The Beatles are Dead! Long Live the Fab Four!

The Fab Four - John, Ringo, George and Paul
The Fab Four – John, Ringo, George and Paul

Were The Beatles and the Fab Four different? Much has been made of the drumming skills of Pete Best and Ringo Starr, and opinions are often at odds. Each has been praised for his talent, or criticized for his lack of it.

Pete Best was removed from The Beatles because of George Martin’s comments at the end of their June 1962 audition. Was it a clash of personalities, haircuts and the myriad other reasons given for Pete’s “dismissal”? Or was there something more fundamental going on which may have gone unnoticed? David Harris, Brian Epstein’s lawyer, confirmed that when Pete Best left, The Beatles effectively disbanded and then re-formed with Ringo. Was this more than just a legal sleight of hand that happened in the blink of an eye?

There are certain crisis points in Beatles history where the evolution of the group required a personnel change.

The Quarrymen in the parade on 6th July 1957
The Quarrymen, including John, on the wagon during the parade on 6th July 1957

John lennon needs paul mccartney

On 6th July 1957, Paul McCartney watched The Quarrymen perform a mixture of country, rock ‘n’ roll and skiffle. Yet rock ‘n’ roll would always remain John’s first love. The Quarrymen lacked the expertise to make that musical leap from a skiffle group to rock ‘n’ roll. John knew that if they were going to become a rock ‘n’ roll group, they needed more skilled musicians. Thankfully, Ivan Vaughan introduced him to his mutual friend Paul McCartney. All John had to decide was whether they would continue playing just for fun, or take themselves more seriously. Should they bring in a musician who had the talent to improve them?

By inviting Paul to join The Quarrymen, John knew that most of his friends would soon be leaving. Rock ‘n’ roll bands didn’t need a banjo, washboard or tea-chest bass. That reality hastened the departures of Rod Davis, Pete Shotton and Len Garry.

john and paul need George harrison

Paul McCartney, John Lennon and george Harrison as Japage 3
Paul McCartney, John Lennon and george Harrison as Japage 3

What John and Paul realised after Paul botched his solo on “Guitar Boogie” was that they needed a lead guitarist. Thankfully, Paul knew someone who could amply assume the role: George Harrison. Five months after John met Paul, George had replaced Eric Griffiths, and Rod, Pete and Len had departed. Only Colin Hanton, the drummer, remained. The nucleus of The Beatles was in place; John, Paul and George were now together.

The Quarrymen Are Dead: Long Live The Silver Beatles/Silver Beats/The Beatals

Rod Murray and Stuart Sutcliffe
Rod Murray and Stuart Sutcliffe copyright Rod Murray

John, Paul and George were desperate to have their own rock ‘n’ roll group. They offered a spot in the band to Rod Murray or Stu Sutcliffe, depending on who could get a bass. Stu joined the group when he purchased a bass with the proceeds from the sale of one of his paintings.

john, paul, George and stu need a drummer

The Beatles - John Lennon, George Harrison, Pete Best, Paul McCartney and Stuart Sutcliffe in Hamburg 1960
The Beatles – John Lennon, George Harrison, Pete Best, Paul McCartney and Stuart Sutcliffe in Hamburg 1960

As they ditched the Quarrymen name, John, Paul, George and Stu needed a drummer. Their new manager, Allan Williams, recruited Tommy Moore, and, at long last, they were a rock ‘n’ roll group. Through Tommy first, then Norman Chapman, the boys were able to convince Williams to get them bookings. Later, with new drummer Pete Best on board, to send them to Hamburg.

The Silver Beatles/Silver Beats/The Beatals Are Dead: Long Live The Beatles

The Silver Beatles - Stuart Sutcliffe, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Johnny Hutchinson and George Harrison
The Silver Beatles – Stuart Sutcliffe, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Johnny Hutchinson and George Harrison

With Pete now in the group, The Beatles became the greatest rock ‘n’ roll group Liverpool or Hamburg had seen. As Beatles promoter Sam Leach observed; “When The Beatles came back from Hamburg, they were the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band anyone had seen. Only those of us on the scene then saw The Beatles at their best: they were pure rock. They lost some of that when Brian put them in suits, but it worked, and you can’t argue with it.” 

there was nobody to touch us in britain

As John Lennon said: “We were four guys. I met Paul and said, do you want to join my band, and then George joined and Ringo joined. We were just a band who made it very,  very big; that’s all. Our best work was never recorded. In Liverpool, Hamburg and around the dance halls, and what we generated was fantastic when we played straight rock. There was nobody to touch us in Britain, but as soon as we made it, the edges were knocked off. Brian put us in suits and all that, and we were very successful, but we sold out. Our music was dead before we even went on the theatre tour of Britain.” (Rolling Stone Interview).

