We had reached The Beatles’ first single which EMI released with Tony still at Decca, writing sleeve notes.
Going back to your days at Decca, what was the company’s reaction to this record (Love me do) and its success? It seemed to open the floodgates.
Yes. Love me do went to No.17 but it didn’t do more than that so Dick Rowe was let off the hook temporarily. Yes, it had been a hit but it wasn’t a runaway No.1. When Please please me came along in the new year, I think he realised he had done very wrong, and that is why they made a point of signing The Rolling Stones. The people in charge of A&R at Decca I don’t believe thought The Rolling Stones were going to make it, but they dared not miss out a second time around. In any case, Richmond wasn’t very far from London! I’m not saying that somebody other than Dick Rowe signed The Rolling Stones, but I was there and I didn’t get the impression that Decca was all that enthusiastic at the beginning. The group they did have immediate high hopes for was The Bachelors. I think, and I’d have to look up the dates, they were coming out at more or less the same time and I knew The Bachelors from sleeve note writing and they knew of my connections with The Beatles and it was a kind of race, in a very good-natured kind of way, but a friendly race as to who was going to sell more records, get more hits and stay on top longest. They were both going for the number one spot at the same time, and The Bachelors had a lot of success. Frankly, if Dick Rowe was going to turn anyone down for being out of date it should have been The Bachelors because they belonged quite firmly in the 50’s rather than the 60’s. But they had a lot of success and sold a lot of albums.
EMI was rushing to sign umpteen bands from Liverpool
I don’t think Decca wanted to get their fingers burned twice. Then they had a local Liverpool producer called Noel Walker who was an old school friend of mine and he was the leader of a jazz band I used to hire from time to time for gigs locally, the Noel Walker Stompers. Noel Walker arrived at Decca as a producer and he was instrumental in getting The Big Three from Brian Epstein into Decca. It was Noel and Decca’s bad luck that they were a stage band, not a recording group, that just wouldn’t transfer from gig to tape. The sound couldn’t be captured, or Noel failed to capture the real excitement. It was a great on-stage type band but in terms of recording it came out flat. I remember really looking forward to hearing the first Big Three acetate, and then playing it and thinking ‘Oh dear’ and half-blaming Noel Walker at the time in my own mind and perhaps undeservedly. It probably wasn’t his fault at all. It was probably that the band couldn’t be condensed down to two tracks as it probably was then.
The expansion of The Beatles as far as recording goes, is the story of the way the whole thing went. As far as I know they were first – I’m sure you’re going to find out if I’m wrong – but I don’t think other bands paved the way in the way they did.They took control of their own recording destiny like no other band had done. Even the other Epstein bands were not questioning the three-hour session bit, or the fact that they were handed stuff by the producer and it was the producer who had the whip hand.
They weren’t writing their own songs either.
Gerry Marsden for example accepted the Mitch Murray situation. Gradually he was astute enough of course to see what was happening with The Beatles. They got their own way literally, and then he got his own way and got his own songs. He marched in there and had number ones and so did Billy J. But the difference with Billy J. is that he wasn’t a songwriter and that was one of the reasons why he didn’t keep up.He had his number ones at the beginning but he didn’t keep up in the race – he was relying on stuff being given to him. He had the misfortune to believe he knew better than Epstein or George Martin or Ron Richards or anybody there and said ‘no, those aren’t for me, ballads aren’t for me. I should be doing the big rock and roll numbers.’ Which of course was quite wrong for him. He was a pretty balladeer; he was the Jess Conrad, the Billy Fury and he should have accepted that and let himself stay in that mould. Epstein hired him to be the last of the gold lamé suited guys, stood standing on a pedestal. Billy J. unfortunately kept bringing himself right down off that pedestal by arguing wrongly. He saw Gerry Marsden arguing and getting his own way, but Gerry had good reason and was right – he should have been recording his own songs, but Billy J. was being destructive rather than constructive. He turned down Lennon and McCartney stuff, he did a couple of them unwillingly and then turned one down because he thought he knew better. He saw himself much more as Cliff Bennett.
When did you make the decision to leave Decca and go with Epstein?
Early in the New Year of 1963. Epstein had stayed in touch with me and wanted me to do the same thing again on Please please me as I’d done on Love me do and I did. When that actually became a number one hit we went for our fourth, fifth, or sixth lunch at Wheelers and over Chablis and Dover sole he eventually made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, because he’d got other acts in mind, even if he hadn’t signed any yet. He knew he was forming a stable, and he said ‘I won’t ask what you’re getting at Decca. but whatever it is I’ll double it.’ I still have the hand written note from Epstein later that year saying that he agreed after the first three months that things had been going really well and he now wanted to confirm his confidence in me by increasing my pay to £1,500 a year. My parents had been saying ‘are you sure you know what you’re doing son, leaving this major record company, Decca, going with this guy who’s got a record shop and a band?’ They actually said something much more anti-semitic…parents did! But later on ( and this was the way the whole image of NEMS had changed), five years later when Epstein dies and I was leaving to set up my own company, they said ‘Do you know what you’re doing, setting up on your own, leaving such a good company as NEMS?’ In the mind of Joe Public, the image of NEMS had built itself into something as righteous and proper as Decca or EMI!
He offered me this double decker money and I had to say yes. I was about to bring my fiancée down to London and we were contemplating getting an unfurnished flat. I’ve got to confess I had no idea The Beatles were going to be…he had originally said to me the very first time he met me ‘these guys are going to be as big as Elvis.’ He’d moved on by then, in 1963, to say ‘The Beatles are going to be bigger than Elvis.’ If he really believed it, none of us did. I really don’t think he did, because if he did he’d have done a Colonel Tom and concentrated entirely on one act. Why get all these acts if you really have that kind of faith in the one. If it’s going to be a world-beater, stick with it; don’t waste your time trying to build up second and third-rate ones.
To be continued, with life at NEMS
©David Hughes 2016. Photos for illustration purposes only, courtesy Google search.