Jan 11, 2021

Gerry and the Pacemakers Founder Passes—but Memories Linger

A few words about the end of a black-and-white era

By Ed Goldman

I was sorry to hear that Gerry Marsden, who headed the rock band Gerry and the Pacemakers, died early this month. It felt as though an entire era—the so-called “British invasion” of the early-to-mid 1960s— had been permanently withdrawn from our memory banks.

In addition to a distinctive British take on American rock (and blues), those years brought us faux-gritty, fast-paced black-and-white films such as the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night,” the Pacemakers’ “Ferry Cross the Mersey” and the Dave Clark Five’s “Having a Wild Weekend.”

Edgy Cartoon

Gerry Marsden

Jeremy Summers, the director of “Ferry,” and “Wild Weekend” director John Boorman tried to do for Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Dave Clark Five, respectively, what Richard Lester had already done for the Beatles: present them as working-class blokes who just happened to be talented musicians and wouldn’t kill you or kidnap your daughters. 

But Lester’s big advantage as a director, among many, was that each member of the Beatles had star power—and in individual segments of the film, we got more or less better-spoken and -behaved versions of them. John Lennon was portrayed as acerbically witty, Paul McCartney as eternally sunny, George Harrison as candid but enigmatic, and drummer Ringo Starr, the shortest and least conventionally handsome of the quartet, as every teenage girl’s favorite cigarette-smoking plush toy.

Marsden and Clark were the stars of their own movies and the focus rarely shifted from them, which was probably a good idea since when it did, the other band members mugged and romped ferociously and proved exceedingly tedious. I’ve watched “A Hard Day’s Night” a minimum of 35 times, “Ferry” twice and “Weekend” barely once. I can all-but-lip-sync the dialogue and Lennon-McCartney songs from “A Hard Day’s Night” (one of Harrison’s compositions, “Don’t Bother Me,” also memorable, is heard in a party scene). 

But “Weekend”’s only memorable tune for me is “Catch Us If You Can,” which Dave Clark co-wrote. The only two songs I remember from “Ferry” are the warmly evocative title song and the zippy “It’s Gonna Be All Right,” both of which were written by Marsden. 

There are a few surrealistic scenes in “Night” but they definitely seem intended—whereas in the movie of “Ferry” there’s a moment when Marsden strolls the eponymous boat’s deck singing the title song and a crew member obsequiously opens a door for him to glide through, as you might do for royalty.

To this day, I sometimes pick up the guitar I’ve played badly since the age of 14, and strum what a lot of us think is the opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night,” using the fingers of my left hand to do nothing but hold the neck of the instrument. (In fact, George Harrison has said the chord is  “Fadd9 played in first position on (his) Rickenbacker 360/12 12-string electric guitar.”)

Even so, when I heard of Marsden’s death, and how beloved he was by the people in Liverpool—whose soccer team made his recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” its theme song—at first I thought of what a comparatively innocent time that was. But it was only that way for some people in my own age group, who were still teens and pre-teens, and for whom Vietnam and more assassinations were just around the corner: we’d just lost President John F. Kennedy and had no idea that in just two years we’d also lose Malcolm X (1965), and in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and JFK’s younger brother Bobby. Psychedelia and affordable pharmaceuticals were still in the future for most of us raised in lower-middle or middle-class homes.

I spent most of the next morning unconsciously humming “Ferry Cross the Mersey.” Then I remembered my favorite Gerry and the Pacemakers song, which Marsden co-wrote with two members of his band and which, disappointingly, wasn’t in their movie: a tender ballad called “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.” I’m afraid that for a few moments that day, it did.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).