Stepping In And Out Of That Manchester Beat

The first fulmination of British Beat music is always going to be known as Mersey Beat. Brian Epstein may have thought that his lovable Mop Tops had the potential to make a record or two but he also managed a stable of Scousers ready to follow the ‘Pool pathfinders into the chart limelight flaunting their provincialism, their youth, their “fab” & “gear” & “wacker”, their swinging blue jeans. Down the East Lancashire Road, at the other end of the North West megalopolis, Manchester, Liverpool’s civic & commercial rivals since the Industrial Revolution, had to watch as the British youth coup which spread across the world’s turntables had a distinctive Merseyside twang. Now, 50 years later, Manchester’s musicians have made their mark on our music but their beat group hit-makers were a little exiguous.

The Hollies were bang on it from the very start. The first 45s were the R&B covers from their stage act, lively Coasters harmonies, the music stripped to a basic beat . Success was incremental until Doris Troy’s “Just One Look” took them to the Top 3. From record 1 the b-sides were their own songs. “Now’s The Time” is credited to Graham Nash & Allan Clarke (for the next record Tony Hicks would join in). It is the flip of “Stay” & is featured in the 1963 film “It’s All Over Town”, a forgotten flim-flam which was passing its sell-by-date as it was filmed. What an early shot of the group, the leather look was not a great one, they still have the original drummer, Don Rathbone & their pre-Fab Four haircuts. The song though is a simple variation on the Lennon & McCartney template showing that the Hollies were quick learners.

The band were certainly helped by the production talents of Ron Richards but they made the smart moves at the right time. they began to record original songs, the move across the Atlantic in 1966 made them very successful. So many of those first beat groups were left behind after that first energy burst. The Hollies were better than most , they were talented & had got it going on. More from them soon.

The Swinging Sixties had not yet been declared open when, in 1961, George Formby, a singer/comedian who had been the UK’s highest paid entertainer, passed away. Formby’s appeal was not too apparent to my generation, novelty songs, an innocent demeanour, an exaggerated accent, a “Lancashire half-wit” said one Liverpudlian (though George Harrison was a fan). Peter Noone, a young actor from Manchester was 16 years old when he had his first #1 hit as the singer of Herman’s Hermits.  When he was just 17 (you know what I mean) he & his group had 7 Top 10 hits in the US. Peter was cute, America was in thrall to a rampant Anglophilia, The songs were R&B covers,( think Pat Boone “Tutti Frutti”) or novelty songs, the syrupy “Mrs Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter”, a Cockney knees-up, “I’m Henry the Eighth I Am”, which were both awful & both hit #1. Peter was innocent, he exaggerated his northern accent & the Yanks just ate him up. What the…? I have no idea what any of the Beatles thought of him.

Mickie Most, the band’s producer, kept the hits coming until the end of 1967 when Peter handed over the title of Sweet Young Mancunian Boy to Monkee Davy Jones. The Hermits still had access to hit songs & had continued success in Europe. Before the Top 10 hits stopped they released this version of “Dandy”. The clip is from “The Dean Martin Show” & OK the song has been sedated & de-clawed, “Well Respected Man” it is not. It is, though, a Ray Davies song at #5 in the US charts & that is a thing.

Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders took that same ride to the top of the US charts. It must have been such a blast for these young men who had grown up in the black & white world of 1950s Britain. “The Game Of Love”, a song by an interesting American writer, Clint Ballard Jr, was the group’s 2nd UK hit & a #1 in the USA. Man, if you were British & in a band in 1965 you were a prince !. So Wayne Fontana (erm, Glyn Ellis) had his head turned & split from the backing group. He did have some smaller hits in the UK but there was an increasing look of desperation in the man’s eyes with each attempt to recapture past glories. Instead, would you Adam & Eve it, the backing group hit paydirt with their very first record post-Wayne. “A Groovy Kind Of Love” is a hit record waiting to happen, an easy lope through one 2-minute hook. Whoever got hold of the song first was the winner. It was a sign of the 1965 times that a young British band, with no great track record, got first refusal of a new American tune. The Mindbenders were not able to repeat their success but were around until 1968. Singer/guitarist Eric Stewart had learned the ropes, used his earnings to build a studio just outside Manchester & came right on back with 10cc. Wayne Fontana came around in 2005 in some weird-ass court case.

