The Crossbeats: The Merseyside Christian music history makers

Friday 17th August 2018

Tony Cummings spoke to Eddie Boyes of THE CROSSBEATS (1962-1975)

1963 Seekers: John Boyes, Tony Matthias, Eric Knowles, John Millington, Eddie Boyes
1963 Seekers: John Boyes, Tony Matthias, Eric Knowles, John Millington, Eddie Boyes

Although a comprehensive history of contemporary Christian music is still to be written, certain myths about the origins of CCM (and the name that American Christian music followers prefer, Jesus music) have now been demolished. Larry Norman was NOT the first artist to bring pop and rock elements into the Christian music arena, and British groups like The Joy Strings and Parchment, and even earlier the skiffle-based The Venturers, were bringing pop music rhythms to the old, old story long before California's Jesus Movement of the late '60s, early '70s.

One important group in the CCM/Jesus music story are Liverpool's The Crossbeats. Although they only recorded three singles and one album, they were a major influence on similar groups who sprang up in the British churches throughout the '60s and their performances, like their appearance at Liverpool's legendary Cavern Club and on the steps of London's Trafalgar Square during a big Jesus rally, are still fondly remembered by those who witnessed them. The four founding members of The Crossbeats - Tony Matthias (vocals), John Boyes (lead guitar), Eric Knowles (drums) and Eddie Boyes (rhythm guitar, later bass) - are all still alive and Eddie Boyes took time out to tell the story of true Christian music history makers.

Eddie began by painting a picture of the kind of environment which all four band members grew up in. "We were born in Bootle - the dockland area of northern Liverpool. Dockland Bootle was, at the time (post war, 1960-63), and probably still is, one of the most deprived areas in the country. It was, of course, not long after the bombing of the docks and, inevitably, of the associated housing around them. The terraced housing was generally in very poor condition. My own family home, for example, did not have a bath or inside toilet and was typical of the area. It was only when I left home at the age of 24 that my parents got a Local Authority grant to put a bath and toilet in my old bedroom. It had been a typical 'cold water only, one coal fire, terraced house'. Shades of Monty Python here, I think."

In 1962, four teenage members of St. Leonard's Church in Bootle found they enjoyed music and began practising together. Remembered Eddie, "For the first meeting, we chose the name The Seekers - probably because of the fact that a local secular group, The Searchers, had just started up. Later in the summer of 1964, we received a letter from an Australian Folk group who were about to come over to the UK - telling us that we should stop using the name 'Seekers'. My guess is that we could have fought it as we had proof of very early use, but we saw no need to be intransigent, and so on 16 September 1964 we met to decide on a new name from a long list and agreed on The Crossbeats."

1964 John Boyes, Eric Knowles, Eddie Boyes, Tony Matthias, John Millington
1964 John Boyes, Eric Knowles, Eddie Boyes, Tony Matthias, John Millington

By 1964, Britain's more radical churches were beginning to recognise that the hymns, ancient and very ancient, sung in their buildings had little or no appeal to contemporary youth. And so with the vicar of St Leonard's, John Mockford, encouraging them, The Seekers/The Crossbeats (who in April '63 had been joined by bass player John Millington) found themselves in the vanguard of a radical new form of music evangelism. Said Eddie, "In the early days, the vicar lent us his minibus to take equipment to bookings. He charged us a basic mileage for petrol and wear and tear, which we then charged the places we went to (if possible). It was only in June 1964 that John Boyes got a £130 loan off the bank to buy a second hand Bedford van (an ex-milk delivery van). He bought seats from a scrapyard and we put them in. The van smelt of stale milk to some extent but, apart from breakdowns here and there, it served us well."