The Beatles did their best work in Liverpool and Hamburg. John is acknowledging that the group was at its best with Pete on drums. This is a point easily confirmed by any fan who saw the band perform in Liverpool or Hamburg. There was no one to touch them. However, John’s comments need to be taken in context. He loved those early days playing rock ‘n’ roll, but his words shouldn’t be viewed as a criticism of Ringo.  

john, paul, George and pete don’t need stu

The Beatles at the Cavern - Pete, George, John and Paul
The Beatles at the Cavern – Pete, George, John and Paul

This transitional period also saw a crucial change on bass guitar. Although Stu Sutcliffe was a decent rock ‘n’ roll bassist, they needed Paul McCartney. With Paul on bass, they could take it up a notch.    

1962: Rocked in: Popped Out – The Beatles Are Dead: Long Live The Fab Four

What we witnessed during the summer of 1962 was the end of The Beatles. They were the great rock ‘n’ roll group that had conquered Liverpool and Hamburg. Through Pete Best’s driving beat, Paul’s thumping bass, John’s fiery rhythm and George’s infectious rock ‘n’ roll guitar licks. What we then witnessed, with the introduction of Ringo, was the birth of the Fab Four. This new pop group would conquer the world. In 1962, they rocked in the year, but ‘popped’ it out in the charts with their new brand of music. They were at last achieving Brian Epstein’s vision of a polished, theatrically-astute and aesthetic pop group.

When Brian first saw them on at the Cavern, they were scruffy rebels in black leather. They were rocking the joint while eating, drinking, smoking and clowning around. When they were presented to the music press in 1962, they were four polite, cheeky, suited Liverpool lads. Brian’s vision of musical theatre was coming to fruition. His “boys” were now presentable in stage costumes with a rehearsed script and a set list. They even bowed at the end of their performances, much like a curtain call for a play. Their shows became carefully-crafted pieces of musical theatre. This was a huge leap into the unknown for the band, but one fully-orchestrated by Brian. The Beatles had evolved into the Fab Four. We couldn’t have both; one of them had to go, and the old style Beatles took the fall.

Things didn’t quite work with Pete, even though he was perfect for The Beatles were doing at the time. The Beatles were playing covers of other artists’ songs. There were certainly no documented issues raised prior to George Martin’s comments at EMI in June 1962. Ringo wasn’t even the first choice to replace Pete. What would The Beatles have been like had they hired Bobby Graham, Ritchie Galvin, Johnny Hutchinson ?

the fab four is born

Beatles drummer Ringo Starr joined The Beatles in August 1962
Beatles drummer Ringo Starr joined The Beatles in August 1962

Whatever magic potion he possessed, Ringo fit in perfectly with John, Paul and George, and it worked; history confirms that. As with any team, The Beatles proved that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. All that mattered was how they worked together. The group would always be greater than the individuals, regardless of talent. None of the Beatles was considered to be the best at his chosen instrument in Liverpool. Together they were greater than any musical team had even been, and likely will ever be. 

john, paul and George ask ringo

“Pete Best was good, but a bit limited,” said Paul. “You can hear the difference on the Anthology tapes. When Ringo joins us, we get a bit more kick, a few more imaginative breaks, and the band settles. So the new combination was perfect: Ringo with his very solid beat, laconic wit and Buster Keaton-like charm; John with his sharp wit and his rock ‘n’ rolliness, but also his other, quite soft side; George, with his great instrumental ability and who could sing some good rock ‘n’ roll. And then I could do a bit of singing and playing some rock ‘n’ roll and some softer numbers.” (Anthology).

Was Pete Best a Good Drummer?

In “Finding the Fourth Beatle“, we have analysed Pete’s drumming on the Tony Sheridan recordings from June 1961. On the accompanying CD, you can also hear the Decca audition from January 1962. Pete was a more-than-capable player. Extensive research conducted with various Merseybeat drummers about Pete’s drumming resulted in high praise from so many of them.

pete was a great drummer

Billy Kinsley played in the Pete Best Band. He is adamant that they didn’t get rid of Pete because he was a poor drummer. “You ask drummers who were around at the time,” said Billy, “and they say that Pete was a great drummer. I never had a problem at all with Pete. He was great, absolutely superb. Nothing against Ringo, but there was nothing wrong with Pete. However, John, Paul and George knew nothing about the recording business, and nor did Brian. If you saw any of those gigs at the Cavern , all the girls were screaming for Pete. That’s what The Beatles was all about; those three crazy guys and the moody guy who didn’t smile or was quiet, but it worked. Getting rid of him didn’t make sense to us.

