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JOHN McNALLY – STILL LEADING THE SEARCHERS 50 YEARS ON

Back in 2000 John McNally was interviewed at length by Ray Norris, and the resulting article “John McNally – The Quiet Searcher” has been on the website ever since, and will remain there as it is very interesting and much of it is still valid today. If you've not read it, I can recommend that you do.
We thought, however, that it was about time for an update, and so eleven years later, before the Searchers' Christmas show at The Beck Theatre in Hayes, West London, in December 2011, Wendy Burton spent time with John talking about how things have panned out in the last decade, and how he sees the future for the Searchers, fifty years after the start of their professional career. The following is a resume of that interview:

Q1: Did you imagine eleven years ago that you'd not only still be touring, but that you would be more popular and successful than ever?
John: Yes, very surprised, and pleased too. Frank and I talk about this, always thinking the bubble must burst soon, but thankfully it just gets better. We thought the Sixties Gold package tour we've just done would be a bit too long, but it was great fun and sold extremely well, but we've decided not to take part in a package tour in 2012. We'll concentrate on our all-evening solo shows, which is what we really prefer doing. We had a lot of problems with the sound on the package tour, and things are much better when we use just our own sound guy, Phil Hayes, and our own PA equipment. Tonight is only the second solo show we've done for three months, and as we only did a much shorter set on Sixties Gold, it will take us a couple of nights to get back into the routine of the solo shows. Sometimes we do make a few little mistakes, but hopefully only the regulars like you will notice.

Q2: You are still looking very fit and well. Do you still play five-a-side football? Still with Billy Kinsley of the Merseybeats?
John: Thanks, yes, I do try to look after myself. I've just started playing five-aside again, on a Thursday night whenever I'm home, for the first time in over six months. My legs ached a bit to start with but I'm back in the swing of it now. Unfortunately Billy doesn't play any more, he's had both knees replaced in the last year, and although he's back with the Merseybeats again he's not up to football now. I don't really get much exercise when away on tour, apart from walking around towns and shops.

Q3: And how do you keep your slim frame and youthful looks? Is it in your genes, or is it down to self-discipline regarding food and drink?
John: Both I suppose. I don't over-eat, and I don't drink alcohol at all, apart from the odd glass of champagne at Christmas etc. The younger members of the band and the crew like their beer, but that puts on the weight. It's sometimes difficult to get decent food on tour, but I try to eat a proper meal in the middle of the day - I never eat before a show, that's not good for the digestion. Also I try to get eight hours of sleep each night although it takes a while to wind down after a long drive home, I go to bed and close my eyes but can still see the road. Sometimes, like most people our age, I wake up in the middle of the night with things going through my mind, but on the whole I get a good amount of sleep.

Q4: You seem to have come out of your shell quite a bit in the last few years, especially in the solo all-evening shows. The audience love your banter with Frank. Are you finding it easier to do that these days?
John: I suppose so. Much as the fans love Frank's chat, some have said they'd like me to say a bit more, and Frank finds it easier, especially on the humorous side of things, to have me to bounce off - and he does need to have the p..s taken out of him sometimes too! So yes, I do enjoy our banter, but I wouldn't want to do more, such as introducing songs or telling stories, that's best left to Frank. All my comments are ad lib, whereas Frank does plan his to a certain extent. His connection with the audience is superb, even at larger venues he treats them the same as if it was a small intimate theatre, and people seem to love that.

Q5: It's also good that you're singing more lead vocals these days.
John: Yes, we need to give Spencer - and Frank - a break sometimes, and to give contrast to the set, so I have started singing more - particularly on some of the old album tracks and B-sides that we've recently introduced into the set. People really love Seven Nights To Rock, for example. And some songs seem to suit my voice better than the others'.

Q6: Don't you think it's time to drop Beach Baby now? Surely after all these years there's no need to introduce Spencer that way? And quite a lot of the regular fans think you should give Young Girl a break, or at least drop the encores.
John: Yes, we're thinking of dropping Beach Baby, as you say it's no longer necessary. But Young Girl does go down so well with the audiences, I think we'll keep it in, but perhaps without the encores.

Q7. How much difference do you think the website (which has been going for over 14 years now) has made to your continuing ability to fill theatres?
John: I think it works a treat, we have a great team in you and Gary, and of course Frank contributes a lot to it and acts as the go-between between the internet, you and ourselves. It all helps, as you know I wasn't too sure about it when you and Gary started it, but it has made a big difference. And we enjoy reading what the fans write in after the shows, which of course is normally very complimentary and even if there's some criticism, we welcome it as long as it's constructive. And of course the all important date sheet means that fans have good advance notice of where we'll be over the next few months.

