JOHN MCNALLY - THE QUIET SEARCHER interviewed by Ray Norris

The hair that was once a reddish blond may now be a steely grey but there`s a full head of the stuff and the tight, wiry frame has barely acquired a pound or two over nearly four decades. You`d find more fat on a butcher`s apron.

"I try to watch what I eat and I play five-a-side football ever Monday and Thursday when work allows it. It keeps the muscles in trim and gives me a chance to catch up with all the gossip from my old mates like Billy Kinsley and other musicians from Liverpool. It`s too easy to just indulge yourself while touring. Drink. Bad food. Lack of exercise. What you have to remember is that your health is important. And you also have to parade yourself on stage and you owe it to the people out front to look presentable."

As John talks it is quite apparent that this is someone who is not entirely at ease in the spotlight, preferring to take a back seat until the situation demands otherwise. A face that is quick to break into a boyish smile in the company of friends tenses up a tad when faced with the attention of the media. The eyes narrow almost imperceptibly. He has had a lifetime of such confrontation being an original in one of the most influential groups to emerge from the era known as Merseybeat and he is guarded when he speaks. He is well aware that the seemingly friendly interviewer often holds a lethal sword cleverly disguised as an innocent pen.

But 'original' is a moot point with McNally. To some it can signify any member who has appeared on one of their many hits. To others it is the four musicians who hit the charts with Sweets For My Sweet in the summer of `63. But he is at pains to point out that you can, if you wish, find a starting point much further back this.

"We really started out as a skiffle group way back in about 1959. We were all trying to learn guitar which had become popular through people like Lonnie Donegan and Elvis and then of course British pop stars like Tommy Steele. I had started to play on an old American instrument my brother, who was in the Merchant Navy, brought back from the States. I think I was fourteen and it was an old arch top jazz guitar called a Broadway.

At that time it was me and a couple of mates, Brian Dolan and Tony West. Tony played bass. He had just come out of the army being a bit older than us. Eventually they both decided they didn't really want to spend too much time in a group and they left. Mike Pender lived in the same road as me at that time and he played a bit so we started playing together. It was just about that time that Tony Jackson came in. He was playing in a pub nearby and he not only had a bass guitar that he made himself but he had an amp as well, so he was in. In those days if you had an amp you could get in any group you wanted. Tony West is now a theatrical agent.

We had a drummer called Joe Kelly who was replaced by Norman McGarry but then but he left and that`s when we got Chris Curtis in the band. Mike had actually known him when they were at primary school together but they had lost touch for a while. We became a five piece when Johnny Sandon joined as lead singer. His mother had worked at a bakery with my mum and she suggested we became his backing group. He had a brilliant, deep country and western voice. A bit like Jack Scott. He was Billy Beck in those days, his real name. The Sandon part came from a pub of that name near Liverpool`s football ground. Someone thought Johnny Sandon and The Searchers sounded good and that`s how it stayed."

How come The Searchers? The fact that it was lifted directly from the title of the classic John Ford film and starring John Wayne is well documented. But perhaps fewer people know that the suggestion came from a short-term singer with the group in those pre-Sandon days who went by the illustrious name of Big Ron. Big Ron`s surname is lost in the mists of memory and time and he was last encountered in Glasgow in the late seventies. His successor Johnny Sandon seemed a permanent fixture with The Searchers until he was offered a chance to sing with the Remo Four which was a highly rated Liverpool group at that time.

"He decided the prospects were better with them so he left. He was wrong. Actually, for a short while, when Tony Jackson had joined, we were called Tony and The Searchers. Almost at the same time Sandon left we were offered the chance to go to Germany to play at the Star Club. Much to the horror of our parents we jacked in our jobs and off we went. That was the line-up that a lot of people would think of as original. It was the group that had the first run of hits. But then Frank Allen joined a year after Sweets for My Sweet; he played and sang on Walk In The Room so for that and the hits that followed he was also an original because Tony didn't play on those and there were quite a few more. What Have They Done To The Rain?, Goodbye My Love, He`s Got No Love, Bumble Bee, Take Me For What I`m Worth and others. All good records and important in the history of the group. You can't deny Frank his place in the success story."

Sadly, many years later and wracked with the regrets of missed opportunity Johnny Sandon committed suicide. He had failed as a singer and then failed as a comedian on the club circuit.

