In 2000 I made the journey to Liverpool, as fellow avid Beatle fans have done, to explore the Fab Four’s roots. Standing on a platform at the Albert Dock, I gazed at the Mersey River, and a tune suddenly popped into my head as the water gently lapped against the shore: Gerry & The Pacemakers’ “Ferry ‘Cross the Mersey.”
Popular at the same time as the Beatles from 1963-1966, Gerry & The Pacemakers remain one of the best — and most ignored — pop bands of the British Invasion. Even the All Music Guide refers to the band as playing pop much which was “innocuous, performing bouncy, catchy, and utterly lightweight tunes driven by rhythm guitar and [Gerry] Marsden's chipper vocals.” Dismissing their sound as “quaint,” the Guide adds that “their hits were certainly likable and energetic and are fondly remembered today, even if the musicians lacked the acumen (or earthy image) to develop their style from its relentlessly upbeat and poppy base.”
Perhaps the group broke no new ground when they reached the charts during the British Invasion's height, but their beautiful, catchy pop songs have become classics: the aforementioned “Ferry 'Cross the Mersey,” “I Like It,” “Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” and “How Do You Do It,” just to name a few. While they could never match the creativity and ingenuity of The Beatles, they deserve a place in rock and roll history.
Formed in the late 50s, the band consisted of Marsden (guitar and lead vocals), his brother Fred (drums), Les Chadwick (bass), and Arthur Mack (piano), who was replaced by Les McGuire in 1961. They played the same circuit as the Beatles, also known as the “Mersey Beat,” creating a friendly rivalry between the groups. The band's Beatles connection continued when Brian Epstein signed them to his roster of acts in mid-1962. Interestingly, The Beatles can also be credited for Gerry & The Pacemakers's first single, “How Do You Do It.” When the Fab Four began recording with producer George Martin in 1963, Martin wanted them to record a Mitch Murray song called “How Do You Do It.” While the group dutifully recorded the single (this version can be found on the Beatles's Anthology 1 CD), they disliked its unabashed poppiness and ultimately released their own compositions instead. The song perfectly suited Gerry & The Pacemakers's upbeat sound, and under Martin's direction, recorded the eventual #1 hit.
From that moment, their career soared. While “I Like It,” the follow-up single, was penned by Murray, Marsden was responsible for some of their best work. “Ferry 'Cross the Mersey,” a lilting tribute to Liverpool, charmed with its seemingly simple but utterly heartfelt lyrics: “People around every corner/They seem to smile and say/We don't care what your name is, boy/We'll never turn you away.” Martin's added string arrangement adds to the tune's lovely nostalgia.
Another stunning example of songwriting, “Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying” was inspired by Marsden's breaking up with his girlfriend. In one of the most heart-wrenching songs penned about the end of a relationship, Marsden urges that “the night's the time for all your tears,” but ultimately ends on a positive note: “It may be hard to discover/That you've been left for another/But don't forget that love's a game/And it can always come again.” In this case the song seemed to work — Marsden later stated that he and his girlfriend renewed their relationship, and later married.
While much of their material falls on the upbeat and light side, some songs showed them capable of almost garage rock. “Think About Love,” for example, features some pounding drumming and a screaming vocal by Marsden. They also covered many of the same R&B tunes as The Beatles, and showed some impressive chops: “Hallelujah I Love her So” rocks just as well under their treatment, and “Slow Down” and “A Shot of Rhythm & Blues” give the listener an idea of their rawer sound, displayed when touring various clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg.
Unfortunately, Gerry & the Pacemakers simply could not compete with The Beatles, and after their last U.S. hit, 1966's “Girl on A Swing,” the group disbanded. Many British Invasion bands such as Herman's Hermits and Freddie & The Dreamers sounded out of step by 1966, when bands such as the Rolling Stones, The Zombies, and The Who brought a rawer, bluesy sound to the contemporary music scene. The Beatles' sound began to change as well, becoming more experimental rather than straight pop. Thus the first British Invasion wave concluded.
Gerry & the Pacemakers found themselves lumped in with the first British Invasion bands, yet their music shows marked differences from the competing bands of the time. They were capable of rocking out, yet could sing touching ballads. They possessed a love for the musical stage, achieving success with covers of “You'll Never Walk Alone” and “Summertime.” Rock, pop, and the sound of the musical stage, along with some beautifully introspective lyrics, combined to produce a unique, more sophisticated sound. Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits experienced a surge in popularity with a remake of his “I'm Into Something Good” in the 80s — it's high time for a deserved Gerry & The Pacemakers comeback.
On a personal note, I had the honor of meeting Gerry Marsden at 2007's Fest for Beatles Fans convention. After playing an “unplugged” set of his greatest hits for an appreciative audience, he cheerfully signed autographs for his many fans. When it was my turn in line, I politely asked if I could take a photo with him. Not only did he agree to this idea, he insisted that I sit on his knee. Now I have the distinction of having sat in Gerry Marsden's lap, and the photo at the left proves this event!
What a charming and gracious man he was, and his concert showed that his voice is very much intact. To view clips of that performance, check out two videos on YouTube: “Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying” and “Ferry 'Cross the Mersey.”
For a good introduction to their music, invest in a compilation of their greatest hits. For those who want to delve deeper into their catalog — and discover some hidden gems — try The Definitive Collection or the box set You'll Never Walk Alone: The EMI Years 1963-1966. Marsden's latest projects are detailed on his official web site. View vintage footage of Gerry & The Pacemakers performing their biggest hits on YouTube: “How Do You Do It,” “Ferry 'Cross the Mersey,” and a long clip of the group playing at the 1964 New Music Express Poll Winners concert.
A note to readers: Due to scheduling conflicts, “The Cutout Bin” will appear on Blogcritics every other week instead of every week. Thank you as always for reading, and I value your feedback.