The riverside at Castlefields

The riverside at Castlefields

Saturday, 25 May 2013

The Searchers and Silvine drawing books

The Searchers, who were once described by John Lennon as his favourite group, are coming to Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn next week. And, yes, of course, they’re getting on a bit now and won’t quite be the band they were in their prime, but I can’t wait to see them.
I’m also going to see the mighty rock superstar Bruce Springsteen in June which I’m (needless to say) extremely excited about, but, in some ways, I’m equally as thrilled at the prospect of seeing The Searchers.
You see, they’ve been one of my favourite groups for as far back as I can remember.
Here’s a thing. When I was a little boy, growing up in North Street in Castlefields, I spent a lot of time drawing and crayoning. Most children of five or six years of age tended to draw houses or cars or aeroplanes. But I drew pop groups.
I can remember drawing men with guitars and, just in the background, another man sitting behind a drum kit.
This was the Merseybeat era.
The television would flicker into life to show black and white images of the groups of the day and, even at quite a tender age, I was enchanted by the sights and sounds of pop.
The groups would almost always display their name on the front of the drumkit and I would faithfully use this detail in my drawings. I’m almost certain that The Searchers were among those I drew in my pale green covered Silvine drawing book from the local post office.
Meanwhile, our big sister Jan would take myself and our little brother for walks (around the block) down North Street, along Queen Street, up Burton Street, and then West Street and back home. Coming out of the radios in the front rooms of the houses were the sounds of The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Cilla Black, and the other big names who were bringing a new kind of pop music to the world.
Let me tell you a little about The Searchers.
They produced a string of shimmering hit singles and (like that of The Byrds who would come later) their sound was often shot through with glorious Rickenbacker guitar work.
One of the premier groups from the mid-60s Merseybeat explosion, they had taken their name from the 1956 John Ford western, The Searchers.
Just like The Beatles, they appeared in Hamburg, learning their craft among the seedy nightclubs, and, after sending a demo tape to A&R representative Tony Hatch, they were signed to Pye Records.
I well remember our older brother had a collection of singles around this time and I can still conjure up the distrinctive purple Pye record label.
The group’s debut was the catchy Sweets for My Sweet featuring strong harmonies. It got to number one, establishing The Searchers as serious rivals to Brian Epstein’s famous stable of Liverpool groups.
Tony Hatch (he of the Crossroads theme tune and many a hit for Petula Clark) came up with the group’s follow-up single, Sugar and Spice. This also did well.
And then their third single, Needles and Pins, was their breakthrough. This broke the group in America.
I have to say, Needles and Pins is not only my favourite Searchers record, but also one of my favourite records of all time.
That chiming guitar and lovely melody places it alongside such greats as Mr Tambourine Man by The Byrds, Look Through Any Window by The Hollies, and Ticket to Ride by The Beatles.
Don’t Throw Your Love Away and When You Walk In The Room were among their other hits, but before long the chart success died away as pop music changed.
Before long, The Searchers (like Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J Kramer and The Dakotas, Freddie and The Dreamers and a host of others) found they were suddenly seen as old-fashioned.
While The Beatles grew and developed to lead the way, many of the groups from the early sixties were left behind.
The cabaret circuit beckoned and The Searchers carved out a career for themselves there, but the glory days were over.
Over the years there have been serveral changes in personnel (some of these dramatic and painful as when Mike Pender departed to set up his own incarnation of The Searchers). And so the group appearing in Shrewsbury will boast only a couple of the orignal members.
But the same can be said now of The Hollies or The Who or any number of sixties bands.
The most important thing is that the spirit of the original band is upheld by the latest line-up. I was delighted to see, for instance, that this was the case with The Hollies who appeared at Theatre Severn last year.
History will remember The Searchers as one of the great groups of the Merseybeat period, and I have high hopes for next Thursday’s performance.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Why this bridge brings back all my yesterdays

