The intricate harmonies and distinctive chiming 12-string Rickenbacker electric guitar sound of the English band the Searchers are credited with heralding the folk-rock movement most commonly associated with the American band the Byrds in the mid-1960s. The group also recognized international success from 1963 to 1965 with cover versions of such American R&B songs as the Clovers’ “Love Potion No. 9,” the Drifters’ “Sweets for My Sweet,” the Coasters’ “Ain’t That Just Like Me,” the Orlons’ “Don’t Throw Your Love Away,” and Barbara Lewis’s “Someday We’re Gonna Love Again.” These songs featured three- and four-part harmonies and tightly structured musical arrangements that attracted comparisons to their fellow Liverpudlian group, the Beatles. In fact, it was John Len-non’s comment to the press that his favorite song at the moment was the Searchers’ rendition of “Sweets for My Sweet” that propelled the group to the top of the pop music charts. The band’s knack for rediscovering somewhat obscure American songs was complemented with their versions of original compositions by producer and pop music impresario Tony Hatch, including “Sugar and Spice” as well as covers of such folk-themed compositions as the Sonny Bono and Jack Nitzsche song “Needles and Pins” and Malvina Rey-nolds’s ecologically themed song, “What Have They Done to the Rain?”
Members of the Searchers began playing together in 1957 as part of the British skiffle sound that was pioneered by singer Lonnie Donegan with the song “Rock Island Line.” Guitarist and singer John McNally recruited guitarist and singer Mike Pender from the Liverpool bands the Wreckers and the Confederates, and guitarist and singer Tony Jackson from the Liverpool band the Martinis. Jackson became the group’s bassist, using an instrument he designed and built himself. He found it difficult to play the bass and sing, however, and Johnny Sandon was hired to sing lead vocals. Norman McGarry joined the band as drummer, but left shortly thereafter. He was replaced by Chris Crummy, who changed his name to Chris Curtis.
The Searchers officially began in 1960 as Johnny San-don and the Searchers. They took their name from the John Ford film The Searchers, which starred John Wayne in one of his most famous roles. Sandon eventually left the band to form the Remo Four in 1962. Like fellow Liverpool band the Beatles, the Searchers played the Cavern Club and the Iron Door, and traveled to the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany. Returning from Hamburg in late 1962, the group signed a management contract with Tony Hatch and a recording contract with Pye Records.
The group’s harmonies were used to good effect on the band’s first single, “Sweets for My Sweet,” a song written for the Drifters by Mort Shuman and Doc Po-mus, which displaced the Beatles from the number one spot in Great Britain. Tony Hatch—who later wrote, produced, and managed Petula Clark’s successful pop
Members include Billy Adamson (group member, 1969-98), drums, vocals;Frank Allen (born Francis Renaud McNeice on December 14, 1943, in Hayes, Middlesex, England; joined group, 1964), bass, vocals;John Blunt (born on March 28, 1947, in London, England; group member, 1966-69), drums, vocals;Chris Curtis (born Christopher Crummy on August 26, 1942, in Oldham, Lancashire, England; founding member, left group, 1966), drums, vocals;Tony Jackson (born on July 16, 1940, in Liverpool, England; founding member, left group, 1964), vocals, bass;Spencer James (born in Hayes, England, in 1953; joined group, 1985), guitar, vocals;John Mc-Nally (born on August 30, 1941, in Liverpool, England), rhythm guitar, vocals;Mike Pender (born Michael John Pendergast on March 3, 1942, in Liverpool, England; founding member, left group, 1985), guitar, vocals;Eddie Rothe (born Walter Edgar Rothe in Buckingham, England; joined group, 1998), drums.
