More than 60 years after the release of their debut album and iconic signature hit, the legacy of The Shadows and their Strat-wielding lead guitarist is as potent as ever. Vintage Rock recalls the early years of the world’s most influential instrumental guitar band… By Gary Walker

On New Year’s Day 1962, Decca Records auditioned a young Liverpudlian band at their studio in West Hampstead. Within a month, the label had declined the opportunity to sign The Beatles with the damning verdict that “groups of guitars are on the way out”.

Three months earlier, The Shadows had released their debut album, after their simmering instrumental hit Apache had seared itself into the consciousness of aspiring teenage guitarists Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, Pete Townshend and Mark Knopfler. The image of Hank Marvin playing a Fiesta Red Fender Stratocaster would inspire a generation of fretboard pioneers to remind the suits at Decca just how wrong they got it.

“It was as pivotal as my first orgasm,” Townshend told the BBC’s Shadows At Sixty documentary of first hearing Apache, “first getting stoned on marijuana… it was more pivotal for me than Elvis Presley.”

The Shadows were the first British rock’n’roll band to blaze a trail through the UK charts, amassing 69 hit singles
(34 as Cliff Richard & The Shadows) as well as four No.1 albums. They were the most influential instrumental guitar band of all time and Marvin, the first UK owner of a Strat, is one of the world’s most imitated guitarists.

The Shadows’ story began in 1958 when Harry Webb, Ken Pavey, Terry Smart, Ian Samwell and Norman Mitham founded The Drifters, unaware Clyde McPhatter was already using the name in the US. Entertaining Webb’s parents in their Hertfordshire living room before making their live debut at the Forty Hill Badminton Club, they first appeared at The 2i’s coffee bar in April ’58. With a date booked at Derbyshire’s Ripley Ballroom, Webb came under pressure to retitle the group using his own name.

In his autobiography My Way, My Life, he remembers replying: “No, we’re just a band, we’re called The Drifters… It’s not on the cards”. A compromise of “Cliff Richards”, a nod to Little Richard, was reached, with guitarist Samwell suggesting the ‘s’ be dropped.

The Drifters had their first hit when Move It charted at No.2. It was, according to Richard, “my one outstanding rock’n’roll classic” and John Lennon proclaimed it “the first British rock record”. NME were disgusted by Cliff’s “revolting” hip swinging, but the band that would become The Shadows were up and running.

Simultaneously, in Newcastle upon Tyne, teenage guitarist Brian Robson Rankin, aka Hank Marvin, was gravitating towards rock’n’roll after hearing That’ll Be The Day in a coffee bar. “The world stopped,” he later recalled. “I instantly became a fan of Buddy Holly.” Getting his first guitar on his 16th birthday and taking his nom de guerre from Kansas country artist Marvin Rainwater, he formed The Railroaders with Bruce Welch in 1957. After finishing third in a London talent competition, the impoverished duo stayed in the capital, relying on the charity of their Geordie landlady. “We wouldn’t eat for a couple of days, we’d have an apple over two days,” Marvin told The Arts Desk.

Marvin and Welch were soon, though, earning 18 shillings a night at the 2i’s. “It was hot, it was sweaty, it was fun, a melting pot of people who loved rock’n’roll,” Welch recalled. When Richard’s manager Johnny Foster turned up in September ’58 looking for a guitarist for Cliff’s UK tour and hoping to find Tony Sheridan, Marvin got his break – on the condition that Welch was part of the deal too. “Of course I said I’d do it, I wanted to eat,” Marvin told Choice magazine. “Meeting Cliff changed my life.”

His guitarists in place, Richard could focus on singing – and gyrating his hips. “He looked like Elvis, he had the lip,” reflected Marvin of their first meeting in a tailor’s shop, where Cliff was being fitted for a pink jacket. When Jet Harris joined on bass and drummer Tony Meehan replaced Smart, the classic line-up was complete.

Marvin had so far made do with a humble Japanese Antoria guitar with a wonky neck. With the band now called The Shadows, Richard was determined his lead guitarist should play the best possible instrument. Enter the Stratocaster, designed by Fender’s Freddie Tavares. The new model married the utilitarian charms of the Telecaster with the swooping curves of the Precision bass. With three pickups, a contoured body and the crucial bridge vibrato system, it was an arresting vision of the future.

