The much-maligned Decca Records will forever be known in the annals of rock history as the label that rejected the Beatles — an epic, billion-dollar blunder considered by many to be one of history’s greatest commercial missteps.
And sure, opting for Brian Poole and the Tremeloes ahead of the Fab Four sounds like a gargantuan mistake, but just because hindsight is 20/20, that doesn’t mean that it has good ears. Because if you look closely — and really listen — to a day in the life of the world’s biggest band, you may just decide that it was the Beatles, as much as any Decca exec, who blew their big chance that day.
To say the Liverpudlian band was at a key juncture in late 1961 is an understatement: In the six weeks leading up to their audition at Decca, the Beatles’ somewhat inert fortunes had been handed over to a one-man career accelerator in the form of new manager Brian Epstein.
The original Fab Four (Pete Best, not Ringo Starr, was still on drums) had spent much of the past year building up their 10,000 hours by running the gauntlet of the Hamburg club scene. The band that returned from Germany and that Epstein, a local record storeowner in Liverpool, first witnessed in November 1961 was a well-oiled rock ‘n’ roll machine.
Within weeks, Epstein was managing the Beatles, and by Dec. 13, he had used his leverage as the largest record retailer in the region to get Decca to send talent scout Mike Smith to hear the band at the Cavern Club in Liverpool. That led to an audition in London just two weeks later — on New Year’s Day 1962, which was not yet an official holiday in England.
So, come New Year’s Eve, the club band found itself heading south to London to audition for the biggest record studio in England … in a rare English blizzard. Driving an old Commer van, the band’s road manager, Neil Aspinall, lost his way in the snowy conditions, and 10 hours later, the band was finally deposited in central London at 10 p.m., “just in time to see the drunks jumping in the Trafalgar Square fountain,” John Lennon would later recall.
New Year’s Eve was indeed a holiday in London, and the Beatles were indeed young men.
“Brian went to great lengths to tell us before we went down there,” remembers Pete Best, “that we must be in bed early. Of course, half past two in the morning, we are in the middle of Trafalgar Square, doing certain things we shouldn’t be doing.”
At 11 a.m. the next day, the Beatles’ audition began at Decca’s studios in West Hampstead. The session lasted just over an hour as the band ran through a set of 15 songs, covering a range of material from show tunes (“Till There Was You”) to R&B covers (“Three Cool Cats”) to rock ’n’ roll (“Crying, Waiting, Hoping”) to original Lennon-McCartney works (“Like Dreamers Do”).
“Got to the session hung over. … The excitement certainly wasn’t there.”
Original Beatles drummer Pete Best
The band mates were anxious, flat and feeling the fatigue from their holiday exertions. Or as Pete Best summed it up: “Got to the session hung over. It was New Year’s Day. The excitement certainly wasn’t there.”
In the recording of the session, as The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles puts it, you can “hear a nervous tightening in all of their voices. The playing is steady and tight, but clipped.” Years later, Paul McCartney would concur with that assessment in the band’s oral history Anthology.
“Listening to the tapes I can understand why we failed the Decca audition,” he observed. “We weren’t that good, though there were some quite interesting and original things.”
Still, despite the nerves, Epstein and the four young men were confident that they had “Decca’s contract in the bag,” according to Best. Mike Smith’s final words to the band as they left the studio were “Don’t worry, lads.” They went out to celebrate at an expensive London restaurant.
But Decca’s senior A&R man, Dick Rowe, was unimpressed by the lukewarm audition, and a few weeks later, the Beatles learned the label had turned them down. Rowe’s official explanation to Epstein — the now infamous comment that “guitar groups are on the way out” — may have been a polite way of eliding the fact that, in view of the underwhelming performance, Decca had opted for the safer bet: a local London band called the Tremeloes.
The rejection was devastating, but it also lit a new fire under the band. “[It] was like a red rag to a bull to us,” said Best. The Beatles redoubled their efforts, including returning to Hamburg later that year.
Another positive outgrowth of the audition were the session’s demo tapes that Epstein solicited from Decca and used to further shop the band, which ultimately led to a June 1962 audition with George Martin at EMI’s Abbey Road studio.
The Beatles did not blow that performance, and their partnership with Martin would prove to be one of the most successful in music history. Martin also diagnosed another likely flaw in the band’s Decca performance — the drumming of Pete Best. It wasn’t long before Best was out, and a new drummer named Richard Starkey, aka Ringo Starr, was brought in to complete the legendary group.
And there was even a silver lining for Decca: Just over a year later, Dick Rowe inked the Rolling Stones, thanks to a tip from … George Harrison.
Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on.
This OZY encore was originally published April 21, 2014.
Why you should care
Because even the Fab Four can f*** things up the first time around.