With The Beatles forever in the news I thought I’d share this piece with you. It was written nearly 20 years ago as the preface to a book I planned to spend the early years of my retirement writing. All the transcript interviews you’ve seen here were undertaken as material for the book. As time went by – over 80 interviews later, I realised that a) retirement was a fantastic way of life and my time, which I thought might be plentiful was even busier and more exciting than employment, and b) no one can ever write definitive book about the record industry. It is forever changing and even recent histories are quickly out of date.
So I mulled over what I should do with these interviews and decided I should just let you read them exactly as they took place…and on reflection, I’m delighted I did.
But I came across this piece when wanting to reassure myself that all the contents of my old Mac had been safely transferred to the new one. It is self explanatory!
Preface -The Beatles – the act nobody wanted!
“What a stupid name for a band – and now you look back and could they ever have been called anything else” (Tim Blackmore)
More words have been written about The Beatles than anyone has life left to read. But if there is one example above all other of the way in which the music business has succeeded despite itself, it is with The Beatles. Put simply, they could not get a record contract. Manager Brian Epstein was an important name to record companies. As proprietor of NEMS Record shop in Liverpool and local chairman of the Retailers’ association, the four major record companies – EMI, Decca, Pye and Philips needed his co-operation. So he was listened to wherever he went, but when it came to touting a new band which had never played live in London, rejected as well.
One of the problems was that The Beatles was a group that played and sang – something quite new to the UK. All earlier bunches of musicians were either jazz bands or skiffle groups, or were essentially a lead singer with backing musicians who occasionally, like The Shadows and The Tornados, were allowed to make an instrumental single or two themselves. There were groups aplenty in America, though there too, few played as well as singing. And anyway, in 1962 America was quite definitely another world, one still largely based on songs and songwriters, with little desire to build an international career for their new rock’n’roll artists, other than through the constantly touring cinema and ballroom package shows. Everyone lived from single to single and even the bill toppers had to make do with a twenty-minute slot. These were the days before the LP, before television became a true force, and before global success became a financial necessity.
Another problem was laziness on the part of the record companies. Or rather, they were so spoilt for choice in London they felt no need to travel further than Soho’s “2 I’s” coffee bar to seek new talent. That’s where they’d “found” Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard, the two biggest new British stars of the late fifties, and that’s where all the hopefuls gathered to join the queue. With only four companies, each with a growing number of American labels to deal with, there was a limit to the new British names needed. And anyway, the business was in London – the companies were all there, the songs publishers were all there, and the radio station was there.
Then there was The Beatles’ demonstration tape itself. Recorded at Decca’s West Hampstead Studios on January 1, 1962 under the supervision of A&R assistant Mike Smith, the fifteen tracks embraced only three Lennon & McCartney recordings, the rest being the then ritual cover versions of American hits of the previous ten years.
Rejected by Decca, Pye and Oriole following earlier “pass” letters from the Columbia and HMV labels at EMI, Epstein resorted to his friends at retail. It was at the suggestion of Bob Boast, manager of the HMV shop in London’s Oxford Street, that Epstein substituted the 15-track tape for 78rpm discs, a service provided by the shop. The cutting engineer Jim Foy expressed an interest and, on learning that three of the songs were original, directed Brian to EMI’s publishing company, Ardmore and Beechwood, located upstairs. Ardmore & Beechwood’s General manager Sid Coleman heard the songs, realised that George Martin, head of EMI’s ‘novelty’ label Parlophone, was the one recording manager at EMI not to have passed judgement, and an appointment was made on 13 February, 1962. The rest……….eventually, is history. Love me do was first recorded at Abbey Road on June 6, 1962, though not, as is well documented, with Pete Best on drums. What is not so well documented is that George Martin was not there either, the session being conducted by his assistant Ron Richards. Only when engineer Norman Smith suggested that George be present did the relationship, and the legend, begin.
