A sudden and major shock hit the Searchers in December 1985: Mike Pender, the lead vocalist for more than twenty years, decided to leave the group, and set up on his own as Mike Pender's Searchers, a move which still causes problems and confusion to this day, with both groups still active on the circuit, despite a legally-binding agreement that he cannot use the name "The Searchers".
John McNally, Frank Allen and Billy Adamson could have faced disaster at this stage, particularly as 60s music was becoming very fashionable again and appealing to a new generation, but fortune smiled on them in the shape of Spencer James, another West Londoner, who had previously played with various 70s groups including First Class. Spencer's amazing voice, his boyish good looks (he was ten years younger than the other three) and his mastery of the synthesizer guitar, helped take the group on to new heights in the late 80s - major tours of the UK, the USA and Germany, and the issue of their 25th anniversary compilation album "Silver Searchers".
1989 was a very good year for the Searchers. In addition to successful nationwide package tours with "The Solid Silver Sixties Show" they signed to BMG/Ariola, and issued "Hungry Hearts" - an album of brand new songs (plus the bonus of completely reworked versions of "Needles and Pins" and "Sweets for My Sweet") on the Coconut label. It did well in Germany, and was later issued in the UK, although promotion was disappointing. This was the first album with Spencer James as the lead vocalist and included some of the best Searchers songs ever - "Somebody Told Me You Were Crying", "Forever in Love", "Fooled Myself Once Again" and "No Other Love", and is much treasured by all the fans who managed to get hold of a copy before the record company rather pre-emptorily deleted it. A mid 90s poll of Searchers Appreciation Society members resulted in "Somebody Told Me You Were Crying" being their favourite song of all, even ahead of "Needles and Pins" The summer of 1989 saw the group playing to their biggest audiences ever - two nights at Wembley Stadium in front of over 75,000 people each night - supporting Cliff Richard on a mammoth celebrity bill to mark his 30 years in show business.
The 90s were beyond the group's and the fans' wildest expectations. They continued to headline major theatre tours around the country, and towards the end of the decade they started "all evening solo shows" without a support act, thus giving the longstanding and loyal fans a chance to hear more of the album tracks and other gems which cannot be fitted in to a 75-minute slot on a package show. The rising popularity during the 1990s of residential 60s weekend festivals and outdoor summer shows at stately homes brought the Searchers to the notice of many people who might not otherwise have got to see them, and they undertook an increasing amount of overseas work - including visits to Canada, Kenya, Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore. They also entertained the troops in Bosnia, Belize, Northern Ireland, the Falkland Islands, and on the aircraft carried HMS Illustrious on manoeuvres between Gibraltar and Marseilles. In complete contrast they spent a week in cabaret on the Canberra on one of her very last Mediterranean cruises before her retirement.
In 1998, in between all the regular one-nighters, they headlined a major nationwide UK spring tour with The Swinging Blue Jeans and Helen Shapiro, with Bobby Vee joining the line-up for two of the dates; returned briefly to the USA in the summer after an absence of several years, to play at the huge Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut, bringing the gaming tables to a complete standstill and making a whole new generation of fans; and in the autumn gave their regular fans a private show at the fourth Searchers Appreciation Society Convention.
At the end of 1998, Billy Adamson - after nearly 29 years as the drummer and percussionist - decided to leave the group to spend more time with his family. The group was lucky enough to find an immediate replacement in Eddie Rothe, who had drummed with Liquid Gold and Mud, amongst others. Eddie quickly settled into the Searchers line-up, just in time for the hectic Christmas season and the group's early 1999 tour of the East Coast states of Australia, New Zealand and the Gulf States in the Middle East.
April 1999 saw the publication of Frank Allen's book "Travelling Man - On the Road with The Searchers" - not exactly an autobiography, nor a biography of the group, although it was partly both those - but a fascinating and amusing collection of stories and observations on the trials and triumphs of the life of a travelling musician. Summer 1999 was dominated by a string of seaside theatre shows with Gerry & the Pacemakers and a two week "working holiday" cruise to the Canary Islands, Madeira and Morocco on board the luxury P & O liner "Arcadia". All the usual one-nighters were slotted in throughout the year, as well as an increasing number of all-evening solo shows. And the 20th Century ended with the Searchers being invited to join Cliff Richard for his Millennium Eve show at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham, a moment they will never forget.
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With thanks to Wendy Burton