The so-called Swinging Sixties weren’t just about The Beatles. No, no, no. Here are some of the finest – and perhaps less obvious – among the 300-plus bands of the Merseybeat era, and a selection of their songs. In my life I've loved them all…
1 THE REMO FOUR
The Remo Quartet were formed in 1958 by Colin Manley (lead guitar) and Don Andrew (bass) with singer Keith Stokes and drummer Harry Prytherch, changing their name to the Remo Four the following year. Their music combined harmony-based soul with jazzy instrumentals such as Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme in the style of The Shadows and The Ventures. They were contemporaries of The Beatles at the Cavern Club during the early Sixties, sharing the same manager in Brian Epstein. As well as Hamburg, the band used an American airbase in France to hone their popular stage act. In 1963 Roy Dyke took over from Prytherch and talented keyboard player and vocalist Tony Ashton replaced Andrew. Their cover of the Gloria Jones hit Heartbeat was impressive. They backed Tommy Quickly (as they had earlier done Johnny Sandon) on a single entitled Tip Of My Tongue, a Lennon-McCartney creation; strangely, it flopped. The Remo Four disbanded in 1970, Ashton and Dyke meeting Some Other Guy called Kim Gardner to form Ashton, Gardner and Dyke. They recorded the evocative Ballad Of The Remo Four but proved transatlantic one-hit wonders with the sparkling foot-tapper Resurrection Shuffle.
2 THE ROADRUNNERS
This five-piece band didn't really play Rock 'N' Roll Music as we knew it but Chicago blues or British rhythm and blues which seemed more popular in southern England at the time. They were active only from 1962 to 1966 but certainly made an impact at the Cavern and the Star Club in Hamburg, especially of course with Roadrunner. Guitarist Dave Percy left to be replaced by two saxophone players, Nick Carver and American Johnny Phillips. But by 1964 the band become disheartened with everyone clambering aboard the R&B bandwagon. They lasted another two years before Mike Hart, singing soulfully here on Arthur Alexander’s You Better Move On, departed for a solo career. For more on Hart and his alliance with the Liverpool Scene poets, read Gareth Williams’ piece on Almost Liverpool 8 here.
3 THE BLACK KNIGHTS
The trio consisted of Ken Griffins (rhythm guitar), Bill Kenny (bass) and drummer Taffy Jones who was replaced by Allan Schroeder. The band signed up to Enviken Records in 1963 and released the lively I Gotta Woman, written by Griffiths and produced by George Martin at Abbey Road and which was featured in the Gerry And The Pacemakers’ film Ferry Cross The Mersey. The movie, presented by Epstein, starred 'the brightest of today's songsters' including Cilla Black and The Fourmost. After a six-week residency at the Star Club It Won't Be Long before the Knights go their separate ways. Schroeder later reformed the band in the 1990s. Retro self-tribute bands became all the rage with Merseybeat.
4 FARON’S FLAMINGOS
Skiffle group The Hi-Hats morphed into The Ravens and then Robin and The Ravens. But they didn’t really take flight until Billy Ruffley, who became known as Faron, joined as lead singer and Faron’s Flamingos were born. It had to Come Together and it did. Faron was a real showman and his crazy stage antics led to Cavern DJ Bob Wooler introducing him as ‘the panda-footed prince of prance’. Most of their songs were released on Merseybeat compilations including Let’s Stomp and So Fine but their singles bombed. They would have had a hit with the Berry Gordy Motown creation Do You Love Me if it hadn’t been a B-side. So smoothies Brian Poole And The Tremeloes beat them to it, mirroring The Contours’ Billboard No1 success with a dancing list song also covered by The Hollies and The Dave Clark Five. It should be said that on the A-side of Do You Love Me was the marvellous See If She Cares. The band suffered from being with a small independent label, Oriole, which released the first Motown singles in the UK. By 1964 the Flamingos were grounded, Faron later joining the second incarnation of The Big Three, who should really have been bigger.
5 THE DENNISONS
Flamingos-inspired The Dennisons, formed in 1961, built an impressive following at the BICC Club in Melling, a Liverpool suburb, and played the Cavern a few times. Originally a five-piece band, they were reduced to four when lead singer Eddie Parry left in 1965. Drummer Clive Hornby later became an actor and appeared in the TV soap Emmerdale Farm in which he played farmer Jack Sugden – looking after Piggies no doubt. They enjoyed minor hits with Be My Girl, written by Parry and Steve McLaren, and with Rufus Thomas’s Walking The Dog.
