Fifty years ago, a musical charge led by the Beatles opened the floodgates to many of their British mates. The barrage of English talent in America was coined the British Invasion, and new artists arrived from across the Pond in waves throughout the decade and, really, ever since.
Few artists, however, can claim to have been hot on the heels of the Fab Four in 1964. The Searchers were a fellow Liverpool group that also paid its dues in Hamburg, Germany, as well as at local Beatles haunts like the Cavern. America’s hunger for the Merseybeat sound drove the band’s smash track “Needles and Pins” up the charts in March 1964, making them the second English group to have a major hit after the Beatles.
The voice behind “Needles and Pins” and many of the other Searchers’ hits like the Jackie DeShannon-penned “When You Walk In the Room,” “Sweets for My Sweet,” “Sugar and Spice” and “Love Potion No. 9” was Mike Pender, the band’s lead guitarist. This fall, he’ll be appearing as part of the 50th anniversary British Invasion tour along with Chad & Jeremy, Billy J. Kramer, Gerry and the Pacemakers and Denny Laine. (REBEAT will bring you more interviews with these great artists in the coming weeks!)
Also, Pender will make his first-ever appearance at a Fest for Beatles Fans when he headlines in Chicago next week, and is anticipating the release of his autobiography around the holidays.
We spoke from his home in Cheshire, “middle England,” where Pender talked about his childhood ambitions, an upcoming career first at the Fest, and how coming to America in 1964 expanded his palette.
REBEAT: So, you don’t live in London?
I don’t like London. I went off London years ago in the ’60s. We used to have a flat down there in the really of busy part near Marble Arch. You had to be down there in then because that’s where everything was happening, of course. But at the end of the ’60s, I moved back up here into the northwest. It’s nice; we’re in the countryside, we have lots of lush hills around us, and horses and sheep and lots of farms. I’m a country boy, really, as they say in America (laughs).
I wanted to ask a bit about being from Liverpool, originally.
I’m only an hour away from Liverpool and obviously, that was my hometown years ago. I don’t go there too much now, only if there’s a gig at the theatre there, or if I’m doing a tour and it comes to the Philharmonic or the Empire. Otherwise, I don’t go there too often. As you know it, has a lot of history.
What was it like to grow up there after the war and —
In the ‘60s?
Well, it was a great time actually because, before any of us made the big time, and I’m including the Beatles and everybody now, we just did it for kicks, beer money, laughs and to be popular with the girls, and it was fun. That’s all we did it for. You had places like the Cavern, obviously, the Iron Door, the Pink Parrot, the Blue Angel and lots of other gigs around Liverpool.
There used to be a guy called Bob Wooler. He was a great guy and he used to help everybody. If you were doing something that didn’t sort of appeal, he would say, “Mike, that’s not a very good song and you should change it.” He’d more-or-less tell you what to do and how to do things right.
I remember when we first started, the four of us, we got a lead singer because Bob Wooler said, “You guys are gonna sound a lot better if you get a vocalist.” So, we got a vocalist and we were called Johnny Sandon and the Searchers for awhile. Then Johnny left to join another group, but it was a blessing in disguise because we realized we had to do it ourselves. We all started singing and the rest is history, and it happened for us.
I read that the name “The Searchers” was inspired by the John Wayne movie.
Yeah! I remember I was 16 years old and a couple of the guys and myself went along to the cinema. I was cowboy mad in those days. When I was a child, I used to go to the local cinema every Saturday afternoon just to see cowboys and Indians. (laughs) You know when they say to a kid, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I wanted to be a cowboy! I really was cowboy mad.
America churned out those cowboy movies like every week in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The two that stand out for me are John Wayne and The Searchers and the other one, which is a fantastic Western movie, Alan Ladd in Shane. America was famous for Western movies and Western music, really, because in the late ’50s and early ’60s, a lot of those groups in England started off with skiffle, but I started listening to Hank Williams and Faron Young and people like that. Those guys were great for me. And even today, my kind of music that I play is American music like the Eagles or Crosby, Stills and Nash. That’s the kind of people I like.
Was America represented by Western, cowboy culture to you growing up?
