Perhaps the most overused phrases in rock journalism are "ringing guitars" and "chiming guitars." They are inevitably applied to acts like Tom Petty, Marshall Crenshaw and R.E.M., which favor jangly folk-rock guitar patterns. Historical credit for this style usually goes to the Byrds and their 1965 "Mr. Tambourine Man." However, it was really a Liverpool group, The Searchers, who introduced ringing guitars into the rock vocabulary with their 1964 hit, "Needles and Pins."
"That guitar sound basically developed from two six-string guitars played together with a little echo," explains John McNally, who formed The Searchers in 1960, naming the band after the John Ford western. "The two guitars created a harmonic overtone and we left it like that. A couple of albums later we decided it sounded like a 12-string guitar so we bought one and Mike Pender started playing it. It wasn't our style to keep, though, and in 1965 quite a few records came out with that 12-string sound."
More than 20 years after the British invasion, The Searchers, who play at The Gentry tonight and tomorrow, are surprisingly intact. Original guitarists McNally and Pender are still with the group, as are bassist Frank Allen, who joined in late 1964, and drummer Billy Adamson, who joined in 1970. They have spent most of that time as a successful club attraction in England, taking advantage of the fact that their '60s hits and their clean, melodic sound remain popular.
Much like The Beatles, The Searchers polished their act and lost their innocence working as regulars at the Star Club in Hamburg's notorious Reeperbaum district in the early '60s.
"It was unbelievable in Hamburg," recalls McNally. "It was a well-known area for prostitutes and any other nasty things you can mention. To play there and enjoy the night life was great. And we were getting paid a lot of money."
It was in 1963 that The Searchers released their first British single, a remake of The Drifters' "Sweets for My Sweet." It soared to the Number 1 position, beginning a stretch of British hits that lasted until 1966.
"I think the music business was ready for something entirely different," says McNally, commenting on America's receptiveness to the British bands. "The Beatles opened the doors for all the other Liverpool bands. In the early '60s, the Liverpool bands were unique in England because they weren't playing light pop music. They were playing versions of American rhythm and blues records . . . That's how they evolved that raw and rough sound."
However, what distinguished The Searchers and made them one of The Beatles' favorites was that they weren't raw and rough. In "Needles and Pins," as well as in other hits like "Don't Throw Your Love Away" and "When You Walk in the Room," The Searchers featured close harmonies, sweet melodies and tight instrumental play. Their biggest American hit was their version of The Coasters' "Love Potion Number Nine," and in 1964-'65 the group appeared extensively on TV and in person in the United States.
"You couldn't take it all in at the time," McNally reflects. "You couldn't really enjoy it because you're stuck in a hotel room, you eat in a hotel room, you jump in a car and you play. That's how The Beatles ended up breaking up. They couldn't even hear themselves play, so Lennon thought there's no point in it. You do enjoy the memories later on, though."
By 1965, with the American rock scene reasserting itself, The Searchers' hits dried up despite their seminal influence on the folk-rock sound. After years on the British cabaret circuit, they returned to recording in 1979, releasing two critically acclaimed albums, "The Searchers" and "Love's Melodies." As they had in the '60s, the band featured glittering guitar riffs and superbly melodic songs, this time from modern writers like Alex Chilton, John Hiatt and Moon Martin. Now they're hoping for another shot at the contemporary rock market.
"We're trying to negotiate a new deal," explains McNally, "hopefully with Jeff Lynne of ELO. He's always been a fan of the band and has been interested in recording us. He's got his own record company, so we'll see."