6 THE MOJOS
Originally a duo called the Nomads in the early 60s, the band enjoyed early hits, notably Everything's Alright. After various games of musical chairs, bassist Lewis Collins and drummer Aynsley Dunbar joined in 1964, the year after the name change to The Mojos, and they cut two worthy singles, Comin' On To Cry and Wait A Minute, before they parted ways in 1966. Collins went on to become the front half of Bodie and Doyle in the British television series The Professionals in the late 70s. Dunbar fronted his own blues-rock combo in the late 60s-early 70s, the splendidly named Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation. As a session man, he played with some of the rock ’n’ roll greats such as Eric Burdon, John Mayall, Lou Reed, Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Whitesnake, to name but a few. In fact, he still plays – he's been Here, There And Everywhere.
7 THE LIVERBIRDS
There weren’t many Girl bands around in those male-dominated days on the Merseybeat scene. The former Debutones followed the well-worn trail to Hamburg’s Star Club and seemed to be more popular there than in their homeland where they were hyped as the female Beatles. In fact, three members later settled in Germany. In the black and white video from a Beat-Club TV programme in Germany in which they perform Peanut Butter, there’s plenty of dad-dancing, and that’s only the girls. The influential singer-guitarist Pamela Birch, flanked by Valerie Gell and bassist Mary McGlory, bears the Dusty Springfield beehive look and drummer Sylvia Saunders nods to that trademark Ringo headshake. The Liverbirds made it into the German Top 40 with a Bo Diddley number, Diddley Daddy, in 1965. Birch's songwriting was recognised when Johnny Kid recorded her It's Got To Be You the following year. The band toured Japan in 1968 but shortly afterwards said sayonara.
8 THE ESCORTS
Three schoolmates, Terry Sylvester, Mike Gregory and John Kinkade, launched this combo in October 1962, before enlisting John Foster who would be followed by five others in the drum seat. They released only six singles, including Dizzy Miss Lizzy, written by Larry Williams and sung far better in my opinion by John Lennon. Their last recording was From Head To Toe on which Paul McCartney played tambourine. They appeared not only at the Cavern but the Iron Door and the Blue Angel, owned by The Beatles’ first manager Allan Williams. Sylvester joined the Swinging Blue Jeans (as did Gregory later) before enjoying a longer stint with The Hollies. By 1967 The Escorts’ journey was over.
9 THE UNDERTAKERS
Formerly The Vegas Five, these lads hail from the other side of the pond, the Wirral, affectionately called plazzy (plastic) scousers by the righteous across the Mersey. They were Cavern regulars using The Death March as a gimmick to introduce their shows. Unlike most Merseybeat bands at the time they boasted a saxophone player, Brian Jones (not the Rolling Stone), who gave them scope to play a wider R&B range, including (I Fell In Love) For The Very First Time. Jackie Lomax’s singing and songwriting certainly deserved greater recognition. After starring at the Star Club in 1962, the band rejected an offer from Brian Epstein and signed a deal instead with producer Tony Hatch at Pye Records. Their third single, Just A Little Bit, was a short-lived hit. That hook makes you want to sing ‘They say it’s your birthday’. The Undertakers split up after a tour of the US in 1965, although Lomax and two others stayed there to explore opportunities in the music industry. Brian, however, would Get Back to Blighty to form The New Undertakers with founder Geoff Nugent and a little recruitment help from The Newtowns. George Harrison was a big fan of Lomax who was one of the original signings to The Beatles' Apple label. His debut single Sour Milk Sea, written by Harrison, was superb, but his finest for the label was his own composition Fall Inside Your Eyes, a lovely soulful ballad.
10 RORY STORM AND THE HURRICANES
Alan Caldwell changed his name to Al Storm then Jett Storm and finally Rory Storm. Jazz and skiffle reigned at the Cavern in the late 50s to very early 60s, so when Rory, Johnny 'Guitar' Byrne and pals appeared and started playing Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On they were booed off stage and had coins thrown at them. Ironically, Storm had earlier founded the Morgue Skiffle Club where The Quarrymen (of pre-Beatles legend) played. Popularity was only a few strident chords away, thanks to Rory's extravagant stage presence. It was when the band secured a residence at Butlins in Pwllheli that their drummer Ritchie Starkey changed his name to Ringo Starr. After a summer at the holiday camp they headed for Hamburg, where they shared the Star Club limelight with The Beatles. In truth, though, Rory's covers band could not compete with songwriters of growing stature. In the summer of 1962 John Lennon and Paul McCartney took The Long And Winding Road to Skegness Butlins to headhunt Ringo, and the repercussions for Rory, not to mention Pete Best, were storm-force. Epstein said later that Rory had accepted the departure with 'immense good humour'.The Hurricanes frontman tragically died in 1972 at the age of 34.