In the aftermath of the Rock ‘n’ Roll revolution stemming from the USA thousands of British kids, many already in Skiffle groups, got drawn into playing the exciting new
sounds. It suited the excitement of the little sweaty venues, like the Cavern Club in Liverpool, that had sprung up all over the country to cater for the Skiffle explosion in the wake of Lonnie Donegan’s success. For the poor, post-war working classes living in the council estates in war-torn Britain there were few distractions and pleasures to enable them to escape from the rationed drab reality of their existence. They had few ways out of poverty. Rock ‘n’ Roll like playing the football pools or boxing provided them with a dream. They could see a rosy vision of the future which was full of status, money and fun. They could become Rock Stars. Besides it attracted the girls. They upgraded their improvised Skiffle instruments and upgraded to become bona fide Rock groups.
These bands toured their regional clubs, often village halls, coffee bars, pubs and small clubs like ‘The Cavern’ in Liverpool, building up their fervent fan base and hoping to get noticed by the likes of Larry Parnes. These bands built up such partisan followings that in places like Liverpool and Birmingham there was a local newspaper following the performances of the various bands and promoting the whole scene.
Liverpool, being a major port, was one of the major centres for this underground revolution and there were lots of clubs and a seething cauldron of live bands. This was no accident. The city had all the necessary ingredients. It was a poverty stricken port with drab neglected surrounds, a high unemployment rate and a deep seated working class ethic for hard work, ingenuity and humour. There was little hope for the future and nothing to look forward to unless you were prepared to do something about it yourself. That something was Rock ‘n’ Roll with alls its excitement and the lure of overnight fame and fortune as had happened to Billy Fury. If it happened for him it could happen for them.
Liverpool had a long established cosmopolitan atmosphere with trading links all over the world and particularly the USA. Merchant seamen roamed the city bringing with them an atmosphere of adventure. They also brought back all the latest sounds from across the Atlantic. The bands avidly soaked it up vying to get their hands on the most obscure R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll tracks before their competitors did. There was a whole world of US R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll that was not available in this country. The Beeb did not play it and record companies did not put it out. Seemingly they considered British ears were too sensitive for this raw American sound. It was a gold-mine. The Mersey bands interpreted it in their own way and created their own distinctive brand.
By looking at the type of music the Merseybeat bands were copying we can clearly identify the main areas of influence. These hundreds of Mersey bands were basing their developing sound on R&B (girl bands, male bands and solo artists – Shirelles, Chiffons, Miracles, Crystals, Contours, Isley Brothers, Donays, Coasters, Drifters, Arthur Alexander, Barrett Strong, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Cookies, Benny Spellman, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Marvelettes), black Rock ‘n’ Roll (Larry Williams, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, Little Richard) to Country & Western (Hank Williams, Buck Owens) and Rockabilly (Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran and the Everly Brothers).
The same songs appear time and time again in a number of bands repertoires – ‘Do you love me?’, ‘Shake Sherry’, ‘Some other guy now’, ‘Money’, ‘Poison Ivy’, ‘Three cool cats’, ‘Twist and shout’. ‘Roll over Beethoven’, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll music’, ‘Blue suede shoes,’ ‘Twenty flight rock’, ‘Sweets for my sweet’, ‘Love potion no. 9’, ‘Fortune teller’, ‘You can’t judge a book by looking at its cover’, ‘Shame Shame Shame’, ‘Anna, go with him’, ‘Mr Moonlight’, ‘Please Mr Postman’, ‘Long Tall Sally’, ‘Slow down’, ‘Bad boy’, ‘What’d I say’, ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzie’, ‘Right string baby but the wrong yo-yo’, ‘Roll over Beethoven’, ‘Hippy Hippy Shake’, ‘Maybelline’, ‘Blueberry Hill’, ‘Farmer John’, ‘Youngblood’, ‘Too much monkey business’, ‘Carol’, ‘glad all over’, ‘matchbox’, ‘Honey don’t’, ‘Words of love’, ‘Bye bye love’, ‘Kansas city’, ‘Lucille’, ‘Johnny B Goode’, ‘Matchbox’, ‘I got a woman’ and ‘Crying, wishing hoping’.
Some of these songs – such as ‘Some other guy’, ‘Do you love me?’ ‘Love potion No. 9’, ‘Money’ became Mersey standards. The different bands competed to produce the best versions. This resulted in an extremely lively scene in the sweaty clubs. The emphasis on the performance was speed and excitement. Bands played for small fees for pride and the status that went with it. Sometimes they would only charge a shilling (5p) entry fee, playing lunch-times and evenings most days of the week to large crowds who were packed in to the tiny venues. Loyal fans would follow their band around from venue to venue.
Because of the fervent support and tightly packed crowds the excitement levels were very high. The bands responded by driving themselves to the limits. It was all raw R&B to the accompaniment of the screaming girls. There has been very little to rival the energy and excitement generated at an evening in the Cavern when five or six of the cities top bands tried to blow each other off the stage. It was a real battle of the giants.