Listening today to those early demonstration songs, it is easy to understand why the rejection letters came. Consider also that Columbia and HMV passed the opportunity on the basis of the Polydor single My Bonnie, recorded in Germany with lead singer Tony Sheridan. Little wonder that the man from Decca was said to have told Epstein “You have a good record business in Liverpool, why not stick to that?” (1)
Perhaps if Mike Smith from Decca, or Tony Meehan, the former Shadows’ drummer working there in A&R and named by at least one person as the man who turned down the group, or any of the others, had travelled to Liverpool and witnessed the excitement, things might have been very different. Perhaps if Brian Epstein had done a deal with Larry Parnes, the most prominent pop star manager of the day, things would have moved faster. Perhaps…perhaps.
Even today, struggling for stories in the silly season, a national newspaper will send “demo” tapes to record companies by well-known artists and delight in printing the ‘pass’ letters. They fail to understand the way in which A&R (Artists and Repertoire) people work. The supply of hopeful musicians will always vastly outweigh the demand, and as a result, the selection begins almost exclusively by word of mouth, followed by the sight of a live performance. Never, well hardly ever, does an unsolicited demonstration disc or download result in a contract. You can bet your life that, once he’d struck gold with The Beatles, Brian Epstein never again made a demonstration tape for any of the many artists he subsequently represented.
Tony Barrow, a Liverpudlian who subsequently became The Beatles’ press officer, was a sleeve note writer at Decca at the time. as well as writing his “Diskery” column on the Liverpool Echo and was one of the endless names on Brian Epstein’s list of people to talk to in London.
“I was a Decca person and he was interesting anyone he possibly could at that stage. He knew the retail side (of record companies) but not the artistic side at all. He didn’t know any A&R men and he didn’t know anyone on “Melody Maker” or the “New Musical Express.” So he was interested to come across someone like me.”
Having listened to Epstein’s speech and the acetate of his new group discovery, Barrow “did what I didn’t have any right to do, which was ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you.’ It was nothing to do with me, I wasn’t there to hire or sign. But when (he) had gone I didn’t ring the A&R department, but (Beecher Stevens, Head of) the marketing department and said ‘This guy is a retailer so maybe you’ll feel you have to give him an audition. Don’t ask me about the band because I can’t assess it from what he’s played me, but if he’s an important Decca customer…..so that phone call was one of several triggers. The local salesmen were also coming back to London saying ‘There’s a guy up there with a band who thinks he should have an audition.” It was the marketing department that forced the A&R department to lay on the original audition on New Year’s Day (1962)
“It was Mike Smith (who took the audition) because Dick Rowe was away. Dick Rowe was in charge and he went on his holidays saying, ‘There’s this band, this artist, do them for me and let me know about them when I get back.’ Mike thought enough of that audition to say to me (I was keeping in touch for the (Liverpool) Echo, nothing else at that stage): ‘Dick isn’t back yet but I’m sure you can say that they’re going to get a Decca contract.’ That actually appeared in my column in the ‘Echo’ – Local group about to make good. Watch this space. They’re about to sign with Decca. Then Dick Rowe gets back and makes his classic remark about groups with guitars are out and in any case, Liverpool – what can be do up there? What’s that other one you’ve got? Brian Poole and the Tremeloes? Where are they from? Tottenham? Oh yes, we’ll have them. On our doorstep, a group we can with without having to hike all the way up to Liverpool every time we want to see them.”
Tony Bramwell, whose long career in the music industry began as a junior in Brian Epstein’s organisation, agrees, though differing on the geography.
“Decca Records had decided to sign only one of the two groups they had under consideration and they signed the Trems – a guitar group….simply because (they) lived closer. They came from just down the road in Dagenham, Essex – just outside London – which was a great deal more convenient for meetings and rehearsals than Liverpool.” (5)
Barrow also reminds us that it was this January 1, 1962 audition tape which resulted in Epstein being rejected by everyone he visited.
