Monday, May 07, 2007

“Ferry Cross the Mersey” / Gerry & the Pacemakers


Little-known fact: Gerry & the Pacemakers – another Liverpool band managed by Brian Epstein – had a #1 UK hit before the Beatles. The song was “How Do You Do It,” a tune that George Martin had forced on the Beatles too. They, however, insisted on releasing “Please Please Me” instead -- and it only reached #2, while their hometown pals beat them out with the song they had rejected.

Well, a month later the Beatles would begin their reign atop the charts; in the end it didn’t matter. But Gerry & the Pacemakers did very well for themselves in the mid-60s, with a string of likeable pop hits through 1967. Front man Gerry Marsden had a wide face, a toothy grin, and a velvety voice full of vibrato, and the band could pull off both cheery upbeat rockers and warbly ballads, so long as their producer George Martin provided undemanding standard arrangements. (Their cover of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” apparently became an anthem for the Liverpool Football Club.) In early 1964, when the Invasion first hit America, the first Pacemakers track I heard was “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying,” a strings-heavy number with a clarinet lick that to this day chokes me up if I’m not careful.

This particular song came along in January 1965 -- a perfect time for a song that was, at least to my 11-year-old ears, about the British Invasion. Gerry Marsden’s Liverpool accent was always much thicker than any of the other Merseybeat singers, but for this song especially, that was perfect. It wasn’t a love song about a girl; he had written a love song about Liverpool, sketching a fond portrait of Scousers going about their daily business. (We’d have to wait until the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” for another such evocative city-in-song.)

It begins almost sleepily, like an early-morning commuter's routine, with Gerry’s brother Fred lightly brushing the drums, Gerry playing a mechanical acoustic lick on his guitar: “Life goes on day after day / Hearts torn in every way…” Yes, a string section swoops in on the chorus, but Gerry’s singing is so bloody sincere it works: “So ferry 'cross the Mersey / ‘Cause this land's the place I love / And here I'll stay.” That last chord hangs expectantly, a nice touch.

A flute counterpoints the vocal on verse two, rising up like a circling gull: “People they rush everywhere / Each with their own secret care.” It’s nicely cinematic, panning back to an wide-angle shot of commuters rushing to and fro; and what makes it different from any big city? He tells us in the bridge: “People around every corner / They seem to smile and say / We don't care what your name is boy / We'll never turn you away.” Ah, there’s the hometown touch.

There must have been a video of this song; I remember seeing black-and-white footage of Mersey ferries steaming into the Liverpool docks, and Gerry Marsden leaning over a railing singing earnestly into the mist. (Am I hallucinating?) Apparently there was also a movie called Ferry Cross the Mersey, starring Gerry, the Pacemakers, and Cilla Black, but I’m betting it was awful, because it has disappeared even deeper than the Dave Clark Five’s Having A Wild Weekend. No matter how assiduously Brian Epstein marketed these lads, they’d never be able to rise beyond a certain fame. But I don’t think Gerry Marsden ever expected to be another John Lennon; he was happy enough to be another Tommy Steele.

By the time this song came out, the Merseybeat era was already dying. The Beatles had gone south; bands all over the U.K. had found their own beat; the talent flight to America had begun. So there's something especially wistful about the end of “Ferry Cross the Mersey,” with Gerry declaring over and over, “And here I’ll stay…here I'll I'll stay.” It’s a moment in time, captured forever: the pure essence of 1965. It was a very good year.

Ferry Cross the Mersey sample


Julie said...

It is very wistful. Interesting that a song that seems specific to its time has endured. I enjoyed the background, Holly

Anonymous said...

I'm sure that not long ago I saw that black-and-white video. It's no hallucination.

I wish that the line "people they rush everywhere" were a hallucination. The insertion of the superfluous "they," for the mere sake of the syllable, is unforgivably amateurish. And yet "each with their own secret care" is a wonderful line.

Iñakink said...

One of the first non-Beatles songs I ever cared about, and still one of my favourite songs ever. It's very special for me, though I didn't really understand it until I was in Liverpool at the side of the Mersey. What a magical sensation.

Btw, I may be wrong but I think Please Please Me reached number one too. And I may be wrong too but I think Gerry & The Pacemakers are the only band ever to have their first three singles at number one in the UK. They were great. It's a shame they didn't evolve as other sixties bands did.

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks for correcting me -- I checked another source and it does show Please Please Me hitting #1, though not until after Gerry & the Pacemakers had cracked the top spot first.

G12 said...

Sorry Inaki, the first 3 singles at Number 1 in the UK feat was matched by - believe it or not. - Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

To be honest, i think I'd rather listen to Frankie! : - (

I don't think Gerry And The Pacemaker's music has aged well at all.

hwy said...

I love this song, and a lot of the other Merseybeat and skiffle pre-Beatles stuff.

Also, wow, what a great blog (found you from your comment on Brewster's blog)! I do an occasional "now playing in my head" piece, but this is a great concept for an entire blog. Great background and comments. Will be subscribing.

Londinium said...

Great blog on a great should check out The Mighty Wah!'s update of this song, "Heart As Big As Liverpool" - which is a new Liverpool football anthem.