October 11, 2012

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It was 50 years ago this month that The Beatles’ first single made it to the air. After years of dingy clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg, the band felt that their work was finally beginning to pay off. They had a record and they were sure it was going to seal their fortunes.

It didn’t. “Love Me Do” made it as far as number 17 on the pop charts that fall, but their big break was still a few months away. As the 2012 BBC radio documentary, Love Me Do: The Beatles ’62, put it, when “Please Please Me” was released in January 1963, “a monochrome world had suddenly turned to color—the 60’s had begun.”

Through 1962, their new manager, Brian Epstein, had been grooming the band for the break he knew was imminent. But the year began badly. Epstein had gotten them an audition with Decca Records on New Year’s Day. The band, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and drummer Pete Best, had made the eight-hour drive down from Liverpool to London the day before. Epstein had clearly intended for them to arrive at Decca the following morning fresh and ready to impress, but they arrived next morning for the audition late and hung-over.

The label turned them down. But, according to the BBC documentary, it wasn’t Dick Rowe, the head of A&R for Decca, who passed on The Beatles. The man actually responsible for rejecting The Beatles was Rowe’s hapless assistant, Brian Smith.

Smith had produced the session in which the young hopefuls had sung many of the songs from their stage act, including covers ranging from The Coasters’ “Three Cool Cats” to mainstream pop songs such as the unlikely “Besame Mucho.” Epstein wanted to show the band’s “versatility,” but their performance didn’t distinguish them. Rowe gave Smith the option of signing either The Beatles or a London-based band, Brian Poole and the Tremeloes. Smith opted for the latter.

    According to Bill Harry, editor of Merseybeat, the local weekly championing the burgeoning music scene in Liverpool, The Beatles, pre-Epstein, “were wilder than The Rolling Stones ever were.” Wearing leather jackets and blue jeans, they were ringers for The Ramones around the time of their first album. Epstein sent them to a hairstylist and to an upscale, Liverpool tailor to be measured for mohair suits for “the posh look.”

“No more chewing gum on stage,” Epstein instructed. “No more taking requests from fans in the audience, and I want you to bow and smile at the end of your set.” It may have been 1962, but the music business was still mired in the conservative mores of the 1950’s. But, according to Klaus Voorman, one of The Beatles’ closest friends in Hamburg, as they gained mainstream polish, they lost some of their essential rock ‘n’ roll grit.  Lennon reportedly said, The Beatles’ finest and most exciting work was never recorded.

    Like Epstein, producer George Martin takes some heat in the documentary, in his case for initiating what some consider another particularly damning decision. Epstein had arranged for the band to audition for Martin at EMI’s Abbey Road studios in the summer of 1962. They played four songs, including “Love Me Do,” which Martin thought was the “best of the bunch,” but he didn’t like Best’s drumming.  The other three, apparently concerned that they might again be turned down, decided to bounce Best from the band, replacing him with Ringo Starr, widely regarded as one of the best drummers in Liverpool at the time.

    That we’re still talking about The Beatles 50 years later is a testament to their game-changing impact, but the compromises they made to make it are telling. Within a few years they had regained control of their image and their work, but for a time even the Beatles had to abide by the star-making machinery.


October 11, 2012

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