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Hank Marvin: “Meeting Cliff changed my life”

Hailed by musicians as diverse as Neil Young and Mark Knopfler as a major influence, the guitar legend recalls Fifties Soho, Sixties encounters with The Beatles and representing Britain at Eurovision. By Simon Evans

Hank Marvin has always been the most unlikely of rock guitar heroes. Bespectacled, short-haired, unfailingly charming and polite Hank is as far removed as it is possible to be from some of the wild-haired axemen who have acknowledged their debt to him, among them Neil Young, Ritchie Blackmore, Syd Barrett, Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi. Roy Wood, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Jeff Beck and Dave Gilmour have also acknowledged Hank’s influence on their careers, while one of George Harrison’s first compositions for The Beatles was an instrumental, Cry For A Shadow, that paid tribute to Hank’s distinctive style.

As David Hepworth points out in his new book Uncommon People (reviewed on page 105) it wasn’t so much what Hank did with a guitar, unique as that was at the time, but how he did it.

“A whole generation of British musicians got their idea of what the guitar player could amount to from watching Hank Marvin on television. He was the reason they sat in their rooms and practised; he was the guitar hero of the boys who would grow up to be guitar heroes.” Naturally this is all very flattering to Hank, who spoke to Choice from his home in Australia. Betraying the merest hint of an Ozzie accent (he has lived in the country for more than 30 years) he said: “I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many of these guys, and I’ve obviously heard them play, so I know it’s a genuine comment from them.

“It’s very flattering and very humbling to hear these musicians, now very famous, say how they used to run down to the record shop to buy the latest Shadows single before anyone else. They’ve made an old man very happy.

“In whatever field you are in, be it painting, writing or music, it’s a good thing to know that you have encouraged people to take up something, be it writing, painting or playing guitar.

It was Buddy Holly who inspired the young Brian Rankin to take up the guitar and when he started playing seriously he adopted the name Hank Marvin, Hank from his childhood nickname, bestowed because of his cowboy-like gait, and Marvin from the country and rockabilly singer Marvin Rainwater

Newcastle-upon-Tyne-born Hank struck up a friendship with fellow Geordie Bruce Welch while they were both at Rutherford Grammar School and together they resolved to move to London and seek their fortune. The boys were only 16, and had not even taken their ‘O’ Levels, but as Hank said, “we knew it was the only place to be if we wanted to try and get into the music business.”

The first six months in the ‘Smoke’ was tough, and although the lads picked up work playing at the 2is coffee bar in Soho they would often go without food for a couple of days or more.

“But at 16 that didn’t bother us,” Hank recalled, “it was just exciting and fun. Soho was very different to Newcastle; first of all it was very cosmopolitan; I remember the delicatessens with Italian cold meats and cheeses in the window, stuff that I’d never seen before, and the smell of coffee, which I had never really smelt before. Then there were the coffee bars and the prostitutes on the street corners

“Strangely Soho was quite a safe place in those days; there were the gangs, a guy called Jack ‘Spot’ Comer, and it was his turf. You didn’t have any trouble with yobs because he kept the whole thing under control.”

The meeting that would define Hank’s future career came about when Cliff Richard’s manager, Johnny Foster, dropped into the 2is looking for a guitarist who could accompany his protégé on his forthcoming first professional tour. Cliff had already enjoyed a big hit with Move It, described by John Lennon as the first British rock record, so it wasn’t an offer Hank could refuse.

“Of course I said I’d do it, I wanted to eat!,” he laughs. “I asked if they needed a rhythm guitarist and I recommended Bruce, so we did that tour and Cliff loved what we were doing and asked us to stay on.” The idea was that Hank and Bruce would form part of Cliff’s backing band and in return he would pay them a retainer. Hank and Bruce couldn’t accept straight away as they were already working in a band with Peter Chester, son of the comedian and broadcaster Charlie Chester.