In the summer of ’59, an import law preventing the Strat from being sold in the UK was repealed, and Richard requested a catalogue. “We stood poring through this brochure. It was a wonder-world of guitars,” Marvin told the BBC. The guitarist had already been seduced by images of Holly’s Strat on the cover of The “Chirping” Crickets and incorrectly thought James Burton played one, too (he used a Telecaster).

When it arrived from California, the band were dazzled by the 1959 Fiesta Red Strat with its maple fretboard, white scratchplate and gold-plated hardware. Richard paid 140 guineas. “We didn’t know what it was, it looked like a spaceship,” said Welch. Marvin’s distinctive style evolved serendipitously. The new guitar came with heavy 13-gauge strings that were tough to bend, so Hank wobbled the new vibrato arm with his right hand as he fretted double-stop notes. It was unlike anything anyone in the UK had heard.

“The fact that it had the vibrato bar helped me develop a style that wouldn’t have happened without that,” commented Marvin. “It’s not a heavy instrument, so you could swing it around a little bit. It lent itself very much to the visual aspect of rock’n’roll.”

The first single Marvin’s new guitar appeared on was Richard’s 1959 No.1 Travellin’ Light, and the following summer The Shadows would have their own signature hit. Recorded in Abbey Road’s Studio Two, Apache occupied the Top 40 for 20 weeks from July 1960, selling a million copies and toppling Cliff’s Please Don’t Tease, written by Welch, from the No.1 spot. “I wasn’t sure which camp to be in,” said Welch, “in case Cliff got upset for knocking him off, but he was great.”

Written by Jerry Lordan, Apache had been recorded by Bert Weedon, but when his version made Lordan weep in disappointment, the writer offered the tune to The Shadows en route to a gig at Bristol’s Colston Hall. “I played it on my ukulele and they freaked,” he remembered.

Marvin’s striking atmospheric intro, using an early echo unit plugged into a Vox AC15 as Welch strummed the chords and Cliff played a Chinese drum, evoked the sweeping vistas of the American West. “We recorded it and, bang, we were an instrumental group,” said Marvin.

Across the UK, a new generation of guitarists took note, among them David Gilmour, then 14. “It’s hard to imagine the thrill and excitement of listening to a tune like that,” he later recalled. “It struck a chord with me, I wanted to learn it”.

Encouraged by the success of Apache and No.5 hit Man Of Mystery, 1961 was a big year for The Shadows as they combined filming non-speaking roles in The Young Ones and further Cliff hits with four Top 5 singles of their own (F.B.I., The Frightened City, Kon-Tiki and The Savage).

After a successful tour of South Africa with Cliff, the band released their first LP, recorded in nine sessions over eight months at Abbey Road. It spent 51 weeks in the Top 10, five of those at No.1. Marvin’s guitar playing is naturally prevalent, but The Shadows showcases the whole band at the peak of their powers. Welch’s rhythm work is rock-solid and Harris shows why he was so revered as one of the UK’s first electric bass players.

The album opens with a 12-bar blues reworking of Arthur Smith’s Guitar Boogie, renamed Shadoogie, Brian May among those enthralled by the “wonderfully creamy buzzing top end” of Marvin’s Strat. The guitarists enjoy a thrilling duel on Nivram, Marvin playing a Gretsch Country Gentleman and Welch a 6120, while Harris contributes what may be the first bass solo on a pop record.

The Shadows is not entirely instrumental, however. Marvin sings Baby My Heart, written by Crickets guitarist Sonny Curtis, and he, Welch and Harris harmonise on The Kingston Trio’s All My Sorrows. Meehan’s accomplished performance on See You In My Drums is scintillating, the influence on the likes of Kenney Jones and Keith Moon audible. Perhaps the highlight is Gonzales, a rockin’ instrumental inspired by the band’s visit to the Alamo, while Find Me A Golden Street is a perfect example of Marvin’s deft vibrato innovation.

By autumn 1961, the troublesome Meehan had left for a job at Decca, where he was among those dismissive of The Beatles’ audition. He was replaced by Brian Bennett, primed to go on tour with Tommy Steele when Welch called and offered more money. The band’s output in 1962, aside from a pair of No.1s with Cliff (The Young Ones, Bachelor Boy), was prodigious – four singles, three EPs and their second album, Out Of The Shadows. Of the singles, Wonderful Land and Dance On! were No.1s. The former, penned by Lordan, retains the record for the longest time at No.1 of any guitar instrumental and knocked Elvis’ Can’t Help Falling In Love off the top spot. In seminal history of modern pop Yeah Yeah Yeah, Bob Stanley describes the band’s sound during this period as “a British dream of the future, the primary-coloured optimism of post-war Britain”.