“People think The Beatles must have been so bad that they gave all these auditions and none of them were successful. It’s not like that at all. Epstein had nothing else but the Decca tape to hawk around and it was that tape that was turned down. You may well think that was a very stupid thing for the man to do, because if you’ve been turned down by a major like Decca, he must have realised that this was not going to be picked up very readily by anyone else either. You would have thought he’d have put some money into recording them locally. This was feasible; it was perfectly possible to do it – he had loads of money. If he’d been five or ten years later in the business, he’d have done that. (But) he was totally new to it. If he’d taken (the tape) to other people and readily admitted ‘Don’t go by this tape too much; I’m just trying to give you some idea; come and see them in Liverpool; believe me they’re ten times better than this’ or whatever.’ “
Despite the reality that The Beatles were turned down by just about everyone, one man was stuck with the tag. Tony Hall worked at Decca at the time as Head of Promotion.
“Dick Rowe is always put down as the man who turned down The Beatles. Andrew (Loog Oldham) is saying (Dick’s) the man who signed the Stones. Very positive. I heard the tape. I would have passed musically, but I heard the voices and the personalities between the really abysmal music, and the personalities I thought were worth investigating. But the music was shit; deserved to be turned down; unfair to criticise him passing.”
Tony Calder whose music business life started at Decca in 1961, agrees:
“Dick always got labelled as the guy that turned down The Beatles. I’ve got to tell you anybody would have turned down that tape – it was pretty shit. He played it to me a couple of times and said ‘Do I deserve this?’ I loved Dick Rowe – he was one of the nicest people. After I left and was involved with Andrew (Loog Oldham, original manager of the Rolling Stones) we were sitting there with a No.1 record (with the Stones) and no money. He would say ‘Bring us any record’ and we’d get any record and take it to him and he’d give us £200 on a Friday for it because he knew we had no money. He never put them out – he was amazing.”
Another of Decca’s team of producers at the time was Bunny Lewis, by then running his own Ritz label for stars such as Craig Douglas and the Caravelles.
“There was that scurrilous story that’s become part of pop history. It’s not true, about Dick Rowe and The Beatles. Total nonsense. It wasn’t him, it was a fellow called Smith. First of all Brian Epstein came along to Decca with a pretty ghastly demo of The Beatles. At that time EMI had the Shadows who were hot, and this sounded very much like the Shadows, not very exciting. So Dick Rowe said to Mike Smith, one of our junior producers, “You’d better give them a test.” So he gave them a test and at the same time he tested Brian Poole (and the Tremeloes), and he preferred Poole. He took them to Dick Rowe and said ‘I prefer Brian Poole’ and Dick said ‘well, you’re the fellow producing it, do what you like.’ But the story stuck that it was poor old Dick – it wasn’t.”
“George Martin had Parlophone, which was the poor man’s label. I had Lorrae Desmond with him. He was a hell of a nice fellow to work with and a good musician, but he hadn’t had any real success except for Peter Sellers and funny things like that. But he had a liaison with Dick James. He’d recorded him or something. Brian Epstein found his way into Dick James’s office and Dick pointed his nose towards George Martin, and you know the rest”
Tony Barrow agrees. “It seems to me that George Martin wanted to get into the pop side of things and was being urged to do so by his masters. Other people at EMI were the golden boys; he was not. He was the guy who was recording all kinds of absurd things that occasionally would sell enough to give his department some profit. He was known as the madman, he was the eccentric guy.”
Alan Lockie produced for EMI.
“I was in Ardmore and Beechwood when The Beatles made their test recording in the HMV shop (below). The Ardmore & Beechwood guys phoned Norman (Newell) who was in Spain and then called George Martin.”
Wayne Bickerton, himself a Liverpudlian and a musician, remembers hearing of Brian Epstein’s frustration at his inability to attract any interest from London.
“I can remember being in a flat with a man called Joe Flannery who was the manager of the band I was in (Lee Curtis & the Allstars). He was talking about Brian coming back (from London) saying ‘these people, they just can’t see it, yet another failure, yet another record company.’ Like Mike Smith and Dick Rowe, Dick saying to Mike: ’OK, make a choice, Brian Poole and the Tremeloes or The Beatles?’ ‘The Tremeloes.’ I had to live with that for all time!