The raw sounds of the Mersey bands, often off-key and certainly brash and unsophisticated, became much sought after on the continent even before it took off in Britain. In particular Germany formed very close connections with Liverpool and many of he top bands, such as Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and the Beatles, spent long residencies playing the small Hamburg clubs like the Star Club. It was here, in front of these rowdy audiences, that they had to learn their trade. The sets were long, often up to eight hours at a time. It required stamina, provided by amphetamine pills, and a huge repertoire. The rewards were financially little but the experience was life changing. It was a time of great growing up. The red light district of Hamburg was awash with prostitutes, pimps, underworld hoods, knives, guns and drugs. There were also the adoring fans. It was tough but it was fun. It was in these clubs that the Beatles began experimenting with their music and even began writing songs. They got tight as a band and developed their abilities.
Despite the large followings that the top Liverpool bands were attracting and the liveliness of the scene it all remained hidden underground. From 1960 on, in Liverpool and other cities such as London, Newcastle, Birmingham and Manchester, the club scene flourished and the bands honed their skills.
Howie Casey and the Seniors have the distinction of being the first Mersey band to get to play Hamburg and also the first Mersey band to release a single. It was called ‘Double twist’ and apart from local sales it did very little. Howie Casy was the saxophone player in the band and the band had two lead singers in Derrie Wilkie and the infamous Freddie Starr.
The lack of interest in the group scene was due to the industry’s attitude. They, like their American counterparts, were promoting the good clean-cut Pop image. The Teen idols of the day, both home grown with Cliff, Billy, Adam and the like, and from the US with Bobby Vee, Johnny Tillotson, Bobby Darin, Ricky Nelson, Fabian and the like, were doing very nicely. They saw no need to change the formula. It was working. They thought that the group guitar sound ad had its day and they were busy looking for more Teen Idols to challenge Cliff and the rest. The industry was extremely staid and conservative and certainly was not in business of searching for a new sound. They did not like change. Not only that but they saw the Mersey bands are too raw and unrefined. The sound they made was too primitive, over-amplified and not really suitable for recording.
At other times this might have resulted in a proliferation of small independent labels, as had happened with the Rockabilly and R&B explosion in the States, but this did not happen in England, probably because of the economic climate. The major record companies had a stranglehold over the industry and few people had the power or initiative to challenge them. Consequently it did not come to the general public’s attention until 1963.
When the Beatles got signed by Parlophone in 1962 and broke through into the charts there was a mad rush by all the companies to sign up the other talent.
No one can underestimate the impact of the Beatles on the world of music both sides of the Atlantic. They were a tidal wave that swept everything before it. I can still remember, as a thirteen year old boy, sitting in my friend Tony Humm’s bedroom as he played the ‘Please Please Me’ album to me on the day of its release. The first Beatles track I heard was ‘I saw her standing there’. It blew me away. I’d been into Little Richard but this was monumental. It sent chills through me. I’d never heard anything like it. Things were never the same.
The lack of independent labels was a great shame. It meant that the conservative majors controlled the production. They emasculated the sound and tried to pour the Mersey energy into the Teen Idol mould. The pressure on the bands was to tone everything down, to wear smart suits and project the jaunty boy next door image. It was as if they’d used a sieve to remove the dynamism. They got them to record numbers by their stable of writers like Mitch Murray’s ‘How do you do it?’. It proved very successful but it wasn’t what was going on in the clubs. You only have to listen to the Oriole live recordings on ‘This is Merseybeat’, the Big Three’s live EP at the Cavern or the Merseybeats EP to see the difference. There’s no comparison between the driving Rock and R&B of the live performances and the light saccharin performances of the recorded stuff.
Following the emergence of the Beatles, after Epstein’s brilliant promotion, the sound took off nationally.
The Beatles themselves started with a small hit and then a string of number ones swept them to the pinnacle of success on a wave of hysteria that has not been encountered since. Overnight the port of Liverpool was inundated with talent scouts trying to sign up anyone that breathed. Hundreds of bands were dragged off screaming, bundled in cars, driven down south and signed up. They were all promised instant fame and fortune. Surprisingly a number of the best bands got left behind in the rush. Of the ones that went some were elevated to the heights of stardom and many fell by the wayside. The difference between success and failure was arbitrary. It did not concern ability so much as luck. If you got the right management, a good catchy tune and the media interest you made it. No matter how good you were if you got an unsympathetic production and no media interest you were doomed.