And that is about it for Manchester 60s hit-makers. Freddie & the Dreamers were around too but that line between child-like & childish was very quickly crossed…not great. There are those who claim Georgie Fame but he was from Leigh, close but not a Manc. John Mayall played in his first blues bands in the city but he, like Georgie, had to leave for London to find the scenes they wanted. Hey, it was just a short time & the Hollies are just the first of a line of great groups from a music city. It just stung a little that all that music was coming from just 30 miles up the road.

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Judge A Song By It’s Cover (Michael Carpenter)

The feelgood hit of the summer round our house (we didn’t listen to a lot, there was a football tournament to watch) was a cover version of a 60s hit by the Hollies. “Look Through Any Window” (1965) was written by the precocious songwriter for hire, Graham Gouldman, then just 18 years old. It does exactly that thing that the Hollies do so well. It is a clean and crisp 12 string riff, the harmonies are damn near perfect, drummer, Bobby Elliott, gives it that driving beat and you feel better having heard it. Why then not just stick with the original ? Well, Michael Carpenter did this good a job on the song.

Carpenter, an Australian (but we will not hold that…you get me ), had been on my radar before. I had that song on some tape compilation but the cassettes are gathering dust and my memory is not what it used to be. Now I like a cover version if it is done well. I checked out Michael Carpenter & it seems that cover versions are what he does. There are 5 volumes of his S.O.O.P (Songs Of Other People) series. I don’t know how much of an impression these LPs have made but Carpenter does not have a Wikipedia page and, I’m sorry, my next-door neighbour’s dog has one of those. I’m guessing that they could be our little secret so keep this on the downlow. Further investigation shows that some of these cover songs are pretty good.

“Life Get’s Better” is a Graham Parker from the 1983 LP “The Real Macaw”, his first without his heavyweight backing band the Rumour. The LP suffered from what we doctors call “80s production values”. If you were around at the time then you will know the symptoms, terrible drum sound, redundant keyboards and the rest. G.P. wrote good strong songs like this and the dodgy violin on the original is a big mistake. Carpenter strips it back to the basics and the song is good enough without any frills. Apparently “Life Gets Better” was a bigger hit in Australia than anywhere else on the planet. A rare example of culture and taste from a nation of convicts and philistines. (I am sorry, this is a bad English joke. some of my best friends have Australian friends).

In 1967, at the height of Monkeemania, the kids I hung about on street corners of a weekend all bought “Monkees” shirts, the ones with a flap fastened by a double row of buttons. They expected me to do the same. Now I was not about to be a 13 year old follow fashion monkey, especially not for some created-for-TV fake band who stole other people’s songs and did  a very poor impression of the Marx Brothers. I am more mature now and can appreciate that the Monkees made some fine 60s pop records. I own a couple of Mike Nesmith’s solo LPs. However, this first experience of peer pressure has not made it easy for me to accept them as a “real” band. It scarred me man, scarred me. I would push you out of the way to get one of those shirts now.

“Tapioca Tundra” is a Nesmith song (the B-side of “Valleri”). A cynic would point to it’s debt to Gene Clark’s “Feel A Whole Lot Better” and that the Monkee’s psychedelic credentials, however “out there” the movie “Head” is, were never going to happen. Again Michael Carpenter has produced a fine jangle-pop version of a good song. This seems to be what he does and it’s alright by me. Of course not all good songs lend themselves to interpretation. There is a Carpenter version of the Beach Boys “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” which I would not go near. However talented anyone is there will be no improvement or angle which will make any version as enjoyable as the original. It seems that Michael Carpenter has his own cover cottage industry going on and he’s doing a fine job putting some love into songs he likes. I will look forward to any subsequent additions to S.O.O.P.

