It is emblematic of our age that I learned the news of Gerry Marsden’s death, not from a newswire, not from television or radio, not from the New York Times, but from Sir Paul McCartney. He just tweeted out his respects, and if you’re to be eulogized by somebody important in the music business, you couldn’t do any better. McCartney and Marsden were old mates from the Liverpool and Hamburg rock and roll scenes of the late ’50s and early ’60s. After Brian Epstein signed the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers were one of the next bands he brought into his stable. They proved to be Epstein’s third most successful act, behind the Beatles and Cilla Black.
Of the Pacemakers’ popular songs, Americans probably know “Ferry Cross the Mersey” best. Released in late 1964, it went to #6 in the States, was the title of their 1965 film (an attempt to replicate the success of the Beatles Hard Day’s Night) and became (at least to my mind) a sort of anthem for the whole Merseybeat movement, which has its pros and cons. Their biggest hit in the States was the ballad “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”, which came out in spring of ’64, just a couple of months after the Beatles broke here like a tidal wave. That song went to #4.
Gerry and the Pacemakers were naturally much bigger in the U.K., where their first three hit singles all went to #1 in 1963, a feat even the Beatles didn’t accomplish. Their first hit was Mitch Murray’s “How Do You Do It?”, a song the Beatles had recorded, but didn’t release. Gerry’s success with the tune had proven the Beatles judgment about the tune wrong, but the song that the Fab Four released instead, their own “Love Me Do”, wasn’t exactly a turkey, so it worked out well for everybody. However, the Pacemakers goofed not long after that when they recorded the Lennon-McCartney composition “Hello, Little Girl” but did not release it. A group named Fourmost had the hit with that one. Nothing daunted, the Pacemakers sang their second #1, “I Like It”, also by Murray, on The Ed Sullivan Show. Their third hit was a cover of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, from Carousel. If that sounds strange, recall that the Beatles had recorded “‘Til There Was You” from The Music Man, sung by McCartney. A good song was a good song to these guys.
In 1965, Gerry and the Pacemakers had a couple of minor hits with “I’ll Be There” and “Walk Hand and Hand” but time was already passing them by. We mentioned the trap of Merseybeat earlier. The Pacemakers were one of the dozen or two bands from the English Invasion that enjoyed monster success for a few months in 1964, but didn’t have the wherewithal or the the savvy to adapt to the rapid changes in taste of the 1960s. The Pacemakers’ songs of 1965 sounded like their songs of 1964, in a time when the Beatles were now heavy into creating folk-rock like Help! and Rubber Soul. In late 1966, Gerry and the Pacemakers released a cover of Simon and Garfunkle’s “Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine”, off of Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme — at a time when the Beatles were putting out Revolver. So it was like that — always a step behind the times, with responses that were far from trailblazing. By 1967, their label wasn’t even releasing the tracks they had recorded, and the group disbanded. The fact that their influential manager Brian Epstein had died that year can’t have been irrelevant.
Marsden continued performing over the decades, both as a solo performer and with reconstituted versions of Gerry and the Pacemakers, as a live act and on television but with no chart success on the order of his early days. He was 78 at the time of his passing of a heart ailment. I will refrain at this time from ascribing any special meaning to the name of his group, the Pacemakers. Marsden died in Arrowe Park Hospital…Merseyside.