Brian Epstein was a very powerful figure. He had gathered a whole stable of Mersey talent under his umbrella. Bands were falling over themselves to sign up with him. He signed up Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas, Cilla Black and the Fourmost and used the Beatles success to promote them. Between them and a few other acts – Freddy & the Dreamers, Swinging Blue Jeans, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, Searchers, Dave Clark Five, The Hollies, Brian Poole and the Tremeloes – they dominated the charts for a year. Strangely Brian did not sign all the best bands. The Big Three were probably the best band around. The Mojos, Undertakers, Merseybeats and Searchers weren’t far behind. They got neglected by Brian. Other good bands such as Faron’s Flamingos, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, Earl Preston and the TTs and Derry Wilkies Pressmen, the Denisons, Beryl Marsden, Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes, Mark Peters and the Silhouettes, The Shakers, Earl Royce and the Olympics, Casey Jones and the Engineers, Lee Curtis Allstars, Ian and the Zodiacs, The Blackwells, and the Black Knights got passed by altogether or didn’t make the grade.
There were a lot of good bands from other towns and cities who had hits. These include Davey Jones and the Lower Third (David Bowie’s first band), the Honeycombs and Brian Poole and the Tremeloes from London; the Rockin’ Berries and Fortunes from Birmingham, Freddy & Dreamers, Herman’s Hermits, Hollies and Wayne Fontana from Manchester; the Four Pennies from Blackburn; Bern Elliott and the Fenmen (who produced a brilliant version of ‘New Orleans’) from Kent; the Applejacks from Solihull; the marauders from Stoke on Trent.
There was a range of styles and but they were all coming in under the Mersey umbrella prior to the Beat explosion.
Brian insisted that all the artists in his stable looked smart, wear suits, smile a lot and be ultra-friendly. It was to prove a double edged sword. It got them accepted by the record industry and public but quickly led to their demise. Only the Beatles, with their talent and individuality, survived in the long run.
1963 was the year of Merseybeat in Britain. America had to wait a year.
The importance of Merseybeat cannot be underestimated. It not only created a huge commercial success but paved the way for the breakthrough in the lucrative American market and gave impetus to the whole Beat boom that was to follow.
Fortunately the Beatles were strong enough, determined enough and talented enough to resist the drive to twee-ness that befell their Mersey compatriots. They took control of their material and got it how they wanted it. They also insisted on releasing their own material and started writing for other bands such as the Fourmost and then the Rolling Stones. This was a ploy of Brian’s to launch his own artists with Beatles compositions. It worked for Cilla Black, Billy J and the Fourmost. This song-writing ability gave them a second string to their bow.
When the British Beat groups started breaking through in 1964 the recording studios were better prepared, the public was more receptive and the bands were tough enough to stand up to the industry and retain their rawness and identity. There was a greater confidence in the whole scene and it pervaded everything. The industry was able to see that there was money in it.
In 1964 the Beatles with the rest of the Merseybeat and Beat bands in their wake took the United States by storm. Band after band toured to rapturous reception. America had succumbed to the might of Britain. The long hair, Cuban heeled boots and Beatle jackets were what every American boy wanted. There were new levels of hysteria. It was like discovering a dozen Elvis’s. The whole industry was turned on its head and given a shot in the arm. British bands dominated the world. The charts were full of them. The old music scene collapsed overnight. This was the second British invasion and the world was ours.
The impact was enormous. In Britain and the States a new wave of kids formed bands, grew their hair. They bought cheap Standell amps and instruments and began practising in their garages. They quickly mastered a few chords, enough to do primitive versions of Beatles numbers and launched themselves at the school hops. They along with the Folkies were to revolutionise the US Rock scene and pave the way for the British Underground and the US West and East Coast bands of the later sixties.
In Britain in 1964, even as the Mersey bands were scoring in the US, it was no longer cool to own a Billy J Kramer album or be seen with a Freddy and the Dreamers or Herman’s Hermits album. They might be the hottest thing on the planet in America, in Britain they were already middle of the road. They had been replaced by a harder R&B/Blues based Beat groups lead by the Rolling Stones. A few bands, such as the Hollies, Searchers and Cilla Black survived to have a career in the charts in the ensuing years.
Brian Epstein did not have to despair at the dropping off of his stable of stars. They were enormous in America and besides the Beatles were going from strength to strength and taking up most of his time and attention.
Despite the commercial, over-produced Pop sound of Merseybeat there was still a lot of stuff that was worth listening to:
The Oriole live albums ‘This is Merseybeat’ give an idea of what the live scene was like.
The Big Three ‘Live at the Cavern’ EP was brilliant. It is hard to believe that the rest of this performance was wiped off the tape. Some moron has a lot to answer for.
The Merseybeat EP was brilliant.
There were a number of quality singles that escaped the ravages of twee production. These include: ‘Just a little bit’ and ‘Mashed Potatoes’ by the Undertakers, ‘Everything’s alright’ by the Mojos, and the Searchers produced a number of good singles and album tracks – ‘Sweets for my sweet’, ‘Sugar and Spice’, ‘Farmer John’, ‘Love potion no. 9’, ‘Needles and pins’, ‘When you walk in the room’ and ‘What have the done to the rain’ to name a few. They were very influential for bands like the Byrds with their folksy guitar sound.
The Mersey sound had stormed in like a rampaging lion, stomped over everything, flared brightly throughout the world and sputtered out. So brief – so bright – and so crucial.