FROM STRAT TO FINISH
by Bob Stanley
Tonight the shadows play their final gig. Our correspondent celebrates Britains original rockers
There wasn’t much he could do about it, but it always needled John Lennon that he was five days older than Cliff Richard. To him, Cliff and the Shadows were the old guard, showbiz to their panto’d socks, the deadwood that the Beatles would wash away From today’s vantage point it all looks rather different. The Shadows represent an era of naive optimism, a postwar paradise of new flyovers and new towns with jobs, cars and TVs for all: tower blocks would save our souls and Wonderful Land would be the soundtrack. Just as much as the Beatles’, the Shadows’ sound is modern. It’s 15 years since they last toured. Hank B. Marvin gave notice and moved to Australia, where he now works solo. The rhythm guitarist, Bruce Welch, has devoted his time to Shadowmania, an international love-in for Shads fans, with occasional shows at which tribute bands such as Reflections from Norway and FBI from the Netherlands get to support Welch’s own Moonlight Shadows. The drummer, Brian Bennett, hasn’t exactly sat around flicking playing cards into a top hat, either — on this tour he’s selling six new albums of his own soundtrack music. They have set aside personal squabbles for this final tour, which ends at the London Palladium tonight.
Possibly because there is no pressure to carry on, Bennett says it’s the most enjoyable tour they’ve ever done. In Croydon they received a standing ovation before they’d played a note. In Plymouth a young blonde jumped on stage and danced provocatively in front of Marvin as his trademark specs steamed up. Danny Baker virtually wept when Marvin turned up recently at his Radio London studio. The Shads seem shocked and overwhelmed by this wall-to-wall affection. “Just staggering, a really, really strong response,” says an emotional Welch. It’s hard to imagine now, but before the Shadows there were no British rock’n’roll bands. Forming at the legendary 2Is coffee bar on Old Compton Street in 1958, they were the cream of the nation’s nascent rock scene, drawn to the hub from Cheshunt, Newcastle upon Tyne and Southampton. Tony Meehan, the original drummer and the only Londoner, was just 15 when they first toured. The original bassist, Jet Harris, was the first person in Britain to own the new-fangled bass guitar. They had absolutely no predecessors. At first the Shadows were merely Cliff Richard’s backing group — hence the name — in the days when he was a bona-fide rocker (again, hard to picture, but one listen to Move It shows Cliff had the chops). Then, in 1960, two things happened: Richard brought Marvin a shiny red Fender Stratocaster back from America, then the Shadows recorded a richly atmospheric instrumental called Apache. Released in the same month as Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport, Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini, and Tommy Steele’s What a Mouth, it could hardly fail. Richard played the spooky intro on a Chinese drum, Marvin’s Strat cut clean and true, the whole thing was super-evocative, brand new and loaded with mystery. The fact that Marvin (real name Brian Robson Rankin) had bad skin and NHS specs didn’t stop a generation of teenage boys from wanting to be him. Just out of the rationing era, with everything battleship grey or bottle green, tunes such as FBI, Kon Tiki and Peace Pipe were multicoloured flashes — way ahead of a torpid entertainment business. “There wasn’t a music industry; that’s what you have to remember. We were playing variety bills,” Welch explains. “Our support acts would be dancing girls, a unicyclist, a dove act, birds flying all around. “Once we topped the bill in Loughborough — second top was an elephant. Rock’n’roll was very much in its infancy.”
The Shadows ruled the charts from 1960 to 1963 with five No 1s, in addition to the hits that they had with Cliff Richard. In France they were also huge and played the Paris Olympia with Quincy Jones and Ella Fitzgerald cheering them on. At home they were rewarded with a three-month panto stint in Stockton-on-Tees. When the Beatles broke the back of the showbiz industry in 1963, the Shadows seemed antique overnight. The Colston Hall in Bristol was where the Shadows first played without Richard, 46 years ago. It was also the venue where the songwriter Jerry Lordan first played them Apache. “I was nervous the first time we played here,” says Marvin (who seems to have stopped ageing at about the time they did Eurovision in the Seventies). “Bruce wasn’t. He was drunk.” The Shadows’ stage patter on “an evening of pure neuralgia” is by turns corny, cute and charming. Marvin was touched by a group of Japanese fans who had flown over to catch the first two shows. The Shads invited them backstage “because we wanted to show them some good old English hospitality. Then we mugged them.” Their sound is perfectly matched by the municipal but curvaceous Colston Hall, built on the eve of the rock’n’roll era and barely altered since: clean, crisp, modern. Early on, Marvin forsook rock’n’roll thrash chords for the single-note stylings of Django Reinhardt. With Welch — these days a dead ringer for John Kerry — providing the perfect foil with clipped rhythm guitar, the Shadows’ uniqueness remains in their simplicity. The White Stripes’ producer Liam Watson uses mid-Sixties Shads as a blueprint. Pete Townshend of The Who has called their sound “superbly airy”, and for Brian May of Queen they were “the heaviest, most metallic thing around”. Neil Young gladly admits his debt to Marvin: compare Cortez the Killer with Atlantis. The minimalism and expressiveness of Marvin’s playing has the men of Bristol — a large percentage of whom are similarly bespectacled in unintentional tribute — looking teary. Plenty of them are, like the band, of retirement age. According to Welch, many have splashed out their savings on the red Fender Stratocaster they dreamt of as kids and are forming Shadows cells around the world, such as the Light Valley Shadows, from Sweden, and the Shaddicts, from the North West. Tonight will be their last chance to pay their respects. “It’ll be an emotional day,” says Welch, “a lump in the throat.” What does he think he’ll do tomorrow? “Life will go on. I’ll walk the dog . . . actually, I think we’ll all be in hospital. We’re absolutely buggered.”
THE BOYS IN THE BAND
- 1958 Hank B. Marvin (lead guitar), Bruce Welch (rhythm guitar), Jet Harris (bass), Tony Meehan (drums)
- 1961 OUT — Tony Meehan (becomes record producer, now studying psychotherapy); IN — Brian Bennett
- 1962 OUT — Jet Harris (solo career curtailed by car crash in 1963, now preparing national comeback tour); IN — Brian “Licorice” Locking
- 1963 OUT — Licorice Locking (full time Jehovah’s Witness); IN — John Rostill (dies 1973)
- 1968 The Shadows split, re-form, split again in 1990.
- 2004 Hank Marvin, Bruce Welch, Brian Bennett, Mark Griffiths (bass), Cliff Hall (keyboards) — apparently Locking has been turning up and playing at Welch’s Shadowmania dos. Rumour has it that Cliff Richard might appear at the Palladium.