My interview with Chas Newby—part two

CN

Chas Newby is finally getting the notoriety he deserves.

As the Beatles’ bass player for one month in 1960, Chas was onstage for the breakthrough performance that put The Beatles on the map as a serious Liverpool band. Chas played on only four gigs—filling in for original bassist Stu Sutcliffe—but he made an impression on the lads and was invited by John Lennon to continue with the band for their return to Hamburg, Germany.

What was especially newsworthy about this—as mentioned in my post last month—is that Chas declined the invitation to remain with The Beatles because he wanted to return to school to get his chemical engineering degree. And he has zero regrets about his decision—and the possibility that he might have become the permanent bass-player for the world’s most successful band, given the fact that Stu badly wanted out of the band to focus on painting. (Stu quit for good 6 months later.)

Picking up where I left off in part one of my interview…

Me: The Beatles' performance that you took part in on December 27, 1960 at the Litherland Town Hall is considered historic: a critical turning point for the band, giving them significant local attention for the first time ever. Can you tell me your memory of that gig and the Litherland audience?

Chas: They were not prepared for the post-Hamburg tightness of the band, or the performance experience of playing virtually every night for four months. Litherland Town Hall was a public dancehall, with a sprung floor and elevated stage. People went there to dance, the bands were there just to provide the music. We were billed as “direct from Hamburg,”and there were some people in the hall who thought we were German. Bob Wooler introduced the band, set up behind the stage curtain, along the lines of “Ladies and Gentleman, direct from Hamburg, the B…..” He got no further, the curtains opened and Paul nudged him off the microphone and blasted out the opening line of the Little Richard song “Long Tall Sally”.

Me: Did the crowd go crazy?

Chas: The audience were expecting to dance while the band minced about on stage providing sterile music. They were not prepared for the band to perform on stage, assaulting them with noise and excitement. The reaction was swift, the dancing evaporated and the audience clamored around the stage to watch and react to a performance.

Me: Must have been amazing.

Chas: The other guys had their cowboy boots, but I was wearing normal shoes. My lasting memory was that my feet hurt from all the stamping on stage. Happy days.

Me: Given the power of that performance, did you think they might make it to the top someday?

Chas: Up until Christmas 1960, The Beatles were not even well known in Liverpool, but that changed when people realized what a talented group of performers they were. At that time, there were no professional recording studios or music publishing facilities in Liverpool. All of that type of activity was located in London. Over the next few months The Beatles cemented their position in both Liverpool and Hamburg. Despite their undoubted talent both as performers and writers they were up against enormous odds against achieving any lasting success. Brian Epstein was the guy who enabled and organized their greater exposure, first in the UK and then worldwide. Cream will always rise to the top, but the odds against a talented group from Liverpool were substantial.

Me: What was your reaction when the Beatles exploded in the UK in 1963—and internationally in 1964? Were you shocked? And even though you were happy with your career choice, did you allow yourself to fantasize what it might have been like for you, if you had joined the band and they had achieved the same level of success?

Chas: When the Beatles finally made it in the UK at the end of 1962, I was really pleased for them, as was everybody who lived in Liverpool. I knew how much effort they had put in to succeed against the odds to penetrate the business, which was entirely centered in London at that time. Fantasizing about what might have happened is just so negative. Forget yesterday, concentrate on tomorrow. I had other objectives which fortunately, I was able to achieve.

Me: I hear different opinions about Lennon being the boss in the early days. But Pete Best told me the band was run very democratically. From your time with them, did you get a sense of how much John was calling the shots?

Chas: In my brief time with the band, I wasn’t aware of John being the boss. I agree with Pete’s view that it was more of a collective atmosphere rather than a leader and the others following.

There's a lesson here for business organizations: growing talent from within has its advantages. After Chas turned down the gig and Stu eventually quit, Paul McCartney—who was the third guitarist in the group—was “promoted” to bass where he had more influence on the sound of the band. This move dramatically improved the rhythm section (Paul was years ahead of Stu musically) while “trimming headcount.” A tighter, more efficient band was the immediate result.

And there's a lesson here for students who are considering interrupting school and their path to a business or academic career by jumping into a band (as I did myself): it's important to know what your goal is. For Chas it was a degree in Chemical Engineering and ultimately a career in chemistry. Music came second. In my case music came first. Fortunately, each of us followed our own compass and neither of us is second-guessing our decision.

As mentioned in part one of the interview, I’m hoping Chas will write a book about his experiences. Readers are invited to continue to share their suggestions for the title. My favorite so far (thanks, Mark Foscoe) is Hello, Goodbye: My Brief Life as the Fifth Beatle.


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18 Comments

  1. The Beatles' 3rd guitarist. There's something for one's resume.

    I'd love to have insight into the reasons for these choices, whether they were personal, whimsical, musical, financial, political. So many layers, and fun to see which dumb choices had brilliant results, and the other way 'round.

