By Gordon R. Thompson
The Beatles were unlikely successes on London’s record charts in December 1962. Northerners with schoolboy haircuts who wrote and performed their own songs, their first record “Love Me Do” had risen slowly up British charts, despite lack of significant promotion by their publisher and record company, and without an appearance on national television. Moreover, while they should have been touring Britain to promote the disc, they instead played a pre-booked residence at the Star Club in Hamburg. The disc should have flopped.
Some have speculated that the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein arranged for the family business, North End Music Stores to purchase enough copies of the record to move it in the charts. “Fiddling” with the charts was hardly unknown both in Britain and in the US. The notorious British manager Don Arden (Sharon Osborne’s father) later bragged that he could move the rank of a disc with discrete monetary investments.
The most widely read music papers of the day — the weeklies The New Musical Express and Melody Maker — contained interviews with artists, managers, producers, and songwriters, listed tour dates and contract changes, featured recently released discs in reviews, and ranked the week’s top recordings. By today’s standards, their methods were primitive, blending a few calls to big merchants with personal intuition. An informed manager or producer could move a release in the charts simply by purchasing the right number of discs in the right shops or by persuading the right people that particular artists were the next big thing.
The curious chart history of “Love Me Do” sees the song appear first on Record Retailer’s charts shortly after its release and then two weeks later on Melody Maker’s charts. In Record Retailer, the disk would reach #17 in the 27 December 1962 issue, while in Melody Maker, it reached #21 the first week of January. The recording entered the charts of Disc weeks after the other papers and climbed no higher than #24 in December.
If these charts represent record sales, one wonders why they should differ. Record Retailer prided itself on having its finger on the pulse of record merchandising by polling its readership: Britain’s retail disc merchants. Earlier in 1962, when a flu swept through Decca’s manufacturing plant disrupting their ability to press records, both Melody Maker and the Daily Mail published charts showing Elvis Presley’s newest recording (“Rock-a-Hula Baby”) suddenly holding the #20 position, despite the absence of disks to sell. Melody Maker insisted that it had placed the disk in the charts because of comments from retailers combined with a previous announcement of its release. Melody Maker’s stated sources — and their data on record sales — suggest that the venerable music paper relied on selected stores and intuition. Another variable in these numbers recognizes that some figures may reflect the number of discs purchased by shop owners as distinct from the number of disks purchased by customers.
Two weeks after “Love Me Do” entered Record Retailer’s charts, NME apparently gave the recording a quick guess placement, before dispatching it to presumed history. An October 26 article by one of NME’s writers, Alan Smith, extols the group and the budding talent of its songwriters. “Newcomers to the Charts: Liverpool’s Beatles Wrote Their Own Hit” makes the connection between the Beatles and Billy Fury and promoted the potential of the recording. The NME’s editors apparently seized upon the convergence of sales reports in other papers and the press releases to write something they thought would sell a few papers.
Over at Record Retailer, however, the disk climbed slowly with little apparent promotion, peaking at the end of the year, setting the stage for the release of their second single, “Please Please Me,” which the Beatles had already recorded in November. Breaking into the charts represented a remarkable feat for a new group, let alone one from the provincial and industrial north. Perhaps Liverpudlian Billy Fury had paved the way for them with three significant hits in 1962: “Letter Full of Tears” (charts 15 March, UK #32), “Last Night Was Made for Love” (charts 3 May; UK #4), and “Once upon a Dream” (charts 19 July, UK #7).
That cold and dark December would see Ray Davies meet British bluesman Alexis Korner and work his way into Dave Hunt’s Rhythm and Blues Band and play at the Piccadilly Jazz Club. There, another new group, the Rolling Stones (who had just landed a bass player in the form of Bill Wyman) would impress him. Something musical was beginning to happen in London. Something raw and exciting.
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 Gordon Thompson’s posts on The Beatles and other music here.