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The Great Rickenbacker Myth

by Frank Allen


It seems that most myths merely exist just to be debunked. Ingrid Bergman did not say ‘Play it again Sam’. Mae West did not invite a beau to ‘Come up and see me some time’. Nor did James Cagney utter that immortal phrase ‘You dirty rat’. And the great sound of the iconic Rickenbacker twelve string guitar as heard on When You Walk In The Room was in fact not a Rickenbacker at all.

I have been asked about this many times and recently the subject has arisen again following interviews by Mike Pender extolling the virtues of the legendary American instrument and how it contributed to the success of what was arguably the finest Searchers single, although not we have to say the one that achieved the highest position in the charts.
In his defence I don`t think that Mike was being devious in his statements but more likely that, as happens with most of us as age creeps in, his memory has become somewhat skewed through the intervening decades.

But let’s go back to the good old days. I think everyone knows by now that what they thought was a jangling twelve string guitar on Needles & Pins was in fact the very intriguing resonance of two 6 string instruments created almost accidentally in the mix.

The twelve string guitar was beginning to become popular in the ‘64/’65 period as demonstrated mainly by The Beatles, The Byrds and of course The Searchers. George Harrison was the first important musician in the UK to bring it to the attention of the listening public when he was presented with one by the company who obviously realised the immense advertising value of being endorsed, if not officially, by the Fab Four.

As soon as I joined The Searchers in August 1964 we set about creating a new single. Someday We`re Gonna Love Again had halted at a lowly number eleven in the charts, a respectable position but rather disappointing from one of the leading groups in the UK if not the world and following on from the band`s third chart topping record. The next one had to be good. And it was.

Jackie DeShannon, who had also provided the blueprint for Needles & Pins, a flop for her and a huge success for them (I say that because it was before my arrival and I make no claim to any contribution to its deserved success), had released ‘Room’ earlier that year and had once again missed out chart-wise. It was a great record but maybe a little too laid back and of course she was American and by this time the Brits had taken over the world.

We picked up the tempo a little and gave it a poppier, more commercial edge and we decided to emulate the 12 string used on the original. There was a liveliness about this new sound that immediately grabbed attention. But we did not have one of these still rather rare guitars. An acoustic model (a borrowed Gibson I believe although I can`t be absolutely certain) had been employed on the It`s The Searchers album early in `64 and can be heard prominently on Can`t Help Forgiving You, intriguingly yet another DeShannon composition. But we had no access to the electric version. Rickenbackers were hard to come by and expensive.

The only British made model was by the Burns company designed by the founder Jim Burns, one of the pioneers of the British guitar industry. One of Mike`s early electric guitars had indeed been a cherry red Burns Vibra Artiste six string as seen on the first publicity shots at the outset of their success. There are many who are avid fans of the make, although my opinion has always been that they were rather over designed in a somewhat tacky way and lagged far behind the American  brands like Gibson, Fender and Gretsch. But full marks to Jim Burns for paving the way to everything else that followed.

We contacted Burns and they immediately despatched one of their Double Six guitars in a rather attractive translucent green finish. And that was the instrument used on When You Walk In The Room. John by the way played a sunburst finished Fender Telecaster, his little black Hofner Club 60 having been handed in for a re-fretting. He was unhappy with the work done and the Hofner was never used again, Nor was the Telecaster returned to Sound City and sometime afterwards he had it refinished in white.

And soon after the recording we obtained a lease deal with Burns which resulted in a full set of instruments in a solid white finish. It included a white Double Six, a white six string version and of course that monstrous Bison bass which I used from late `64 to early `66 and which has become the one that is most associated with me.  It was not a good bass. The sheer size was ridiculous and everything on it rattled. I was forever screwing the pickups back in. But even I have to admit it was a memorable beast.

In fact the Double Six twelve string was undoubtedly one of the brand`s successes, It played very well and served its purpose in every way though still fairly vulgar in styling to my mind and with a very wide, flat fingerboard unlike the more easy to handle Ricky and an ugly oversized headstock. If you wanted a twelve string and you couldn`t afford the Ricky then the Burns was an excellent stop-gap.

And while we are on the subject, yes Mike, despite your failing memory I did share a joint lead vocal as confirmed by the point being mentioned in the music papers` reviews at the time. Both voices can be clearly heard at various stages of the record. In fact when Stars On Forty Five released a medley performed by sound-alikes they somehow managed to employ someone whose voice was astonishingly like mine to the point where the band regularly joked that I had moonlighted and done the session for them. Rest assured I had not. I would point out that my vocal was on our recording simply to give it a subtle and different edge. I am the first to say that I am not a lead singer by any means. But it is a fact that I am there.

