‘When I was little,’ said Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits fame, ‘all I wanted was a red guitar and to play like Hank Marvin.’
The Shadows were crucial to the development of British rock. Their lengthy and legendary career began in 1958 when they formed as the Drifters. Alongside Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, they proved that the UK could produce music to equal that of its American counterparts: they set thousands of young wannabes like Mark Knopfler on the road to stardom with an instrumental sound dominated by Hank B Marvin’s distinctive six-string twang.
Born Brian Rankin in Newcastle in 1941, Marvin came down to London in 1958 with teenage pal Bruce Cripps, who changed his name to Welch. Making an immediate impact on the skiffle scene, they became part of up-and-coming Cliff Richard’s backing group the Drifters. Re-christened the Shadows to avoid confusion with the American soul legends, they not only backed Cliff both live and in the studio but also enjoyed a ‘solo’ career, the early fruits of which between 1959 and 1962 are featured on our compilation.
Their initial attempts with vocal tracks like 1959 singles ‘Feelin’ Fine’ and ‘Saturday Dance’ (their first as the Shadows rather than the Drifters) failed to make an impact, but the way ahead was shown by ‘Jet Black’, their second single – an instrumental written by bassist Jet Harris.
The quintessential Shadows sound crystallised when ‘Apache’ was recorded in June 1960. Written by Jerry Lordan, the Shadows cut it at Abbey Road studios with Cliff Richard guesting on bongos. The moody, Western-inspired tune topped the UK charts for six weeks, ironically deposing Cliff’s own ‘Please Don’t Tease’.
The Shadows were soon acclaimed as the world’s leading instrumental outfit, rivalled only by America’s Ventures. ‘The idea of guitars was not in itself unique,’ Hank later mused, ‘because there had been other bands using guitars, mostly with vocals, like the Crickets. But I suppose in the UK and Europe at that point, there hadn’t really been… What we did with “Apache” was a four-piece band with acoustic rhythm guitar, a great tune and still within the genre of beat music – or whatever you want to call it.’
In December they released a successful follow-up, ‘Man Of Mystery’, the theme to the Edgar Wallace movie series, peaked at Number 5. 1961 saw the quartet cement their reputation early on with ‘FBI’, a Marvin/Welch/Harris number that soared to Number 6, ‘The Frightened City’ went three places higher, while ‘Kon-Tiki’ took them back to Number 1 in October.
As well as the singles, we include album tracks and cover versions. It’s interesting to hear them tackle Santo and Johnny’s 1959 US chart-topper ‘Sleep Walk’, for instance, while instrumentals gave them the chance to come up with punning titles like ‘Theme From A Filleted Place’ and ‘Nivram’ – Marvin spelled backwards…
The departure of Jet Harris and drummer Tony Meehan to form a briefly successful duo didn’t stop the Shads. ‘The Savage’ ended 1961 on a high at Number 10 before another Jerry Lordan composition, ‘Wonderful Land’, complete with producer Norrie Paramor’s atmospheric strings, returned them to Number 1 in March 1962.
The Spanish-flavoured ‘Guitar Tango’, unusual for its use of acoustic guitars, made Number 4 in August as the band travelled to Greece to film Summer Holiday with Cliff. Their most successful year ever ended with an appearance at the Royal Variety Show and the dreamy instrumental ‘Dance On’, written by British vocal group the Avons, which became the Shads’ fourth chart-topper early in ‘63. It had to wait its turn thanks to the Cliff/Shads hit ‘Bachelor Boy’, which simply refused to be shifted!
The success story went on, of course, with Brian Bennett claiming the drum stool and a succession of bassists coming and going. While the advent of the Beatles and psychedelia temporarily made them look passé, it was only in 2005 that the Shadows announced their final bow. (Typically, they later re-formed to back Cliff on a 50th anniversary tour!) Talking to this writer just before their ‘farewell’ tour, Hank Marvin summed up the reason for their impact. ‘I think it was a combination of things. We were clearly in the right place at the right time – two years later would be too late, two years before too early.
‘The image of the band when we started having our hits was good, the variety of personalities. The combination was good musically, too, the way we worked together. There’s quite a bit of energy in the band, which was great – probably because of things like our age, of course, and a few personality clashes, so you’d get that bit of extra spark and energy.
‘And the sound, I suppose, was different. A sound that people liked and still like. We were very fortunate in being offered a lot of good material to record – when you’ve got good tunes, they hang around for a long while and people remember them years and years later, almost like standards. I think all those things put together were components in our success.’