Memories play tricks, so not all of these stories can be true. But they coincide on one point – The Beatles and Brian Epstein were just one step away from possibly never making a recording.
Ron Richards was George Martin’s assistant at Parlophone.
“George (Martin) asked me to listen to this tape that Sid Coleman (Ardmore and Beechwood Publishing) had sent over. Norrie (Paramor) had already turned it down. The thing was that Wally (Ridley), Norrie and Norman (Newell) all had successful acts at the time, so they weren’t in a hurry to sign any unknown kids. George didn’t (have any successful acts). So that’s how George came to take them up. I think he was the last one to hear them. So he asked me to listen to this tape of The Beatles. I must admit I wasn’t terribly impressed at the time. He saw in them more than I did. If it had come to me I would have turned them down, because I had Shane Fenton and the Fentones. But George did a good job with them. Because he wasn’t so au fait with rock & roll, he allowed The Beatles to more or less do their own thing. If they had been with Norrie, or particularly with Wally, he would have said: ‘You do it this way, you do it that way’ and they may not have taken off like they did, but George virtually let them get on with it.
(Sid Coleman) made a record with (them) that I’d given him called How do you do it. They hated the song and made a terrible job of it. So then George asked me to produce them with Love me do and I did. I went in the studio – he had gone out with his girlfriend at the time – and he came back at ten-o-clock and asked them ‘Is there anything you don’t like?’ and George Harrison said ‘I don’t like your tie.’
I was the one who got rid of Pete Best. I was the first one in the studio with The Beatles for rehearsal. George asked me to take them into (Abbey Road) No.3 studio one afternoon. He rehearsed them with Please please me and one or two others. I had a thing about drummers in those days and I wanted him to do a double beat on his bass drum and he (Best) couldn’t do it. I thought ‘Well, he’s useless’. I said to George ‘Look, that drummer’s useless. You’ll have to get another one’. The next thing I hear they’ve got this drummer, Ringo. Ringo came into the studio when I was recording Love me do and I didn’t trust him. I’d never heard him play so I didn’t know if he was good, bad or indifferent, so I booked a session drummer to be safe – Andy White. He did the session and I told Ringo to go down and play the maracas (or, as Geoffrey Emerick remembers it – tambourine), which he did.”
Geoffrey Emerick had only just joined EMI as an assistant recording engineer, and fate was to pair him with The Beatles virtually from his first day at the Abbey Road studios. He began work under the auspices of established engineer Norman Smith
“The conversation turned to the Beatles session we’d done earlier that week and all of the problems the drummer (Ringo Starr) was having. Apparently, the drummer they had turned up with for the artist test…had been so bad that he had been sacked a couple of months later.”(7)
Tony Barrow feels this autocratic approach was one of the key reasons why The Beatles’ early creativity was seemingly stifled.
“What it really should have taken was a Larry Parnes of the recording industry, but in those days there were no such people. It was the day of the A&R department; it had complete control. I think when The Beatles went into the recording studios for the first time. They found it a very unfriendly workplace. The producer was in control, the producer would say precisely where in the room they had to stand…’this is your microphone…no you can’t have that microphone over there…’ It was almost like the ‘X’ on the floor in the television studio. Because that’s how it was set up for a four-piece, that’s how it was done. Bright lights, very clinical, not conducive for musicians to work. They hated that. They also got the treatment every other newcomer got. The producer would say ‘OK, I’ve got a songwriter for you – his name’s Mitch Murray’. The tie up was directly between producers and music publishers. They brought the songs in. There was the great B-side thing where either the B-side actually written by the producer and was rubbish, or the producer would have written a couple of lines and would say to the band ‘OK, this is going down as band-producer and I want a quarter of the (royalties) on this.’
Wally Ridley at the time was regarded as the Godfather of EMI, having been responsible for a stream of huge hits for HMV in the 1950’s.