So, when did Mike`s Rickenbacker enter the scene? Amazingly not for a year and a half on from the ‘Walk In The Room’ session. It is simple to follow the continuity and like a bad toupee you can easily spot the join. The follow up single to ‘Room’ was What Have They Done To The Rain on which the twelve again featured significantly. And it was the white one this time. If you log onto YouTube you can bring up the Ready Steady Go clip with Chris playing the bongos.

Oddly there are two twelves on the RSG shots. John is wielding the green model while Mike has the white one. I of course am struggling with the hideous white Bison bass. Later in the programme the same instrumentation is used for the B-side This Feeling Inside. This was not for sound purposes. As was the custom in those days we were lip synching to the disc.
As far as I am aware there are no video clips of Goodbye My Love. which was released in the Spring of 1965, and if we go straight to the next offering, He`s Got No Love, a group penned song built around a pastiche six string/twelve string slightly emulating The Last Time by The Rolling Stones. neither is there anything of this hit in the video archives (do let us know if you find anything).

But move on to When I Get Home, a serious flop with a high chart placing of 35, a transmission of our Sunday Night At The Palladium television appearance from November 1965 does exist and again you can find it on YouTube. Once more the guitars are all Burns in a white finish and with John using the six string version. We are almost at the end of the year one year and four months after When You Walk In The Room and still no Ricky.

I recall that performance very well indeed. As the turntable stage was about to move I discovered my lead was not working and road manager Barry Delaney just managed to find a replacement and plug me in as we were whisked into view. I also remember thinking that the sound would be awful. This was live television and there were no sound checks to speak of plus we were only just getting used to the song having only just completed the recording but that clip proves me wrong. The playing and the harmonies (with the exception of one overbalanced line from Chris - the sound man`s fault, not Chris`s) were very creditable. Not one of our strongest singles by far as demonstrated by its success, or rather lack of it, but it is still far from being a bad effort. We have often thought of cobbling together a stage arrangement and may well do at some future time.

You will be asking now when will the Ricky come into view? We have reached the penultimate month of 1965 and still no sign. There was another single that year in the form of Take Me For What I`m Worth but alas there are no remaining clips of that and so I can`t tell if the swap happened by then. But if ever the full sets of RSG now owned by Dave Clark get on the market all of these rarities will come to light. It is a travesty that they haven`t already.

The first pictures I can find in my archive files at home (and there are a lot of them) of this elusive guitar are from our trip to The Philippines in February 1966. Mike at last had gained possession of a Rickenbacker twelve string in a fireglow finish. It was a 1993 model (that is the model number, not the year of manufacture) and unusual in that it featured F holes instead of the more common slash that their guitars were known for. Furthermore its tailpiece was a simple flat plate rather than the chrome R on most models.

It turned out to be a very rare and valuable guitar being a limited edition made for export to the European market and is still one of the most sought after Ricky twelve strings, which makes the fact that it was stolen from outside the Lafayette Club in Wolverhampton in the seventies even sadder than it seemed at the time.

There are a few other pics from this early `66 period including a rehearsal shot from RSG while plugging our latest single Take t Or Leave It and some live music, again to be found on YouTube, when appearing on the German television programme Beat Beat Beat. By this time Chris had departed The Searchers and John Blunt was on the drum stool.

Mike understandably was under the impression that his Rickenbacker which he acquired in the mid sixties was a 360/12 string. I say understandably because that model was indeed very similar although it boasted slashes instead of the F shaped sound holes which are on the model Mike owned. It also featured triangular marker positions in the fretboard as opposed to Mike`s dot necked guitar.

C
onfusingly there is a pictured example (right) in existence of an early 360/12 with the sharp edged bound body of the earlier examples and with F holes but that one still had the triangles set into the neck. George Harrison`s 1964 12 string was virtually the same but with the more familiar slash sound holes and triangles.

Mike`s instrument (Left example) had a sharp bound body, F holes and dots and as well as being given the number 1993 it also acquired the title of the Rose Morris model, named after the U.K importers. As I state in the piece it was for European export only, is quite distinctive and very valuable. I hope the person who stole it treated the guitar with respect.

Anyone still awake and keen to know more can see a picture of the 1993 on page 81 of The Rickenbacker Guitar Book by Richard R Smith.

As you can see by the evidence above, the earliest the guitar could have come into Mike`s possession was very late 1965 but in fact was most likely to be early 1966. Once he had that guitar the Burns was never again used although Mike still had his Gibson ES345 six string for some time after that and it was still used on many occasions. You can clearly see it in a shot from the 1965 NME Pollwinners Concert where John is still using the sunburst Telecaster and I am wielding the unwieldy Bison bass.

So there you have the undisputable facts and the myth has finally been put to rest. The great sound of the Rickenbacker on When You Walk In The Room was in fact a Burns. But it was still a great sound.

(C) Frank Allen 2016