Fifty years on, life is still sweet

IN THE ROOM: The Searchers today, from left, John McNally, Scott Ottaway, Frank Allen and Spencer James.
IN THE ROOM: The Searchers today, from left, John McNally, Scott Ottaway, Frank Allen and Spencer James.

The black and white photograph is more than 50 years old, but the handsome teenager staring back at the camera radiates timeless cool. Such is the look, it could easily be a photograph of a 2014 rock'n'roll star, not that of musician Frank Allen, taken in Hamburg in 1961.

At the time the future member of The Searchers, who play Upper Hutt tomorrow, was bass guitarist in R&B band Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers. The band would later have two top 10 hits, but in 1961 they were playing in Hamburg, Germany, along with several young British bands, including a combo called The Beatles.

This was when The Beatles were a five-piece, with Pete Best on drums and John Lennon's art school mate Stuart Sutcliffe on bass. It was Sutcliffe's German girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr, now known for capturing the nascent Beatles, who also photographed the young Allen.

"About three of us in the Rebel Rousers went to her place at her parents' house. Her bedroom was done out in silver foil everywhere. She took the photographs and when she came through with the prints, I thought every photograph looked better than mine," says Allen.

"Eventually I saw it again decades later and thought, 'I'd kill to look like that again'."

But it's not the only reason Allen, now 70, still has clear memories of Hamburg. While there, he saw what he first thought was just "another Scouse group" called The Searchers, but came away impressed and made friends with the band. "They were just nice guys. They weren't famous. No one knew them outside of Liverpool at that time," says Allen.

By 1964 The Searchers had several hits including Sweets for My Sweet, Sugar and Spice and Needles and Pins, but were looking for a new member after the departure of singer and bass player Tony Jackson. They asked Allen to join. One of the first tasks was to record the band's next hit single When You Walk in the Room.

"They'd a lot of success before I had joined. They'd had a whole year of hits, so I knew my place and knew not to get above my station, at least till I was accepted. When I first joined there were some people in the audience who shouted, 'Where's Tony?' because it wasn't announced to the public.

"But it was easy as anything. People were great to me right from the start."

Allen is now the second longest- serving member of The Searchers, next to co-founder John McNally (72). These days they play and tour with relative youngsters Spencer James (60) and Scott Ottaway (41).

Allen enjoyed his time with the Rebel Rousers "[we were] admired by all the other bands. It was really a musicians' band", but it's The Searchers that have dominated his life. It has been of such importance that five years ago he wrote a lengthy memoir The Searchers and Me, which details much of the history of the band and his Hamburg days. It doesn't flinch on detail - including the young "beat groups" of the time devouring drugs and embracing promiscuity in Hamburg.

But the same year he joined The Searchers was also of note for another matter - the band toured New Zealand. They shared the bill with Eden Kane, Del Shannon, Peter and Gordon and New Zealand's Dinah Lee, and performed just six songs at each gig.

Allen remembers the country then "as an incredibly quiet place".

"Compared to the UK, [it had] a very child-like, serene village-y atmosphere. I don't mean to be patronising about this, but while I've seen it grow over the years, it still is so beautifully laid-back in the nicest way. It's a bigger place, a more important place and a more thriving place, but still got that understated, laid-back atmosphere that makes it such a joy to be in. More of the world could do with being like New Zealand."

In 1965 single Goodbye My Love and album Sounds Like the Searchers were the last to get into the top 10 British charts. But the band continued to record and a 2008 compilation The Very Best of the Searchers got as high as No 11 in Britain.

In the 1970s the band was signed to American Seymour Stein's Sire Records. Stein is best known for embracing New Wave bands and signing the likes of Talking Heads, The Pretenders and Madonna. "It was the first time we recorded using modern techniques, layering the songs and really rehearsing and picking the right stuff. I do think we made a couple of absolutely great albums, but unfortunately [that] didn't translate into sales. I got phenomenal press reviews."

But Allen says the band has grown in popularity on the live circuit and it's the reason they continue to tour the world. Neither he nor McNally plays because they need the money. "I haven't done it for the money for years.

"If I stopped tomorrow, financially it wouldn't cause me any concerns at all. In fact, I've always had far more money than I ever needed in life - even when we didn't earn much money.

"Now we earn more money than we have for a long, long time. It amasses and I save and I make sure it's there as a backup, but if I do become old and infirm then it's there to make my life very comfortable at that point. At the moment I have everything I need and I'm so secure. The reason we do it is because we love it.

"We have got our health and we have got an audience."


The Searchers play Upper Hutt Cosmopolitan Club tomorrow night, 8pm.

The Dominion Post