“I never thought, and I still don’t to this day think they’re the best singers. I don’t think they’re the best instrumentalists…. but the thing they had, the thing that I preached about and the thing that I bought 20,000 shares in were their songs – that was their magic. You can forget everything else. Give me the songs.” (2)
Wayne Bickerton whose link to The Beatles came via Pete Best, who after being dropped by The Beatles joined the band he was in, Lee Curtis & The Allstars, makes this assessment.
“Before The Beatles came along, the UK music industry had no real significance. What The Beatles did was twofold. They changed the whole face of popular music and turned the United Kingdom into a serious exporting industry. If they hadn’t done that, God knows where we would be today – I think that’s something that hasn’t really been acknowledged. They broke the mould, turned the whole damn business upside down and made people realise – hey, we’ve got something special; we can take it back across the pond, which they did and other acts followed over the next 20 years. Everybody who earns money, from a record company to the Performing Rights Society has The Beatles to thank.”
Colin Burn, long-serving EMI employee remembers his first encounter.
“I first met The Beatles when they came in to do The Friday Spectacular (an EMI sponsored programme for Radio Luxembourg, recorded at the Company’s Manchester Square, London, headquarters). They were miming on stage, had only just released their first record. They had driven down in a van and were parked outside EMI and were sleeping there overnight. They hadn’t got any money, not a bean. I gave them loads of cups of coffee and we had sandwiches and biscuits upstairs.”
LG (Len) Wood was Managing Director of EMI from 1959 to 196?, and a hugely influential figure in the British music industry.
“(Brian) Epstein had taken the group (on) the rounds. He’d gone to three of our four A&R men and been turned down, he’d been to Decca and been turned down and he was pretty disconsolate. But by the grace of God he went into the HMV shop in Oxford Street where there was a private recording studio, so if you were a private person and you wanted to make a little recording or have something transferred from disc to tape or tape to disc, you would go in there and have it done. Epstein had got some demonstration tapes which (the A&R men, apart from George Martin) had turned down, so he thought, well, ‘the best thing to do is to go round the music publishers and see if I can get any support there.’ But to do that he needed to have the tapes transferred to disc…. and when he called for them next day the young man who was running the studio just made the comment that he thought there were very attractive recordings and ’why don’t you get a recording deal?’ Epstein, I suppose, explained to him what his problems were, and the fellow said to him, ‘ Well, EMI’s music publishing company is on the next floor, the fellow’s name is Coleman, Why don’t you have a word with him?’ Coleman liked the recordings but again said ‘If I’m to get involved in this you’ve got to have a record deal.’ It was explained to him what happened and he said ‘have you tried George Martin?’ And he hadn’t. So he (Coleman) rang through for George Martin and asked George if he would give them an audition. Which George did, wasn’t terribly impressed, but thought there might be something there and signed them up.” (3)
Then there are the “might-have-been” stories. Jeffrey Kruger, whose London Flamingo Club was a unique source of new jazz talent for Tony Hall’s Decca-owned Topic label in the Fifties, is one for whom life could have been different.
“I knew Brian Epstein via NEMS – he was one of our main dealers who helped sell Ember Records and I didn’t want to upset him. He told me he had this group and couldn’t find a record company interested in recording them. He called me to say he was coming to London and made an appointment to have lunch with me on the Monday. On the way down on the Sunday his parents made him go to a Jewish wedding. He sat next to Dick James and his wife at the wedding and was pressured by his family to do a deal with Dick for the publishing. Dick confirmed to me years later that if Brian hadn’t gone to that wedding, I’d have got the publishing and the recordings”
Dick James’s slant on events, as recalled in 1974, is somewhat different.