The album spent seven weeks at No.1, although Harris was replaced by Brian ‘Licorice’ Locking before it was completed. Despite the impressive musicianship, Out Of The Shadows strayed towards the easy-listening material the band had been making with Cliff, and the cover version of Bo Diddley is best forgotten. Marvin later remembered bumping into George Harrison at Abbey Road and the Beatle encouraging him to usher the band towards more edgy vocal material. “We were thinking: ‘Let’s be different, let’s just do the instrumentals’,” he said. “But in hindsight he was absolutely right. We didn’t take his advice and that was probably a mistake.”

Nevertheless, the hits kept coming, the year ending with Dance On! at No.1, and in 1963 Cliff and The Shadows were the highest-earning band on the planet, releasing 21 songs. The Shadows were third, sandwiching Elvis. There was no new album in ’63, although the band scored a No.1 with Foot Tapper and No.2 with Atlantis and by June they had a greatest hits compilation. Marvin and Welch were 21.

The tide was turning, though, with another British four-piece about to knock The Shadows off their perch. In June 1963, Paul McCartney couldn’t hide his excitement when The Shadows arrived at his auntie Gin’s house for his 21st birthday party. That same year, NME’s readers’ poll named The Beatles eighth Best Small British Group with 735 votes. The Shadows were first with 45,951. By Christmas, it had all changed, the UK chart topped by I Want To Hold Your Hand (1) and She Loves You (2). Locking bowed out at the London Palladium in November, replaced by John Rostill.

“The Beatles were taking over,” reflected Locking. “They were going forward and we were going backwards.” Yet The Beatles and their Brit Invasion peers were eternally indebted to The Shadows. As Beat Monthly observed, “All the present-day beat groups owe a big debt of gratitude to The Shadows… because it was they who showed the way.”

Released in May 1964, third LP Dance With The Shadows was kept off the top of the album chart by The Rolling Stones’ debut, and after The Beatles had conquered America, Cliff and the band spent a long British winter doing panto, performing for 16 weeks in Aladdin And His Wonderful Lamp as Wishy, Washy, Noshy and Poshy. “While we were being thrown through a mangle by Arthur Askey, The Beatles and Rolling Stones were playing rock’n’roll,” Bennett told the BBC. The Rise And Fall Of Flingel Bunt, released in April ’64, would be the band’s last Top 10 hit single for 14 years.

“We lost that rock’n’roll edge,” admitted Welch. “We were suddenly into The Young Ones, tunes for mums and dads. By the time The Beatles came, Cliff and The Shadows were like the Rat Pack.”

Cliff may have claimed The Shadows drove The Beatles to Hamburg, but he knew the jig was up: “The success of The Beatles and the Stones shelved me and The Shadows. We were now the oldsters.”

By 1966, the appetite for instrumental bands had waned, and while they continued to sell in the 70s and 80s, The Shadows’ golden era was over. John Peel summed up pop’s fickle affections: “I gotta tell you this, I was a huge fan in the early 60s, but when the late 60s came along it became very uncool to say you were a Shadows fan.”

The Shadows’ legacy endures, however. Among Marvin’s disciples have been Tony Iommi, Ritchie Blackmore and the late Peter Green. Peter Frampton was inspired to pen Theme From Nivram and Neil Young From Hank To Hendrix. The sole Beatles Harrison-Lennon composition is 1961’s Cry For A Shadow. Even Bruce Springsteen started out in an instrumental band playing Ventures and Shadows covers, while The Deltones recruited Jeff Beck because he could play “just like Hank”, telling Marvin he was “80 per cent” of the reason he picked up a guitar.

“I’m very happy I played a modest part in furthering people’s interest in music and in the guitar,” said Marvin years later. “Out of that early period have come so many great players. We all knew and listened to each other. Jeff Beck, Mark Knopfler, Brian May, Pete Townshend – they’re all so different in their approach, you hear a few bars and know who it is. I feel happy that through the sound we created and the success we had, it motivated people to pick up the guitar.”