Interview with a Beatle.

This summer I found some time to sit down with Pete Best, the original "Fab Four" drummer, when the Pete Best Band was passing through Massachusetts.

I had met Pete several times before—including one occasion in Liverpool in 2002 when sobbing Beatles' fans were trying to get his autograph (I'm not kidding). But this was the first occasion for me to ask him questions that had been tattooing my brain for a quarter century.

Pete, one of the nicest and most gracious fellows I've ever met in the music biz, patiently answered my queries, as he's been doing with others for forty-five years.

Here's an edited version of our conversation…

JOL: The Beatles "brand" was significantly different when you were the drummer, right?

PB: Yes, we created a "wall of sound" in those days that filled the room. It was different from other bands. It was loud and it was exciting. Nobody else was doing it. When we returned from Hamburg there was no band that could touch us.

JOL: You often played a "four on the floor" bass drum pattern. Yours was a unique approach to drumming at the time, wasn't it? [This pattern refers to the bass drum hitting all four quarter notes, later the basis of the disco beat.]

PB: The bass drum and [Paul McCartney's] bass were a big part of our wall of sound.

JOL: And the band had a different look before Brian Epstein cleaned you up? I heard you were all wearing leather jackets then.

PB: We started wearing leather jackets in Hamburg. We had a tougher image when we returned to Liverpool. But when we started working with Eppy [Brian Epstein] he didn't want us to eat, drink, smoke, or swear on stage. He wanted us to wear suits. John [Lennon] and I resisted it at first. But eventually we went along with it.

JOL: The Beatles got their start in a nightclub—the Casbah Club—that was run by your mother, Mona Best, in the basement of your home in Liverpool. I was in that cellar five years ago this month and it's a closet—with a low ceiling. How did you ever manage to get a thousand customers in that place on some nights?

PB: My mother would have the customers pay once they were on the property, lined up in the driveway. There was a lot of room outside.

JOL: Is it true that no one in the Beatles ever spoke to you again after Brian Epstein broke you the news in 1962 that you were being replaced by Ringo? And they never told you why? Hey, I know it's only been forty-five years and Paul's a busy fellow, but this is an unusual way of terminating an employee, isn't it?

PB: After Eppy broke me the news I never heard from any of them again, even though we were still part of the same community. [Beatles road manager Neil Aspinall had a relationship with Pete's mom, Mona Best, and she stayed in touch with the Beatles after Pete's departure.] But the door was always open. To this day I don't know the reason the band wanted me out. There are lots of theories, but who knows? It's ok. I've moved on.

JOL: Norman Smith [the recording engineer working with producer George Martin who "auditioned" the Beatles in 1962 for EMI Records] told me a few months ago that, rumors to the contrary, he never advocated replacing you as the drummer in the band and in fact thought you were perfectly adequate for the job. Doesn't this drive you crazy?

PB: No, not really. You just have to move on.

JOL: How were decisions arrived at in the early Beatles? Was it a self-managed team or did John Lennon run the show?

PB: No. It was all very democratic. There wasn't one leader.

JOL: Were there many disagreements? We've all heard about the dissension later in their career, and the growing tension between John & Paul.

PB: There was little of that in the early days. The usual stuff, but we all got along pretty well.

JOL: How about the distribution of duties—especially before the Beatles had a formal manager in Brian Epstein? I heard you often dealt with the club owners.

PB: I did a lot of that. There wasn't that much to do. They [the club owners and agents] usually wanted to hire us back. After Eppy got involved he often asked my advice about who he should talk to for bookings.

JOL: I've heard stories about you guys taking on sailors in the alleyways of Hamburg. Are they true?

PB: Well, after all, we were a rock and roll band.

Listening to the Pete Best Band afterwards—a very talented and engaging back-to-basics rock & roll band with surprisingly strong harmonies—I was left to ponder one of the Great Rock & Roll mysteries: Why did the Beatles let Pete go?

As a former drummer (I played for a dozen bands in the '70s and did some session work in NY & LA before becoming a singer-songwriter), I have to conclude that Pete was replaced for reasons more than musical.

He's a solid drummer now, and if you listen back to the first recorded version of "Love Me Do"—from the Beatles Anthology 1—you'll hear he was a solid drummer then.

After speaking with Pete I also had the chance to chat with band mate Roag Best, Pete's half-brother and the son of Beatles road manager Neil Aspinall. Roag's a capable musician and, to my surprise, a visionary entrepreneur, who shared with me some of his ambitions for The Casbah Club still located in the original home of the Best family.

Roag, with help from his brothers Pete and Rory, wrote a captivating book about the Casbah—The Beatles: The True Beginnings.

Roag has been helping to leverage the fame of the Casbah—as the birthplace of the Beatles and the "Mersey beat"—to promote his brother Pete, the Casbah recording studio, and a stable of musical acts including the Pete Best Band.

It's clearly a labor of love as well as economics because the attention paid to the Casbah legacy helps the Best family set the record straight about the contribution of their mother Mona Best to the success of the Beatles (and to the 1960s Liverpool music scene).

Many people are still unaware of the role she played in launching the club that launched the band. Or the critical role she played in booking and promoting the Beatles before Brian Epstein. No Mona Best, no Beatles.

But the Best may be yet to come.

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  1. Gerri: Pete and his band - whom I heard again Friday night - seem to be doing pretty well. They have a CD coming out in the spring and a likely tour of Australia later this year. But Pete values success by other criteria - having a good family life, being able to play music with friends, etc. At a post-gig party Pete was extremely accessible to everyone, talking about his life, his mom, the old Liverpool days, and departed bandmate Stu Sutcliffe. Later it was just the two of us chatting about rock & roll, Lennon/McCartney songwriting, misunderstandings about the Beatles, and Pete's own legacy. (When I asked him what he wanted that legacy to be, he smiled and said that was up to his children to write.)

    Overall Pete and the band seem very content to be playing 5 nights a week in small clubs, driving to gigs in their van, and hanging out all night with fans. The band is on its 3rd US tour in 07. Fortunately I'll get to see them play again in the Boston area next weekend.

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