By Gordon Thompson
Perhaps the most significant unresolved controversy surrounding the recording of the Beatles first single “Love Me Do” rests on the question of whether or not EMI had finalized a contract with them. To wit: on 6 June 1962, were the Beatles auditioning or were they already under contract? Documentation and personal memories conflict such that no single answer can claim to be definitive, even as the evidence suggests a nuanced social interplay between Parlophone’s George Martin and Beatles manager Brian Epstein.
A contract signed by Thomas Humphrey Tilling for EMI and Brian Epstein on behalf of the Beatles suggests that an agreement existed on 4 June, two days before the Beatles arrived for their first session. But George Martin and others have asserted long and steadfastly that they auditioned the Beatles on 6 June, describing the contract date as either backdating or simply a clerical mistake. The question of whether or not this date represented an artist test, a recording test, or the first date of their recording contract rests in murky evidence, including a payment to the band members at the Musicians’ Union rate.
EMI’s Evelyn Harwood had questioned Martin in a 24 May 1962 memo about why the draft contract had not included language about the members of the band receiving Musicians’ Union payments. Martin responded the next day that he intended to pay them at the MU rate, suggested that this arrangement was routine, and that including it in the invoice seemed unnecessary. The payment at MU rates does not rule out the possibility that the Beatles had a recording contract, but session musicians received such fees.
The payment made to each of the Beatles of five pounds and five shillings — the equivalent of five guineas — holds some significance. Guineas represented the preferred form of payment to professionals such as arrangers and music directors, while pounds and pence were what union musicians found in their packets. A fee of £5/5 served as the regulation union fee for a two-hour session in 1962, which describes the amount of time that the Beatles officially spent in studio two. Had the Beatles been there for a standard three-hour recording session, they would have received a payment of £7/10. A two-hour session suggests a test, not a recording session.
Veteran EMI balance engineer, Malcolm Addey (whose career had seen him record some of EMI’s most successful hits to that date) confirms that the session probably constituted a recording test. “The comparison I make to the EMI test is the motion picture industry screen test. They want to know how you sound on mic!” In short, the 6 June session could have functioned as a review to help the production team appraise the strengths and weaknesses of the musicians, their equipment, and their material.
For the Beatles’ first visit to studio, the corporation engaged Norman Smith to serve as balance engineer. Smith hoped to climb the EMI ranks from tape operator to balance engineer and the corporation provided opportunities for on-the-job training by assigning him to such tests. If and when a recording he made proved successful, he would move up the studio food chain. Indicative of a test, Smith recorded the Beatles’ session live, the Beatles playing and singing as though they were on stage, rather than recording the instruments (guitar, bass, and drums) first and then overdubbing (or “superimposing” in EMI speak) the vocal and any other parts. Thus, Norman Smith’s presence on 6 June suggests a recording test, implying a nebulous status for the band: Martin had given the Beatles the opportunity to prove themselves.
A letter from 5 June (the day before the Beatles would arrive in the studio) suggests that George Martin may have already sent a contract signed by Epstein to Evelyn Harwood. The document doesn’t indicate who else has signed the document, but with Harwood in EMI’s Hayes facilities, Martin’s sending the document to her suggests that Tilling (EMI’s representative) had not yet signed. The date of 4 June, then, could well be the day that Martin received the contract from Epstein with the manager’s signature. It does not mean that Martin had signed it. Indeed if Martin had not already signed the contract, then the differences between Brian Epstein’s strategy and that of Martin couldn’t have been more marked. Earlier in the year, Epstein had left the Beatles’ contract with him unsigned as a symbolic gesture. In his mind, an unsigned contract allowed the band the option of dropping him if he failed as a manager. In contrast, an absent signature on the EMI contract suggests that George Martin saw no reason to commit to the Beatles just yet.
On 18 June, Evelyn Harwood returned a copy of the contract to Martin to forward to Epstein. The week between the audition and Martin mailing the contract to Epstein probably involved another layer of decision-making. Technical engineer, Ken Townsend recalls Smith having to send a copy of the 6 June tape to EMI’s Manchester Square offices about a week after the recording date. The likely scenario here would seem that Martin made his fateful decision in advance of one of the regular EMI recording manager staff meetings to consider potential artists on or about 15 June. Even if the other managers thought “The Beatles” might be another of his comedy records, Martin had concluded that they had potential, potential that he needed tweak in the studio if they were to be successful.
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.