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Merseybeat was a generic name for a type of music that came out of Liverpool in the early 1960s. The name itself came from the name of a magazine edited by Bill Harry, who, inspired by his friend John Lennon (who wrote a column for the magazine under the name 'Beatcomber' in homage to Beachcomber), decided to create what was in effect the first fanzine in the UK, albeit one that had a readership at its height of tens of thousands. (The magazine, obviously for those who know Liverpool, less obviously for those who don't, was named after the river Mersey that runs through the city).

Merseybeat developed in the clubs that had been opened in Liverpool in the late 50s and early 60s in the wake of the trad jazz boom, most notably the Cavern, but also imitators such as the Jacaranda and the Casbah (run by Mona Best, mother of early Beatles drummer Pete Best). When that short-lived fad died down, many of the bands who had been playing skiffle in the intervals between jazz acts switched to playing rock & roll (as did other bands such as The Swinging Blue Jeans, in many ways the archetypal Merseybeat band, who had started out playing dixieland jazz but on electric guitars, before they switched to covers of obscure American R&B records).

Merseybeat as a style is hard to pin down - the description was originally more geographical than stylistic - and the definition has been further muddied by a series of American commentators on the Beatles who have a limited understanding of British geography, and who have thus included such geographically inappropriate groups as Freddie And The Dreamers and The Hollies (both from Manchester) and even the Dave Clark Five (from London!) under this umbrella. But the typical Merseybeat group would be four white males playing electric guitars, usually playing a 'whiter' version of American blues or soul music (sometimes far too white, as anyone who has heard Gerry And The Pacemakers' excruciating cover of Little Walter's My Babe will testify), usually with lead vocals shared between the various members.

A lot of books on the subject of Merseybeat have claimed that the primary influence on repertoire of Merseybeat bands came from 'Cunard yanks' - sailors who would bring the latest US singles over. In fact, it is more likely that the bands got to hear obscure records by people like Arthur Alexander or Chan Romero because NEMS records (owned by Brian Epstein, the future manager of many Merseybeat bands) had a policy of stocking at least one copy of every single released in the UK at the time. Most of these bands developed their large repertoires while actually playing in Hamburg, mostly brought over by Allan Williams.

In the early 1960s any band from Liverpool suddenly had the ability to become successful, and as a result a lot of utter dreck made the higher regions of the charts. This has led to all Merseybeat bands except the Beatles being tarred with the same brush of being third-rate no-talent pop puppets, rather unfairly. In fact the bands varied enormously in ability, from the mere adequacy of The Fourmost and Gerry And The Pacemakers who had no real talent and were mere competent performers, to bands like The Swingin' Blue Jeans who had real talent and made some fine records, to bands like The Merseybeats or The Searchers who would have been successful in any era, and if anything may have done worse by being overshadowed by the Beatles rather than riding their coattails.

Five Essential Merseybeat Recordings

Please Please Me - The Beatles. This album was almost a live recording of a typical Cavern setlist, although with slightly fewer out-and-out rockers. You probably already have this anyway.

Live At The Cavern - The Big Three. As much as anything else this is valuable as a preservation of Bob Wooler's standard introduction to Cavern sets - 'good evening all you Cavern dwellers and welcome to the best of cellars, we've got the hi-fi high and the lights down low so welcome to the Big Three show'

Needles And Pins - The Searchers. Not their best record by a long way, but proof of the lasting impact of some Merseybeat bands other than the Beatles. This track is the basis of everything on the first few Byrds albums (especially Feel A Whole Lot Better, not coincidentally the best thing The Byrds ever did). Without this track, no Byrds, no Big Star, no R.E.M., no jangly guitar rock music at all...

You're No Good - The Swinging Blue Jeans. This song has been recorded by everyone from Linda Ronstadt to Van Halen, but this is the only version that counts, pure pop heaven.

Sorrow - The Merseys. Formerly The Merseybeats, this band had one last hit single in 1967, when most of the Merseybeat bands had faded into obscurity in mid-65. This song was ripped off by the Beatles for It's All Too Much and was covered by David Bowie, and is one of the great pop singles of the 60s.

Sources for this node are mostly from my memory, and some info comes from family (my uncle used to play the Cavern in the Merseybeat days). If you want to know more, the best books on the subject are Let's Go Down The Cavern by Spencer Leigh and The Walrus Was Ringo by Leigh and Alan Clayson, but I must state an interest here in that Leigh is an acquaintance of mine and has played my band on the radio.

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