Wednesday 20 February 2013

The Decca Audition - 1 January 1962

Monday 1 January 1962
Decca Studios, 165 Broadhurst Gardens, London (11:00am-2:00pm)

John Lennon rhythm guitar (Rickenbacker 325 guitar), Vocals
Paul McCartney bass (Hofner 500/1 bass), Vocals
George Harrison lead guitar (Gretsch Duo Jet guitar), Vocals
Pete Best drums (blue Premier kit with 26" kick drum)

Mike Smith: Producer
Peter Attwood: Engineer

(Source: Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald, Vintage 2005, and Beatles Gear: All the Fab Four's Instruments from Stage to Studio, Andy Babuick, Backbeat Books 2002)
As the man who built up NEMS Ltd., the self-styled “Finest Record Selection In The North”, Brian Epstein was in regular touch with all of London’s major record companies: Decca, EMI, Phillips and Pye. He knew his business was a large and valuable wholesale customer to them, and he foresaw no great difficulty in getting The Beatles a recording contract with one of them.

Tony Barrow
Each week, the Liverpool Evening Echo published “Off The Record”, a record review column attributed to “Disker”. After meeting The Beatles and offering to be their manager, Epstein had wasted no time in writing to “Disker” to try to get them a mention in the column. He was surprised when he got a reply from London, not Liverpool. “Disker,” it turned out, was in fact a Liverpool born, London based freelance journalist named Tony Barrow, who also wrote album sleeve notes for the mighty Decca organisation.
 Barrow wrote back to Epstein, saying that he could not mention The Beatles in Off The Record because they had not yet released a record. Epstein realised that Barrow could put him in touch with Decca’s A&R department. Grabbing the opportunity, he arranged a meeting with Barrow in London – probably on Monday 11 December 1961.

At the meeting, Epstein played Barrow a badly recorded, scratchy acetate of The Beatles playing (possibly) “Some Other Guy” at the Cavern Club. Barrow was not impressed. The recording was, he remembered, “cluttered with background noise and didn’t sound too good”. Nevertheless, after Epstein had left, he contacted Decca’s marketing division, who in turn contacted the A&R department, headed by Dick Rowe.

The A&R department at Decca was undergoing some changes. The December 1961 issue of the American music trade publication, Cash Box carried the following story:
"One of the most constructive moves to be made by Decca for many months is the formation of a new production team to handle the company's pop single output. Spearheaded by A&R manager, Dick Rowe, who will be directly responsible to the chairman, Sir Edward Lewis, the team is completed by Dick Rowe, Rowe's assistant and co-producer Mike Smith, Peter Attwood, recording engineer of three years standing and Tony Meehan, former drummer for The Shadows. Rowe, who will act in an advisory capacity, feels that this youthful team with their fingers on the teenage pulse, will be more than capable of producing the kind of sound that makes for chart success."
(Source: The Ultimate Beatles Encyclopedia Bill Harry, Virgin Books 1992 (page 190) )

Knowing that Epstein headed one of their best customers, Rowe saw that there were very good business reasons to audition The Beatles, and gave the job to his assistant, Mike Smith. Smith offered to come up to Liverpool to hear the band in their home ground of The Cavern Club. Epstein had pulled off a coup: although he wasn’t yet officially managing The Beatles, he had arranged the impossible – somebody from Decca was coming Liverpool to audition them.

Smith travelled to Liverpool on 13 December 1961. Epstein treated him to an expensive dinner, and then took him along to The Cavern.

“The Beatles were tremendous,” Smith said 40 years later when interviewed for the documentary Best of the Beatles: Pete Best - Mean, Moody and Magnificent. “Not so much my own reaction, but the crowd’s reaction, was incredible.”

Smith was impressed with what he saw, and arranged a further audition, to take place on New Year’s Day, 1962, at Decca’s West Hampstead studios in London. New Year’s Day was not yet a national holiday in the UK in the early 1960s.

Decca's Broadhurst Garden's Studios, pictured in 1963
The winter of 1961 was one of the coldest on record, and it was snowing heavily when The Beatles, with all of their equipment packed into a hired van driven by their roadie Neil Aspinall, set off for London at midday on New Year’s Eve. They got lost in blizzards near Wolverhampton, and didn’t arrive at their hotel, The Royal in Russell Square, near King’s Cross, until 10:00pm.

