Remembering Liverpool’s other “British Invasion” band

When I think of England in the 1950s, I think of shortages, decline, and despair. Part of that impression stems from the play “Look Back in Anger” and the movie “The Entertainer” (also a play) — both by John Osborne — so it might be an exaggeration. But certainly much of the art and literature of 1950s England reflected pure bleakness.

I view the early Beatles as an answer, or at least an antidote, to that bleakness. The Fab Four burst onto the scene with joyful, exuberant music that was devoid of anger and anguish. They were too young, too innocent, and perhaps too influenced by American pop culture to be depressed. The same was true, I think, of many (though certainly not all) major “British Invasion” bands and duos.

It was true, with caveats, of Gerry and the Pacemakers — the other Liverpool band at the forefront of the Invasion. Like The Beatles, Gerry Marsden and his group (known as Gerry and the Mars Bars until the candy company threatened to sue) were managed by Brian Epstein and recorded by George Martin.

Here is their breakthrough single, “How Do You Do It?” (1963) (The Swedish girls in the audience don’t seem overwhelmed.)

Gerry did not write this bouncy little number, which I believe The Beatles rejected. However, he did write one the group’s biggest hits, a tribute to Liverpool called “Ferry Cross the Mersey.” (1965)

Here, joy and exuberance are replaced by sentimentality and pride in one’s city. The song doesn’t just turn its back on the darkness and resentments of the 1950s culture, it attempts a refutation of sorts.

For me, the key lyrics are:

People around every corner
They seem to smile and say
We don’t care what your name is boy
We’ll never turn you away. . .

So ferry ‘cross the Mersey
‘Cause this land’s the place I love
And here I’ll stay.

Here is the song.

It isn’t joyful. The opening includes the phrase “hearts torn in every way.” But the pain is overcome by local solidarity and pride.

Gerry also wrote “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.” (1964) The struggle to overcome pain is the theme of this somewhat mawkish hit. Optimism prevails, but it’s a close run thing. Here’s the video (afterwards, you can watch him sing the same song plus “Ferry” in 2011; I think he does a better job this time around):

By 1966, the English pop scene had moved on. The joyfulness was gone and optimism, even if qualified, didn’t play. The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” (1966) was a return to something like the 1950s view of postwar Britain. So was the beautiful “She’s Leaving Home.” (1967)

The Beatles weren’t writing tributes to Liverpool. Their remembrances of Merseyside were captured in the whimsical and strangely matter of fact “Penny Lane” (1967).

Left behind, and with their popularity rapidly declining, Gerry and the Pacemakers disbanded in 1966 (though Gerry brought the band back in the 1970s).

* * *

Eric Burden of “The Animals” says that when he came to New York to appear on the Ed Sullivan show, he would grab a taxi as soon as he finished and head to Harlem to imbibe jazz. I’ve heard that when Gerry Marsden was in New York for Sullivan’s show, he went to Broadway to see the musical “Carousel.”

I don’t know if that’s true, but Gerry and his band did make a major pop hit of “Carousel’s” signature song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” (Late 1963) Marsden didn’t write the song, of course. The lyrics are by Oscar Hammerstein. But they were right up Gerry Marsden’s alley. In fact, Gerry says he fell in love with the song as a kid, so it probably inspired his song writing.

* * *

The story goes that Gerry Marsden presented a disk of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to Bill Shankly, the legendary manager of Liverpool, FC. Shankly was blown away, and picked it during an appearance on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs radio show in 1965.

Liverpool fans, who were singing Beatles songs during matches, started singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Soon, it became the team’s anthem, sung with gusto, accompanied by Gerry’s recording, by something like 50,000 Liverpool fans before every Liverpool home game.

If only Gerry had been an Everton fan.

Clubs in other countries have adopted the song. It has spread to Glasgow (Celtic United), Dortmund with arguably the strongest fan base in Germany, the Netherlands (Feyenoord), Ukraine (Dinamo Kiev), and even Japan (FC Tokyo). And, of course, Liverpool fans sing it in bars all over the world when they watch their lads play. I had to endure it in a bar in Vienna when the Shite won the 2019 Champions League final.

Thus, in a weird twist, it seems likely that these days more people are hearing, and certainly singing along with, Gerry and the Pacemakers than with The Beatles.

Here is the band performing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” in 1963:

Here is how it looks and sounds when Liverpool fans sing along:

Here is Gerry at Anfield, Liverpool’s home ground, in 2013, talking about the song and singing it with the team’s fans (he appears first at about the 45 second mark):