Were guitar groups really on the way out as Decca producer and executive Dick Rowe supposedly told Brian Epstein? Was that why they failed the Decca Audition? Mike Smith had raved about The Beatles when he visited the Cavern just a couple of weeks earlier, so why would Rowe not like their sound? “When Mike came back,” said Rowe, “I said, ‘Well, what are they like?’ I wasn’t excited, but I was very interested because there was a lot of underground talk about them. Mike said, ‘Oh, they’re great!’ I said, ‘Well, you better bring them down and give them an audition.” (The Beatles: Oral History)
Finding the Fourth Beatle
In Finding the Fourth Beatle, we decided to analyse the Decca audition in more detail than had been done before. There are so many subjective comments and biases that come through, that we felt we couldn’t just offer another author’s opinion on Pete Best, who seems to get a lot of blame. Was he responsible? Was he a crap drummer as some people think? So, we asked three drummers, of different generations, to listen to the Decca audition and give us their objective opinions on Pete’s drumming. It was very revealing!
Surely, if they were a three-part harmony, guitar-based group like Brian Poole and The Tremeloes. The sound was comparable, so was it simply a case of the two bands being too similar? On the surface, the answer is yes. However, when you dig a bit deeper, you can see why Dick Rowe didn’t sign The Beatles which, thankfully, meant that they were paired with George Martin and not Rowe.
So why has Dick Rowe been blamed for turning down The Beatles? Is the criticism justified? Was it simply a north-south divide problem? Was he biased against Liverpool artists? History shows that Rowe was responsible for the first no. 1 record by a Liverpool artist, even if it was “(How Much Is That) Doggie In The Window” by Lita Roza in March 1953. He also recorded “Halfway To Paradise” and “Jealousy”, two hits by Merseyside’s first rock ‘n’ roll star Billy Fury. The handsome singer-songwriter hailed from Liverpool, so wouldn’t that work in The Beatles’ favour?
So what was it? Did Dick Rowe make the decision, or did The Beatles make the decision for Dick Rowe? Put yourself in Rowe’s place; whom would you have signed? As you will see, it wasn’t a straight comparison between the two groups after all.
1st January 1962: Crying, Waiting, Hoping – The Story of The Audition
Let’s examine The Beatles’ Decca audition in more detail, song-by-song. Bear in mind that they performed these fifteen numbers in less than an hour, probably getting only one shot at each. Mike Smith has said that he expected them to reproduce the great performance he’d seen at the Cavern, and encouraged them to “play the whole spectrum of music” he’d heard.
Even though the songs were regularly performed in their act, they weren’t really representative of The Beatles’ sound. Brian was keen to demonstrate their wide range of talents, both individually and as a group, and to show their musical versatility. In hindsight, it was probably a mistake. But Brian didn’t impose the songs on them.
George and Paul
As George recalled: “In those days a lot of the rock ‘n’ roll songs were actually old tunes from the ‘40s, ‘50s or whenever, which people had rocked up. That was the thing to do if you didn’t have a tune; just rock up an oldie. Joe Brown had recorded a rock ‘n’ roll version of ‘The Sheik of Araby’. He was really popular on the Saturday TV show Six-Five Special and Oh Boy! I did the Joe Brown records, so I did ‘Sheik of Araby’. Paul sang ‘September in the Rain’. We each chose a number we wanted to do.” (Anthology)
Pete thought that, in hindsight, they shouldn’t have allowed Brian to have as much say in the songs they performed: “It was a strange dish to set before the recording kings, with the emphasis on standards which, I remember, was mainly at Brian’s insistence. Really, we were doing little that was different.” (Beatle! The Pete Best Story) John later said that the group “should have rocked like mad in there and shown what we’re like when we’re roused.” (The Beatles: The Biography, Spitz)
Morning arrived all too soon – but not that early, as Brian Epstein noted: “At 11 am…we arrived at Decca in a thin bleak wind, with snow and ice afoot,” he said rather poetically, carefully omitting the detail. (Cellarful of Noise)
Pete recalled Brian’s wrath after he’d warned them about staying out past ten: “When we got to the Decca studios the next day, we were late. Seems to be our history, being late, and Brian of course, was there before us. He was absolutely livid. He tore a strip off us left, right and centre. John just basically turned round and said, ‘Brian, shut up. We’re here for the audition, right.’” (Beatles at The BBC 2012)
Use Our Own Amps?
