This edition of Deep Beatles begins a four-week series on the group’s earliest recordings, both professional and home or demo.
The Beatles’ first original composition to be professionally recorded, “Cry for a Shadow” also represents a rare collaboration between George Harrison and John Lennon. The instrumental, recorded June 22-23, 1961, is a snapshot of the group’s nascent years, a time when they were emulating current music while discovering their own voices. The song title itself is an ode to one of their first influences: the Shadows, a British instrumental group who would also become known as Cliff Richard’s backing band.
The first born-and-bred British rock band to find great success, the Shadows began life in 1958, when original members Harry Webb (lead vocals/guitar), Terry Smart (drums), and Norman Mitham (guitar) formed a group called the Drifters. After playing around their native Chesthunt, Hertfordshire and moving on to London, they frequently performed to packed audiences at the 2i’s coffee bar in London’s Soho. Eventually, they were joined by another guitarist — Ian Samwell — and gained a manager, John Foster. Foster recommended that the group change its name to something more exciting, and wanted Webb to take a more prominent role. Thus, Webb chose the stage name that would become world famous: Cliff Richard (soon becoming Cliff Richard and the Drifters). After one more change — the addition of yet another guitarist, Ken Pavey — they recorded a demo in 1958. Richard soon earned a recording contract, with the Drifters as his backing band. Unfortunately the label, Columbia, often insisted on having studio musicians augment the Drifters – even though Richards’ breakthrough single, “Move It,” was written by Samwell.
“Move It” became a huge hit, propelling Richard to fame. As Cliff Richard and the then-Drifters largely dominated the UK rock charts, two future stars were paying close attention: John Lennon and Paul McCartney. In the earliest days of their songwriting partnership, a teenage Lennon and McCartney knew that Richard and the Drifters were appearing on television one evening; they both watched from their respective homes to learn how to play the introduction to “Move It.”
Once the group realized that they needed a greater stage presence, they dispatched Foster to find additional members. The manager returned to 2i’s in search of a talented singer/guitarist he had heard about — Tony Sheridan –
but ended up hiring guitarists Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch instead. By September 1958, Mitham and Pavey had departed the Drifters. Once Cliff Richard assumed lead vocals alone and left the guitar behind, the Drifters had at that point solidified their lineup. When Ian Samwell left the group to focus on songwriting, bassist Jet Harris entered the picture. He would transform the Shadows’ sound, instantly popularizing the instrument in England. They scored two more hits — “High Class Baby” and “Livin’ Lovin’ Doll” — before the final original member left the Drifters. Smart was replaced by session drummer Tony Meehan in 1959, and EMI finally signed the Drifters as a separate group from Richard, although they still backed the singer. One more major change would take place: To avoid confusion with the American R&B group the Drifters, the band changed their name to the Shadows.
The newly renamed group finally hit it big on their own with the 1960 smash “Apache,” a cover of the Bert Weedon original. After that they continued racking up hits such as “Man of Mystery,” “Kon Tiki,” and “FBI.” Their precise but edgy, reverb guitar-driven style (similar to America’s answer to the Shadows, the Ventures) combined rock and country, lending an air of sophistication to the British pop scene. Merseybeat groups quickly discovered they had to cover Shadows hits in their live shows, although the Beatles did so somewhat grudgingly in their Hamburg gigs. “In Hamburg we had to play so long, we actually used to play ‘Apache,’” Harrison told Guitar Player in 1987.
While in Hamburg, Harrison and Lennon aimlessly jammed. “John and I were just bullshitting one day, and he had this new little Rickenbacker with a funny kind of wobble bar on it. And he started playing that off, and I just came in, and we made it up right on the spot,” Harrison told Guitar Player’s Dan Forte. However, the Beatles clearly intended the instrumental to be a sendup of the Shadows sound, primarily through the tongue-in-cheek title “Cry for a Shadow.” More than two decades later, Harrison reflected on his mixed feelings toward the highly popular group. “I did enjoy the little echo things [the Shadows] had and the sound of the Fenders. … But to me, ‘Walk—Don’t Run,’ the Ventures — I just always preferred the American stuff to the English,” Harrison said.
Shortly after Harrison and Lennon composed “Cry for a Shadow,” the Beatles scored a potentially important gig: recording songs as Hamburg singing star Sheridan’s backing band Producer Bert Kaempfert had seen the Beatles perform with Sheridan at the Top Ten Club; he signed Sheridan to the Polydor label and had the Beatles play behind him. One problem remained: the Beatles had to change their name to the “Beat Brothers,” as the word “Beatles” sounded too similar to the German word for penis. From June 22-23, 1961, the Beatles laid down several tracks with Sheridan at a makeshift recording studio in a Hamburg school assembly hall, the Friedrich-Ebert-Halle.
These sessions would yield the single “My Bonnie,” the song that (legend has it) brought the Beatles to Brian Epstein’s attention. But Kaempfert permitted the four to record songs without Sheridan; a cover of “Ain’t She Sweet” – and “Cry for a Shadow.” The former instrumental emulates the Shadows’ key element: the “echo things” George Harrison mentioned in the Guitar Player interview. In addition, Pete Best’s drums are faintly reminiscent of the Shadows’ style, particularly the fills. Listen for Paul McCartney screaming in the background during the track: He may have been following Hamburg’s Indra and Kaiserkeller Club owner Bruno Koschmider’s command to “mach schau.” In other words, put on a show that will draw in customers or, in this case, listeners.
“Cry for a Shadow” was not released as a single until 1964, when Polydor and MGM issued it as a 45 to capitalize on Beatlemania. According to Kenneth Womack’s Beatles Encyclopedia, Polydor released “Cry for a Shadow” as an A-side, while MGM issued it as a B-side with Sheridan’s “Why (Can’t You Love Me Again)” as the A-side in the U.S. Neither single charted, but the song would be remastered and rereleased on Anthology 1 in 1995.
The Shadows would also play an indirect role in the Beatles’ early career: By 1962, drummer Meehan had departed the group to pursue a solo career, and had recently joined Decca as a producer. Brian Epstein paid Meehan to produce what would be known as the Decca audition. While the Beatles briefly met the ex-Shadow at the beginning of the session, Meehan quickly retreated to the control booth, never to be seen again.
Another interesting case of paths crossing occurred in 1965. According to a 2009 Telegraph interview with Marvin, George Harrison offered the Shadows advice during the height of Beatlemania. At that time the Shadows had released “Don’t Make My Baby Blue,” which featured a rarity for the group: the song contained vocals. Marvin recalled subsequently running into Harrison at Abbey Road Studios, and that Harrison praised the single. “‘Take my advice,’” Marvin said Harrison told him. “‘Forget about being an instrumental group and follow up on the vocals.’ We didn’t. We were idiots. Nice boys, but idiots. I remember we talked about it after I’d had that conversation with George — can’t remember the substance of the debate but with hindsight we probably didn’t apply very sound reasoning.”
With each album, the Beatles moved away from their comfort zone — namely 1950s and early 1960s rock and roll — and further experimented with mixing various genres to create their own sound. Like all great artists, they developed their creative skills by initially emulating their musical idols or, at the very least, the popular sound of the period. Only by learning the rules can they break them, and “Cry for a Shadow” was an early step in this process.
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