It was 50 years ago today...

Today is the quinquagenary of the Beatles’ famous audition for record producer George Martin of EMI. As any Beatlephile would know, Martin went on to produce over two dozen #1 hits for the band in the next eight years—which propelled the band into the top-selling music act in history.

There are numerous Fab Four anniversaries worth celebrating—the day John Lennon and Paul McCartney met (7/6/57), the first appearance of The Beatles on live TV in the US (2/9/64), or the day The Beatles broke up (4/9/70)—but this date struck me as the most noteworthy because of mysteries surrounding it…

Mystery #1. How did Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein get George Martin to sign the band, conditional on their passing a recording audition on June 6? Martin had heard only an acetate of the band’s dreadful audition tape for Decca Records. Some say that EMI’s publishing arm, Ardmore & Beechwood, was sufficiently impressed with the band’s original songs to strongly recommend the group to Martin—though in the end Ardmore & Beechwood, astonishingly, did not get the band’s publishing. Others believe that Epstein used his clout as a prominent Liverpool record store owner to "persuade" Martin to audition The Beatles. (Others speculate about different kinds of backroom deals.) But George Martin himself said it was Brian Epstein’s enthusiasm for the group that won them the audition!

Mystery #2. How did The Beatles pass the live audition on June 6? By all accounts, they had terrible equipment and sounded amateurish. One of the engineers, Norman Smith, told me that he and Ron Richards (the lead engineer at the session) had to scramble to get the band to sound tolerable and that George Martin was distinctly unimpressed by the group’s material. But Smith claimed it was the humor and charisma of The Beatles that got Martin to approve the signing.

Mystery #3. Did George Martin encourage The Beatles to replace drummer Pete Best? That seemed to be the conclusion of Paul McCartney at least, who took the lead in looking for a replacement. But Smith assured me that Pete Best wasn’t a bad drummer and that he and Martin thought Pete should be replaced for recordings, not performances, which was/is a common practice. (Martin’s own statements have been slightly ambiguous on the subject.) After all, Pete Best was the most popular Beatle with the female fandom. This has some of us wonder why Pete Best was fired two months later and replaced by Ringo Starr. When I was in Liverpool several years ago I heard at least seven conspiratorial theories on this—a rabbit hole we can explore on another occasion.

Now why are we even mentioning The Beatles, you ask, 42 years after they officially disbanded? Because they were the most successful musical act in history, selling a billion units while changing the face of pop music and culture. This is a business team worth studying, which I do in my upcoming book.

To put it simply, The Beatles were simultaneously the biggest AND the best—a title no other popular music act can legitimately claim. They were the most consistently innovative musical force—in their compositions, recordings, product packaging, image, fashion, and more. As Newsweek proclaimed, 35 years after they broke up: "What the Beatles did in the 60’s remains the most thrilling surge of creativity in the history of pop culture."

Other than that they were pretty unremarkable.

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  1. Never thought of it that way: replacing a chick magnet, with Ringo? Clearly, the other guys wanted Pete out of the way and knew just how to reduce the competition.

    Perhaps the business lesson from "How did they pull that off?" in so many cases is that they were *there*, face to face. They weren't sending in a resume, it wasn't over the phone or on MyBook or FaceSpace. Real live personal human interaction.

    Sometimes the gig goes to the most charming applicant, not the most qualified. (And then, when we're lucky, the charming applicant gets real good at stuff, and changes the course of history.)

  2. Astute commentary, per usual, Joel. One of the more serious theories for why Pete was canned is that his band mates, especially Paul, were bent out of shape by the female attention he got. (I doubt that was THE reason, but it could have been a contributor.) I maintain, as a drummer of many years myself, that Pete was quite competent for live shows and had developed his own brand of drumming that other drummers in Liverpool copied. (He explained it to me as hitting the bass drum on all 4 beats.) But of course Ringo was no slouch — and hit HARD and steady, which was a plus for both live performance and recording. And Ringo's personality was a perfect fit for the wacky bunch.

    Your last paragraph eloquently sums up what separates the eventual winners from losers in MANY commercial activities. The wit, charm, enthusiasm, etc. gets you in the door and THEN the development begins. It certainly applied to the moptops, beginning as performers in Hamburg in 1960 and beginning as recording artists in London in 1962.

  3. Based on this blog, I half expected Google to have one of their awesome tributes today.

    I wonder if Pete Best was a good songwriter. Wouldn't be too hard to eclipse our friend Ringo in that regard.

    Where have all the good times gone?

  4. David, the problem is there isn’t ONE date that everyone rallies around as the beginning of The Beatles (or the start of Beatlemania). Was it when they decided on their name (sometime in the summer of 1960)? Was it when they set sail for Hamburg with their first full-time drummer, Pete Best, on August 16, 1960? Was it when manager Brian Epstein “discovered” them in the Cavern Club on November 9, 1961? Was it when they showed up for their first studio session with George Martin (which they didn’t know was actually an audition) on June 6, 1962? Was it when they had their first recording session on September 11, 1962? Was it when “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was released in the US, launching Beatlemania in America—and the world—on December 26, 1963? There isn’t even agreement on when the band actually broke up, because Paul announced it well after John had decided to leave.

