BONUS: A Tribute to Gerry Marsden

A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs
A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs
BONUS: A Tribute to Gerry Marsden

Gerry and the Pacemakers

I just heard the sad news that Gerry Marsden, of Gerry and the Pacemakers, has died today aged seventy-eight. As the latest episode of the podcast is late due to personal issues, I thought I’d make this available to the general public – this is a ten-minute Patreon bonus episode I did back in October, on Gerry and the Pacemakers, so it’s here as a little tribute. He’ll be missed.


Today we’re going to look at a group that were for a very short while arguably the most successful band to come out of Liverpool, one that set a record that wouldn’t be broken for twenty-one years, and who deserved rather better than the reputation they’ve ended up with. We’re going to look at Gerry and the Pacemakers, and at “How Do You Do It?”:

[Excerpt: Gerry and the Pacemakers, “How Do You Do It?”]

Gerry and the Pacemakers were, in the very early sixties, one of the bands that was most strongly competing for the title of Liverpool’s best band. They were so good that before he joined the Beatles, for a while Richy Starkey was considering quitting the Hurricanes and joining them, even though it would mean switching instruments — Gerry’s brother Freddy Marsden was the Pacemakers’ drummer, but they didn’t have a bass player, and everyone was sure that Richy could pick it up no problem.

The Pacemakers had been around before the Beatles, and they shared similar musical tastes, and even a similar repertoire — the Beatles dropped “What’d I Say” from their sets because the Pacemakers were also doing it, and when Paul started to sing “Over the Rainbow” in the Beatles’ sets, the Pacemakers responded by adding the old Rogers and Hammerstein song “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to match it. Both bands played Hamburg backing Tony Sheridan, and both were playing songs by Arthur Alexander, Larry Williams, Richie Barrett and Carl Perkins. The main difference between the two was that the Pacemakers would have a slightly harder-edged sound — the Pacemakers only had one real singer, Gerry, and so they couldn’t do the kind of girl-group harmonies that the Beatles would do, and so they couldn’t move off into the songs by the Shirelles or the Cookies that the Beatles performed, and instead had to fill out their set with bluesy songs like Little Walter’s “My Babe”:

[Excerpt: Gerry and the Pacemakers, “My Babe (live)”]

There was a friendly but real rivalry between the Beatles and the Pacemakers, so much so that when Mersey Beat had a popularity poll among its readers, the Beatles bought up as many copies of the magazine as they could and filled out the poll under fake names with themselves at the top and the Pacemakers at the bottom, to make sure they won and the Pacemakers only came second (Rory Storm and the Hurricanes tried filling out the poll with themselves at the top too, but Bill Harry disqualified forty ballots written in green ink in the same handwriting, posted from the same letter box, so they came in fourth). It even looked for a while like the Pacemakers would be the very first Liverpool band to release a record — a local promoter called Sam Leach was planning to set up his own label and record them, before they realised he was better at coming up with plans than coming up with money. The Pacemakers also had their own PA system rather than just relying on the club ones, at a time when no other band did.

Indeed, when Brian Epstein took the Decca A&R man Mike Smith to see the Beatles at the Cavern, when it looked like they would be signed to Decca, he seems to have taken Smith out for dinner before the show because the Pacemakers were the support act, and Paul McCartney was worried that if Smith saw the Pacemakers’ set he might choose to sign them rather than the Beatles.

So it made sense that when Epstein was looking to sign up some more artists to a management contract, he signed the Pacemakers. And it made sense that once the Beatles had had some success, George Martin trusted Epstein enough to sign Gerry and the Pacemakers. And as there was no awkward publishing company contract to deal with like there had been with the Beatles, he could give them “How Do You Do It?”, the song that he’d tried to foist on the Beatles:

[Excerpt: Gerry and the Pacemakers, “How Do You Do It?”]qqqq

Martin’s ear for a hit was proved right, and the song went to number one — and it was the first record from a Liverpool group to do so on what is now considered the “official” chart, though it was then just one of several. Unsurprisingly, the second single released was another Mitch Murray song — one that was almost identical to “How Do You Do It?”:

[Excerpt: Gerry and the Pacemakers, “I Like It”]

That also went to number one, as did their third single, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”:

[Excerpt: Gerry and the Pacemakers, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”]

That last became almost the unofficial anthem of Liverpool after the Pacemakers’ release, and is to this day still sung by fans of Liverpool Football Club at every match. It also made them the first act ever to have their first three singles go to number one in the British charts, something that wouldn’t be repeated until another Liverpool act, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, twenty-one years later.

After that, the group started recording songs Gerry wrote himself, and he proved to be quite good. Their first original single, “I’m the One”, went to number two, just behind “Needles and Pins” by the Searchers, and was very much in the same style as their first two hits, but he also started writing a few more interesting and meditative songs, most notably “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”, which became their first and biggest hit in the US:

[Excerpt: Gerry and the Pacemakers, “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”]

But the Pacemakers came along, sadly, at *just* the wrong time. As the first of the Liverpool bands other than the Beatles to get signed, they were initially pushed into the same all-round entertainer role that groups like Cliff Richard and the Shadows were in, and their early singles were light pop even as their first album was full of covers of Arthur Alexander songs like “A Shot of Rhythm and Blues”. By mid-1964 the light pop style of their early singles was considered hopelessly passe when compared to groups like the Animals, the Rolling Stones, and the Yardbirds — all of whom were playing the same kind of material that the Pacemakers’ pre-fame club sets and first album had been made up of. On the evidence of the small number of live recordings of the Pacemakers, had they been signed even a year later, they would have fit easily into that millieu, and while Gerry Marsden’s friendly singing voice and persona would never have allowed him to become a menacing, rebellious figure like Mick Jagger, the group could easily have had a much longer period of success and respect than they did:

[Excerpt: Gerry and the Pacemakers, “What’d I Say (Live)”]

The Pacemakers split up in 1966, but Gerry later revived the name for tours on the nostalgia circuit. He’s now retired due to health problems, but I saw him on what was his last tour a couple of years ago, and he was still good enough that you could understand why, for at least a few weeks, he had once been bigger than the Beatles.

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