Brian Epstein transforms the Beatles, December 1961
By Gordon Thompson
Fifty years ago in December 1961, Brian Epstein made a leap of faith that he could change his life and the lives of four young musicians. He could not foresee that he would change Western civilization. A few weeks earlier, the Liverpool businessman had heard the din of the Beatles in a claustrophobic former vegetable cellar and had seized upon the idea of transforming the band into something the world could embrace. He seems to have had few second thoughts about his decision, even as he allowed that he might fail.
His objectives posed challenges, the most significant of which included identity and image. During the Beatles’ time in Hamburg, they had adopted the leather-jacket look of American rocker Gene Vincent and a stage presence that conveyed the casual charm of hoods on holiday. During sets of randomly chosen songs, they spiced their stage banter with profanity, flirted with women, left cigarettes burning on the edges of their amplifiers, gnawed on sandwiches, and emptied bottles of Coca Cola into their thirsty mouths.
But a catharsis had already begun in the form of the European “pilzen kopf” hairstyle that John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison had adopted from German students, and in this detail the ever fashion-conscious Epstein may have seen an opening for a broader transformation. He would exploit their willingness to experiment in a metamorphosis from leather-clad punks to latent mods adapting European clothing trends to a rock-and-roll culture. Within two years, they would be wearing replications of Pierre Cardin’s modernist collarless jackets.
But other obstacles protruded into Epstein’s path.
Not only did the Beatles represent an exotic piece of adolescent thuggery, they were arguably located in the armpit of Britain. Liverpool and the banks of the Mersey River had once been a thriving international port—the birthplace of the Titanic and the prestigious White Star Line that had built her. But Germany’s Luftwaffe had not been kind during the Second World War and, in the postwar years when jet aircraft began traversing the Atlantic Ocean, unemployment crept over the city like mold. The empty docks and the ethnically charged neighborhoods surrounding them had become dramatic settings for gritty British television plays about the working class, poverty, and crime. If Epstein and his potential charges were to court success, they needed to escape Merseyside.
Thus, on a quiet Sunday morning in early December 1961, with the doors to his record shop closed, Brian Epstein met the Beatles to proffer his services as a manager and stylistic exorcist. He would have explained their situation as he understood it: they were playing the same Liverpool clubs and dance halls over and over with occasional trips to Hamburg for little pay and even less of a future. The band had fallen into a deep rut from which he offered the possibility of escape. He promised better pay and a broader audience; but, more importantly, he shared with them a mutual vision of a recording contract that would bring them to the attention of Britain, if not the world. In return, he had demands.
Their previous manager Allan Williams had warned him away from the band, but Epstein represented an elegant, polite, and persistent force of nature, an anomaly in Britain’s often-seedy entertainment industry. If they took him as their manager, they would have (a) to clean up their stage presentation (e.g., no more private or obscene jokes on stage and no more smoking, eating or drinking on stage), (b) to play preplanned organized sets (i.e., no more rehearsing songs during a performance), (c) to carefully control their stage time, (d) to arrive in a timely fashion for engagements, and (e) to exchange their leather jackets for tailored suits. The preternaturally punctual Epstein would provide them with their weekly schedules, typed and annotated with instructions on how best to please their employers and audiences. He took a percentage of their income, but he immediately set to converting aspiration to realization.
The band signed a contract with Epstein sometime around Friday 15 December 1961, two days after Mike Smith from Decca Records had heard the Beatles at the Cavern Club. Epstein had worked his contacts at London’s leading record companies to bring a representative to Liverpool to hear his diamonds in the rough. Treading in the manager’s footsteps, Smith descended the stairs into the belly of the Cavern where he experienced the band in its natural habitat. The thunder of guitars and drums ricocheted off the arched ceilings and danced the crowded room of bobbing heads. Smith could sense the possibilities, even if he failed to recognize Epstein’s vision. The performance impressed him and, when he returned to London, he booked the band for a New Year’s Day audition in Decca’s West Hampstead studios. The band had crested the first peak on a rollercoaster they would ride for the next year.
Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. Check out Thompson’s other posts here.