From where I left off last time…
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 work 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.”