By Gordon Thompson
The Beatles’ dream of releasing a record came to fruition fifty years ago today when Parlophone issued the band’s first disc, “Love Me Do.” That night, EMI played the song on its own London-produced weekly radio program Friday Spectacular, broadcast on Radio Luxembourg. In the Beatles’ Anthology, George Harrison recalled that, “First hearing ‘Love Me Do’ on the radio sent me shivery all over. It was the best buzz of all time.” But records only become hits through marketing, and manager Brian Epstein soon learnt that for significant promotion he could not rely on others. He would need to develop a different strategy.
October had begun optimistically for the Beatles. First, of the two recordings of the song they had made in September, George Martin had chosen to release the Ringo Starr version. He may have thought that doing so would build group confidence; but he also probably preferred Lennon’s harmonica solo on this performance to the Andy White take. He had originally wanted to release their version of Mitch Murray’s “How Do You Do It?”; but the songwriter had withheld his permission after hearing the performance, and learning that an unknown group from Liverpool had recorded it. Of their other songs, “Please Please Me” needed additional work before release and “P.S., I Love You” shared the name with another disk, leaving “Love Me Do” as the A side.
Second, the Beatles were now playing better engagements and were earning significantly more money than they had before the day the conservatively dressed businessman first descended the steps of the Cavern Club. In December 1961, Brian Epstein had promised them a recording contract and he had delivered. With Parlophone about to release the Beatles’ first record, Epstein proffered a new contract in which the band agreed to pay NEMS Enterprises 25% of their gross income over the next five years. Although 25% of the gross posed a significant fee, the band understandably saw promise under Epstein’s management.
For Paul McCartney and John Lennon, the new contract also promised a 50% share of the publishing income from future songs. At this point, although they liked to brag about their catalogue, only a few of their compositions had shown any promise. Notably, Ardmore and Beechwood (their publisher) seems to have considered their potential as unproven at best and illustrated by the limited promotion the company gave “Love Me Do.” In the sixties, publishers had the responsibility of selling songs by plugging material to artist-and-repertoire managers like George Martin, by getting pictures and press releases into papers such as New Musical Express (NME), and by pushing their contacts in the media to gain exposure.
At Ardmore and Beechwood, Kim Bennett had the responsibility of marketing the song, but he may have found himself either too busy to give much attention to this first attempt by a bunch of northerners or he may have been under instructions to provide support to a different release. Publishers always had to prioritize the songs in their catalogue, devoting more attention to some recordings than to others. The general readership for publications like NME and Melody Maker represented the largest markets for discs, providing tour dates, personal interviews with recording stars, and even a gossip column on the back page. Placement in one of these publications meant added royalties from sales of sheet music and records.
Perhaps the earliest London ad for “Love Me Do” appears inside the front cover of the 27 September 1962 issue of Record Retailer and Music Industry News and is from the record corporation. “Out next week from EMI, the Greatest Recording Organization in the World, The Beatles, Love Me Do, Parlophone 45-R4949.” The promotion displays four Dezo Hoffmann headshots, one for each of the Beatles, including George Harrison (with a bruised eye from a fan’s sucker punch over the ouster of drummer Pete Best). Elsewhere in the same issue, on the “Plug Page” (23), EMI lists “Love Me Do” along with eight other recordings.
The following week on 4 October 1962 (at the point when Parlophone was about to release “Love Me Do”), Record Retailer included a brief review of “Love Me Do,” mentioning the band’s popularity in Liverpool and describing this recording as “the strongest outsider of the week” (6). “Outsiders” accurately describes the provincial beat group and their manager; phrased like Ladbroke’s odds on a dog race, the Beatles and Epstein appeared to be unlikely candidates to change the music world.
A press release from Tony Barrow commissioned by Brian Epstein in the same issue of Record Retailer, presciently titled “Introducing… the Beatles,” extols the Liverpool group, emphasizing their popularity in England’s northwest (“voted Top Group”). The blurb lauds the band’s ability to outdraw the Shadows (Britain’s top group at the time) in Liverpool and their stage experience with artists such as Bruce Channel, Joe Brown, and trad jazz devotees Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball. Although this piece would have helped to create interest among conservative shop owners, encouraging them to make wholesale purchases of the disc, British teens would have ignored it.
The magazine Disc (6 October) also carried a very brief review of “Love Me Do,” comparing the Beatles’ performance to the Everly Brothers and suggesting that the song could “grow on you.” The same issue carried a brief introduction to the band; but that would be the extent of the coverage they would receive. Indeed, on Friday 5 October 1962, one can imagine the Beatles buying issues of the New Musical Express (NME), The Record Mirror, and Melody Maker to see if the papers had any mention of their disc. However, when they opened the pages of NME, they would have seen promotions for two other Parlophone releases: the Fentones’ instrumental “The Breeze and I” and Nicky Hilton’s “Your Nose Is Going to Grow” (“This Week’s Top Single”). No mention of “Love Me Do” appears.
In the 11 October 1962 issue of Record Retailer, storeowners like Brian Epstein would have read in Robbie Lowman’s weekly “Alley-gations” column on Denmark Street (London’s equivalent of New York’s “Tin Pan Alley”) that the numerous fall releases had “pluggers” barraging his office. He notes that Kim Bennett in particular was pushing four titles at once, with “Sherry” by the Four Seasons getting the most push, followed by Hank Locklin’s “We’re Gonna Go Fishing.” “Love Me Do” competes for last place on Bennett’s agenda with Joe Meek’s production of “Sioux Serenade” by the Outlaws. Nevertheless, elsewhere in the same issue of Record Retailer (the most reliable of British charts), “Love Me Do” crept into “Britain’s Top 50” at number 49.
On 5 October 1962, the first James Bond film Dr. No premiered at the London Pavilion with a story about a Caribbean installation that threatened the United States. Coincidentally over the month of October, the Cuban missile crisis would grow to dominate the news, feeding the film’s success. Perhaps October’s spies and the threat of nuclear war, not to mention the British instrumental “Telstar” topping the charts, created an environment in which British teens began embracing that most essential of Beatles love songs, and “Love Me Do” slowly climbed the UK charts.
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.