By now, on Merseyside, there was an arms race going on (with musical instruments as the weapons). Groups ran up sizeable HP debts buying newer and better equipment but in one respect there was little improvement – voice amplification.
You either had to rely on the clubs’ P.A. systems, which might be anything from very good to diabolical or use your own microphones and amplifiers, which were rarely satisfactory.
Today, groups have their own sound man with a mixing-board, who ensures that the group sound is clear and well-balanced.
Back then, we didn’t even have monitors, those useful little amplifiers pointing towards you so that you have a good idea of how you sound.
We all had to rely on the sound bouncing off the far wall of the clubs where we played but even this could not be guaranteed. We once played in a club with such a high ceiling that there was a slight delay as the sound came back to us and it threw our timing completely out. Even more disconcerting, another club had so positioned the speakers that we could hear nothing and we were singing into a soundless void and had no idea whether we were in tune or not.
Furthermore, we had a problem not encountered by other groups. The vast majority consisted of three guitars and drums but our line-up was different: lead guitar/bass guitar (doubling on rhythm guitar)/tenor sax/drums.
You don’t need to be a musician to see the drawbacks of this arrangement. A group needs a bass playing all the time to give it a foundation but our bass guitarist often played rhythm so the sound suffered.
You might ask, “”Couldn’t we find a permanent bass-player or rhythm guitar?” Well, that would have meant splitting the money five ways instead of four. Also, as everyone who has played in a group knows, even if the members are all friends (and we were) there are still arguments and disagreements. More people would have meant more clashes of personality.
Our repertoire was slightly different to the other groups, as well. Naturally, with a sax we could play ‘Tequila’, ‘Honky Tonk’, and ‘Raunchy’ and do the riffs to Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry’s ‘But I Do’. ‘New Orleans’ by Gary U.S. Bonds was a very popular record in 1961 and we could do a convincing version of that number.
To be honest, we were never really a full-blooded rock’n’roll group but always a rocking group, i.e. everything we played had a danceable beat to it. True, we did do plenty of rock’n’roll standards like ‘Rave On’ and ‘Rip It Up’ but I never thought our versions were very good as we lacked the vocal and instrumental power necessary for hard rock’n’roll.
Everyone then did ‘What’d I Say’ but we were the only group I can remember who did not do Side 2 as we thought it was silly. The only Shadows number we did was ‘Apache’ as that was the only one we liked! We were asked many times for others but always gave the excuse that we hadn’t
practiced them – which was true. What we didn’t mention is that we had no intention of
Our most requested number was ‘Buena Sera’ but it sounded nothing like the Louis Prima recording. And we did lots of unusual stuff like ‘Skokiaan’ , Chuck Willis’s ‘From The Bottom Of My Heart’, and Nat King Cole’s ‘Send For Me’, which believe it or not, makes a great stop-start rock’n’roll number!
And we nearly always ended the night by playing ‘Save The Last Dance For Me.’
It was at the Cherokee that we heard the name “Beatles” again.
Some of the customers had stayed behind one night and we were standing around chatting about the group scene, which had mushroomed since the previous year.
A young lad started to talk about the Beatles in awestruck tones, saying, “I’ve never seen a group like the Beatles.” The club manager, who hated them, snorted derisively, “I wouldn’t have them here if you paid me!”
We later learned that someone connected with the group had called at the Cherokee and tried to persuade him to take them on as the resident group but he had refused.
However, we kept hearing the same comments from other sources and although we were irritated by the hype (nationally, “Beatlemania” started in 1963 but I can confirm that on Merseyside, there was plenty of it about in 1961) we had to see for ourselves whether the group’s reputation was deserved.
John, our leader, went to a lunchtime session at the Cavern and I vividly recall his sidling up to me and saying with a sarcastic smile, “Well, Neil, I saw these fantastic Beatles”. I asked for his opinion on them and he said, “When you see them from a distance, you think they are old men, they are so haggard and pallid. Then, when you get closer, you see they are just kids after all, who haven’t had enough sleep.”
In the end, we all saw the group and none of us could understand what the fuss was about. The Beatles were loud, raw, crude and unbelievably scruffy! They were also extremely arrogant and didn’t seem to care about anything much. They gave the impression that they regarded it as a privilege for the audience to be allowed to see them
Yet their popularity could not be denied and I had a graphic experience of this in early 1961, when I went along to one of the Bluegenes Guest Nights on a Tuesday night at the “Cavern”.
I had a few pints and came in at 9.30pm. I was astonished to see that the club appeared to be empty. Then I glanced towards the stage and saw why.
Everyone was packed as tight as a rugger scrum around the stage area. In the archways to left and right, the crowd was seven deep. Every vantage point, every chair, every square inch with a view of the stage was jammed solid with people.
It was an awesome sight and one I had never seen for any other group.
I walked around the perimeter of this human hedge for ten minutes and tried in vain to catch a glimpse of the Beatles. Then, someone moved a leg or an arm and I caught sight of one of the group’s feet – and that was all I saw of the group that night!
I knew then that they were unstoppable.
And now for some of the other groups on the scene: The Remo Four were one of our favourites, with an all-Fender line-up. They specialized in instrumentals (Shadows/Ventures/Chet Atkins ) all performed with power and precision. They were not an exciting group – they didn’t have to be. They certainly had our respect and their lead guitarist, Colin Manley, was one of the best musicians on Merseyside.
The Big Three are legendary. The hardest drummer, Johnny Hutchinson, coupled with a great bass player, Johnny Gustafson, and a superb lead guitar, Brian Griffiths, who replaced Adrian Barber. Sadly, of their recorded output, only “Some Other Guy” and the EP “Live at the Cavern” gives any idea of just how good they were.
Gerry Marsden’s first three hits (all number ones, as we know) were all ballads so you might get the idea that Gerry and the Pacemakers were just an insipid pop group.