Definitely. I remember going to a cinema as a kid and seeing Gene Autry sitting on a horse playing a guitar. (laughs) I thought, how can he do that? How can he manage to play that thing? The first time I picked up a guitar, I was probably about 10 years old. There was one lying around in my grandmother’s house. Somebody used to come to the local pub on Saturday night, and he played it, and when he was finished with it, he left it in my grandmother’s house. As a kid, I used to go see my grandmother on Sundays, and I remember picking it up and thinking, how on earth does anyone play something like this? And that was my first introduction. When I got to 15 or 16, I learned to play, and I’m still learning today!
When you got to America, was it different than you imagined?
Yes, of course, because you got to America and the Beatles had already been. There were hundreds of screaming girls, which was fantastic, and just seeing New York and riding in the yellow taxis. I remember the signs everywhere that I thought said “piz-za.” We’d never heard of pizza in England! In the early ‘60s, we never had pizza over here, it only came in later. I said to the guy, “What’s piz-za?” And he said, “Man, we’re gonna get you some, C’mon!” So we went to the restaurant and we had some pizza. It was brilliant! I eat a lot of pizza now over here, and of course when you finish a gig on the road, sometimes you don’t get a meal, but you can always get a pizza!
The other thing I remember about going to America in those early days is seeing, in every street, manhole covers and steam coming up out of them. I couldn’t work out what that was. And then they told me, “Yeah it’s to do with the underground heating system.” I thought that was amazing! Do you still have those over there? Because I was in America last year, up in Massachusetts, but I haven’t been to New York in quite awhile.
We do, especially in the winter because it’s so cold. When I came to New York for the first time, I didn’t know what it was either, so don’t think that’s an exclusively British mystery.
Oh, well, that’s good! Even an American was surprised!
Do you come to America often?
I was there last year and I’m coming this year, but over the last 30, 40 years, I’ve probably been about seven or eight times. That’s it. I think you can only perform in America when it’s an anniversary, and obviously, this year is the 50th anniversary of when everybody came to America in 1964, so we’re doing this tour. When you come to America, that’s usually the only reason you can be there, because unless you actually break into the charts again with a hit record, you don’t really go to America anymore.
I’m just amazed that after 50 years, people still want to hear your singing and want to listen to those songs again. It’s a great feeling.
And this tour is kind of a recreation of what happened 50 years ago, especially performing again with a lot of the same artists.
We’ve still got a lot of nostalgic people around, even in America. We’ve had lots of enquiries to the fan club over here asking, “Are you going to sign autographs and pictures after the show?” And I’m saying, “Yep, yep, it’s going to be great!” We’re going to say hello to everybody, and hopefully we’re gonna have time to sign CDs and pictures. I’m really looking forward to it.
You know, I just said nostalgic music. I think there’s always room for nostalgic music. People always want to go back to the old days now and again. The young people have got their music today, and the nostalgic people have got theirs as well, so hopefully we’re going to see a lot of them on the tour.
And at least three of the artists on the tour are also from Liverpool.
I can remember those guys from years ago, obviously. I haven’t seen Billy Kramer since I did a tour with him in Australia 15 years ago. I see Gerry Marsden quite often; we do a lot of shows together over here. But, we’re still around, we’re still performing. I don’t perform as much as I did, of course, because I don’t think I could be up to doing it like we did years ago. When I do a tour, I like to have a break, I like to have a holiday, settle down and enjoy my family. I go around and see my grandchildren and do things i like doing you know?
It’s nice to be able to the things you couldn’t do years ago, because when we were having all those hit records in 1964, ’65, ’66, I was always on world tours, so I missed some of my kids when they were growing up. It’s nice now to be able to share my life with my grandchild. We’ve only got the one, but he’s a blessing, really, and I really enjoy being with him a lot, and I give him a lot of my time. I’m making up for the time I didn’t get in the ‘60s. (laughs)
There’s probably a lot of guys like me in the ’60s who were out of the country so much, working. If you were having hit records in America, Australia, South Africa, that’s where you went to do a tour and you were away a lot of the time. So now when I get the chance to go to America or anywhere, I take my wife with me because she didn’t get to see a lot of the tours in those days, she was so busy looking after the children. That’s good that we can still do that.