    1. No doubt. It'd be fun to read all the rationalizing and posturing and find the little snippets of truth that sneak out.

      Always struck by how Lennon and Dylan continually made stuff up for the press, contradicting themselves, saying things that were provably untrue. Dylan said it was none of their business, they were just looking for a story so he gave 'em one.

  2. Chas's back-story is vague to me. Was he already playing with other popular bands at the time or was he just occasionally sitting-in around town when somebody needed a bassist?

    1. Chas was on holiday from school when he sat in with the Beatles. Pete Best recommended him as a fill-in because Pete had played with Chas earlier that year in a different band, the Blackjacks. They were the house band at the Casbah. Chas was the Blackjacks' lead guitarist.

  3. Re: "he might have become the permanent bass-player for the world’s most successful band" -

    With all due respect to Mr Newby, I think The Beatles, in any other configuration than the ultimate foursome we all know and love, would have never become the world's most successful band. The Beatles 'Magic' was only truly unlocked once their final lineup was established.

    1. Fair point, Jay Zee. There WAS something magically unique about this foursome. And there was a serendipitous sequence of events that contributed to their rise that would have been disrupted if any of the initial events had been altered. (“Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions” aka “the Butterfly Effect” which I write about in an earlier post, arguing the very point you’re making.) But with a first-rate musician like Chas on bass (as opposed to Stu Sutcliffe) and with Paul as a free-floating hyper-talented multi-instrumentalist (guitar, keyboards, and who-knows-what), they could have become an even more talented musical entity (though that wouldn't have guaranteed commercial success).

  4. I think the lead here is intelligently and ruthlessly culling the band/team, and random luck. Even though Chas and Stu left on their own (random), The Pete Best headchop was ruthless and smart. And the decision to add George early on was inspired.

    The Beatles with THREE GUITARS? Disaster, there would have been fights, and endless sloppy arrangements, and guys quitting.

    Stu was a crappy bass player so hopefully they would have axed him anyways. Certainly Martin would have cut him in the end. No idea if Chas was any good on bass, but no doubt he couldn't hold a candle to Paul.

    When I think back to the fave band I was in, we started at MIT with this awful Farfisa organ player and a weak drummer. Got a better drummer who ended up being my roommate, and I had to fire him AND move him and his wife to another state. But it was worth it.

    Got a talented and motivated young kid on drums just out of the Cambridge School of Weston and his jazz trumpeter friend. Solid moves. And replaced the shitty organ grinder with Don Grolnick (Steely Dan, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Jeff Beck, Dreams, etc etc etc).

    It's really hard to fire people, especially when you're friends with them. But carefully culling and trimming the weak players can make all the difference in the world. In business, don't just settle for random team members who are there by default. Do the diligence to shape the team like a fine sculpture, and you will indeed get a work of art.

      1. Sorry, I missed this until now, Joel.

        Neither Paul nor Chas had played any serious bass in 1960. Chas told me that month was the first time he'd ever played bass on stage, but he was a good guitarist, as was Paul. Paul was probably a more experienced overall musician at that point, given how many years he'd been playing guitar and piano. I might ask Chas about that at some point.

        1. I'd forgotten this myself.

          These days, I can usually hear (I tell myself) when a guitarist is (over)playing the bass. Once in a while, though, I hand mine to a friend who says they've never tried it, and get good results. Most guitarists can't step back from all those extra notes.

          His comment would be an interesting insight.

          1. What's amazing is that guitarist Paul, for the time, WAY overplayed the bass, but he made it work! His little riffs and lines which would never have been played by some LA session bassist are instant classics! What an exceptional ear and taste for pop bass styling.

          2. Upon reflection you're obviously right.

            I'm going to pretend that playing a rinky-dink Hofner violin made it work. Was it after he switched primarily to the Rickenbacker that he played simpler stuff?

            I guess we can all see the depth of my musical analysis. That's a book I'd like to read: how their styles and instruments changed every step of the way.

  5. Scanning back through the years,I must admit the really memorable high, melodic riffs of Paul's that stand out are on the Rick bass, not the Hofner.

    On the Hofner he played very effective, fairly simple root/five/root/five lines, always intuitive and just right for the chord.

    But once he got the Rick, you started hearing all those distinctive, signature, high "Don't Bring Me Down" or "You Never Give Me Your Money"-style melodic/passing chord riffs.

    The Rick was a far more playable bass, had much superior frets and high fret access, plus superior high-output pickups which popped much better in the high end so you could really hear the high notes. Plus Paul could get some overdrive with those hot Rick pickups allowing for some nice distortion at times.

    The Hofner was strictly Old Skool with relatively wimpy pickups and little high end. Fine for 3-chord ditties. But far too restrictive for where they were headed musically.

    1. Yes, McCartney’s playing in “Don’t Let Me Down” is some of his finest work as a bassist. In the bridge section, he creates the perfect sonic effect for someone in love for the first time.

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