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The Beatles wait, January 1962

By Gordon Thompson


Fifty years ago in January 1962, British popular music crept toward the brink of success.  Notably, the coming months would see Britain’s Decca Records release the UK’s first international rock hit Telstar created by the quirky iconoclast Joe Meek with his studio band the Tornados.  That recording declared Meek’s infatuation with the first telecommunications satellite and proved that London’s recording industry had the potential to compete in the United States.  The Tornados also backed Liverpudlian Billy Fury, but Americans seemed less than enthusiastic about the singer’s recordings made with Decca artist-and-repertoire manager Mike Smith.

Far, far below the popular radar, the Beatles struggled to break out of their Liverpool-Hamburg rut.  Their new manager had promised to get them a recording contract and had succeeded in procuring an audition at Decca such that on New Year’s Eve 1961, friend and roadie Neil Aspinall drove the Liverpool quartet of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Pete Best to London through a winter storm.  After the long, tortuous, and somewhat dangerous journey on two-lane highways, they checked into the Royal Hotel on Woburn Place near Tavistock Square where for 27 shillings they could claim a bed and a breakfast, not to mention a launching pad from which to join London’s New Year’s Eve festivities.  Located near the University of London, others their age would have been celebrating that night, and the Beatles knew how to party.  Why should this New Year’s Eve be any different?  They were in London!  The twenty-one year-old Lennon would have led the charge.

Much to the consternation of their perpetually punctual manager on the first morning of 1962, the Beatles arrived late at Decca’s studios in West Hampstead.  A peeved and anxious Brian Epstein waited for them at the studio, worried that they might have met with misadventure on their trip the previous day.  He wanted equipment set up and musicians professionally ready when Decca’s Mike Smith gave the signal to start the 10:00 AM audition.  However on this day (which was not yet an official holiday), the recording manager similarly suffered the ill effects of the previous evening and he too rolled into the 165 Broadhurst Gardens facilities late.  Looking over Smith’s shoulder, Tony Meehan—the former drummer of Britain’s most popular guitar group the Shadows—wandered around the facilities in his capacity as a fledgling artist-and-repertoire manager.  To put the polish on the situation, the recording engineer would have informed Smith that the Beatles’ equipment presented problems for a clean recording.  Smith would have to tell them to use the studio’s amplifiers.  What a bother.

The Beatles eventually commenced what the industry generally described as an “artist test” and worked through a list of fifteen songs chosen largely by their manager.  Ultimately, Epstein hoped to impress Decca with the band’s versatility by including numbers such as “Besame Mucho” (which Tony Meehan would soon produce for ex-Shadows confederate Jet Harris), “The Sheik of Araby,” and “Three Cool Cats.”  Significantly, they also included three McCartney and Lennon originals: “Hello Little Girl,” “Like Dreamers Do,” and “Love of the Loved.”  The decision to include these songs would prove critically important for their future.

The Decca recordings suggest that the Beatles fell short of their best efforts, perhaps a consequence of partying in Trafalgar Square the previous night, but also of performing in a sterile studio setting.  The band had proved itself by capturing the attention of dancers, strippers, sailors, thugs, gangsters, and assorted drunks.  Three or four people lurking behind the glass window of a studio could hardly have been inspiring.  With Brian Epstein disgruntled with their performance, Tony Meehan snickering at the innocence of their music, and Mike Smith dismissing their equipment, Messrs. Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Best probably chafed at what they perceived to be class condescension.  Pete Best remembers a frustrated Lennon savagely ripping into Epstein with a religious slur when the manager made a musical suggestion, after which the entire proceedings froze for a few awkward moments.  Nevertheless, from the beginning, Smith had listened attentively as the band worked through the audition and he seemed positive about their chances at the end of the session.

Smith had scheduled a London band—Brian Poole and the Tremeloes—to arrive to set up for an afternoon audition, terminating a Beatles’ session that had started late.  He promised to get back soon to Epstein about a decision.  They would wait through the month of January only to learn that a recording contract would not be forthcoming.  Legend has either Mike Smith or Dick Rowe, his superior at Decca, explaining to Brian Epstein that guitar groups would soon be passé, an argument that the Tornado’s hit Telstar (which featured an electronic keyboard, the Clavioline) would have supported.  Similarly later that same year, the Beatles themselves would record a single that downplayed their guitar sound and featured a harmonica accompaniment to their vocal harmonies, but not with Decca.  Unlike the Tornados, the Beatles would not achieve international success in 1962; however, the next month would see a remarkable chain of events that would open a window of opportunity.

