guitarist John Mcnally gave me his fuzz pedal last year, an original Gibson. It is all over the second Village Green Machine album which will be available next year. Its the fuzz with the buzz and sounds mean, its the same one John used on Have You Ever Loved Somebody, one of my very favourite records of all time. Actually he asked for a small charity donation for it, which I sent. But I do cherish that historic artefact.

Thank you Frank for the interview.

Come back soon to read the next Village Green Machine blogzine. It will be either weekly or fortnightly, not sure yet, as I will be doing interviews so may take up more time.

BW

Mark



Reading Village Green Machine's ezine. Frank Allen - The Searchers
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