Formed as group featuring singer Johnny Sandon, 1960; signed to Pye Records by Tony Hatch, released first two albums, Meet the Searchers and Sugar and Spice, 1963; song became British number-one hit, 1964; “Needles and Pins,” arguably first folk-rock single, reached British number one position, 1964; released last hit single, “Have You Ever Loved Somebody,” 1966; released acclaimed comeback album, The Searchers, 1979.
singles of the mid-1960s—wrote the band’s second single, “Sugar and Spice,” under the pseudonym Fred Nightingale. This song once again displayed the group’s harmonic abilities. The band’s biggest hit, a harbinger of the folk-rock boom that would dominate much of the West Coast music of the United States for the remainder of the 1960s, was the 1964 number-one hit “Needles and Pins,” which was written by two session musicians for American record producer Phil Spector, Jack Nitzsche and Sonny Bono. The 12-string Rickenbacker guitar sound featured on “Needles and Pins” was later a dominant sound on the Beatles’ soundtrack for the movie A Hard Day’s Night, which subsequently influenced the musical direction of the Byrds.
Following the success of “Needles and Pins,” original bassist and lead vocalist Tony Jackson departed the group to form The Vibrations. Subsequently imprisoned in 1997 for making threats with an offensive weapon, Jackson was replaced by Frank Allen, who previously had played in the band Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers. For the next two years the Searchers enjoyed major chart success on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Their hits subsequent to Allen’s enlistment include “When You Walk in the Room,” “Goodbye My Love,” “What Have They Done to the Rain,” and “Take Me for What I’m Worth.” In 1966, following an Australian tour with the Rolling Stones, Chris Curtis departed the band to pursue a career as a producer and songwriter. He was replaced by John Blunt, who stayed with the band for its hits “Take It or Leave It” and “Have You Ever Loved Somebody.” In 1969, Blunt left the band, which had switched record labels from Pye to Liberty. Blunt was replaced by Billy Adamson, a Scotsman who had recorded with 1960s Welsh pop star Lulu.
The band spent the majority of the 1970s in a creative decline, rerecording their 1960s hits for the RCA label in 1972, as well as recording the minor hits “Vahevala” and “Solitaire.” The group discovered new life as a cabaret act in the mid-1970s, and, in 1979, signed a contract with Sire Records. They recorded two critically acclaimed albums for the label, The Searchers in 1979 and Love’s Melodies in 1980, but the band’s brand of music was overshadowed by dominance of the punk and New Wave musical movements of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The irony is that Sire Records helped initiate punk and New Wave in the 1970s when it signed such acts as Talking Heads and The Ramones. Bruce Eder, writing for All Music Guide, declared the two Sire albums, “the best work the group ever did, highlighted by achingly beautiful yet vibrant and forceful playing and singing, and an unerring array of memorable hooks and melodies.”
In 1985, lead vocalist Mike Pender left the group to form his own version of the band, Mike Pender’s Searchers. The original group replaced him with Spencer James, who had been a member of the 1970s Beach Boys sound-alike band First Class. First Class had recognized a small degree of success in 1974 with the song “Beach Baby.” In 1989, the Searchers released their first album featuring James on lead vocals and guitar, called Hungry Hearts. Signed to the Coconut label, the band was reinvigorated enough to support singer Cliff Richard at his thirtieth-anniversary celebration at Wembley Stadium. In 1998, drummer Adamson departed the group, and was replaced by Eddie Rothe, a former drummer with the bands Liquid Gold and Mud.
The Searchers continued to perform, tour, and record after 2000. While the band never distinguished themselves as original songwriters, they are recognized as consummate musicians, singers, and interpreters of the little-known compositions by other songwriters. During the group’s heyday, they even challenged the Beatles for domination of the international pop-music charts.
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The New Searchers LP, Kapp, 1965.
The Searchers No. 4, Kapp, 1965.
Sounds Like The Searchers, Pye, 1965.
Take Me for What I’m Worth, Pye/Kapp, 1965.
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The Searchers, Sire, 1979.
Love’s Melodies, Sire, 1980.
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Additional information was obtained from the liner notes by Colin Escott to The Very Best of… the Searchers, Sanctuary Records, 2002.
Director: John Ford
Production: C. V. Whitney Pictures; Technicolor, 35mm, Vistavision; running time: 119 minutes. Released 1956. Filmed from February through the Summer of 1955 in Monument Valley, Utah and Colorado.
