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.