Looking for the right chemistry — my interview with Chas Newby (part one)

Chas Newby

To put it mildly, The Beatles were a major disruptor in my life.

From the first time I heard them blasting out of my transistor radio one cold winter morning in Arlington, Massachusetts, I was hooked. Nothing was quite the same after that. Within a few years I had abandoned academia (and my nebulous plans for post-graduate study in philosophy and ancient Greek) and was off to California with my college rock band, The Morning.

It was an easy decision to make, given that nearly everyone I hung out with was a musician and was as enthralled as I was by the new musical zeitgeist inspired by The Beatles. After all, rock & roll by the late 60s was something to pay attention to—even as a career—by musically inclined college students. Many of my buddies who were studying for professions in economics, engineering, psychology, or law would have put their plans on indefinite hold if they had found the right band.

That’s why Chas Newby’s story—known to few people—is so intriguing to me. Chas (left in the photo) was a musician who wouldn’t stray from his path to be a chemical engineer. He was invited to sit in as a substitute bass-player by a hot local band that had just returned from months of performing in Germany. After a few gigs, when he was invited to stay on, Chas declined. School came first, he said. The band he turned down was The Beatles.

Here is part one of an interview (edited for brevity) I recently had with Chas.

Me: You did four dates with The Beatles in late 1960 after they returned to Liverpool from Hamburg. You filled in for Stu Sutcliffe, the Beatles’ bass-player, who remained in Germany, right?

Chas: In December 1960, I was into my second year at college studying Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. Pete Best [the Beatles’ drummer at the time] was a good friend (and still is) and it was his suggestion that I substitute for Stuart over the holiday period as a temporary bass player until Stuart’s anticipated return to Liverpool early in 1961.

Me: I have to ask you: why did you decline John Lennon's invitation to stay on with the band and play with them for their return to Hamburg?

Chas: I suspect John’s invitation was more a matter of encouraging other Liverpool musos to get over to Hamburg and join in the fun, rather than actually replace Stuart. [Editor's note: This is subject to debate, given Stuart’s desire to leave the band.] I had no aspirations to be a professional musician, I was earning a salary to go to college, to do what I wanted to do.

Me: Did you really go years without telling anyone that you had played with The Beatles—until the 1980s when Pete Best "outed" you?

Chas: My close circle of friends knew about my brief time with the band. After I graduated, my wife and I moved away from Liverpool to live in rural Warwickshire. I was then amongst a different group of people. The early books about the Beatles were more concerned with the impact the Beatles had on popular music and culture, rather than historical accuracy. Pete’s book [Beatle: The Peter Best Story] was the first time that my name appeared in any published work, quickly followed by Mark Lewisohn’s [The Beatles Live] a year later.

Me: Is it true that The Beatles had a more rough-and-tumble brand than the other local bands in 1960? They were in their leather-jackets-and-cowboy-boots phase then, right?

Chas: At the end of 1960, most of the bands in Liverpool had adopted the style of the bands that were popular at the time. The most popular UK band was Cliff Richard and the Shadows and the US influences were the emasculated Bobbys, i.e., Rydell and Vinton, etc. The Beatles championed the classic American kick-ass rock and roll of Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Eddie Cochrane. The other Liverpool bands appeared on stage in suits, wearing ties. The Beatles preferred black leather jackets and trousers with cowboy boots, all purchased in Hamburg. The other bands used the stage to perform little dance steps, whereas the Beatles were stamping around repeating their “mach show” [“put on a show”] antics from the Indra and Kaiserkellar Clubs in Hamburg.

Me: Pete Best told me the band really cranked up the volume during that period, especially the low end.

Chas: Compared to present times, the amplifiers used in 1960 were very low powered, maybe 20 or 30 watts, and there were no fold-back speakers for the bands to hear what was coming out of the equally low powered PA systems. So the amps were just turned up to maximum all the time.

[To be continued]

Chas may have been a tad self-effacing in his assessment of his chances of actually staying with The Beatles. Yes, their full-time bassist, Stu Sutcliffe, was John’s best friend, but Stu had already let it be known that painting was his top priority—and superior talent—while Paul McCartney (vocalist/guitarist/pianist at the time, and musical perfectionist) had been voicing his dissatisfaction with Stu’s bass-playing. Regarding Stu’s future, the painting was on the wall. He wanted out. He hadn’t even returned to Liverpool with the band.