And going back to the ‘60s, the Searchers played Hamburg.
Yeah, all the time. A lot of the groups that went to the Star-Club in Hamburg went on to make records and have hits. The Star-Club was a phenomenal place. We all had to give our jobs up in Liverpool, Tony, Chris, John and myself, and we took a chance, really, because there was nothing to say we were going to go on and make records.
Our first trip to the Star-Club is probably how the Beatles went. We got the train from Liverpool down to London, and then we got the train from London to a place called Harwich, and we went by sea to the Hook of Holland, then by train from Holland to Germany — a two-day journey to the Star-Club! Chris, the drummer, had to take his drum kit with him. Can you believe that? That’s what we had to do. So, really, we went through the hard times to get to the good times.
But the Star-Club was great. It was magical for us, really, to see all those American stars like Chuck Berry and Ray Charles and Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis. It was fantastic that they were there. They were all our heroes, you know. To come from Liverpool to see them, shake hands with them, rub shoulders with them — fantastic feeling.
Later on, Brian Epstein would say that not signing the Searchers was his biggest regret.
Well, I seem to remember something like that. He had nearly everybody else. Gerry, the Beatles, Billy J. Kramer, Cilla Black, and a couple of other people. Apparently, he did come to see us at the Cavern but I can’t remember seeing him there. If he did come, he was only there for a few minutes and he left. But, apparently, he tried to sign us up later after we were sort of established as a recording group. He came to have a meeting with our manager then, Tito Burns, but Tito wasn’t having any of it and we didn’t leave him. Brian always liked the band. I think he was sorry we weren’t in the stable with all the other guys, but maybe it was a good thing for us, I don’t know.
I was going to ask if you regret at all not being in his stable.
Not really, because I think to look back, I was quite happy with Tito Burns. He did a lot for us. Tito brought us to America, he got us on The Ed Sullivan Show, and I think a lot of the success was down to him. So, really, you can’t look back and say it would have been better with Brian Epstein. You don’t know, so if you don’t know, best leave it alone.
When the British Invasion actually started to hit, did you have any inkling of how big it would actually be?
No. I mean, after the first American tour finished, you said, “Well, that’s it, we’ll never come back here again.” But we’d come back a couple of times because obviously we were a hit in America and a lot of people said that after the Beatles we were very, very popular. We were probably one of the biggest groups after the Beatles, I think.
Which makes it even more appropriate that you’re appearing at the Chicago Fest for Beatles Fans this month.
At the Fest, I’m going to do a Beatles song for the first time ever in my life. I’ve never done Beatles songs, probably because we had great success with our own songs. There’s never been a need to do Beatles song or anybody else’s, so apart from a couple of our own hits like “Love Potion No. 9” and “Needles and Pins” and a few of the others, I’m going to do “A Hard Day’s Night,” because that was the song where I first saw George Harrison use his 12-string Rickenbacker. That’s when I went out and bought my own Rickenbacker to use on a hit record we had called “When You Walk in the Room.” I actually got the idea from George, and because he was playing that guitar on “A Hard Day’s Night,” that’s the song I’m going do.
I’ve never been one for going overboard about the Beatles, but the reason being, of course, is when you’ve got your own success, you concentrate on your own songs, style, music and fans. Although I thought the Beatles were absolutely fantastic, and I can sit there all day and appreciate how good they were, and how fantastic they did. I think a lot of the time, they’ve kept the ‘60s thing going. The Beatles have always sort of been that premiere group that people have always said, “Yeah, the ‘60s, yeah, the Beatles,” and then they think of other groups like the Searchers and Gerry and everyone else. We had our own identity, I think. That’s what I’ve done for the past 50 years, just stick to my own identity.
Right, and I think it’s arguable that the Searchers influenced American groups like the Byrds, who also adopted the jangly Rickenbacker guitar sound.