Even though it was getting dark and objects were turning into dim and hazy
shapes, the light would remain switched off because "you wouldn't want to
waste electricity, would you?"
On the other hand, it was seemingly still plenty light enough to continue
with the ironing, the comforting smell of which filled the room, a balm
for troubled minds.
Not that we carefree children knew anything about troubled minds, but the
talk between the grown-ups could be agitated from time to time, betraying
the disappointments and frustrations of adult life.
This was our nan's house in Belle Vue in the 1960s, a house which had a
walk-in pantry which was like having your own personal little shop in the
corner of the kitchen.
Whenever the conversation between mum and nan dried up, all you could hear
in the stillness of the living room was the steady, dependable tick-tock,
tick-tock of the handsome highly-polished dark-wood clock up on the wall;
a clock crowned with a carved stallion up on its hind legs.
While they went on with their boring talk of husbands' wages, street
gossip and the cost of bus fares, we little ones - my brother and I -
would climb into the space under the piano, the space where the pianist's
legs would go, and turn it into our secret camp.
Occasionally, nan would use her wireless (which had a gorgeously deep
tone), but I only ever remember hearing 'The Archers' - a programme that
seemed to we children every bit as dull as the conversation between mum
and nan.
As we grew older, my brother and I were  - on these visits to nan's -
allowed to play outside. At first we would go only as far as the large
back garden with its rotting wooden bench which contrasted sharply with
the well-kept lawn and lovely flower beds.
But eventually we were given permission to go down the nearby footpath,
over stiles, and across the fields by the railway line.
Ah, the railway line - where real adventures could happen.
To this day, the old iron footbridge which crosses the Hereford line and
takes you into Kemp's Field is my favourite footbridge.
I was stood on it the other day, waiting for a train to pass underneath.
It's impossible for me to stand on this bridge without thinking about Nan
and Grandad who lived in Links Road.
The bridge has a builders' cast-iron plate on it which tells us it was
built in 1914 by E. Finch & Co Ltd, Engineers and Ironfounders of
From an early age this set my imagination running. I would try to picture
what this scene might have looked like in 1914.
There would have been open countryside on the Kemp's Field side in those
days and only a smattering of Victorian housing on the Belle Vue side.
Links Road and Kemp's Eye Avenue would have come later.
Mighty steam locomotives would have hauled goods and passengers on those
lines below. What a magnificent sight they would have been!
And there was something else about the year 1914. This too played on my
mind as a youngster beginning to learn a little about the world.  It was
the year in which the First World War began, a conflict of the most
terrible carnage, and a conflict in which our Grandad was involved.
Holding on to the weather-beaten iron of this bridge gave me a connection
to all this. It was like being able to touch history.
Generations of children, generations of trainspotters, would have held on
to this iron bridge as trains rattled by below; generations of youngsters
stretching all the way back to the First World War.
This would make me think about why Grandad would go and sit on the stairs
in the darkness whenever there was a thunderstorm. Mum and d ad told us it
was a result of shellshock.
The footbridge looms large in my history.
To begin with it was a fantastic place for trainspotting, especially on
long summer afternoons.
And then, later, around, I think, 1969, there was the UFO incident.
My best friend Paul Rogers and I had founded an organisation - the
Unidentified Flying Objects Observation Corps - or UFOOC. A little later
we renamed it the APIU - Aerial Phenomena Investigation Unit - because we
thought this sounded much more professional.
We would write letters to Jodrell Bank Observatory and NASA, and (what was
more remarkable) we received replies as if these people were taking us
One night (when it was really dark), Paul and I went off to the Kemp's
Field bridge to look out for flying saucers. It seemed like a really good
place to spot them.
We had a transistor radio with us and whenever there was an interruption
to the signal, we reckoned it was due to an alien spacecraft being nearby.
We also took torches, a notebook, and sandwiches. It was very well
Did we spot a flying saucer that night? Well, we're pretty sure we did.
Sadly, we have no evidence to back up our claims. But the old upright
piano from Nan's house was definitely real, and is still in the family to
this day, in the Kidderminster home of my younger brother. It's just that
nowadays we're a bit too big to climb underneath it.