It is quite obvious that Frank and John work well together as a team. They have run the group themselves ever since the departure of Pender at the end of 1985. Frank is happy in the spotlight where he has found his niche as the front man while John copes with the day-to-day organisation and business side of the band. It is not a role many people would relish but John copes with it efficiently. His man-management skills are a natural asset that stands The Searchers in good stead. He knows when to encourage and when to admonish. He is also very aware of the delicate balance between being a boss and a companion in dealings with the road crew. In the end sentiment takes a back seat to practicality when the good of the band is at stake.

"Our guys are very good and handle everything without too much interference from us. They are efficient, easy to get along with and fun to have around. But I never allow myself to get too close. You never know when you are going to have to come down hard and be a boss. It`s very important to keep a distance. Frank finds that side of it a bit harder than me. He enjoys their company and hangs around with them as a friend much of the time. When we need someone to be 'Mister Nasty' he prefers to leave that to me and I`m happy about that."

The engagements undertaken by the band are gathered into some sort of order by their agent Alan Field but the duties of a manager are largely undertaken by John. At the outset of their fame it was a native Scouser who held the reins.

In the early years of the sixties the tough seaport of Liverpool, still suffering the austere conditions brought about by a long and traumatic war, had by some process of a natural osmosis acquired its own music scene. It came complete with a hierarchy of local stars and a network of small but atmospheric venues, in which they could play, compete and intermingle. In this city the term 'underground' was not necessary an apocryphal one. Sweaty cellars like The Cavern and The Iron Door were indeed below ground level. Small, uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. Today`s health and safety regulations would never have allowed such places to exist but things were more relaxed then. People had suffered and they needed their fun. In the pampered world of today when the pockets of much of the nation`s youth burst with coin of the realm waiting to be spent on inconsequential luxuries and indulgences these venues would never be considered fun. Too crude. Too primitive. No hi-tech strobing lights or mind-numbing sound systems with brain battering sub-bass frequencies pounding relentlessly for the dance generation.

Certain groups were allied to certain clubs. The Beatles' home ground was The Cavern, to become the best known of all the `Pool`s rock clubs. The Swinging Blue Jeans, one of the city`s oldest and most revered outfits, were regulars at The Mardis Gras, while The Searchers could be found at The Iron Door. The manager there was a certain Les Ackerly who grabbed onto his fifteen minutes of fame by taking John, Mike, Tony and Chris under his wing and organising a home recording that was to be the key to world-wide acclaim for the band.

"The Iron Door was our regular venue in Liverpool. It was run by Les Ackerly and he became our first manager. He didn`t do the job particularly well but none of us knew too much in those days. He had a tape recorder and he recorded eight or nine songs including Sweets For My Sweet. I don`t know why he chose to send the tape to Tony Hatch but Hatchy liked it and we went down to London to make some real recordings at the PYE studios just around the corner from Marble Arch. I can`t remember much about that first session or exactly which songs we recorded but they included Maggie May, I`ll Be Missing You, Sweet Little Sixteen and of course Sweets For My Sweet.

They released Sweets as a single and at first it wasn`t doing anything. We thought we`d missed out while everyone else from Merseyside seemed to be making it. What changed everything was an interview in which John Lennon said that it was the best single to come out of Liverpool. It took off and we had to buy our way out of our contract at The Star Club to fly home and promote it. It shot to Number One, helped by an appearance on Thank Your Lucky Stars, and our whole world changed.

Later on, as we got bigger and bigger, Les Ackerly was edged out by Tito Burns who was our London agent. He was big in the business and for a while handled Cliff Richard. He also had Dusty Springfield who we toured with a lot in those days. But Tito didn`t actually become our manager till we started to slide in popularity. He was just an agent. As our success grew less his income from us got smaller and eventually he put emotional pressure on us to give him a management fee and we were too insecure to argue although we could well have done with the money ourselves at that time.

We had a stroke of luck when Tito was offered an executive position with London Weekend Television. I believe his appointment required him to relinquish any bits of his business that could be considered a conflict of interest. Therefore he was forced to end his management agreement with us which made us very happy because we weren`t any better off than we had been before in terms of bettering our position and we were paying extra for the privilege. It was a bit of a lifeline and gave us the chance to sort out our own future, which was none too secure at the time."

Maybe, I suggested, things might have been better if the rumoured take-over by Brian Epstein had materialised. "Quite possibly. Eppy often said that he regretted not signing The Searchers. He came to see us at The Cavern but Johnny Sandon had drunk a bit too much in The Grapes that night. In fact we`d all had a bit too much. We played badly and Sandon managed to pull out all the guitar leads. Brian passed. Although later on he did try to sign us again. It was all over the newspapers that, unknown to us, Epstein had bought the Searchers` contract from Tito Burns. We knew nothing about it till we read it in the papers. We got a telegram from Tito saying that it was untrue and that he wouldn`t sell us 'like a can of beans'. Knowing Tito I think it`s likely that he would have sold us like a can of cat meat if the deal was right.