    Re Pete’s songwriting, I only know of songs written by The Pete Best Band as a whole which are pretty good. They're a fun bar band I heard several times in Massachusetts in 2007. Pete finally cashed in on his Beatles years thanks to royalties he earned on the Beatles Anthology I record in 1995, because it included early Beatles' tracks he played on.

  5. As a bassist, I know what I look for in a drummer and The Beatles rhythm section simply did not gel until they landed the best drummer in Liverpool. Ringo played creatively and VERY solidly. Witness the DC concert. You would not have found that style of leading kick drum work with Pete or anywhere else at the time. Additionally, as it was with George Martin, his humor and personality was a prefect fit at the right time as well. 'Nuff said for now.

  6. Remember the internal politics with Mona; Pete's mom havving her hand s in the mix in her involvement in the band...But also her relationship with Neil that produced a child. Heavy stuff at that time and probably enough to distance themselves...and although it's rarely talked about they stayed in touch...Mona provided the medals that John wore on his Sgt Pepper suit.

  7. Larry, I'm a big Ringo fan, mainly because I love solid back beat drumming. (I once argued with Micky Hart of the Grateful Dead about that: simple and solid is better!) Also, Ringo was brilliant at serving the needs of the SONG. His simple rolls and fills in Day Tripper, Nowhere Man, Drive My Car were absolutely perfect for those — and dozens of other — tracks. And I agree that his humor and personality was a perfect fit for the band.

    Having said that, I'm not sure he did any "leading kick drum work" and he was certainly not known for his technical prowess. I don't think there's any evidence that he was night-and-day better than Pete AS A DRUMMER. Of course we weren't there to see and hear the differences. (Pete is very solid drummer NOW, I can attest.) It's true that Pete didn't sound great in the very early recordings (e.g., Decca tapes) but all the Beatles sounded pretty dreadful then. Ringo improved immeasurably in the band between 1962 and 1964. Pete may have done likewise had he remained.

    That brings us to Paul W's point that there were a lot of other things going on at the time. Epstein resented Mona's meddling in the band's business and was certainly terrified of the brewing scandal re Mona & Neil(no big deal by current standards but this was 1962 Liverpool). Then there was Paul's jealousy that Pete was the top "chick magnet" in the band (to use Joel's phrase) and was far better at "pulling birds."

    But "in the end" it all worked out and Ringo added a nice (and solid) touch to the band. It even worked out well for Pete, as he came to realize years later. See:

  8. Take one or two things out of the equation and it may have never happened. Ringo is one of those things.

    Nothing at all against Pete personally - I have met him several times. He's a wonderful person and consider him a friend.

    But for the times, for a band on a mission, a band of talented young men that knew they weren't going to be doing anything else in those most important years, I suspect that they just had to have the best drummer in Liverpool to make to the toppermost.

    Plus he had rings . . .

  9. Since I'm 2/3 of the way through Daniel Kahneman's monumental tome "Thinking, Fast and Slow" I feel compelled to admit that it was almost certainly blind chance, not choice of drummer or even, heaven forbid, talent, which made these blokes the historical event they became.

    While I'm as big a Beatles fan as anyone not currently wearing "Paul is Dead" underwear, there are certain statistical and human realities at work which it is no fun to acknowledge.

    So, let's ignore those realities. (This is not snarkasm, it's just a better way to enjoy life.) The Beatles changed the world because they were good enough to, and questions like "Pete or Ringo? Hoffner or Rickenbacker? Stereo or mono?" are too much fun to put down.

    Mozart was unknown for 3 of the 4 centuries since his death. This fact, though unrelated, surely has some bearing on the point I'm pretending to make.

  10. Interestingly, The late Norman Smith wrote in his Autobiography published shortly before he died that the Beatles' audition at EMI definitely did NOT take place on 6th June 1962. He could not say what the actual date was though, only that he was adamant that it wasn't June 6th.

    This is questionable, as it differs to all other accounts that I have read. It's a great shame that we cannot now ask Norman why he was so sure about that point.

    Maybe Mark Lewisohn's 1st volume of his long awaited three part biography of the Beatles will shed more light on this.
    It's tentatively scheduled to be published this Autumn.

  11. Larry, I suppose if any of a hundred things occurred differently we might never have heard of the band — “Sensitive dependence on initial conditions” as they say. Yeah, Pete is one of the nicest and most unpretentious musicians I’ve ever met in the business. BTW, there IS a story floating around that Ringo was not the band’s first (or second) choice for Pete’s replacement. (Maybe the author of that controversial theory can weigh in on that if he’s checking in.)

    Interesting points, Joel (I think).

