As music fans are well aware, the Beatles’ arrival on American shores in February 1964 ushered in the so-called British Invasion. Among those many invaders were a host of Liverpool acts spearheaded by Beatles manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin.
In short order, these Merseyside bands—namely, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, and the Fourmost—succeeded in charting a number of hits in the UK and US alike. And more often than that, those hit songs were comprised of the Beatles’ leftovers—lesser Lennon-McCartney tunes for which the Fab Four had no use. By the fall of 1966, many of those same acts had closed up shop. Stray Lennon-McCartney compositions had all but petered out, with the Beatles understandably saving their increasingly impressive material for themselves. But by this same period, Martin had left EMI to form Associated Independent Recording (AIR, for short) with his partners. And now that he had gone into business for himself, George needed those acts to succeed in order to carry them on his roster.
By the fall of 1966, Gerry and the Pacemakers—one of the mainstays that he had counted among his perennials when he founded AIR—were at a crossroads. Outside of the Beatles and Cilla Black, Gerry and the Pacemakers were easily George’s bestselling act. In just three years, they had landed nine Top 40 hits on the UK charts, with their first three singles—“How Do You Do It,” “I Like It,” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone”—topping the charts. In 1964, they even seemed, for a time at least, as if they would be genuine rivals for the Beatles as the Merseybeat’s most revered act. Inspired by his band’s success, Gerry Marsden had begun making his name as a songwriter with such compositions as “It’s All Right,” “I’m the One,” “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Cryin’,” and “Ferry Cross the Mersey.” But in 1965, George and the group were dealt a major blow when the Brian Epstein-produced Ferry Cross the Mersey rock musical was widely panned for being a pale imitation of the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night film.
For Gerry and the Pacemakers, the movie’s highly public failure had been difficult to overcome. “Walk Hand in Hand” b/w “Dreams,” the band’s recent single in the UK, had been released way back in November 1965 and barely made it into the Top 30. A cover version of a 1956 composition by Johnny Cowell and popularized by Andy Williams, “Walk Hand in Hand” was an even bigger failure Stateside, where it failed to crack Billboard’s Hot 100. Throughout 1966, George had recorded a spate of material with Gerry and the Pacemakers. Their February release, “La La La” b/w “Without You,” registered yet another flop, becoming the group’s first single that failed to make the UK charts.
For George, Gerry and the Pacemakers had proven to be enigmatic as far as generating sustained record sales was concerned. In the UK, they had generally made their name on the back of their singles releases. While their first album, How Do You Like It?, notched a number-two showing back in November 1963—unable, not surprisingly, to unseat With the Beatles from the top slot—they had since been unable to land a hit long-player in their home country. At one point, when Martin and Epstein’s Mersey acts were ruling over the charts, he was forced to stagger the latest releases by Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, and Cilla Black, which may have hampered Gerry and the Pacemakers from accruing the kind of momentum that they needed in order to consolidate their fame. In the US, the group had managed a number of singles and LP successes, but they were likely impeded by the limited reach of Laurie Records, the tiny label that acted as their American distributor.
In September 1966, George convened Gerry and the Pacemakers at Abbey Road to take one last stab at capturing the energy and excitement of their heyday. With George in the control booth, they recorded “Girl on a Swing,” a cover version of a composition by jazz bassist Robert Miranda. During this same period, Martin also prepared a new album for release on the Laurie Records label. Entitled Girl on a Swing, the long-player was released Stateside in November and included the title track, which had been identified as the band’s next singles release, along with a raft of songs that they had recorded during that long year of soul-searching for Marsden and his bandmates. The strangest of the lot, a cover version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine,” seemed to take Gerry and the Pacemakers far afield from their original, beat-band comfort zone. Paul Simon’s lyrics sounded positively bizarre emanating from Marsden’s lips as he sang,
Do people have a tendency to dump on you?
Does your group have more cavities than theirs?
Do all the hippies seem to get the jump on you?
Do you sleep alone when others sleep in pairs?
In its own way, “The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine” encapsulated Gerry and the Pacemakers’ slow demise as they sampled yet another musical style, dilettante-like, having roamed from beat music (“How Do You Do It”) and symphonic bombast (“You’ll Never Walk Alone”) to balladry (“Ferry Cross the Mersey”), jazz (“Girl on a Swing”), and now mid-60s American satire of consumerism courtesy of Simon and Garfunkel.
In many ways, George had only himself to blame. Perhaps he had been too concerned with guiding the Beatles’ career, as earlier acts like Shirley Bassey and the Fourmost had once complained, than tending to the likes of Gerry and the Pacemakers, who had been allowed to sprawl away from the genre that had made their name? When it was released on October 22nd, “Girl on a Swing” notched a number 28 showing in the US, while failing, as with “La La La,” to crack the British charts. Adorned with bizarre, quasi-psychedelic cover art, Girl on a Swing didn’t even chart. But by then, it hardly mattered, as Gerry and the Pacemakers had disbanded, calling it quits before the “Girl on a Swing” single even made it to the manufacturing plant.
Ken Womack is an internationally renowned Beatles authority regarding the band’s enduring artistic influence. He is the author of Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Early Years: 1926-1966). The second volume in the series, entitled Sound Pictures: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Later Years, 1966-2016), is forthcoming in 2018. His previous Beatles-related books include Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles and The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four. You can learn more about Ken’s work at kennethwomack.com.