From You To Me

So if fellow musicians didn’t see a problem with Pete, what was it? Was there a power shift within The Beatles from John to Paul. Paul’s repertoire and more eclectic song choices would appeal to a wider variety of audiences. Theywere better suited to a group who wanted to make, and sell, records. When it came to covering some of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll and R&B songs, The Beatles with Pete were second to none. John admitted that.

from rock to pop, beatles to fab four

However, for a group writing its own commercial pop songs, a change of direction was needed, and that meant a drummer who was used to playing a more varied song selection. They found that drummer in Ringo Starr, who had performed with Rory Storm and The Hurricanes at the Butlin’s holiday camps, entertaining audiences other than those at the Cavern and the clubs of Liverpool. Brian Epstein was desperately trying to get The Beatles away from those clubs, and John, Paul and George knew that.  

The Beatles John Paul George and Ringo - The Fab Four
The Beatles John Paul George and Ringo – The Fab Four

So, when Ringo joined the group, they went from being The Beatles, the rock ‘n’ roll kings, to the Fab Four, the greatest-ever pop group. It is possible that, by changing drummers, John was trying to suggest that The Beatles were dead; long live the Fab Four. Both were great bands in their own right, and each had a great drummer in his own right. Pete Best helped The Beatles conquer Liverpool and Hamburg, and also secure Brian Epstein, the manager who would make them famous and attain the record deal they craved. For his contributions, Pete Best should be celebrated and thanked.

Read the full story in Finding the Fourth Beatle.

It is ok to celebrate and like both Pete Best and Ringo Starr; The Beatles were dead: Long Live the Fab Four.

David Bedford

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1959 in Beatles History: The Quarrymen open The Casbah Coffee Club

The Quarrymen open the Casbah
The Quarrymen open the Casbah. George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Ken Brown and John Lennon

1959 is an important year for the group, as, after only a few appearances, they have no more bookings, and George Harrison joins another group, the Les Stewart Quartet. It could have been the end of the road for John, Paul and George, but a twist of fate sees them open The Casbah Coffee Club.

29th August 1959 – The Quarrymen open The Casbah

26th October 1959 – Johnny and the Moondogs

December 1959 – Rod Murray and Stuart Sutcliffe are invited to join the group

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Stuart Fergusson Victor Sutcliffe

Happy birthday Stuart Sutcliffe
Happy birthday Stuart Sutcliffe

When John and Paul realised that they needed a bass player in their group, they approached two of John’s friends, Stu Sutcliffe and Rod Murray, and offered them the position. The first one to accept would get the job, provided they had their own bass guitar.

They both welcomed the challenge, and Stuart Sutcliffe won. However, Stu has probably had more criticism than any other member of The Beatles over his talent, or perceived lack of musical ability. For decades, the memory of Stuart Sutcliffe has been tainted by those who claim that, even though he was a brilliant painter, he was not much of a musician.

How many times have you heard it said about Stuart?

Rod Murray and Stuart Sutcliffe
Rod Murray and Stuart Sutcliffe copyright Rod Murray

‘He was only in the group because he was John’s friend’.

‘He used to stand with his back to the audience’.

‘He used to play unplugged so that they couldn’t hear how bad he was playing’.

‘He looked great on stage, but he couldn’t really play’.

Stuart’s talent as a painter has never been in doubt, with a long career as an artist assured, if only he hadn’t died at the tender age of only 21.

The Real Stuart Sutcliffe

Stu with The Beatles in Hamburg
Stu with The Beatles in Hamburg

Many art experts have said that, had he lived, Stuart would have been one of the pre-eminent painters of the 1960s. On the other hand, there have been many authors and commentators who have told us repeatedly that Stuart couldn’t play the bass. I decided to speak to the people who knew him best: his sister Pauline; Art College friend and flatmate Rod Murray; friend and fellow musician Klaus Voormann; and other musicians who were there at the time.

What evidence can we find to support the claim that Stuart was a good bass player? Or will we find evidence to substantiate the opposing view that he really couldn’t play?