“We’d made one record and we’d done the TV show Six-Five Special, but we weren’t working, and we soon realised we had to take up Cliff’s offer,” Hank recalls. “It was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up and apart from anything else it could pay the rent. Then, when we started playing with Cliff regularly we hit it off and formed a great friendship as well as a strong musical bond. We just clicked brilliantly. Meeting Cliff changed my life.”

It was the association with Cliff that also led to Hank developing his distinctive guitar style.

“Cliff said he wanted to buy me a really good guitar,” Hank recalls, “and we’d seen photographs of Buddy Holly with a Fender Stratocaster. We also knew that James Burton, who played for Ricky Nelson (and, later, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash), played a Fender, so we assumed it would also be a Stratocaster. So on that basis we ordered the Strat, only to find out too late that James Burton actually played a Telecaster, but I’m glad we made that mistake.

“When I got the Fender I couldn’t believe how heavy the strings were, but the guitar had a Whammy Bar, or tremolo arm as they called it, that enabled me to pull the heavy strings a bit and that is what helped me develop my style.”

Through trying to copy the first wave of American rock and roll guitarists but filtered through the unique vibrato sound that he was conjuring out of his Fender guitar, Hank had stumbled upon a style that was all his own, and that found expression in that wonderful run of early Shadows hits. Listen to Apache, Kon-Tiki or Wonderful Land, and you are instantly transported back to the early Sixties, that hinterland between the drab austerity of the Fifties and the colourful decade that followed.

As Bob Stanley put it in his book Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Shadows records like Wonderful Land conjured up “a British dream of the future, the primary coloured optimism of post-war Britain”,

The Shadows had first recorded an instrumental for Cliff’s first album, and had released a couple of singles that went nowhere, but by the middle of 1960 were unsure what direction to take.

“Purely by chance we were on tour and met Jerry Lordan, who’d had a couple of hits as a singer-songwriter. He offered us Apache, and because we were open to going in any direction we said, ‘yes, sure’. He sang it to us and straight away we realised it was sensational. We arranged it, recorded it and, bang, we were an instrumental group.”

Over the next four years The Shadows would enjoy 14 Top Ten hits, five of them Number Ones, but that run came to an end in 1964, when The Fall and Rise of Flingle Bunt became the group’s last Top Ten hit for 15 years. Hank admits one important reason for that was the rise of The Beatles. “They changed everything for us when they came along,” he said.

Although, in pop terms, The Shadows belonged to an earlier generation than the Fab Four, Hank, who was born in October 1941, was younger than both John Lennon and Ringo Starr and the two groups soon became firm friends, despite the inevitable chart rivalry.

“We first met The Beatles when we came back from a tour of Africa in March 1963,” Hank recalled. “Their second single, Please Please Me was right up in the charts and Bruce and I went to see them play when they were third on the bill, touring with Chris Montez and Tommy Roe. The place was half empty and no one screamed, but we thought they were great. They were fooling around on stage, but I loved the rawness of their music. They had an edge to them and a lot of energy.

“We went to meet them backstage after the show. John had his glasses on but as soon as he saw us he whisked them off and put them in his pocket. Later we all went back to Bruce’s place, got the guitars out and were playing in the kitchen. They played us some of their new songs and we sang them songs we’d just written – I have to say theirs were better than ours!

“At the time none of us realised just how big they would be, but then they had the next hit and then She Loves You in the summer, which was huge, and we realised they had really cracked it. They had the song-writing ability, they had the image, and it was happening for them so I guess we knew it would have some effect on us.

“We were primarily an instrumental band anyway, so although it wasn’t a direct competition we saw a shift in fashion. In this case it was a fashion for a new group, a new look, a new kind of sound, a raw edge, and I thought it was fantastic. To be honest I was always surprised every time we had a hit record, because I used to hear other hit records, with vocals, that I thought were better than ours, even when we got to Number One.”

Realising the way the tide was turning The Shadows turned to light entertainment, appearing, with Cliff, in several pantomimes, as well as the films Wonderful Life and Finders Keepers. As Hank points out, writing original songs for the shows and films allowed the group to develop as songwriters.

