You'll Never Walk Alone: The EMI Years 1963-1966

by: Gerry & the Pacemakers

Gerry & the Pacemakers are fated to eternal comparisons to the Beatles, their onetime Merseybeat rivals who rapidly eclipsed the quartet in popularity and accomplishment, leaving them as something of a pop culture punchline. In the wake of the Beatles, it was hard to look back at Gerry Marsden and his irrepressibly cheerful music and think it was in the same league as the Fab Four, or any of the British Invasion groups that followed. That may be true, but Gerry & the Pacemakers shouldn't be judged against such R&B-schooled rockers as the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and the Kinks but rather against the stiff, starched rock & roll of pre-Beatles Britain. Compared to this prim, proper pop, the skiffle beats and bouncy melodies of Gerry & the Pacemakers seem fresh, almost serving as a bridge between formative English rock and the bright blast of the Beatles -- who were contemporaries of Gerry & the Pacemakers, so this doesn't quite parse exactly, but seen this way the band doesn't seem like a joke, so it's easier to enjoy what the group had to offer. Even armed with this perspective, sitting through the four-disc, 123-track set You'll Never Walk Alone: The EMI Years 1963-1966 can be a bit of a long slog, and not just because this contains a full disc of stereo mixes in addition to some songs showing up sans strings or in other variations. Discounting these variations, You'll Never Walk Alone still serves up far too much too Gerry & the Pacemakers for anybody but the dedicated, but that doesn't mean this isn't instructive. First, this does confirm that they were a good singles band with the best of their hits -- the quite lovely "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying" and "Ferry Cross the Mersey," the infectious "It's Gonna Be All Right," and depending on mood, maybe "How Do You Do It" -- holding up quite well. Outside of the singles, there aren't too many hidden treasures. Every once in a while there's a surprise like Marsden's delightful Beatlesque rocker "Think About Love" or a chirpy cover of the early Lennon-McCartney trifle "Hello Little Girl," and the group shows some aptitude on covers of Jerry Lee Lewis and Hank Williams, but for the most part this is pleasantly cheerful Merseybeat and not much more. The exception is the live Gerry in California EP; culled from a concert at Oakland in October 1964, the complete show of which is released here for the first time, this live performance shows the band to be more energetic on-stage than on record, turning in a fun performance showcasing a band that's eager to please. That eagerness translated into politeness in the studio, where they were only too happy to follow the lead of their producers and create polite, well-scrubbed pop whether they were happily singing Merseybeat or singing middlebrow pop like "Strangers in the Night" just when their peers were branching out. Gerry dipped his toe into folk-rock with a not-bad version of Paul Simon's "The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine," but that was an anomaly -- by the end of his run at EMI, soft pop like "Guantanamera" was more his speed, which may explain why Gerry & the Pacemakers faded from the view just when their peers got psychedelic. You'll Never Walk Alone proves that the band just wasn't made for those times. Nevertheless, there's an enduring innocence to their music that does make this a pleasant nostalgia trip (or piece of pop archeology, depending on your point of view), at least in small doses. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine

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