That’s what people tell me. Obviously, we didn’t know at the time, but lots of people say to me, “Mike you know the Byrds, for instance, got a few ideas from you guys,” and they talk about other people like Tom Petty who liked our sound. I suppose that’s a good feeling, that other guys in other groups in America got a little bit of inspiration from the Searchers. I’m really happy about that. Yeah, great.
You guys have some interesting touring stories, too, from the ‘60s, Like, you toured with the Rolling Stones?
It was Australia in 1965. The Rolling Stones were just coming off of the scene worldwide, and they stole the show, really. We were not having that many hit records at the time and Chris Curtis, our drummer, was having a hard time with the Stones because he found it very difficult to not be the big sort of prima donna on the tour. In our performance, he was the guy, he was the one. Chris would always stand up playing the drums, which was unique, really. He was the personality in the band, and I think it was him who people really remembered at that time.
We had a few problems being on tour with the Stones because Chris couldn’t take it. The Stones were so big. and the audiences just loved them. In this game, you’ve gotta realize that there’s always gonna be someone bigger than you, and you’ve got to accept it. I don’t think Chris could on that tour. But that’s what you’ve got to do. There’s always going to be someone who’s coming out that’s going to be the new, big stars and you’ve got to be happy with that.
Very true. Speaking of the next “big stars,” jumping forward to the late-70s, early-80s, the Searchers were signed to Sire Records, which was the home of Madonna and a lot of other up-and-coming acts.
It was very unusual, because, like you said, Sire had all these groups with strange names. Seymour Stein, the guy who owned the company, came to a show in England to see us play, and after the show, he said, “Mike, your voice is still great, we are going to put you guys back in the charts.” He was really up for the big time.
He put us in Rockfield Studios in Wales where we did two albums. Rolling Stone magazine gave them great reviews; they said, “Yeah, these guys are still good, they’re gonna make it again.” And what happened? It’s very true that no matter how good your product is, if nobody buys it, it’s not good at all. And, really, that’s what happened, because Sire Records gave us another bite of the cherry, as it were, but, unfortunately, it didn’t happen for us. That was a little sad period in our lives where people thought we were going to make it big again and we didn’t.
I have to tell you that “Hearts In Her Eyes” (1979) is actually one of my all-time favorite Searchers songs.
That was a great song. I thought it was going to be a hit single. But, you know what the problem is, of course. In the early days when you have management, publicity, road managers and people to look after you, they point you in the right direction. Unless you have a manager like Tito Burns who could go to America and get you on The Ed Sullivan Show and tours with a lot of big people in America, it cuts your chances down of having that success again.
Even if you make a good product like “Hearts In Her Eyes,” and even when everybody says, “Yeah, you guys are gonna be in the charts again,” unless you have management and people who are going to point you in the right direction and hit he bricks for you, you’re going to fail.
When we signed with Sire Records, we’d been in the business already for 25 years. You can’t be resourceful for 25 years. You can’t have hit records for 25 years. We had our time at the top, maybe three or four good years, and then you settle down from doing tours around the world. You’re living off your royalties and fame and hit records, and when you get a chance again, unless you have that management thing again, it’s predictable that you won’t make it again, no matter how good it is. That’s what happened to us. Simple as that, really.
Did that lack of success with the Sire albums contribute to your decision to leave the Searchers in 1985?
It affected me because we’d tried so many times to make a comeback over the years. We’d been in so many studios so many times, been through so many record companies, and nothing happened. Even the Sire thing, which we’d just been through, nothing happened there.
When you get to a certain stage in your life, you say to yourself, well it looks like we’re going to be living on our hit records and it’s going to be nostalgia. I said to myself, if I’m going to be singing all the old songs for the rest of my life, I think I’m going to start a band of my own. So I left in 1985 and I formed Mike Pender’s Searchers, which we are today. The shows today are just pure nostalgia.
I’m into my early 70s now. I don’t feel that old, but it’s nice to know, like I said before, that people still want to hear me and if you’ve still got the energy for it, which I have, if you’ve still got the voice for it, which people tell me I still have, why not? I still enjoy performing so much and when you’re up onstage with your Rickenbacker guitar and your band backing you, you do feel like you’re still young, so it’s good for me.
(Cover photo by Paul Wolfgang Webster.)