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.

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Recent Comments

  1. Bill Covington

    From the vantage point of history the song list that The Beatles worked through during their audition for Decca appears woefully inadequate to secure a recording contract. For example, ‘The Sheik of Araby’ a musical hall song and ‘Besame Mucho’ a Beatles reinvigorated version of an American ballad. Such songs were no doubt regarded as safe audition material. But, consider the irony that the A&R men present at that Beatles attempt to impress them with the aforementioned songs, failed entirely to realize the quality of ‘love of the Loved’ an eventual Cilla Black chart entry and ‘Hello Little Girl’a chart entry for The Fourmost. I have problems recalling the lyrics to both songs but no problems at all in humming the melodies. What I see in The Beatles failed audition with Decca is what I would define as ‘the fag end of fifties hegemony on British pop music’. The term ‘Fag’ has a different meaning in America, but in the UK ‘fag’ is a slang word for a cigarette, and 1962 literally was the very end of the ‘fag’. It appeared those Decca A&R men were well and truly dedicated to the power of instrumental single and were either unwilling or unable to forge ahead with an unproven northern band. What we see in that Beatles audition is a demonstration of the demarcation between the north and the south of England in a literal sense played out in the studio with Tony Meehan, and by default, Brian Epstein clinging on to an idealized version of the future of pop music that was informed by chart successes of the mid-fifties which was dominated by southern acts and by American acts. Ironically, after the meteoric ascent by The Beatles into the UK chart Dick Rowe signed bands and solo acts to Decca that were mediocre to say the least.

  2. Gordon

    Bill, I presume you didn’t intend to include the Rolling Stones as one of the mediocre groups signed by Dick Rowe.

    I think you’re right about the north-south dynamic of Rowe and Smith’s decision, although I might fine-tune that to London vs. the rest of Britain. In that regard, it probably mattered little if you were from Plymouth or Liverpool; both were distant from London.

    Gordon

  3. Bill Covington

    I agree, the exception being The Rolling Stones, but, I never was a fan of the ‘Stones’.
    It is probably difficult for American folk to understand the extent to which region in the UK plays an enormous role in the decision making process at practically every level of society. For example, the Toxteth riots in Liverpool during the ‘Thatcher’ regime werereported in the press as the northern hordes hell bent on destroying the infrastructure of Liverpool. When Thatcher visited Liverpool to chastise the rioters we saw a Prime Minister and her cabinet totally ignorant about the people the government were elected to govern. Let’s think about Brian Epstein and the early 1960’s in the same framework. Not the framework of a riot, rather, the understanding of the enormous variation culturally from region to region in the UK. Brian understood perfectly well that the folks in power, those who had the power to either deny access or allow access to The Beatles to a recording contract held an entrenched view of northern folks. Recall, it was Edward Heath, who commented on The Beatles speech as being completely incomprehensible to him. That aspect of cultural difference concerned Brian to the extent that he organized a Merseyside competition where the audience, after listening to bands from Manchester and Merseyside were invited to comment as to where the bands came from based on the pronunciation and speech patterns of the bands. Eventually the ‘Scouse’ accent became synonymous for being trendy, due entirely to The Beatles refusal to drop their regional accents in favour of a modified northern version of received pronunciation.
    And, as you correctly point out, it mattered not if a band came from Liverpool or Plymouth, they would still be judged firstly as to their point of origin by London based recording executives. I recall auditioning for Decca in 1967 and being dismissed from the studio, the reason given was ‘I know your band, you’re an old band from the south’. I was 19 years old.

  4. John

    In 1961/62, “all” the UK music industry was London based. There were no music studios anywhere else. The producers and engineers were all predominantly from the London area – George Martin, the EMI engineers, etc. London was stale and backward to the USA. London even named a part of Soho “Tin-Pan Alley” after NY, it was so unoriginal.

    Liverpool sneered what came out of London – Bill Harry of Mersey Beat mag, in the early 1960s sent a letters to the national press telling them that what was happing in New Orleans in 1900 in jazz was happening in Liverpool in Rock-n-roll. They ignored him. Anally-retentive London had the industry but little originality.