England swings like a pendulum do

“We thought that if we lasted for two to three years that would be fantastic.” So said Ringo Starr about the expectations he and his band mates had for a career in music. If the greatest creative force of the last half of the 20th century did not expect it to last then what about those others who had peeked through the door the Beatles had kicked down.

The more opportunistic inanities of the Mersey Beat had been rumbled. The 15 minutes of fame were up for Gerry & the Pacemakers, the Swinging Blue Jeans and others who had made a raucous racket but lacked the imagination to do anything but ride the bandwagon. For reasons beyond the understanding of us Brits the Dave Clark Five and Herman’s Hermits had endless hits in the U.S.A. In 1964 the competition for chart success was fierce. A band needed to come up with the goods or it was back to the provinces and the milk round. Here are three fine examples of British pop from this year.

“When You Walk In The Room” is the fourth of five singles (six in the US) released by the Searchers in 1964. The first two had been Number One hits in the UK so no pressure then. This is a great pop single but I am equally impressed by the process of the band, and producer Tony Hatch, going into Pye studios with the intent of fashioning a record to be a world wide hit and doing it so well.

The Searchers did not write their own material. They had hit with “Needles and Pins”, a Jackie de Shannon record written by Sonny Bono and Jack Nitzche. They returned to de Shannon for this song. Here is the palette, a folky song rocked up with a 12 string Rickenbacker, which the Byrds were to use on their Dylan covers. I love the Byrds but just listen to the opening of this song without thinking “Eight Miles High”…can’t be done.

When the hits dried up the band headed for cabaret in Britain. There was a bit of a revival in 1979 when Sire signed them and recorded a couple of LPs of likeable power pop. In the early 80s we had a Xmas party at our favourite London club/hangout. The Searchers did not usually play to such a young audience. Their set full of hits were just the thing to start the festive season and the band seemed to be enjoying themselves. They returned for an encore, the crowd insisted on a reprise of “Needles and Pins” and the band obliged. Everybody in the place danced, sang and smiled. It was a fine moment, I hope the group did enjoy it too.

The Hollies were the first of the great Manchester bands. Their high energy, harmonised versions of R & B hits had established them and this British song continued their success. By 1966 they were releasing their own songs, written by singer Allan Clarke and guitarists Tony Hicks and Graham Nash. These singles brought them more success in the US. Nash, unhappy at a “Hollies Sing Dylan” LP, hooked up with Crosby and Stills to form a band destined for superstardom. The Hollies continued to have hits but headed for the middle of the road and for cabaret.

The collected work of the Hollies is a fine example of how a young group started with the Mersey Beat and developed a more sophisticated approach to their music. Tony Hicks is, apparently, an unassuming guy. his contribution to the Hollies sound, writing, playing and vocally, is integral to their success. He is an overlooked talent in the first wave of British pop music.

The Pretty Things were promoted as being wilder than the Rolling Stones, largely, it seems, on the basis of singer Phil May having longer hair than Jagger. “Don’t Bring Me Down” is one of their fine singles released between 1964 and 66. The music was short (just 2 minutes), sharp and spiky. They were not too successful. I guess the Stones were wild enough in those days. Young Englishmen trying to play like Bo Diddley and inventing garage rock almost accidentally.

The Things changed like many groups. In 1968 they recorded a psychedelic “concept” LP. It was released in the same week as the “White Album”, “Beggar’s Banquet” and “Village Green Preservation Society”. By 1968 you had to be pretty damn good if you wanted to be heard. There are only so many hours in the day to listen to music. “S.F. Sorrow” was overlooked and it is for their influential singles that the band is best remembered.