Stuart’s musical skills began when he started playing the piano as a young boy. “Stuart had previously been learning the piano,” said Millie Sutcliffe, Stuart’s mum. “Stuart’s father was a wonderful pianist, a classical musician, though not commercial or anything like that. He played just for his own pleasure. Stuart’s knowledge of music helped him, and he was a pretty good singer, too.”

As Stuart was learning the piano, his father Charles bought him a Spanish guitar, which he played a little, but not to any great level. This alone was not enough to give him an edge in joining the group. As his mum Millie had said, Stuart was also a good singer. He was, in fact, the head chorister at his local church of St. Gabriel’s, Huyton.

Rod Murray or Stuart Sutcliffe – the Bass Race

Rod Murray with the bass guitar he started to make
Rod Murray with the bass guitar he started to make

When John, Paul and George needed a bass player, they offered the position to Stuart and his flatmate Rod Murray. Neither could afford to buy one, so Rod, also at Art College, designed and started to make his own bass guitar.

Stuart’s painting was purchased at an exhibition in the Walker Art Gallery. The exhibition ran from 19 November 1959 to 17 January 1960 and, contrary to some reports, Stuart did not win the competition. However, John Moores, who sponsored the competition, purchased Stuart’s painting, giving him the money to buy the bass guitar. Rod still has his part-made bass guitar, and told me all about it in my interview for The Fab one hundred and Four.

Learning Bass

Admittedly, when Stuart purchased his bass guitar, he couldn’t play it. But as a natural musician, and under the tutelage of musician David May, he soon picked it up.

Hamburg – Howie, Dick and Klaus

In order to provide continuous music, Koschmider split up The Beatles and The Seniors, giving Howie Casey the chance to assess Stuart’s competence as a bass player up close. “I was given Stuart Sutcliffe along with Derry and Stan Foster from the Seniors, and we had a German drummer. Stu had a great live style,” he recalled. (Fab one hundred and Four)

Rick Hardy of The Jets also witnessed Sutcliffe at close hand in Hamburg. “Stu never turned his back on stage,” he said emphatically. “Stu certainly played to the audience and he certainly played bass. If you have someone who can’t play the instrument properly, you have no bass sound. There were two rhythm guitarists with The Beatles and if one of them couldn’t play, you wouldn’t have noticed it – but it’s different with a bass guitar. I was there and I can say quite definitely that Stuart never did a show in which he was not facing the audience.”

One of those who became very close to Stuart in Hamburg was Klaus Voormann, who himself became a great bassist respected the world over. “Stu was a really good rock and roll bass player,” said Voormann, “a very basic bass player. He was, at the time, my favourite bass player, and he had that cool look. The Beatles were best when Stuart was still in the band. To me it had more balls. It was even more rock and roll when Stuart was playing the bass and Paul was playing piano or another guitar. The band was, somehow, as a rock and roll band, more complete.”

Pete Best on Stuart

In a rock ‘n’ roll band, the rhythm is driven by the drums and bass guitar working closely together, so the opinion of The Beatles’ drummer, Pete Best, is an important contribution to this debate. ”Stu was a good bass player,” Pete said. “I’ve read so many people putting him down for his bass playing. I’d like to set that one straight. His bass playing was a lot better than people give him credit for. He knew what his limits were. What he did was accept that and he gave 200%. He was the smallest Beatle with the biggest heart.” (quote from interview for Liddypool).

The Bats

After he’d left The Beatles, not long before his death, Stuart was asked to play with a German group, The Bats. He borrowed his old bass guitar from Klaus Voormann (who had recently purchased it from Stuart) and played with The Bats at the Hamburg Art School Carnival and the Kaiserkeller.

Hopefully, that puts the argument to an end. Stu could play bass!

Stuart Sutcliffe
Stuart Sutcliffe

Stuart brought style, image and a fashion-sense to make The Beatles look cool on stage. He was a great and talented artist too. But he was more than that; he was a good bass player, at a time when John Lennon said The Beatles were at their best. John always remembered his friend; “I looked up to Stu, I depended on him to tell me the truth.”

Read the full story, plus my interview with Rod Murray in “The Fab one hundred and Four“.

Stuart Sutcliffe Fan Club

For the last few years, it has been my privilege to help run the official Stuart Sutcliffe Fan Club on behalf of the family. Join us for free and get updates on events etc to do with Stuart. You can also see examples of his artwork online as well.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY STUART SUTCLIFFE

David Bedford

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