After checking in, they went out to try to find something to eat. Meanwhile, Epstein travelled down by train and stayed overnight with his Aunt Freda in Hampstead.

Pete Best told the BBC in 2012. "Brian Epstein read the riot act to us before we went down - you know, be good little boys, you mustn't be out after ten o'clock, you know. And there we were in the middle of Trafalgar Square, drunk as skunks, you know - New Year’s Day, or the advent of New Year’s Day. And of course, 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.'"

His temper was not improved by the tardy arrival of Mike Smith, who had been at an all-night New Year’s party. Epstein took this personally, and accused Smith of not taking The Beatles seriously because they were unknown and not from London. The Beatles had dragged their battered amps - Lennon's Fender Deluxe, Harrison's Gibson G-40 Les Paul and McCartney's Selmer Truvoice with a Barber speaker cabinet - down to London with them. Failing to recognise that it was these very amps that created the raw, dirty, overdriven sound that made their stage act so exciting, Smith made them plug their guitars into the studio amplifiers instead, giving their performance a much politer and anaemic sound.

To be fair to Smith, the group's amps were veterans of countless shows and were probably in need of a good overhaul, much to Epstein's embarrassment. Andy Babiuk notes in Beatles Gear, "Even by today's standards a vintage Deluxe or GA-40 in good operational condition are considered prize finds, and would hold their own in any recording session."

The Beatles' Decca Audition Song List

The songs performed by The Beatles at their audition for Decca, in probable order of recording, are:
  • Red Sails in the Sunset (music by Hugh Williams, lyrics by Jimmy Kennedy)
    • Warm-up only. Not recorded.
  • Please Mr. Postman (Georgia Dobbins, William Garrett, Freddie Gorman, Brian Holland, Robert Bateman)
    • Warm-up only. Not recorded.
  • Like Dreamers Do (John Lennon / Paul McCartney)
    • Lead Vocal: McCartney
    • released on Anthology 1, 21 November 1995
  • Money (That’s What I Want) (Berry Gordy Jr /  Janie Bradford)
    • Lead Vocal: Lennon
  • Till There Was You (Meredith Willson)
    • Lead Vocal: McCartney
  • The Sheik of Araby (Harry B.Smith / Francis Wheeler / Ted Snyder)
    • Lead Vocal: Harrison
    • released on Anthology 1, 21 November 1995
  • To Know Her Is To Love Her (Phil Spector)
    • Lead Vocal: Lennon
  • Take Good Care Of My Baby (Gerry Goffin / Carole King)
    • Lead Vocal: Harrison
  • Memphis, Tennessee (Chuck Berry)
    • Lead Vocal: Lennon
  • Sure To Fall (In Love With You) (Carl Perkins / Bill Cantrell / Quinton Claunch)
    • Lead Vocal: McCartney
  • Hello Little Girl (John Lennon / Paul McCartney)
    • Lead Vocal: Lennon
    • released on Anthology 1, 21 November 1995
  • Three Cool Cats (Jerry Leiber / Mike Stoller)
    • Lead Vocal: Harrison
    • released on Anthology 1, 21 November 1995
  • Crying, Waiting, Hoping (Buddy Holly)
    • Lead Vocal: Harrison
  • Love Of The Loved (John Lennon / Paul McCartney)
    • Lead Vocal: McCartney
  • September In The Rain (Harry Warren / Al Dubin)
    • Lead Vocal: McCartney
  • Besame Mucho (Consuelo Velazquez / Sunny Skylar)
    • Lead Vocal: McCartney
  • Searchin’ (Jerry Leiber / Mike Stoller)
    • Lead Vocal: McCartney
    • released on Anthology 1, 21 November 1995
(Source: The Unreleased Beatles, Richie Unterburger, Backbeat 2006 (p18-25))
“They were pretty frightened,” Neil Aspinall remembered in Hunter Davies' The Beatles. “Paul couldn’t sing one song. He was too nervous and his voice started cracking up. They were all worried about the red light on. 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.”

Their performance was not helped by their choice of songs – a list allegedly drawn up by Brian Epstein to demonstrate their showbiz versatility (see sidebar). The Beatles were not the only ones who were nervous: at one point, Epstein began to criticize Lennon's singing, telling him that he should be better than he was. Lennon exploded in a fit of rage. The band stopped playing, the red light went off, and Epstein rushed out of the room. He did not return for half an hour.