Then along came a quality musician—and easy-to-get-along-with mate—who filled in on bass and made the band sound immediately better. You don’t have to be a history detective to know where this was headed if Chas had decided to forgo his pursuit of chemical engineering. But that was not to be. Fortunately, it worked out well for Chas, who went on to a career he's thoroughly enjoyed. It worked out ok for The Beatles too.

Under the tutelage of manager Brian Epstein, who discovered the band a year later, The Beatles would improve their craft, clean up their look and sound, replace Stu on bass with Paul McCartney (and replace Pete on drums with Ringo Starr), and maintain a torrid schedule of performances in the UK. Almost exactly three years after Chas's time with them, the band would explode onto the international scene and become the most successful band—artistically and commercially—that the world has ever seen.

Next month I’ll post the second half of my interview with Chas, in which he gives his first-hand perspective of the Beatles’ historic Litherland Town Hall performance, which finally put the band on the map. (I don’t think you can get more “first-hand” than playing next to them...with them...on stage...at the actual gig.)

Meanwhile, I’m encouraging Chas to write at least an eBook about his story—which should include his years as a chemical engineer, mathematics teacher, and choir singer. (Maybe the title should be My Chemical Romance: a Life Beyond the Beatles.) Feel free to offer us your suggestions for a title.

The business lesson here? Follow your bliss, especially—in these times—if it involves engineering and math.

(For more on Stu Sutcliffe, check here.)

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  1. Wow, that close to fame and fortune, and he's glad. If only I had a leather diaper and lived in Liverpool--maybe they would have chosen me.

    How 'bout:

    "My Chemistry With The Beatles: How we both made the grade"

  2. So many would have wasted their lives lamenting coulda woulda shoulda. He could focus on what he didn't, but it reduces regret to focus on what we did.

    And I hear he's still a monster bass player, so who knows where his musical career might yet go.

  3. Great interview! How about an eBook called:

    "I Want to Help Your Band" or
    "Goodbye, Hello" or
    "Somewhere Man" or
    I'm a bit weak with Beatles puns but you get the idea...

    1. All good ideas. I like the original title of that song, "Hello, Goodbye." Maybe "Hello, Goodbye: My Brief Life With the Beatles." "Somewhere Man" is pretty funny.

      Chas may be checking in, so perhaps we'll hear what he likes.

      I have no idea if he wants to do a book, however. But I'm ready to promise that from this blog alone he'd pick up 3 or 4 readers. That alone might persuade him.

      1. How about these for punny names:

        He Loves You Yeah Yeah Nope
        It Won't Be Long
        Not A Second Time
        Run For Your Life
        Think For Yourself
        You Won't See Me
        Got To Get Me Out Of Their Life
        Day Tripper
        I Want To Tell You
        Yesterday: Tomorrow Never Knows
        Without A Little Help From My Friends
        For The Benefit Of Mr. Lennon
        A Day In A Life (Mine)
        It's All Too Much
        Baby They Are Rich Men
        Everybody's Got Something To Hide

    1. Hey Rick, long time no ocean. I met Chas at the Beatles Fest, an annual Beatles convention that takes place in the Meadowlands, NJ, on a March or April weekend. It's where I interviewed Norman Smith (the first Beatles engineer) and Jude Southerland Kessler (the Lennon biographer) among others. It's Mecca for Beatlephiles — at a bargain price. It provides easy access to lotsa musicians, authors, recording engineers, concert promoters, djs, etc. who have worked with the Beatles at one time or other. I try to make it every year and am always inviting folks to join me. See ya next year?

  4. It may be possible that John still harbored ideas (hope) that Stu could be persuaded to play with them again, once they got back to Germany, thinking that his time away from the band would instill the same feelings. Anyway, I'm kinda glad Paul got saddled with the bass.

  5. Fair point, Ed. I'm sure John felt pretty ambivalent about the whole thing. He wanted Stu to stay for personal reasons but recognized that Stu's heart wasn't into it, that he was holding the band back musically, and that eventually he would leave. But I think everyone, Chas included, is glad it all worked out the way it did (with the exception of Stu's tragic death from a brain aneurysm.) I think even Pete is now happy with the final outcome: http://businesslessonsfromrock.com/notes/2008/11/the-long-winding-high-road

  6. At schools with Chas and then studied Chem Eng with him.
    Rode through mersey tunnel on his 650 BSA (NO HELMET)!!!
    Often wondered what happened to Chas

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