“A young songwriter called Mitch Murray came to see me with songs one day and I very much liked one of them entitled How do you do it. He’d been walking it around Denmark Street for about six months without any success. I took the song to George Martin who liked it and said he’d try it out with a new group from Liverpool called The Beatles. But when we heard their versions both George and I agreed it wasn’t very good. George offered to put it on the B-side of Love me do, the first Beatles’ single, but I thought it was too good for a B-side. So George said he’d try and make it the A-side of their next disc. Nothing happened for about four months, and then in late October 1962, George rang me. That telephone call was the turning point, though I didn’t realise it at the time. George said he had some bad news for me. He explained The Beatles didn’t feel they could do much with the song…… then he gave me some good news. The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein was looking for a publisher to work with him full-time because he had a number of other artists he wanted to launch. He wanted a publisher who would really work the song, the artist and the record – and George had strongly recommended me.” (4)
Epstein met James and played him ‘Please please me’. James immediately played it over the phone to Phillip Jones, producer of Thank Your Lucky Stars who booked them there and then for the first show after the record’s release, January 12, 1963. Don Arden, however, is convinced that the phone call was a set-up, that James knew Thank Your Lucky Stars had wanted The Beatles, had pre-arranged the phone call to impress Epstein. (6). It obviously worked!
“At this point I didn’t even have the song, but my enthusiasm apparently impressed Brian Epstein and I was certainly impressed by his enthusiasm. So the deal was done and we went to lunch. Over the meal he told me the Mitch Murray song was going to be recorded by another of his groups, Gerry & the Pacemakers. At last our faith in the song was justified. Not only did Please please me make No.1, but so did How do you do it. We went on to chalk up seven No.1’s in seven months.” (4)
Tony Bramwell agrees that it was the promise of national television that clinched the deal, but also his naivety in the long-established world of music publishing, “He blindly believed everything that Dick James told him, and thought he was lucky to have found him.” (5)
John Burgess, at that time Norman Newell’s assistant at EMI, has his slant on the story.
“EMI missed out on the publishing purely and simply because Sid Coleman, signed the first two sides the Beatles recorded at the HMV shop. Sid had sent the demos over to George Martin, which was unusual for Sid because he was Norman Newell’s best friend. However, Norman was in America at the time and Sid felt he had to make a fairly quick decision so he sent them to George instead. Norman asked him afterwards why he hadn’t sent them to me. I don’t know what my reaction would have been. He heard the tracks and liked them, and I think those two or three titles still remain with EMI Publishing today. George then got hold of Dick James, who was struggling at the time, almost going bust, because he felt that Dick would do a better job than EMI. He didn’t get involved, just recommended it, and Epstein did the deal. Dick James actually offered George a large percentage and George rejected it. (I think) George was the only guy at EMI to have heard The Beatles. I’m pretty sure Norrie (Paramor) never heard them because he was tied up with Cliff Richard or Ruby Murray at the time.”
Publicist Tony Barrow was at the heart of The Beatles’ phenomenon. How does he remember it?
“The way I’ve always thought of it is of the whole thing being an enormous Cinemascope screen and we were standing with our nose right up against the screen. We couldn’t possibly see the complete picture at the time and it was only years afterwards that we were able to sit back in the stalls and re-run the whole thing that we appreciated the enormity of it all.”
So – just as Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner had no concept of what they had invented, so the most important band in the history of popular recorded music nearly never recorded at all. And some of those still remembered primarily for their Beatle associations, can point to luck as the key factor.
Why? Because music is all about personal taste and business is about making profit. The music business is all about balancing the two. It’s a thread that we will see appearing time and time again as we journey through this extraordinary business.
(1) The Complete Beatles Chronicle, Mark Lewisohn, p.53
(2) EMI interview with Chris Ellis, 1996
(3) EMI interview with Rupert Perry
(4) Music Week April 27, 1974
(5) Magical Mystery Tours – My Life with The Beatles, Tony Bramwell, Robson Books, 2005
(6) Mr Big, Don Arden, Robson Books, 2004
(7) Here, There & Everywhere – My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles, Geoff Emerick, Gotham Books, 2006
Copy © David Hughes 2019. Photos from Google search and for illustration purposes only.