Eddie continued, "In the same month that John Boyes bought the van, June 1964, the vicar of our church gave his new curate, John Banner, the task of looking after the group - which, quite unusually!, we agreed to. John Banner became, at first, a kind of 'group secretary and spiritual adviser'. He would take on bookings after discussion with us and also lead us in weekly Bible studies. Only later in December 1964 did he take on being what you might call the 'manager', such that he made decisions about bookings without us. That continued until April 1967, when John Banner's curacy ended. We then, once again, did the bookings ourselves. Not only was our church supportive from the top, but some girls in the congregation set up a 'prayer letter' which went out monthly. We ended up with about 300 prayer partners - two of them were Buzz and Challenge magazines, who probably subscribed so that they could put news items about the group in their columns."

As it turned out, of course, The Crossbeats found themselves in the middle of a music culture revolution, with the Beatles a major influence on The Crossbeats' developing sound. Admitted Eddie, "The emerging 'Merseybeat' scene had the biggest influence on us. Liverpool was 'full of it' before it spread throughout the country and beyond. Most of the Crossbeats had been to the Cavern, even if only at lunchtime, and heard a number of local groups there. I personally never heard the Beatles there."

"Our 'desire' was simply to witness as best we could. Very early on in the early '60s we dropped the idea of doing 'pop' songs, and I suppose that made it more difficult for us to get into purely secular venues. We did manage it on a few occasions - but it WAS only a few. Although there were many, many different types of meetings from prisons, to colleges, to open airs and weekends away etc, etc, two types probably dominated our bookings: coffee bars run by churches as outreach enterprises and 'Beat Services' where the group took a section of an evening worship service."

Trafalgar Square 1966
Trafalgar Square 1966

By 1965 The Crossbeats had played over 200 bookings. Their tireless activity finally came to the attention of the British Christian record companies. Those companies, Sacred/Word, Pilgrim and the smaller Evangelical Recordings, had established a niche within the UK record industry, releasing hymns, choirs and sacred solos for British churchgoers. What none of them had any experience of was pop music. However, Pilgrim Records decided to take a stab with The Crossbeats. Said Eddie, "I'm not sure exactly HOW we got in contact with Pilgrim Recordings and Frank Waller (the main man there). We may have approached them, or they us. Certainly, there were other attempts by them of doing some sort of recording of us. One was by putting a single microphone in front of us playing! This was at Bridewell Hall in London on 17th July 1965 - and may have been a kind of audition, I suppose. Christian music labels had little or no experience of recording groups/bands at that time. The first REAL recording was the one at Hollick & Taylor in Birmingham on 17th September 1965, and it was a disappointment. Hollick & Taylor had been the studio where the Thunderbirds soundtrack had been recorded, though I don't think they had had any experience of popular music groups. We did six songs for singles there, and the sound was very tinny - especially the voices. The Hollick & Taylor session was the first real recording session and resulted in a number of poor quality singles."

Those singles - "If Only/He Wants To Know" and "I Know/He Waits", released to an uncomprehending Christian bookshop market in 1966, and "Step Away/Forgive Me" (ditto 1967) - with their non-existent production values weren't any better than other Christian beat group offerings released at the time by Evangelical Recordings - The Envoys and The Chordials - although ironically, decades later, American Jesus Music expert Ken Scott was eulogising them. He wrote: "The six songs presented here are some of the group's most exciting, all ringing true with that garagey '60s British electric sound. 'The religious Beatles' is how one dealer described them."

In 1967, Pilgrim took another stab, this time recording a full album, 'Crazy Mixed-Up Generation', with the group. After the disappointment of the Hollick & Taylor session, Pilgrim seemed to have learnt their lesson and booked the group into the CBS Studio in New Bond Street, London. Not that the group were granted much studio time. Eddie recalled, "We had the use of a 4-track tape machine, two tracks of which were used for vocals, and the other two were for bass, rhythm, lead and drums (I can't remember how they were paired). We did six backing/instrumental tracks on the Friday (7th April) and six more and the vocal tracks for all 12 songs the following day (Saturday). Tensions were high (as those who've done this kind of thing in a limited time - and with limited skills - will know). My only real recollection is of Tony, the main singer, complaining that so little time had been left for the vocals, and afterwards saying 'I told you so' when timing issues showed up in some songs - which really should have been done again."