For some unexplained reason, The Beatles had taken their own amplifiers, as if they were turning up for a live gig. That was the first problem. Their cheap amps may have been passable for performing in clubs, but the hum the amplifiers emitted in the recording studio was an issue. When the hum proved far too audible to the sound engineers, they had to be changed for Decca’s own studio amps. “They didn’t want our tackle,” said Neil. “We had to use theirs. We needn’t have dragged our amps all the way from Liverpool.” (The Beatles. Hunter Davies)
True! This clearly shows how ill-prepared and ill-informed they had been. Adding more headaches to their groggy condition, they also had to cope with a huge, open, icy-cold studio. Decca had been closed for the Christmas period and, consequently, there was little or no room heat.
The boys were accustomed to close interaction in their live performances, but the recording studio was quite another story. The unfamiliar layout meant they could not communicate in the usual way. To avoid sound bleeding into other microphones from the drums, Pete was situated behind a studio ‘baffle’, an isolation screen. This made direct eye contact with the others almost impossible for Pete as all four struggled to keep cue off each other.
Don Dorsey, an engineer who has worked at Abbey Road, explained why this would be a problem: “A recording studio environment is quite different to a live environment. In a live hall, all band members are relatively close together and all their sound output mixes in the environment – the drummer hears everything. In a recording studio, it would be customary for the drummer to be separated from the rest of the band with a large wall-like sound baffle. The purpose of baffles is to keep sounds from one player intruding too much into the microphones of the others. As a result, to hear other band members well, headphones must be used and the sound would be nothing like a live appearance.” (Liddypool DB 2007)
The physical separation was new to The Beatles; the setup at the Hamburg recording sessions had been completely different. They also noticed for perhaps the first time the vast difference between playing to a control booth and performing in front of a live audience. As the top group in Liverpool and Hamburg, they had learnt to “mach shau” – to “work” the audience. This time around, the chance to recreate the magic of the Cavern, which Mike Smith had enjoyed so much, was impossible. On top of everything else, they had a classic case of audition nerves which affected their delivery of even the most familiar songs. No assessment of the Decca audition can be done without taking into consideration all these factors, both external and internal.
Seeing Red – Songs in the Key of Fraught Nerves and Temper Tantrums
Tensions had simmered from the moment The Beatles arrived, gathering even more momentum when the ever-punctual Brian became angered by the late arrival of the Decca staff. Culprit-in-chief was Mike Smith who, like the four lads, was also hung over from the night before. Brian took it personally. “Mike Smith was late and we were pretty annoyed about the delay. Not only because we were anxious to tape some songs but because we felt we were being treated as people who didn’t matter.” (Cellarful of Noise) Here, Epstein reveals his inner insecurity by letting slip his overblown sense of grievance about being treated as someone of importance.
In reality, The Beatles were no doubt relieved that they weren’t the only ones to arrive late, or the only ones to rattle Epstein’s code of behaviour. Dick Rowe avoided the flack this time. The man responsible for the final decision wasn’t at the session. That was left to Smith, who would report the feedback to Rowe later. In the meantime, with everyone finally in place, studio equipment was set up, levels were taken by the engineers in the control booth, and they were off. The scary red light came on, and in the silence and isolation of the Decca studio, the audition began.
Red Light Area
Although the use of the red light was customary to let everyone know that they were ready to record, it was a distraction. “They were pretty frightened,” said Neil. “Paul couldn’t sing one song. He was too nervous and his voice started cracking up. They were all worried about the red light. I asked if it could be put off, but we were told people might come in if it was off. ‘You what?’ we said. We didn’t know what all that meant.” (The Beatles. Hunter Davies) To add to the confusion, the group knew very little about all the microphones, booms and controls. The boys were truly in uncharted territory.
Part 2 coming next