Everything in British pop was American before The Shadows hit #1. Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard – they all looked to Elvis and the US for inspiration.
Then, from behind Cliff, The Shadows stepped out and achieved success in their own right in 1960 when Apache took them to the top chart spot in the UK. Hank Marvin may have sported Buddy Holly‘s specs, but the Shads were British boys.
The mainstays of the group, Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch, had joined Cliff at the very start as members of The Drifters (not to be confused with the American band of the same name).
Bruce (real name Bruce Cripps) and Hank (born Brian Robson Rankin) originally played behind Cliff alongside Ian ‘Sammy’ Samwell (who wrote Move It) and Terry Smart. Jet Harris (real name Terence Harris) replaced Samwell while his friend, Tony Meehan (born Daniel Meehan) replaced Terry Stuart.
Cliff, Bruce, and Hank shared a flat on Marylebone High Street. Jet, a jazzbo at heart, stayed in his Belgravia basement flat “with a fox in the cellar, a monkey, and a skunk called Sam under my bed. He’d had his stink taken out.”
At 19, Jet was a relative veteran and became de facto leader of The Drifters. Still, nothing had prepared him for Cliff mania. “Our first gig as The Drifters was at Manchester Free Trade Hall. We couldn’t believe what was happening to us. The women screaming. The adulation was incredible.”
Quickly developing their own unique sound and identity, The Shads became the most successful and most copied British instrumental group of the era, reaching the top again with Kon-Tiki, Wonderful Land, Dance On! and Foot Tapper.
Lead guitarist Hank Marvin precipitated the most widespread guitar-buying epidemic since the days of skiffle.
Success for The Shadows without Cliff doubled the workload. Meehan: “It was such a pleasure to do our own concerts. It was a lot of men who’d bring their girlfriends, sit and listen. With Cliff, as soon as we hit the stage it was, EEEEEEAAAHH! You couldn’t hear for the screaming. We may as well have been a heap of shit.”
But The Savage would be the last record of the original line-up. Boy-wonder drummer Tony Meehan’s apparent laziness was getting up the others’ noses, especially Hank’s. After one gig they had a fight and Tony bit into Hank’s finger.
At another show in Leeds, he turned up halfway through the set. When he pulled the same trick during a six-week season with Cliff in Blackpool, it was over.
Jet Harris was also far from happy. His wife Carol had been having an affair with Cliff Richard. “They had a fling and I started drinking a bit more. I was stood behind Cliff every night, thinking about it, but I didn’t want to lose my job. I was the last to know. Hank and Bruce had said to me, ‘She’s not the one for you, you know?’ which, looking back, was rather nice of them. But that shit was all over the News Of The World. If anyone has a go about Cliff to me now, I shout them down. We were a mean band but, life-wise, we were only kids. We didn’t know what day it was.”
A few months after Tony left, Jet went the same way. “My drinking was getting worse, and Bruce’s nerves were making me nervous. I knew how bad I was. I was topped-up but was never falling about.”
After coming off-stage at the NME Poll Winners Concert at the Empire Pool, Wembley, in April 1962, Bruce turned and said, “We don’t really need you, Jet.” He walked out on the spot.
Meehan became an A&R man and producer for Decca, and Harris (supposedly the owner of the first electric bass guitar in Britain) was one of his signings, so it was only natural that they would play together again.
Their first single as a duo was Diamonds, composed by the extraordinary Jerry Lordan – a young man from Finchley with the curious knack of writing chart-topping instrumentals.
Lo and behold, a massive #1 hit, roughly following The Shadows’ shuffle/twang blueprint, played on a tuned-down Fender Jaguar guitar and featuring a drum solo and a nifty middle-eight played by a sax section.
Brian Bennett became the first ‘new boy’ in The Shadows at the tail end of 1961. When Jet left another ex-Krew Kat, Brian ‘Liquorice’ Locking, joined in April ’62, just as Wonderful Land hit #1. The soundtrack to every new tower block, flyover, and gleaming post-war planning dream, Wonderful Land has a timeless melancholy – music for an impossible future. It spent two months at #1. The Shadows, for now, were untouchable.
Liquorice Locking left in late 1963 to be replaced by the saturnine John Rostill. The Shadows cut a tough single called The Rise And Fall Of Flingel Bunt. It was their last Top 5 hit.
In 1966, Cliff Richard started talking openly about quitting pop – he wanted to be “an ordinary teacher in an ordinary secondary school”. The same year, Welch met Olivia Newton-John who was great for his nerves but gave him a diminished sense of team spirit.
On record, the Shads cut some of their best, hardest sides (Late Night Set, the fearsome Scotch On The Rocks), as well as Hank’s melancholy, Beach Boys-inspired The Dreams I Dream.
With falling chart positions, Hank and Brian branched off into side projects. Brian’s Change Of Direction LP signalled his move into film work while Hank released the cute London’s Not Too Far single.
The Shads, though, seemed incapable of getting off an early-’60s treadmill of recording an album a year, writing pantomimes – and then they started playing the working men’s clubs instead of theatres. They would go on at midnight in front of loads of pissed blokes going, “Give us Apache,” and,” Is Cliff a poof?”.
Rostill suffered a nervous breakdown after splitting with his girlfriend in 1968, and Liquorice Locking was back for the duration of a Talk Of The Town season. Months later, Bruce quit, again temporarily, on an Australian tour played to half-empty theatres.
Bennett: “We were like rats in a box. Hank was thinking of giving up playing. He wanted to be a comedian. The new Woody Allen. I couldn’t understand it.”
To celebrate 10 years together, Cliff and The Shadows released Established 1958, a low-key collection with a sleeve note that said The Shadows would still be around when men landed on the moon.
Not quite. At Talk Of The North in Manchester one night in 1968, Rostill exploded when Hank arrived a shade too close to showtime: “He just had it in for me.” Bruce cracked, shouting, “Fuck the lot of you!” and stormed out. Hank burst into tears. Enough was enough. The Shadows played their remaining bookings, then split.
The curtain came down on Britain’s most influential band before The Beatles at the London Palladium on 19 December 1968.
One final single, the elegiac five-and-a-half-minute Slaughter On Tenth Avenue, sneaked out a few months later. Hardly anyone noticed.
Reunions, Eurovision (The Shadows were the British entry in the 1975 Eurovision Song Contest), 20 Golden Greats and more spats occurred since 1968 – and Hank seems inordinately proud of their 1979 version of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina . . .
John Rostill was electrocuted on 1 November 1973. He was only 31. Tony Meehan died on 28 November 2005 as a result of head injuries sustained following a fall down a staircase at his London flat in Maida Vale.
Jet Harris died of cancer, aged 71, on 18 March 2011.
Brian ‘Liquorice’ Locking