Did London Sabotage The Mersey Sound?

By Bill Harry  

Lee Curtis' Mersey Beat coverThe North-South divide in Britain is not so obvious as it was in the days of the Mersey Sound. There was a definite and strong feeling in the north that Southerners had all the benefits and maintained control of the country. Some Southerners regarded Northerners as people who wore clogs and lived in slum properties. There was also a hint of antagonism in the relationship between the two areas of Britain.

It was a major feat for any artist from the provinces to make a name in the music industry unless they decamped to London and were taken over by London-based managers or agents. Liverpool artists such as Billy Fury and Johnny Gentle, for instance, were 'controlled' by impresario Larry Parnes. In those days there were no motorways and it was an eight-hour journey from Liverpool to London - and a major trek from Glasgow or Newcastle. With Mersey Beat I tried to capture London's attention with editorials such as 'London - Take A Look Up North!'

When the Beatles turned the British music industry upside down, they created a gap in the London power base through which a host of artists from the provinces passed through - from Sheffield, Birmingham, Newcastle and Manchester. Then London closed the gap once again.

The Grades were the most powerful show-business family Britain has ever known. Lou Grade had his power base in television with ATV, his brother Bernard Delfont not only ran the Moss Empires theatre chain, but 'Sunday Night At The London Palladium'. the premier television entertainment show and also 'The Royal Variety Show', whilst their other association with the Harold Davidson empire controlled the agency and management contracts of the majority of star names in film, television and record. It was a case of having the power to make or break a name. In addition, the national press was based in London, as was the entire musical press (until Mersey Beat came along), together with all the record companies, music publishing companies, the BBC radio and television, offices of Radio Luxembourg and so on. It was not unnatural for the London press to want to see these Northern upstairs fade away and they quickly sought a London-based replacement. 

Initially it was the Dave Clark Five. When 'Glad All Over' hit the No.1 spot there was media saturation. The Daily Express headlined: 'Tottenham Sound Has Crushed The Beatles' and the London Evening Standard published cartoons dismissing the Beatles as old fashioned.

Then, of course, it was the Rolling Stones - who, ironically, got their recording break via the Beatles. I was looking through an old issue of the Star Club News, published in August 1965. I contributed a column each issue free of charge in exchange for Manfred Weissleder providing me with colour transparencies of the Beatles performing at the Star Club. The item read: "Three Mersey outfits failed to get singles into the charts because they couldn't get any major television promotion. The Big Three recorded 'Bring It On Home To Me', Chick Graham & the Coasters recorded 'A Little You' and the Escorts recorded 'I Don't Want To Go On Without You'. Some months later the Animals, Freddie & the Dreamers and the Moody Blues had hits with the same numbers. Although those groups came from Newcastle, Manchester and Birmingham, as far as the media were concerned, they didn't come from Liverpool.

It reminded me of the suspicion I had at the time. There may well have been an understanding between London A&R men and the capital's media to undermine the impact of Mersey group in favour of returning London to the forefront of the music business.

Certainly, talented Liverpool groups did find it difficult to receive any promotion once the initial euphoria surrounding the Beatles and Brian Epstein's stable of acts had settled.

London was the centre of the music business and there was a degree of resentment about the attention which had been given to the Mersey music scene. I know of a Liverpool manager of a stable of acts who was paid a large sum by a London agent for his acts - who were then virtually never heard of again. I had the feeling that the Liverpool scene had not been allowed to flourish as it should.

The talent remained in Liverpool, but it was simply condemned to isolation once more when London regained control of the music business. Yet whenever recording managers did take an interest it Liverpool, they always found it overflowing with talent. I continued to feel that Liverpool acts from the Mersey era could have continued to spin out hits for the rest of the decade, but they were literally sabotaged.

Let us look at a few examples:
Lee Curtis was signed to Decca and recorded 'Let's Stomp', the Bobby Comstock number that was popular with the group's fans. Yet the Decca A&R man sabotaged the number by forcing Lee to repeat the words 'Let's Stomp' a total of 36 times, which Lee felt ruined the recording and stripped it on any commercial impact. He was right, you only have to listen to the number to realize that a potential hit was rendered ridiculous by the endless repetition of the two words.

Lee then wanted to record 'Twist and Shout', but Decca refused, and later the same company made sure Brian Poole & the Tremeloes released the number and they topped the charts with it. Lee's group asked if they could record 'Money', but Decca refused to let Lee record it and later released the number by another of their Southern acts, Bern Elliot & the Fenmen.

Curtis then asked Decca if he could record 'Shout.' Decca refused and later released a single of 'Shout' with Lulu & the Luvvers, which established Lulu's career. Lee next requested that he be allowed to record 'It's Only Make Believe', but Decca once again refused and later released a version by Billy Fury, which charted.

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