The Searchers still on ‘needles and pins’

Seminal British Invasion mates of The Beatles bring their chiming guitars to Israel.

FIVE DECADES on, British pop band The Searchers are still performing to enthusiastic audiences around the world. (photo credit: PAUL THOMPSON)
FIVE DECADES on, British pop band The Searchers are still performing to enthusiastic audiences around the world.
(photo credit: PAUL THOMPSON)
The Searchers could have been as big as The Beatles – if they had been more talented, better looking and had written their own songs.
But the Liverpool mates of the Fab Four didn’t fare too badly themselves in the British Invasion pack, with a string of ‘60s hits like “Needles and Pins” and “When You Walk In The Room” that introduced a jangly, chiming guitar sound that has endured down through the decades.
Most music aficionados credit The Byrds and its leader Roger (Jim) McGuinn for introducing the 12-string electric guitar to rock & roll, but they may have gotten the idea from The Searchers, according to guitarist and founding member John McNally.
“That 12-string sound on ‘Needles and Pins’ was a total mistake, and it wasn’t even done with 12-string guitars,” chuckled an affable McNally during a recent phone call from his home in Liverpool.
“We used two regular six-string guitars playing the same riff and added a little echo and reverb, and suddenly it sounded like a 12-string.
We thought it sounded great and decided to leave it like that, and everyone thought we were using 12-strings. To recreate the sound on the road, we actually had to go out and buy 12-string guitars.”
With their accidental distinctive sound in place, the band – McNally and Mike Pender on guitar, Frank Allen on bass and Chris Curtis on drums – joined the hordes of British bands exploiting the musical revolution led by The Beatles. Most of the groups – including Gerry and the Pacemakers and The Hollies – had spent years evolving from the British country/roots hybrid skiffle into full-fledged pop bands, and many of them were based in Liverpool, which according to McNally was not coincidental.
“We were fortunate to have a great seaport, and our family members were seamen in the merchant navy,” said the 74-year-old McNally.
“So they would bring all this great music back with them from America – early Motown, blues and country and western like Hank Williams.
All the young lads picked up on that and the skiffle craze developed in the mid-’50s. The Liverpool port was instrumental in introducing this new music to all of us.”
The same thing happened when Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley started producing the seminal version of electric rock & roll, and soon the Liverpool contingent was trading in their acoustic guitars and washboards for electric guitars and drum kits. Soon, they were all vying for stages in the limited Liverpool nightlife – including the John Lennon/ Paul McCartney-led combo that was beginning to make waves.
“We were all friends and there was this great camaraderie between all of the bands, including The Beatles,” said McNally. “The Searchers and The Beatles had this healthy competition – who was going to do the best, get the first record contract, have the first hit single.
“We used to go to lunchtime sessions at the Cavern club to see each other, and to the Andora club around the corner. It was a great time.”
So were the first few years after The Searchers broke big in the US, a phenomena that spawned an endless cycle of touring, recording and screaming adulation.
“As young, naïve lads from Liverpool, we weren’t prepared for that at all,” said McNally. “We had no idea what was going on, we were just told what to do all the time, from going to the studio and churning out records to being on the road constantly. They used to work us very hard, because like all things, there was a generational factor at work – the life cycle of pop bands in those days was very short and nobody knew how long it was going to last.”
Unlike The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, The Searchers were unable to evolve from their guitar pop roots and by the mind-expanding psychedelic onslaught of the late 1960s, they fell by the wayside.
However, the punk and new wave revolution of the late 1970s embraced their simplicity and straightforward pop. Latter-day rockers like Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and Bruce Springsteen regularly covered “Needles and Pins” and “When You Walk into the Room” and the band enjoyed a short resurrection before reverting to a legacy act that has continued to perform ever since.
The current version of The Searchers features McNally and Allen and will be performing on August 19 at the Haifa Auditorium and August 20 at the Mann Auditorium in Haifa.
According to McNally, the band played twice previously in Israel – in 1965 and 1969, but he’s hazy on the details. In fact, he can’t understand how the years have melted together.
“Frank and I have been playing together for 52 years – it’s gone by so quickly. But we’ve been very lucky to be able to continue to do it and have an audience that wants to see us.”