Producers: Merian C. Cooper and C. V. Whitney; associate producer: Patrick Ford; screenplay: Frank S. Nugent, from the novel by Alan LeMay; photography: Winton C. Hoch and Alfred Gilks; editor: Jack Murray; sound: Hugh McDowell and Howard Wilson; art directors: Frank Hotaling and James Basevi; music: Max Steiner; special effects: George Brown; costume designers: Frank Beetson and Ann Peck.
Cast: John Wayne (Ethan Edwards); Jeffrey Hunter (Martin Pawley); Vera Miles (Laurie Jorgensen); Ward Bond (Capt. Rev. Samuel Clayton); Natalie Wood (Debbie Edwards); John Qualen (Lars Jorgensen); Olive Carey (Mrs. Jorgensen); Henry Brandon (Chief Scar); Ken Curtis (Charlie McCorry); Harry Carey, Jr. (Brad Jorgensen); Antonio Moreno (Emilio Figueroa); Hank Worden (Mose Harper); Lana Wood (Debbie as a child); Walter Coy (Aaron Edwards); Dorothy Jordan (Martha Edwards); Pippa Scott (LucyEdwards); Pat Wayne (Lt. Greenhill); Beulah Archuletta (Look); Jack Pennick (Private); Peter Mamakos (Futterman); Away Luna, Billy Yellow, Bob Many Mules, Exactly Sonnie Betsuie, Feather Hat, Jr., Harry Black Horse, Jack Tin Horn, Many Mules Son, Percy Shooting Star, Pete Grey Eyes, Pipe Line Begishe, Smile White Sheep (Comanches); Mae Marsh; Dan Borzage.
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* * *
A popular though critically ignored Western at the time of its release, John Ford's The Searchers was canonized a decade later by auteur critics as the American masterpiece par excellence exerting its influence as a cinematic touchstone and "cult film" among such directors of the New Hollywood as Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Representing Ford's most emotionally complex and generically sophisticated work, The Searchers manages to be both a rousing adventure movie and a melancholy film poem exploring the American values at the heart of the Western genre.
At the center of the film is Ethan Edwards, a bitter, ruthless and frustrated crusader engaged in a five-year quest to retrieve a niece kidnapped by the Comanches. Edwards is perhaps John Wayne's most accomplished characterization, bringing to bear the iconography which has made Wayne synonymous with the Western. Isolated by the violent individualism which defines his heroic status, Edwards is torn by the neurotic split inherent in the archetype: he belongs neither to the civilized community of settlers nor with the savages he fights on their behalf. A crusty, intolerant misanthrope, he occasionally betrays a wellspring of emotion which again and again is sublimated in violent action and an insane hatred of the Indian.
Returning to his brother's Texas home after many years' absence, Edwards arrives just in time to be lured away by a Comanche trick while the homestead is burned, his brother, sister-in-law and nephew are slaughtered, and his two nieces are taken captive by the brutal chief Scar. Embarking with a posse to recover the kidnapped girls, Edwards is eventually left to pursue his search with a single companion, young Martin Pawley, an eighth-blood Cherokee who was the adopted son of Ethan's brother. Though Edwards begins by despising Pawley as a "half-breed," their companionship eventually draws them together as father and son. Yet when they finally discover Debbie, the sole survivor of the raid, now grown and living as a Comanche squaw, Edwards is determined to kill her, and Pawley is forced to defy his wrath and his gun in order to save her.
For all his hatred of the Comanches, Edwards is clearly aligned with them psychologically. Not only can he speak their language, but on one occasion, he shoots the eyes of a dead warrior in tacit acknowledgement of an Indian belief that this will force the man's soul to "wander forever between the winds." Further, there is a strongly sexual undercurrent to Edwards's search, manifested on one hand by his obsession with revenge for the violation of his sister-in-law Martha, and on the other by his insistence on killing Debbie for "living with a Comanche buck." His ultimate decision to spare the girl and to temper his anger thus assumes the proportions of a kind of transcendental grace.