    Jordan, are you referring to Norman Smith’s book “John Lennon Called Me Normal”? On page 278 he acknowledged that the session was on June 6. But it wouldn’t surprise me if he disputes that elsewhere. Norman loves controversy. But in the Abby Road Studio notes it’s listed as June 6 (according to “The Beatles Recording Sessions” by Mark Lewisohn). BTW, in Norman’s book he related a conversation years later with John Lennon about what Epstein did to get the band signed with George Martin. Lennon, as well as some of the Abby Road staff, thought there was a “backhander” deal involved “under the counter.” If Jude Kessler (the best Beatles archivist I know) reads this, she might be able to shed some light on this.

    1. Hi John, thanks for your input. I went back to Norman Smith's book - Yes it is 'John Lennon called me Normal'
      I have an early signed souvenir first edition for 'The Fest for Beatles fans'
      The information I was referring to was not actually in the book but in a fly sheet shipped with it on an A3 sized piece of paper entitled "On 'Audition Day'"

      I'll quote directly from the text:
      'It was on a Friday afternoon when the management of Abbey Road studios pinned up on the staff noticeboard the recording programme for the forthcoming week and on this particular notice in 1962 was a session called 'Artist Test' followed by initials N.S. as the sound engineer. ~I can't remember the exact date (after all, it's 45 years ago)but what I can tell you for sure is that it was not 6th June as printed in some books'

      Norman then describes the events of the session, and in the final paragraph reiterates the point:-
      'The date of June 6th as being the first time the Beatles came to Abbey Road is not true, along with a couple of other 'stories' . June 6th was the first session of the 'Love Me Do' single, at which George Martin was not present. It was Ron Richards (George's assistant) and myself that 'took the session', which did not result in a 'Master take' being got, and more 'Love Me Do' sessions were to follow before their first single was released, without Pete Best on drums.'
      Norman (Normal) Smith

      What Norman is suggesting is that the June 6th Session was the first proper recording session, and that an artist test came prior to this and remains undocumented in various reference books.

      Looking at both Lewisohn's 'Recording Sessions' and 'chronicle' the former suggests that memories were blurred as to whether the 6th June date was an Artist test, commercial test, or the first session proper, plus John Skinner and George Martin recall the first session taking place in studio three, with Ron Richards, Norman Smith and others swear the 6th June date occurred in Studio 2
      The update in 'Chronicle'shows that paperwork came to light confirming that the 6th June session was in Studio 2. Lewisohn's text says this 'was not only an audition but also a proper recording date'

      But these memories of people who were present at the time do suggest a first artist test taking place prior to June 6th in Studio 3.

      Who knows.

  12. Jordan, fascinating stuff (at least for someone like myself who needs to get a life). Thanks for retrieving that. If there was an earlier Beatles audition session that would be a shocker to Beatles historians. Everything I’ve read suggests that Martin heard them for the first time at the end of that June 6 session (he missed most of it until the engineers called him in to listen to “Love Me Do”). Apparently he had heard a TAPE of the band when he met Epstein and agreed to sign them conditionally, depending on the outcome of a live studio audition. Jude Kessler, who meticulously details the events of June 6 in her book “Shivering Inside,” lists about 20 sources for it. (But sources often quote earlier sources so errors can get repeated.) This is like biblical scholarship.

    1. Hi John,
      Yes I completely agree with what you say, and that is exactly the same as how I perceived the events before reading Normans account.
      And I know I should also get out more often!

  13. Hey John!!
    50 years already? Went too fast for me!! Interesting mysteries....they were in uncharted territory when things got going well.
    Love those rabbit holes!!


  14. It is amazing how they went from these glorified skiffle bums in that first demo to these musical monsters. And if I read the story right, it sounds like good old-fashioned homosexuality made the Beatles. If Epstein wasn't so head over heels in love with both Paul and John, he never would have been so enthusiastic and he never would have sold them so hard to EMI.

    It's also amazing how horrible they became as individuals once the magic of the group was gone. They all needed each other so much to be any good. And I suspect it wasn't just ego that broke the group up. There was tremendous pressure to always one-up the latest Beach Boys album or Stones album or Buffalo Springfield album. They HAD to be the best, always. Nobody can keep that up. I think they wanted to end it on top, not as these fading douchebags ending up out of the top ten on the charts. Plus remember they quite right when music stopped being experimental and turned to regimental: Disco and heavy rotation of the "hits". Different drugs took over, love got replaced by Looking for Mr. Goodbar sex. I can't see the Beatles surviving in that climate.

  15. Ken, I've ALWAYS been amazed at the drop off in the quality of John & Paul's songs, post-Beatles. And it wasn't because they suddenly stopped cowriting. They stopped collaborating on compositions years before they disbanded. But their solo compositions during the Beatle years were vastly superior to their later solo output.

  16. I think the least-discussed aspect of the Beatles writing/performing is that they naturally completely blew all their attempts at emulation. From Lennon writing what he thought were R&B ballad copies--which sounded NOTHING like R&B, or their grotesque attempts at "country" music, or certainly anything close to "blues"--ludicrous. Yet each attempt produced a great song that sounded like nothing else but THEM. Therein lies the magic, and they couldn't help it. They were so THEM that they couldn't see that THAT'S what people wanted.

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