The dark side of stardom
By Wayne Savage
This interview originally appeared in the East Anglian Daily Times and Ipswich Star newspapers.
“Fame isn’t all Sugar and Spice”, says (former) Searchers’ star, Mike Pender
Fifty years on from dominating the charts, former Searchers’ singer Mike Pender is still wowing crowds around the world.
He talks to entertainment writer Wayne Savage about the highs and lows of fame.
Laying on his bed in his mam and dad’s scruffy little terrace house in Bootle, Liverpool, Pender’s life changed the moment BBC Radio’s Jack Jackson played the Searchers’ Sweets for my Sweet.
“Fabulous doesn’t really do it but that’s the only word I can think of. I was still living at home. It was Tony (Jackson) who was singing but I was there doing the ‘oohs’ and playing lead guitar. It’s a fantastic feeling, it’s like we’ve made it, we’re there. Of course we weren’t. You’ve heard the saying ‘one hit wonder’, that’s probably the worst thing that can happen to you. People have got so much faith in you; record companies, managers and agents think this is it, the big time. Then the next record is a flop.”
That didn’t happen to The Searchers, who became the second most popular 1960s band after The Beatles.
Pender’s in a nostalgic mood when I call, our interview interupted briefly while he signs for the proof of his autobiography, “Origins of The Searchers and The Search For Myself”.
There are plenty of books about, or mentioning the band. Their story, he says, needed to be written by someone who was there from the start. It charts their time at Hamburg’s Star-Club to Tony Hatch taking them to Pye Studios to record Sweets for my Sweet and – as Pender puts it – No.1 and give up your job.
He puts the band’s winning formula down to having three guys who could sing – Jackson, Chris Curtis and himself – with fellow founder John McNally more or less on rhythm guitar who wasn’t into the vocals at all. There were no egos when it came to who took the mic. Pender and Jackson shared vocals on Sugar and Spice, with the former stepping up to sing Goodbye My Love, When You Walk in the Room, Don’t Throw Your Love Away and the biggie Needles and Pins.
“When you listen to all our old albums you can hear Chris singing lead, Tony singing lead, mostly you can hear myself singing lead. We swapped it round a little bit and I think you build up a fan following if you do it that way because we all had our own set of fans – ‘oh we like Mike, no we love Tony’. So I think we had that going for us.”
£50 a week
Pender gave up his job in the book-binding department of a big printing firm in Liverpool after the success of Sweets for My Sweet, going from earning a respectable £9 a week to £50 a week in Hamburg – a fortune those days. The four of them would’ve died for each other back then he says. “Once it becomes a business, once you realise there’s a lot of money involved here – with agents all over the world wanting us to go to America, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina… It becomes a big big issue and you think: ‘I can buy a new house, any car I want – I better start looking after myself’ and the camaraderie goes out the window.
“There’s a dark side to it (the music business). It’s unfortunate but it didn’t only happen to us, it happened to lots of groups; that’s why they split up.”
Jackson left in 1964, early considering they really only made it in 1962-1963; with Curtis leaving in 1966. McNally and Pender carried on until 1985, by which time the band’s initial appeal had started to wane as their fans got older.
“You find yourself (thinking) ‘hey, we’re going to be struggling here because we’ve just had like 10 records in the charts and the hits aren’t going to No.1 any more, they’re not going to No.3 – they’re coming in at No.36 and (then) you’re lucky to get in the charts at No. 50,” says Pender.
“You start to realise: ‘where are we going, have we been there, are we on the way down’ and it’s the same with everybody in this business. Everybody has their years at the top…”
Struggling through the 1970s, forced to leave their families behind and travel all over the world to work, they went into so many different record companies’ studios, each time thinking: “this is it, we’ve got a great song, we’re going to work again, they’re going to put us back in the charts”.
“Even though the product is good, people in America, Rolling Stone magazine, would say The Searchers were on their way back what a great album, blah, blah, blah. But it doesn’t matter how good it is if nobody buys it, it’s a flop. How many times have you heard that in the business?” By 1985, he’d decided the band was never going to have record success again, it was always going to be nostalgia.
“There’s nothing wrong with that, even Elton John goes out and plays his old stuff, so you live on your success from that time. I said to John, I’m going to go my own way and formed my own band which is Mike Pender’s Searchers. I was so busy in that 1985-1986 period… I took command of my own destiny really, and the years that went by, and I’ve got so many things to be thankful for.”
Pender, now 74, tours where and when he likes nowadays. Even better, his wife – who stayed home looking after the kids the first time around – comes with him.
“I’ve got my girlfriend, my wife, my road manager all wrapped up in one,” he laughs.
“To still be able, after 50 odd years, to go round the world and entertain… you know I couldn’t ask for more really.”
Mike Pender’s Searchers headlined Music by the Sea in Aldeburgh. This year’s theme is Music through the Decades. “Audiences can expect all the hits, Needles and Pins, Love Potion No.9. Sometimes I say to my wife: ‘I can’t believe I can still do all those songs in the same key as I did them in the 1960s’,” he laughs.
“They’re going to get all those songs, hopefully they’re going to stand out there and say it sounds as good today as it did 50 years ago!”