Q.8: It was at this very theatre (the Beck in Hayes), wasn't it, that you did your first-ever solo all evening theatre show, some 15 or so years ago?
John: Yes, but it wasn't planned. The support act that night (the Coustiks, who used to back Billy J Kramer back in the 90s) had a bit of an accident (nothing serious thankfully) coming down from Blackpool, and couldn't continue the journey, so at very short notice we had to put together a full evening's show. Fortunately most of the audience at The Beck are regulars, and they didn't mind the few errors we made, but we very soon established what we think is a very professional show and now these evenings are the mainstay of our career. When we first started going out solo many of the theatres, where we'd frequently played on package tours, didn't want to know, but by taking the financial risk ourselves to start with, we gradually persuaded them, and once they'd seen our show they've continued to book us ever since, and we have considerably widened our list of venues. So it was a great career move.

Q.9: What have been the highlights of the last eleven years?
John: Without doubt, the solo shows. Although they are over 2 hours long (with an interval), they are in fact easier - and more enjoyable - to do than the 40-minute slot we get on package tours. We are less up against the clock, we're more relaxed, and we know the audience is there specifically to see us, not just for a general sixties night out. And there's so much hanging around on the package tours, especially when we're on last, that is quite tiring. And what has now become our annual 6-week trip to Australia, that's something we always greatly look forward to.

Q10: The Searchers are known as one of the most friendly groups, always willing to meet and greet people after the shows. This surely must contribute to your continuity popularity?
John: Yes, definitely. We learned how to do that from some of the big American groups we used to tour with, many of them did the meet & greet thing. Make friends with the public, make them feel they are important to you (which they are) and they'll come back for more. There have been just a few times recently when we haven't been able to do that after shows, due to restrictions placed on us by the venues themselves, and of course we were sorry to disappoint people on those occasions. It also adds to our fan base, and shows the theatres how popular we are so they'll book us again. It's not always easy for Spencer and Scott to be asked to sign CDs and LPs from the early days, which they weren't on, but they do it, it's all part of the job.

Q.11: And any lows in the past eleven years? The deaths of Tony Jackson (in 2002) and Chris Curtis (in 2005) must have been upsetting for you. Had you kept in contact with either of them over the years since they left the band in the mid 60s?
John: No real lows career-wise, but yes, both those deaths were very sad. I'd seen and spoken to Chris quite a lot, as he still lived in Liverpool, and to a lesser extent I'd kept in touch with Tony too. Tony came to a few gigs in the Midlands in the 80s before his health started to fail. One night he was supposed to be coming to see us again in the mid 90s when we heard he'd been rushed to hospital and I did go and see him there. He then came to the 2002 Searchers Appreciation Society Convention and kindly donated some of his excellent drawings for the charity auction. He was looking very frail by then, and when he came to see us in Nottingham (where he lived) a few weeks later we were shocked to see how quickly he had deteriorated. Frank and I both went to his funeral (as we did Chris's too), and I was very touched that he left all his Searchers memorabilia to me, which I decided to auction off to charity in his name.
Chris used to phone me at all sorts of odd times, never about anything special really, just for a chat I suppose. We'd just got back from Australia in the spring of 2005 and heard that he really wasn't well. I decided to ring him and invite him to a show we were doing locally, but couldn't get a reply, so I rang his sister, who gave me the very sad news that he'd died just the day before. It was quite a shock because I often used to see him walking round town. Another more recent death that upset me badly was that of Tony West (who we used to call Joe). He was our original bass player when we started as amateurs in the late 50s, who later went on to become a successful promoter in the North-East, where he sometimes booked us for shows. It was very sudden, unlike Tony and Chris he hadn't been ill, and he and his wife were close lifelong friends of myself and my wife Mary, so it was a terrible shock. He died in his sleep, totally unexpectedly. The first to go of our teenage “gang”, and it really shook me up. It makes you aware of your own mortality - I found passing the 70 mark myself earlier this year somewhat daunting. 50 was fine, 60 was OK but 70 was worrying - but I'm over it now.