“We were writing not just poppy type songs but something that held a story together, to get the action moving. It was a good experience and we got some hits out of it.”

Taking part in a long-running show also made the group the envy of their friends in The Beatles.

“In the summer of 1963 we went to Paul’s 21st birthday party in Liverpool. Paul and his then girlfriend Jane Asher met us outside the Liverpool Empire, which was the only place we knew how to get to, and they then took us to the party at Paul’s Aunt Gin’s house in Huyton. During the journey Paul said ‘you guys are so lucky, we’re doing all these poxy one-nighters and you are all in one place for three months. That must be brilliant’, so that put it into perspective.”

He does, however, regret not taking George Harrison’s advice when their paths crossed one day at the Abbey Road recording studios.

“He said, “Oh, I love your single, Don’t Make My Baby Blue. You should stop recording instrumentals and do some more vocals. That’s the way to go. It’s got a bit of a hard edge to it’. I mentioned it to the guys but we had a bit of an odd mentality at that point, we were thinking, ‘let’s be different, let’s just do the instrumentals’. But in hindsight he was absolutely right. We didn’t take his advice and that was probably a mistake.”

Over the next ten years the band did experiment with vocals, as well as making regular appearances on the It’s Cliff Richard TV show; they even appeared in marionette form in the film Thunderbirds Are Go! based on the popular TV series. It was, however, something of a surprise when, in 1974, they were asked to represent Britain in the Eurovision Song Contest, not least to the band themselves.

“It seemed a bit strange,” Hank recalled, “since we were ostensibly an instrumental group, but it was an interesting experience. What wasn’t so enjoyable was getting slagged off on one of those early evening news shows. The person was all very friendly before the interview and then when we were live she started suggesting we were a bit past it to be doing Eurovision. Then, just before the Contest itself, Billy Cotton Junior, the head of BBC Light Entertainment at the time, told us ‘listen boys, don’t win, or we’ll have to put the show on in the UK and it’ll cost far too much money’. Thanks for the vote of confidence, we thought!”

As it turned out the band finished a more than creditable second with Let Me Be The One and Hank has many happy memories of the occasion.

"The atmosphere was lovely. I thought it would be really bitchy, but backstage in the green room everyone was friendly and happy, wishing one another well, it just seemed everyone wanted to be there and was just enjoying the occasion. It made the whole thing a very happy experience."

Later in the decade the group enjoyed a new lease of life, enjoying Top Ten hits with themes from The Deer Hunter and Evita, and a Number One album, the TV- advertised 20 Golden Greats, before finally calling it a day. They have reunited for the occasuonal tour and in 2009 enjoyed a triumphant series of concert dates with Cliff Richard, but Hank has no interest in going out on the road agin, preferring to concentrate on his recording career,.

His newly released album, Without A '#Word, look back to the Sixties with instrumental versions of several records associated with the era, from Michelle, Alfie and Moon River to Leonard Bernstein's America anf the theme from Doctor Who.

"When the record company asked me if I'd be interested in doing another album I thought I'd choose some tunes that are really great pieces of music for a variety of reasons," Hank explained. 

"Henry Mancini's Peter Gunn is sich a great riff, and it's been around since the late fifties, Moon River is a fantasic melody, and then there's Alfie, ehichc Burt Bacharach thinls is his best melodic composition; they are such strong melodies and tunes which are indelibly stamped in my brain from the Sixities.

"We weren't sure if we'd be able to make the Doctor Who theme worl, but I'd loved that tune since I first heard it, and I had the pleasure of knowing Ron Grainer, who wrote it. We messed t around, my son Ben did the arrangement on it, and it came out really well. 

"With America I wanted to get some of the Latino influence in there. I didn;t want to make it a rock piece, I went to see a stage production of West Side Story in Lonson, not long before we moved to Australia, and we'd forgotten how great the music is, so we had to do it for the album."

Hank Marvin's 'Without A Word' is released through DMG TV. Want more from Choice? 

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