Again, decades later, Ken Scott, writing for American Jesus Music collectors, enthused about 'Crazy Mixed-Up Generation': "As far as the Merseybeat sound goes these guys emerge the cream of the crop. All 12 tunes have been written by the band members themselves relying on strength in 'melody and harmony rather than sheer noise and dissonance'. Swinging grooves, ballads both dreamy and poignant, upbeat jammin', whammy bar, Beatlesque chords and harmonies, atypical lyrics ('the chrysalis that lies asleep won't make the butterfly'). For those seeking that British Invasion experience these guys are the real thing."

Royal Albert Hall 1971
Royal Albert Hall 1971

Eddie Boyes is refreshingly honest about the band's limitations. He admitted, "Musically, we were well past our best quite early on. Despite the fact that I think we probably had a fairly sophisticated grasp of chords and chord sequences, thanks to our church choir master Tom Cooper, our playing ability was very average, and we had a 'style' which was fairly fixed in time. That said, when we started, things were fairly crude and unsophisticated in the popular music scene anyway, and so having some unusual chords and sequences now and again made us different. I'm pretty sure, also, that the latter is what made us more acceptable to the then 'Christian Youth Scene' or, rather, to those adults who organised it. Although we were well past our 'sell-by' date quite early on, we looked upon the work as a ministry - a service for God, and as long as there were still opportunities to serve God in this way (ie, we still got bookings), we carried on."

One of The Crossbeats' most memorable concerts was on the steps of Trafalgar Square. Remembered Eddie, "Given the poor equipment we had, Trafalgar Square was very challenging - as were lots of the bigger inside, as well as outside, venues that we played at. My recollection, and I may be wrong, is that Feed The Minds was a vaguely Christian organisation which was concerned about the changes in the culture which they sensed were starting to happen in the '60s (how right they were!). Again, I may be wrong, but it fitted in with but was different from the Mary Whitehouse/Cliff Richard 'thing' that was happening around that time - the aim of which was to help restore some kind of public morality (what a turn-around there has been in that area). Feed The Minds was concerned about wholesome reading materials in the 1960s, including pressing for the prominence of the Bible, and the Feed The Minds organisation attracted a number of high profile personalities to it."

The Crossbeats played their last concert in November 1975 in Warrington. The band members didn't completely finish with music. Eddie Boyes teamed up with Sam Pennington and started a group which continued into the 1980s, Crimson Connection. Later on in the '90s and up until 2001, Eddie helped organise what they called "presentations", which involved a band and a large choir. These presentations, such as The Call and Testify, were mainly made in North West churches, although some occasionally made it further afield, such as London. The four original Crossbeats still meet up for an Indian meal now and again.

Eddie was asked what spiritual lessons he learnt during the Crossbeats era. He responded, "Working closely with others always teaches one humility, especially when the work is hard and you share a lot of time together and much of the graft. One also learns more about the goodness of God and the power of his word. Mainly, I think, one learns that as Christians we are not called by Jesus to be successful, but rather faithful. In our day, being in a Christian band meant doing everything yourselves as well as having a full-time job - no roadies or helpers. It meant sorting out the booking and doing the paperwork; picking members up and packing the van; driving to the venue so as to arrive as early as possible; unpacking and setting up the equipment and doing the sound check; playing/singing; talking to enquiring folk afterwards or just general chit-chat; taking the stuff down and packing the van; driving home and perhaps arriving at some unearthly hour in the morning with work the next day; unpacking the van and dropping the members of the group to their homes as we didn't each have cars. For us, it was a ministry, and the clue is in the name - a ministry, a service, and as Christians we are called to be faithful in service. It's not, or it wasn't, glamorous. It was hard work. . . but it was still a joy and a privilege and has given us many happy memories. And what a privilege it is - to do ANYTHING for 'the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.' (Gal 2:20)." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


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