The full list of 15 songs was recorded quickly, probably without ever going to more than a single take, and definitely without any overdubs, and by 2:00pm the band were packing their equipment back into their van.

They were not happy with their performance. Voices had cracked, lyrics were forgotten, notes were wrong, or missed altogether. Smith’s late arrival combined with another audition he had arranged for that afternoon, for a London band called Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, caused the audition to be rushed. Lennon's expletive filled tirade at Epstein had also caused further embarrassment.

Lennon later told Michael Braun in Love Me Do!: Beatles Progress that “We didn’t sound natural. Paul sang Till There Was You, and he sounded like a woman. I sang Money, and I sounded like a madman. By the time we made our demos of Hello Little Girl and Love of the Loved we were okay, I think.”

Mersey Beat published its popularity poll,
placing The Beatles as the number one group in Liverpool
Nevertheless, as he hurried them out of the studio, Smith assured Epstein and The Beatles that the session had gone well, and they left confident that the contract was as good as signed. Before they headed back to Liverpool, Epstein took The Beatles to a restaurant in Swiss Cottage where they ordered wine in celebration.

Back in Liverpool, in a poll published on 4 January 1962, The Beatles were voted the city’s most popular group by readers of Mersey Beat, ahead of Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Remo Four, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes, and The Big Three. Confident of their forthcoming success, The Beatles signed a formal management contract with Brian Epstein on 24 January 1962, effective from 1 February.

Mersey Beat was not told about the Decca audition, Epstein preferring to keep the news in the bag until the contract was signed. The only mention was in Tony Barrow’s Off The Record column in the 27 January 1962 issue of the Liverpool Echo, which reported:
Latest episode in the success story of Liverpool’s instrumental group The Beatles: Commenting upon the outfit’s recent recording test, Decca disc producer Mike Smith tells me that he thinks The Beatles are great. He has a continuous tape of their audition performances which runs for over 30 minutes and he is convinced that his label will be able to put The Beatles to good use. I’ll be keeping you posted…

Despite this, in early February, Decca turned them down, preferring to sign Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, the group whose audition had forced The Beatles to hurry through their own session. Epstein found the rejection hard to take. He knew that the reasons that Decca gave – that they sounded too much like The Shadows and that “guitar groups are on the way out” - were nonsense.

Pete Best told the BBC in 2012: “He was the one who felt the rejection more than anyone else because he was the new kid on the block, in a way, if we could put it that way. He was the new manager, big hopes, major record company, Decca, and more or less thinking to his own sweet self, this one's in the bag. We turned round and told Brian, ‘We lost that one. It doesn't change the way we perform. In fact, it makes us a little bit more determined. But it is also going to make YOU more determined as well. YOU'VE got to get over the rejection.’ I think that was the message that we put out.”

Before saying no, Decca pressed up a
few acetate discs from the recordings.
Epstein refused to accept Decca’s decision, and travelled back down to London to have lunch with Dick Rowe and Sidney Arthur Beecher-Stevens, Decca’s marketing manager. He reminded Stevens who he was, and of the importance of NEMS to Decca, but to no avail.

In his autobiography, A Cellarful of Noise (p90), Epstein later wrote that he told them You must be out of your tiny little minds! There boys are going to explode. I am completely confident that one day they will be bigger than Elvis Presley!

Rowe told Philip Norman in Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation: “I heard afterwards that he’d guaranteed to buy 3,000 copies of any single we let The Beatles make. I was never told about that at the time. The way economics were in the record business then, if we’d been sure of selling 3,000 copies, we’d have been forced to record them, whatever sort of group they were”

Nevertheless, Rowe and Beecher-Stevens suggested to Epstein that he should hire a studio and a producer and finance The Beatles recordings himself, and Epstein was put in touch with Tony Meehan, formerly the drummer with The Shadows, and now working as an independent producer. However, Meehan did not like The Beatles, viewing them as just another group of no-hopers wasting his time. Similarly, Epstein did not like Meehan, who had arrived very late for the meeting. The cost of hiring the studio, at least £100, was more than Epstein was prepared to pay, and he wrote to Rowe on 10 February to decline the offer.

Epstein left Decca, clutching copies of The Beatles’ audition on two open reel tapes. After a few days of traipsing round London’s record companies, he made his way to meet an old friend who was now the manger of HMV’s Oxford Street store, setting in motion the chain of events that would lead to The Beatles signing with Decca’s rivals, EMI.