Brian Epstein, George Martin & The Early Beatles

Beatles with Brian Epstein

Photo courtesy of Capitol Records/EMI

Brian Epstein, George Martin & The Early Beatles
| published January 5, 2015 |

By Kevin Robbie
Thursday Review contributor

[Editor’s Note: Back in late November, Thursday Review published Kevin Robbie’s article “The Best of Callars: The Beatles & Brian Epstein,” which retraced the trajectories of a young music salesman named Brian Epstein and the young members of the Beatles. Here is Kevin’s follow-up to that popular article, a more in-depth look at how Brian Epstein became known forever as the “fifth Beatle.”]

The Beatles signed a contract with Brian Epstein in December, 1961. The group was already the top band in Liverpool, which had developed into a hotbed of rock and roll. However, Liverpool was considered a backwater in terms of scouting and grooming show business talent. In order for the Beatles to truly break out and make a name for themselves, they needed to be noticed in London and secure a recording deal with a record label. This was Brian’s first order of business.

Under Brian Epstein’s direction, the record department at NEMS, the Epstein family business, had grown quickly. NEMS—full name, North End Music Stores—was one of the top record retailers in northern England. The level of success Brian achieved would provide him with valuable leverage with the record labels in London once he started seeking a contract for the Beatles. Still, perhaps not realizing what he was up against in terms of hardnosed business resistance, Brian found the doors slow to open.

But initially, Brian was—in his typical style—optimistic. He secured an audition for the group with Decca records, scheduled for New Year’s Day, 1962. With his clout as a record retailer, Brian convinced Mike Smith, Decca’s A&R (artists and repertoire) rep, to attend a live session at the Cavern Club on December 13, 1961. Though Smith was not impressed enough to offer an immediate recording contract, he did invite the group to an audition for January.

The Beatles set out for London in a rickety van driven by road manager Neil Aspinall. Leaving on the 31st, they plowed through traffic, cold weather, slushy rain and even a snow storm, reaching London late that night. The trip had lasted nine hours, and they arrived at the Decca studio tired, hung-over from the road, and a bit nervous. Then, Mike Smith, the A&R man, showed up an hour late. A skeleton crew worked in the cold studio to set up the necessary equipment, which hadn’t been used in the week between Christmas and New Year.

Smith asked the group to play a set of fifteen songs which would be more-or-less representative of the music they performed live. The set included mostly standards, but also a few Lennon-McCartney compositions as well: “Hello, Little Girl”; “Like Dreamers Do”; and “Love of the Loved.”

Once they completed the set, the Beatles were exhausted but optimistic. Smith had given them a thumbs-up from the control booth and seemed pleased with what he had heard. The group and Brian left the studio confident that a recording contract was forthcoming. To add to the sense that they were on the brink of something big, The Beatles found out on January 4, 1962 that they had won a poll in Mersey Beat, a local trade newspaper, as Liverpool’s most popular group. That edition included a front page image of the band under the banner headline “Beatles Top Poll!” The results of that informal survey bolstered their confidence, and gave them a bit of much-needed free publicity.

But then things got quiet. They waited a month before receiving word from Dick Rowe, Decca’s head of A&R, that Decca had decided to sign Brian Poole and the Tremeloes instead of the Beatles. The reason given was that Poole’s group was from Dagenham, near London, and would be more accessible for the label, as opposed to a Liverpool-based band. Brian was also told by Rowe that “groups with guitars are on the way out.” The Tremeloes were a “guitar and drums” group. Though Rowe would later become known dismissively as “the man who turned down the Beatles,” the truth was that the Tremeloes audition simply sounded more polished, a reasonable interpretation considering the Beatles raw but energetic sound in those days.

After that jolt of disappointment, the rejection spurred Brian to further effort. This time he would raise the stakes. Travelling again to London, Brian met with the sales team at Decca, and guaranteed them a NEMS order of 3,000 copies of a Beatles record if released by Decca. However, Dick Rowe never heard about the bold offer to sell so many records—a miscommunication within the offices. He admitted much later that had he known about an order for 3,000 records, the Beatles would have been signed that moment.

Undaunted, after meeting with Decca’s sales staff, Brian made the rounds to other labels such as Pye and Philips, dropping off copies of the Decca audition tapes for review. Those labels, along with EMI, also turned down the group. Thus, the Beatles had been rejected by all four major British record labels.

At this point, Brian had the tapes converted to acetate at a trendy record store, HMV, above which was a small studio. Transferring the tapes to disc format allowed A&R people to hear only the group’s best songs instead of wading through songs of poorer quality. Jim Foy, the engineer in the HMV studio, told Brian he liked what he heard. He gave Brian the name of Sid Coleman, the general manager of music publisher Ardmore & Beechwood. Coleman set up a meeting with Brian and he listened to the HMV discs. At the end of the meeting, Coleman in turn gave Brian the name of a producer at EMI who might be intrigued by the group’s potential. It was a rare chance at an end-run around the music bureaucracy. That producer’s name was George Martin.