I think we would have got more respect if Epstein had been handling us. Although there is the possibility that we would have been lost in his 'stable of stars'. They were all demanding his attention and jealous when one group appeared to get more of his time than another. And of course The Beatles took precedence over everyone."

Despite pioneering the rich, jangly and distinctive sound of the twelve string guitar and influencing a wealth of legendary talent, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and most notably The Byrds who only ever reluctantly dispensed any credit to The Searchers, their fortunes teetered and waned before a new wave of respect washed over them at the beginning of the 80s. Two fine albums for SIRE records gained much attention but without the sales on which to capitalise. But the band was slowly emerging from an undeserved limbo. Things were looking up. But when Pender announced his imminent departure towards the end of `85 their position looked very shaky indeed.

"It was a scary time. Mike was an original member and the lead singer. It could have killed us. Frank and I almost decided to call it a day but the sheer effrontery and arrogance of the way he had gone about it made us dig our heels in. You see it was all organised behind our backs. In fact I heard about it from a club owner and had to confront Mike. But it would take ages to go through all that and we still get angry about it. It would take ages to explain. The court cases, which we won. John McNallyEvery one of them. The fight to make sure our show was better so that we would retain our position and be able to command the money we needed to keep things going. In fact at a time when we might have pulled in the reins and cut down on spending we invested money into equipment and lights to make sure we had a great product. It worked. Better than we could have imagined. But at the time it was a gamble.

We also instituted the Solid Silver Sixties tours with Flying Music and we played Wembley Stadium with Cliff Richard who became a great supporter and ally. We were suddenly a pretty big deal again. Australia re-emerged as a territory for us. So did the States where we started to play casinos in Connecticut and Atlantic City. But it all took a lot of effort and guts. It all culminated in the Millennium New Year`s Eve show at Birmingham`s NIA with Cliff. What a way to end a century".

The inclusion of Eddie Rothe on drums, which now relieves the now long time serving Spencer James as the 'new boy', has brought a much needed breath of fresh air it seems. "Ed is such an amiable guy, always smiling, always happy, that the atmosphere within the band is at an all time high. We have a good unit these days. It should have been a hard job for Spencer to fill the shoes of such an important member as Mike, but it was so much easier than we could ever have imagined. It brought about a whole new era whereby we have a bunch of new converts for whom Spencer is an original. They have just discovered us and so this is The Searchers they know. But he is such a likeable person with an amazing voice that it is to his credit that he has slotted in so well. And Ed and Frank seem to have bonded brilliantly on bass and drums. We had been having a few problems in that area for some time but it has all sorted itself out as soon as Ed joined. And at last we have that important extra harmony voice to thicken out the vocals. In fact things are going so well you start to wonder when it`s going to go wrong."

And the future? "Who knows. Those things are partly in your own hands and partly in the lap of the gods. John McNallyWe have some great plans and these days we tend to map out the next year way ahead of time as much as we can. We have a short tour of Denmark in January. Australia is going to be a little later than usual this time - mid February to mid March. And then we take on our solo tour which is going to be a well promoted cohesive set of dates as opposed to the random all evening shows we have been doing for the past few years. About forty dates through April, May and June have been set at the moment. These will be concerts in which we cover the whole spectrum of our history, more or less. The A sides. The album tracks. B sides and rarities. Of course the big dramatic ballads that are always a high point of the shows. And odds and ends that are there just because we like playing them.

The summer run we have been doing for the last couple of years has been so successful that we will definitely keep that going. A different seaside town one night each week throughout the Summer. We`ll probably do three or four resorts each week. With any luck we should be able to get over to America for a few days. We`d like to spend longer but it is very difficult to organise. Not here actually but from that end. And then in the Autumn it looks like a major package tour. If we get our way it should be very intriguing indeed. But I`m not saying any more yet. We have our ideas and it is all being mulled over at the moment. We can never afford to be complacent so we want people to sit up and take notice. Groups don`t have the advantage of solo names. They have to fight for attention and recognition. We`ve had to do that all through our career and it`s a bit of a sore point. That would be a nice position to get to. Where our individual faces and names are instantly recognised by the general public. Its something to strive for."

John McNally was interviewed in 2000.