Q12: It must have been a bit worrying when drummer Eddie Rothe left in February 2010? Has he kept in contact since?
John: We knew it would happen once he re-met and fell in love again with his long-lost sweetheart - the singer, Jane McDonald. What with her schedule and his with us they just weren't having enough time together, and one of them had to give up, and obviously with her being so successful it had to be Ed. He told us in November 2009, but we'd just got all the flights booked and work visas organised for our annual Australian tour, so he agreed to stay on until we returned in late February. We parted on good terms, but we haven't seen him at all since then, although once or twice when we've played a theatre where Jane had recently performed, they've left us messages. But they live a totally different life now.

Q13: Any other things that you wish you'd handled better?
John: Not really, it's all gone well. We always worry that shows might not sell as well as before, especially with the current gloomy economic situation, and there have been one or two rather sparser than we would have liked, but recently - both on the Sixties Gold package tour and our own solo shows - we've had really good houses and quite a few complete sell outs. This really pleases us, as some bigger names than us have had some disastrously small audiences these past few months.

Q14: You certainly chose well in taking on Scott Ottaway as his replacement. He seemed to fit in straight away.
John: Yes, he did well right from the outset. Scott was recommended to us by Mike Read while he was MC-ing our pre-Christmas show in Hull. We auditioned him a few days later, and he'd done his advance homework well. We appointed him before we left for Australia in the January, so he had a few weeks to rehearse with our live CDs and videos. He joined us on our first show after we returned at the end of February, with only a quick run-through in the afternoon. But he's a pro and had a lot of experience, being the resident drummer on some of the big cruise liners and being in a couple of tribute bands, and although of course he was a little nervous at first, it's all worked out very well, he's got a good temperament and the fans have taken well to him.

Q15: With no disrespect to Eddie or Scott, is it easier to replace a drummer than a lead singer or a guitarist?
John: Yes, it is, but they do need to work in close conjunction with the bass player, and Frank and Scott soon got the hang of each other. Because drummers are at the back, and most of them don't sing, the change is less noticeable to the audience, but Scott has made his own mark, and we all get along very well together, which is more than you can say for some of the other groups on the circuit! This is especially important when we do our six week stint in Australia, when we're together so much more than when we're doing one nighters at home. At home we all travel separately, as we live in different parts of the country, but in Australia we are together most of the time.

Q16: Spencer has been in the band for nearly 26 years now, longer than Mike Pender was. Do you get fed up with people still asking about Mike?
John: I hadn't actually realised that, but you're right, time just flies by. No, we don't mind when people ask about Mike, although people tend to ask more about Tony and Chris. Of course the situation with Mike still rankles, and we'll never get to the bottom of why he did what he did, and the flouting of the court order forbidding him from using or being referred to as “The Searchers” still causes us problems. It doesn't happen here quite so much these days, but it still does when he works overseas.

Q17: The past few years have been very busy, with the trips to Australia and elsewhere abroad, an annual-three month long package show with other groups most years, and the rest of the time being mostly your own solo all-evening concerts. Which format of show do you prefer doing?
John: Definitely the solo shows, followed by the Australian tour, which is always great fun and a lovely way to get away from the cold British winter and at a time when not much is going on here. Most of our shows in Australia are the Returned Services Leagues or similar clubs - huge modern and luxurious entertainment and dining centres. And we stay overnight locally so we don't have those long drives home afterwards. Very relaxing.

Q18: I imagine, though, that if either you or Frank were to leave, whether due to ill health or personal choice, that would be the end of The Searchers. I cannot imagine Frank going on without you, or you going on without Frank, as you complement each other so well, not only on stage but in the management of the band too.
John: Quite right. We haven't really discussed retirement in any serious way yet, but if he goes, then so do I, and vice versa. I could never do the front man job nor all the PR side of things that he does, and he wouldn't want to do the financial and business side or the dealings with the “staff” (Frank and I own the band, and Spencer and Scott are employees, as are Phil and John, our sound and lighting guys).

Q19: It's hard to believe it, but you're 70 now, and Frank is 68 - a time when most people have retired and are able to enjoy the fruits of any success they've had, which in your case is enormous. It's so good that you are both in good health and enjoying what you do, but have you any vague plans as to when you will retire? It's a day that your legions of fans dread!
John: Don't worry, we're not going yet. We're already taking bookings into 2013, and as that is the 50th anniversary of the Merseybeat emergence, we might be part of a package tour then (having decided to concentrate entirely on our solo shows in 2012, to celebrate our own 50th anniversary year). I still love what I do, I love the music, and don't need to do it for the money, and neither does Frank, so if and when the enjoyment goes, that will be the time to retire. And that will, I'm afraid, be the end of The Searchers.

(John McNally, interviewed by Wendy Burton, December 2011)

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