    Mike Smith a working class East of London guy would feel more at home with fellow east of Londoners the Tremeloes than The Beatles – expenses were cheaper as well. Working class Londoners tend to have a problem communicating with anyone except of their own ilk.

    If a professional music industry was in place in Liverpool in the 1950s, Liverpool would be a well established creative world music centre, going its own unique way – incidentally which it is slowly gaining right now with the city twinning with Memphis in the USA and exchanges going on.

    Unfortunately the dead paw of London killed Liverpool making music more for tourists in the city, as New Orleans went. But the Phoenix is rising as creative music is emanating from the city as the music industry is now dispersed and the importance of London is vastly diminished.

  5. John

    Gordon, The initial success of the Rolling Stones, a typical one singer group (The Beatles never had an identified prime front singer), was due to THE BEATLES. The Beatles visited them as unknowns in Richmond and George Harrison told DECCA’s Mike Smith to sign them.

    So as not to make another embarrassing mistake, and keep the Stones away from EMI, DECCA signed the Stones and gave them a brilliant contract. Far better than what the Beatles got at EMI.

    Comparing the Stones and the Beatles is ridiculous as they were very different bands – like comparing apples and oranges. The Stones are a one dimensional, one prime front singer, one personality band, and the Beatles covered just about all types of songs, from Rocky Raccoon to Revolution. You can’t get more different.

    If The Beatles had never met the Stones would they have made it big? Maybe they would have, but highly unlikely in the form we knew.

    As 60s music icons the Stones were there. Creativity? Very limited.

  6. Gordon

    John, I basically agree with you. London did dominate the British music business in that era and, if not for the Beatles, I suspect we might never have heard about the Rolling Stones. Moreover, Londoners have long held the attitude that everything else in the UK is secondary. (I say that having lived in London during the mid 1990s and again in 2007.) Since the Beatles, bands like Oasis have proven that you do not need to live within the green belt to be successful.

    As for Liverpool, I have an affection for the place. On my first there, I was struck by how it felt like home…, home being Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit. The grey water, the empty factories and decaying homes, all of that felt very familiar. Perhaps both cities are rising from the ashes.

    Thanks for your comments.

  7. John

    Gordon, I have lived in London 33 years and live yards from the Abbey Rd studios and McCartney’s house – I see him occasionally in the street. The crossing outside the studio has a constant parade of tourists walking across it all year around – I always stop for them.

    London stifles the UK, acting as a brain and talent drain for the rest of the country. A very unhealthy situation. So much so there are healthy Welsh and Scottish independence movements, who gained their own parliaments. London keeps playing its fiddle like Nero. The London centric bias has to be reversed for the sake of the union.

    Even Brian Epstein moved his organization to London as I am sure Bill will confirm. BTW, Eric Clapton’s first break was in a band setup by Liverpudlian Brian Casser in London formerly of Liverpool’s Big Three. The Stones first hit was a Lennon-McCartney song. London owed a lot to Liverpool but instead of being grateful, and maybe setup studios there to cope with the North of England and Scotland, as I am sure would have happened in the USA, they decided to gradually kill the city.

    Brian mentioned the 1981 riots, which prompted the ruthless and naive Thatcher regime to kill the city outright – the recently published papers (all knew of them by leaks), “Managing the Decline of Liverpool as a major metropolitan area”. The city has superb infrastructure even with its own underground urban railways. The city fought back. The decay in the city is mainly warehouses rather than factories – Liverpool was the world’s largest port at one time and richer than London. Liverpool was the twin of NY in many respects the bond was sop great. Liverpool was even the defacto home port of the Confederate fleet – true! To their credit, wealthy New York approached poverty ridden Liverpool to have joint Millennium celebrations, the history between the two is so strong.

    Detroit and Liverpool were both victims of the Thatcher-Reagan drive to offshore manufacturing. Liverpool had no raw materials to import and products to export for Britain’s manufacturing belt. Small container ports near London boomed to supply the foreign made goods for the wealthier, and getting wealthier, south east of England.

    In hindsight it may have been wiser for Liverpool in the early 1960s to approach NY based record companies and by-pass London. However cheap trans-Atlantic air travel was just not quite there then – although cheap cargo-liner voyages were, but took many days. Liverpool, music-wise had far more in common with the USA than London – Liverpool bands would rarely play anything that came out of London regarding the city as backwards. I am sure the city would have had a strong indigenous music industry formed and still going strong.

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