“No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones in 1977,” goes a line from The Clash’s “1977,” the B-side of a single released that same year. This fairly well sums up the sneering (as well as shortsighted) dismissal of mainstream musical values by the punk-rock movement cresting at the time. This open disdain from proponents of punk was a defining feature of the British music scene in 1977, the year The Pleasers would form in London’s west side and earnestly wave the early-Beatles banner.
Their first single, “You Know What I’m Thinking Girl,” bore a passing resemblance to The Beatles’ 1965 track “Drive My Car” in its vibrant verse harmonies and sturdy mid-tempo beat, rhythmically reminiscent of the back-to-basics 1969 hit “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” Elsewhere, sentimental-sounding chord changes typical of A Hard Day’s Night-period Beatles ring out just seconds before the band lurches into an assertive, late-’50s rock guitar riff and hits an emotional peak with eight bars of impassioned, almost bluesy two-part vocals.
This is the kind of stylistic time-sweep that would only have been possible for those who experienced the unfolding of the entire Beatles song catalog and at least nominally understood the continuum it represented. Musicians such as these could, both intentionally and intuitively, cherry-pick choice bits from the sumptuous buffet that had been created during the prior decade. (This practice is essentially the foundation for most of the artists who have carried the “Liverpool gene” into the present day, with more recent musical influences and endless Beatles-inflected permutations inevitably filtering into the mix along the way.)
Significantly, The Pleasers’ alluring, fresh-sounding debut track was produced by Ron Richards, a first-generation link to pop’s British Invasion who had worked as assistant to producer George Martin at Parlophone Records, the London-based label home to The Beatles. Richards is mentioned far less frequently than Martin, but he was on hand to watch The Beatles evolve from newcomers to trendsetters to the most potent force in all of popular culture. Richards sat in Martin’s producer chair on June 6, 1962, when The Beatles (with soon-to-be-ex-drummer Pete Best) were given a test run in EMI’s Abbey Road studio, and is believed to have also supervised a second session about three months later, when “Love Me Do” was controversially re-recorded using studio drummer Andy White rather than the recently recruited Ringo Starr. Though Richards would never again have the opportunity to take charge of a Beatles session, he is well remembered for producing fellow Merseybeat act Gerry and the Pacemakers as well as The Hollies, whom he discovered playing at Liverpool’s famed Cavern Club.
Three of The Pleasers’ five singles were helmed by legendary songwriter-producer Tommy Boyce, who also produced most of the other tracks on the band’s long-in-coming 1996 CD collection, Thamesbeat. Boyce, who co-wrote and co-produced many early tracks for The Monkees—itself a band designed to capitalize on Beatlemania—was the man for the job, if indeed the job was to emulate a British pop sound and make it commercially friendly. The chart failure of the highly engaging, backbeat-driven “You Don’t Know” in the late summer of 1978 might be chalked up to the fact that The Pleasers were considered to be out of sync with the times. The band did receive television exposure on English pop-music shows, adding further mystery to its ultimate status as a no-hit wonder.
“Breaking My Heart,” released in late 1978, is another Boyce-produced standout track. With crisp handclaps recalling “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and duet vocals aping the Lennon/McCartney trademark of splitting off in contrary and unorthodox harmonic motion, the track effectively captures the flavor of the Liverpool lads’ sound circa 1964.
“Change My Mind,” a slightly repetitious number in a more homogenous, by-the-numbers ’60s pop style, offsets its minor weaknesses with an irresistibly catchy chorus featuring overdubbed percussion much like that heard on early-period Beatles recordings. The sound of casual horseplay and laughter under the song’s instrumental break is a simple but refreshing effect that evokes the playful spirit of the baggage-car scene in A Hard Day’s Night, in which an “incarcerated” Lennon, Harrison, Starr and McCartney entertain themselves during a semi-imaginary performance of “I Should Have Known Better.”
The aggressive and straightforward “I’m In Love” brandishes the kind of raw, rocking sound heard on pre-fame live recordings of The Beatles, bringing to mind the gruff vocal power of a young John Lennon delivering Liverpool nightclub staples like the American R&B hit “Some Other Guy.”
Though The Pleasers’ original songs were often impressively crafted, the band also had a talent for reinterpretation. Their driving take on The Who’s 1965 single “The Kids Are Alright”—its plaintive major-key melody making it one of the group’s few Beatle-like numbers—locates the link between the British Invasion and the nascent ’70s and ’80s power-pop and pop-punk sounds that would increasingly be mined from its materials.
Remaining unreleased are Pleasers’ versions of songs by primary Beatles influences Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, while their muscular, gender-reversed version of The Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back” (from the Thamesbeat album) is close kin to The Beatles’ similarly convincing reworkings of girl-group hits such as The Donays’ “Devil in His Heart” and The Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman.”
One can only speculate as to why the band was unable to get a foothold on the U.K. pop charts; it’s tempting to attribute it simply to unfortunate timing, and indeed, history has proven that The Pleasers anticipated the coming Mod revival and foreshadowed the workmanlike pop sensibilities and retro fashion of the new-wave bands that would dominate the first half of the 1980s. It must also be said, though, that The Pleasers were not abundantly gifted with natural onstage charisma, at least not on the live TV performances still in circulation. A trained ear will also detect a tendency toward off-pitch lead vocals throughout their compact body of work, though contrasted with punk-rock’s deliberately primitive eruptions, The Pleasers were capable musicians who sounded positively polished.
Little evidence is available, however, to suggest that The Pleasers (whose first singles were released within a few months of their formation) had spent significant time in the trenches honing their performance skills and meshing as a unit, as The Beatles and their many Merseybeat counterparts had done during their often-grueling apprenticeships in German and English nightclubs. Precisely because of the groundwork laid by The Beatles, musicians now had a handbook of pure-pop principles from which to conveniently draw. This could be a double-edged sword: while it permitted bands to craft a sound with proven appeal, satisfying the craving for mid-’60s melodicism, the results could sound prefabricated and superficial, an offense of which The Pleasers were guilty on occasion.
That isn’t to accuse The Pleasers of being a cheap or crass British Invasion knock-off whose lack of success was deserved. Their commercial failure, though, was sufficient to pull the plug on a sound that had signaled a very promising start (and a sound that would win converts for similar acts still to come). The band reformed in 2009, just after a Japanese reissue of Thamesbeat containing additional bonus tracks sparked new interest in The Pleasers’ 30-year-old output, cementing the band’s place in the post-Beatles pantheon.