An all too common type of rock story – a disaster inspires a fine hit record. And a rare rock story – Paul McCartney gets told “no!” . That’s because his producer got his way for the quickly-recorded single “Ferry Cross The Mersey”, which came out this day in 1989 as a fund-raiser.
Although this version of the single seems primarily credited to McCartney, it was actually a collaborative effort put together, fittingly enough, by Gerry Marsden. Marsden had written the song and recorded the original version of it with Gerry & the Pacemakers back in 1965. At the time they were rivaling The Beatles for popularity in Britain, having started their career with three-straight #1 songs there in 1963 including “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and there was a certain rivalry between the two Liverpool bands back then. So when the Beatles did the movie A Hard Day’s Night, Gerry came back with his band in a movie, a similar musical comedy about their supposed trip to America and their triumphant return to their hometown…via the ferry across the Mersey River. That being the one which flows into the sea through Liverpool. It was a lovely pop song that made it to #8 at home and #6 in the U.S., however their trajectory would go the opposite way to the Beatles over the next few years.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood recorded a surprisingly true version of it in 1983 but the song would only go to the top of the charts in a third version, spurred on by a horrible sporting accident. In April ’89, there was a mad rush into a football stadium in Sheffield, England when Liverpool fans were let into the stadium through a narrow tunnel to get to two small standing room areas designated for them. It was a first-come, first serve type of thing (strikingly similar to one that caused deaths at a Who concert in Cincinnati ten years earlier) and the crowd surged in, far exceeding the tunnel or designated area’s capacity, resulting in hundreds being crushed or trampled. By the end of the day, 94 fans had died (two more would later) and over 700 were injured. Police blamed “hooliganism” but an official report blamed them for inadequate crowd control and poor planning.
Seeing as how they were all Liverpool fans, it hit that city hardest and Marsden decided to do a record to raise funds for the victims and their families. He called Pete Waterman of the “ Stock Aitken Waterman” team that has written or produced over 100 hit singles on the British charts, starting with “You Spin Me ‘Round” by Dead or Alive. Waterman agreed to produce it and agreed that “Ferry ‘Cross the Mersey” would be a good choice. Soon Paul McCartney, the band The Christians and Holly Johnson (former singer of Frankie Goes to Hollywood) were on board as well. It was recorded in three parts, first Marsden, then McC and Christians and finally Johnson, but it was put together seamlessly. Compared to the original it was a little longer and had a bit of an electric guitar solo, but all in all, was quite faithful. The careful listener might notice Paul “wails” briefly midway through it. He hated that and wanted it edited out but Waterman refused. Linda McCartney later said to the producer “you know you’re probably the only person who’s ever told Paul McCartney that he couldn’t have his own way. But all of us down here think you’re right; we think it’s marvelous to hear him showing some emotion.”
The record was quickly put out on the small PWL label, as a 7” and 12” single or CD single, with a choir singing “Abide With Thee” on the b-side.
In two weeks it got to #1 in the UK, and it also made the top in Ireland; in Australia it made #45, but it generally went unnoticed in North America. Precise sales figures are unavailable but it’s said to have raised “millions of pounds” for the charity.
Curiously, Paul’s been a part of two more #1 singles in Britain since, both charity fund-raisers – the 20th Anniversary remake of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and a remake of “He Ain’t Heavy” in 2012 for the Justice Collective.