By Gordon Thompson
On this spring morning fifty years ago, Brian Epstein climbed the front steps and passed through the simple entrance of the EMI Recording Studios in St. John’s Wood, London, placing him on the other side of the looking glass. As a retailer, he had sold recordings made in these studios by Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Thomas Beecham, and, more recently, Cliff Richard and the Shadows. The neophyte manager of the Beatles now eagerly anticipated the possibility of watching through the control room window as his “boys” joined that exclusive club.
Wednesdays reside betwixt the beginning and the end: nothing special, and neither here nor there. But on this Wednesday, after the usual exchange of British middleclass pleasantries, George Martin of Parlophone Records (one of EMI’s labels) proffered an agreement that he thought suited an unknown band from Liverpool: a recording test. Thus, on this Wednesday, the Beatles’ manager felt happier than he had in months and, as he sent his telegram shortly after noon that same day from nearby Primrose Hill, he would have guessed at the subsequent elation in Hamburg. On this Wednesday, life held new potential for the Beatles and Brian Epstein. They had waited for their manager near Liverpool’s Lime Street rail station after his repeated trips to London, hoping to hear news of success. On this Wednesday, 9 May 1962, George Harrison, first out of bed, ambled out to see if Hamburg’s post had brought news from home. What he found would wake him like a double espresso: “CONGRATULATIONS BOYS. EMI REQUEST RECORDING SESSION. PLEASE REHEARSE NEW MATERIAL.” After the disappointment of their January Decca audition, they now had a second chance.
The news of an EMI session reenergized them and they began preparing two songs they hoped would catch the ear of Parlophone’s director. George Martin had met with Brian Epstein in February after Sid Colman of EMI’s publishing company Ardmore and Beechwood had brought the Liverpool businessman to the artist-and-repertoire manager’s attention. Colman had heard potential in Lennon and McCartney’s songs and the Beatles’ would have factored this interest into their preparations. If Ardmore and Beechwood had been interested in their earlier songs, perhaps the company might be inclined to buy the next two McCartney-Lennon originals. “Love Me Do” and “PS, I Love You” might do the trick.
Since their first arrival in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn area in 1960, the band had moved from the obscure subterranean haunts of the Indra to working at the Star Club, the largest and most popular venue on the St. Pauli District’s Grosse Freiheit. Moreover, along with their income, their transportation had improved from being crammed into Alan Williams’ van to flying. However, on 11 April 1962, stepping down from an airliner and into the terminal at Hamburg, their former band mate’s fiancée, Astrid Kirchherr, met them with the news that Stu Sutcliffe had died the previous day. Eventually, they would discover that a brain hemorrhage had taken him, but his loss had an immediate effect on the Beatles. Drummer Pete Best in his autobiography remembers John Lennon collapsing emotionally at the news and that this sadness saturated the music they now began creating. In addition to construction at the club delaying the opening, George Harrison had fallen too sick to travel with them and would arrive the next day with Epstein. In this emotionally-charged environment between landing in Hamburg and opening at the Star Club, their arrangement of “Love Me Do” emerged.
If the Beatles’ proved successful in their recording test, Martin would advance a contract for six “titles” over one year at one penny per disk (in the days when a pound consisted of 240 pence) to be paid to Brian Epstein of N.E.M.S. Ltd. on their behalf. Notably, chronicler Mark Lewisohn has produced internal correspondence revealing that each of the Beatles (described as a “group of instrumentalists”) would receive a fee of five pounds and five shillings (the equivalent of five guineas) for a three-hour session at EMI Recording Studios on 6 June 1962. This last detail holds one clue to part of the puzzle surrounding the status of an event described by Martin and others at EMI as an audition and by some writers as the Beatles’ first contracted recording session.
The form of compensation (as with many other forms of communication and social interaction) in sixties Britain said much about class and rank. EMI compensated signed artists under the terms of their contracts: the more important you were to their catalogue and the better your representation, the better the terms of your contract. One step down, the corporation tendered professionals (e.g., arrangers, conductors, and music directors) service fees articulated in guineas (one guinea being the equivalent of one pound and one shilling). Session musicians and other union workers received payment on an hourly basis (the standard session being three hours) calculated in pounds and pence. On their first visit to the Abbey Road facilities, the Beatles received a session fee calculated in pounds and pence that carried the symbolic equivalency of a professional fee.
George Martin and administrator Evelyn Harwood at EMI’s Hayes facilities played their parts in the creation of the Beatles’ first record. On Friday 18 May 1962, Harwood began drafting a contract as per a form submitted by Shirley Collins on behalf of Martin that could commit EMI Records Ltd. to recording the Beatles. And, on or about Friday 24 May, Martin received the prepared document. Over the next few weeks, he would have to decide whether to take the process further and, if so, under which conditions.
To be continued in June.
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.