Martin had been an employee of EMI since 1950. He became the top A&R man for Parlophone, an obscure EMI subsidiary. Typical Parlophone acts were dance bands, small orchestras, and obscure music hall acts. Parlophone had also scored some minor success recording comedy acts such as those of Peter Sellers, as well as the comedy-music team of Dudley Moore and Peter Cooke. In terms of its musical acts, Parlophone wasn’t making headway to satisfy George Martin. Martin was determined to inject some vitality and freshness into the label’s image. After speaking to Sid Coleman on the phone about the Beatles, Martin agreed to meet with Brian Epstein on February 13, 1962.

After hearing the results of the Decca audition, Martin wasn’t impressed and considered the material tired. He was intrigued, though, by the vocals of John and Paul. Martin told Brian that he couldn’t make a spot decision but he invited the group to London so he could see and hear them in the studio. Essentially, it was yet another audition—in a long series of auditions and tests—and the Beatles were growing impatient. They expected results from Brian.

The Beatles also had a long return trip to Hamburg looming and the group were looking forward to seeing their previous haunts and re-connecting with old friends. The group was booked to play the Star-Club, owned by Manfred Weissleder, from April 13-May 31st, 1962. They welcomed a break from the frustration they felt over the record company rejections. Upon arrival in Hamburg, the Beatles were greeted by Astrid Kirchherr, who they had met during their time in Hamburg in 1960. Stu Sutcliffe, the Beatles former bass player and close friend of John Lennon, had stayed behind in Hamburg to study painting at the Hamburg College of Art, changing the Beatles lineup as Paul took over on bass guitar. Stu and Astrid had become lovers and planned to marry.

Stu had suffered from debilitating headaches since the other Beatles returned to England. It is possible he suffered a blow to the head in a physical altercation after the Beatles finished a set at Lathom Hall in Liverpool in 1960. In any event, the headaches grew progressively worse to the point where Stu was unable to paint. German doctors were unable to find the cause of the headaches. Stu died suddenly on April 10, 1962, and the cause of death was officially listed as an aneurysm. The Beatles—especially John—rarely spoke about Stu’s death afterward. From that point on, the Beatles were a foursome—John, Paul, George, and Pete Best, their drummer.

By the time the Beatles returned to England at the end of May, 1962, they had been invited back to London. Sensing something intangibly potent about the Beatles, George Martin, the A&R man and producer for EMI’s Parlophone label, was still intrigued by the group. He wanted to hear them during another audition, which was arranged for June 6.

The June 6 session was attended by Ron Richards and engineer Norman Smith, but not George Martin, who arrived later at the studio. Martin listened to the recording and met with the band, still unable to make up his mind about whether or not to offer a recording contract. Initially the meeting produced a lot of silence, dead-air, and head-scratching. It was a droll comment by George Harrison which broke the ice. Martin asked if there was anything the group didn’t like. Harrison replied “Well, I don’t like your tie.” There was laughter. Martin appreciated the wry humor, another indication of the group’s emerging style, and he resolved to take a chance on formally signing the Beatles.

The producer also informed the group and Brian Epstein that he wasn’t satisfied with the drumming he heard on the tracks. Some music historians have argued that it was the Beatles’ weak percussion sound which had held Martin back for so long.

Martin suggested to the group that the Beatles could use Pete Best, the current drummer, during live shows, but he wanted to use a session drummer—someone with more polish and precision—in the studio and on recordings. The suggestion proved to be a watershed moment for the group. Faced with this new reality, and finding themselves in agreement with Martin’s astute assessment and interpretation of their sound, John, Paul and George decided—more or less uniformly—to sack Pete Best.

However, Brian was not convinced that a change in lineup was appropriate with the group on the cusp of success. Pete Best was arguably the most popular member of the group, and he had a sizable following among the girls who showed up at their live shows. Brian was also skeptical that the Beatles could retain their trademark style and sound if they changed the percussionist, deemed even in the early days of rock and roll as the heartbeat of a band.

But by August, John, Paul and George had convinced Brian to meet with their longtime drummer to convey the bad news. On August 16, 1962, Pete Best was fired. The Beatles already had another drummer in mind: Richard Starkey, aka Ringo Starr, was offered the job. Like Pete Best, Ringo had a significant following among the hardcore music fans and the girls. And, Ringo seemed instantly at home in the group; far from disrupting the band’s sound, his more polished drumming helped to bring the Beatles’ nascent style into focus. The Beatles had completed the last of their badly needed transitions toward musical recognition, and the huge success which would soon follow as they got discovered by millions of fans in the States.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Best of Cellars: The Beatles & Brian Epstein; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; November 28, 2014.

Joe Cocker Dies at 70; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; December 23, 2014.