In one of the most poignant subtexts provided by any Western, The Searchers suggests a source for Edwards's anger by hinting at his unspoken and unfulfilled love for his brother's wife Martha. Ford subtly conveys this attachment through gesture and staging alone in the early scenes, yet extends its ramifications to inform Pawley's treatment of Laurie, the fiancée he leaves behind. After years of waiting, Laurie finally opts for a less attractive suitor, an action which threatens to cut Pawley off from the civilized community much like Edwards. Without stating it in so many words, the film suggests that the situation echoes a frustrated romance, prior to the beginning of the story, between Edwards and Martha, who finally chose to marry his brother instead of waiting indefinitely for the man she loved.
Within the auteurist context, The Searchers assumes an even greater significance. Never before in a Ford Western has the wilderness seemed so brutal or settlements so tenuous and threatened. There are no towns—only outposts and isolated homesteads, remote and exposed between the awesome buttes of Ford's mythic Monument Valley. And while the Comanches are depicted as utterly ruthless, Ford ascribes motivations for their actions, and lends them a dignity befitting a proud civilization. Never do we see the Indians commit atrocities more appalling than those perpetrated by the white man. Not only does Edwards perform the only scalping shown in the film, but Ford presents the bloody aftermath of a massacre of Indian women and children carried out by the same clean-cut cavalrymen he depicted so lovingly in films like Fort Apache.
The Searchers's status as a masterpiece of the genre may finally lie in its abundant poetic imagery: a massacre presaged by a startled covey of quail, a cloud of dust and an artificially reddened sunset; the echoing voices reverberating from the towering stones surrounding men who, 40 miles from home, realize they have been drawn away so that the Comanches can attack their families; the image of Debbie running down a distant dune, unseen by the searchers whom she approaches; the repetitive tossing of objects between Edwards and the garrulous preacher/Texas Ranger Captain Clayton, conveying the delicate balance between their mutual respect and enmity; the way in which Martha strokes Edwards's coat before their unplanned final farewell.
But the most significant visual motif in The Searchers is surely the doorway open onto the wilderness. It is the image which begins and ends the film. Ford introduces Edwards through the frame of an opening doorway in the first shot of the film, and repeats the image on several occasions: once to frame (and parallel) the introduction of Pawley, and twice again with the mouth of a cave as the framing doorway. It is an image which expresses both the subject and the conflict of the film: inside the door are the values cherished by civilization; outside, in the glaring sun, is the savage land which threatens them. The Searchers' final shot watches the reunited family walk in through the door, while Edwards remains behind, looking after them. He starts to enter, then hesitates. Realizing that he has served his purpose, that there is really no place for the western hero by the hearthside within, he turns and walks away, as the door closes behind him.
Since its release in 1956, John Ford's The Searchers has become one of the most controversial films in Hollywood history. At the center of the controversy is Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne in what many consider his finest performance. Throughout the film Edwards pursues a band of Indians who killed his brother's family and captured the daughters, one of whom, Debbie (Natalie Wood), is still alive. Film scholars, particularly during the late 1980s and early 1990s, have attacked Ford's shabby treatment of Indians, which is perhaps most vividly evidenced in the reactionary persona of Ethan Edwards. Despite its critics, The Searchers remains a hugely influential film. It is often cited as a seminal influence by filmmakers as diverse as those of the French New Wave and the American directors who came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s—most notably Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Brian DePalma. And in Ethan Edwards filmmakers found a model for the semi-psychopathic antihero so often present in films since the late 1960s.
—Robert C. Sickels
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The Searchers ★★★★ 1956
The classic Ford western, starring John Wayne as a hardhearted frontiersman who spends years doggedly pursuing his niece, who was kidnapped by Indians. A simple western structure supports Ford's most moving, mysterious, complex film. Many feel this is the best western of all time. 119m/C VHS, DVD, Bluray Disc, HD DVD . John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood, Ward Bond, John Qualen, Harry Carey Jr., Olive Carey, Antonio Moreno, Henry (Kleinbach) Brandon, Hank Worden, Lana Wood, Dorothy Jordan, Patrick Wayne; D: John Ford; W: Frank Nugent; C: Winton C. Hoch; M: Max Steiner. AFI '98: Top 100, Natl. Film Reg. '89.