“Needles and Pins” / The Searchers
MAY IS BRITISH INVASION MONTH!
So now we come to the Searchers – the final Liverpool band on my playlist. Maybe I left them until last because they kept going strong into the 1970s, despite perpetual personnel and label changes – they didn’t need the Merseybeat tide to float them to success. I suppose if Brian Epstein had been their manager he might have pushed them further; but they might also have languished in the Epstein stable, overshadowed by the Beatles. I can just imagine how excruciating it was for those “other” Liverpool bands, to have the Beatles as your peers one minute, the next minute elevated to rock ‘n’ roll gods.
But the Searchers did have one ace in their hand – their Pye producer (and sometimes songwriter) Tony Hatch, who’d later help propel Petula Clark to stardom. Hatch found them great material and arranged their tracks with finesse. Though it was first recorded by Jackie De Shannon, “Needles and Pins” -- the Searchers’ second UK #1 hit (January 1964) -- just SAYS British Invasion to me: the double-tracked vocals, the close harmonies, the jangly guitars, the steady backbeat. Who would’ve guessed that this song was written by aspiring American songwriter Sonny Bono (yes, that Sonny Bono), along with the ubiquitous Jack Nitzsche?
Jealousy’s the main course here, with a side helping of revenge. “I saw her today / I saw her face / It was a face I loved,” vocalist Mike Pender begins (love the Scouse pronunciation on “her” -- a big selling point for me), and it all seems rosy. But not for long: “And I knew / I had to run away / And get down on my knees and pray / That they'd go away.” Hunh? Pray that WHAT would go away?
He tells us in the chorus: “But still they begin / Needles and pins / Because of all my pride / The tears I gotta hide.” The old proverbial phrase gets twisted into something darker here – being on “needles and pins” isn't just anxiety, it's downright agony. I hear a sort of masochistic zest in the extra syllables Pender slips in – “awa-ee-ay,” “pra-ee-ayy,” “begin-za”, “pin-za.” That strikes me as genius, the touch that makes this track truly unforgettable.
This kid's so miserable, he can only communicate in jerked-around short phrases, interspersed with taunting guitar licks. “Hey, I thought I was smart / I won her heart,” he recalls, but now it’s all gone wrong; she’s with another guy, and torturing him too. Our loser hero watches this train wreck of a relationship with grim fascination, longing for her to get what’s coming to her – “And one day she will see / Just how to say please /And get down on her knees / Yeah, that's how it begins / She'll feel those needles and pins / Hurtin’ her, hurtin’ her.”
He's obsessed, but that sure seems psychologically valid to me. In the middle eight, he admits as much: “Why can't I stop and tell myself I'm wrong / I'm wrong, so wrong / Why can't I stand up and tell myself I'm strong.” Why not? Because your heart’s been broken, you poor sap.
Is this the Searchers’ best song? Not even. I’d vote maybe for “When You Walk Into the Room,” or “The System,” or “An Empty Place Beside Me.” They did a dynamite version of “Love Potion No. 9” (I owned that single, their first US hit). The list goes on and on. I tend to forget about the Searchers – until I listen to them and remember all over again just how good they were.
Needles and Pins sample