Gerry and the Pacemakers may not have ascended to the toppermost of the poppermost, like their fellow British Invasion band the Beatles, but in their shared hometown of Liverpool, they’re almost as cherished.
When the Liverpool Football Club takes the pitch at Anfield Stadium, 53,384 football fans sing along with “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the recording that Gerry Marsden and the Pacemakers cut on July 2, 1963.
There’s a broad consensus that it may have become the most inspiring anthem in professional sports.
Nor do you have to be a soccer fan to enjoy the legacy of Gerry Marsden, who died Monday at the age of 78.
Gerry and the Pacemakers landed on American shores in the first wave of the British Invasion, and they contributed a half dozen sturdy pop records to those first charmed years.
Their first hits, “How Do You Do It” and “I Like It,” told us what they were, which was British children of Buddy Holly.
That didn’t make them unique. Hundreds of British bands from the Beatles to the Stones bounced around the UK for years creating their version of American rock ’n’ roll, which invariably meant an industrial-strength shot of Buddy Holly.
So it’s no surprise those first Pacemakers records were short and punchy, with uncomplicated lyrics and clean, spare guitar breaks.
After those first hits, Marsden told his manager Brian Epstein and their skeptical producer George Martin that the band should change things up and do a ballad for their next single.
Marsden suggested “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from the musical Carousel. Epstein and Martin said no. Marsden won, and thereby unveiled the other half of the Pacemakers’s sound: the measured ballad, almost but not quite too slow for radio play.
They cemented that sound with “Ferry Cross the Mersey,” the title track from a good-natured low-budget movie that was widely dismissed as an attempt to grab the coattails of the Beatles’s A Hard Day’s Night.
The Pacemakers were familiar with that comparison. Like the Beatles, they came from Liverpool and were rooted in American rock ’n’ roll. They both had spent years on the same club circuit. Both honed their music in the raucous clubs of Germany, and both came under the wing of Epstein and Martin.
The problem, and you don’t want this to sound demeaning, is that Gerry and the Pacemakers weren’t as good as the Beatles — which put them in the company of pretty much every other British Invasion band, including very good ones like the Searchers or the Dave Clark Five. For a whole spectrum of reasons, these other bands fell away while the Beatles kept rising.
For the Pacemakers, as for many of those other bands, much of the problem was simply running out of fresh good songs.
The Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, the Who, they could write their own. Marsden, while a decent writer, wasn’t in that league. You hear his songs now and while they’re catchy, they’re kind of marching in place.
The Pacemakers recorded one Lennon/McCartney song, “Hello Little Girl,” an early tune John and Paul didn’t consider substantial enough for the Beatles. They were probably right, but when you listen to the Pacemakers sing it, you hear how even a B-level Lennon/McCartney song is fresher and more inventive than Marsden songs, with better turns of phrase.
It’s no knock on Marsden that he didn’t match Lennon and McCartney. Who did? It just may help explain why the Beatles outlasted most of their early colleagues.
Intriguing footnote here: One of the last Pacemakers songs is one of Marsden’s best: “Fool To Myself,” released as a single only in England in late 1966, shortly before the original group broke up.
Marsden kept playing for the rest of his life, keeping the Pacemakers’s music alive. In 1985 he organized a charity recording of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” after a fire at a football stadium killed 56 fans. It went to №1.
Participants on that session included McCartney, who had been a friend of Marsden since before either of their bands was famous and released a warm statement about Marsden after his death.
Marsden didn’t always support himself through music. For four years in the 1970s he did a children’s puppet show called Sooty and Sweep on British television.
But he noted in interviews over the years that he grew up in a house where he was surrounded by music, and so he naturally filled his own life with music.
And if he ever felt things getting too quiet, he could have bought a ticket to a Liverpool football match and there he’d be with the Pacemakers and 53,384 friends, neither walking nor singing alone.